22 March 2017

‘Teaching is a dream come true’

Research profile

From rainy England to sunny Australia to slightly colder Copenhagen. After 20 years at the Heart Research Institute in Sydney, Professor with Special Responsibilities Clare Hawkins just moved into her new office at the Department of Biomedical Sciences. She has dedicated her life to paving the way for new and better heart disease medicine and now she is excited to pass her knowledge along as a teacher.

Ever since Clare Hawkins was young she knew that she wanted to teach. But before she knew it, she had a Ph.D. in chemistry which brought her to the Heart Research Institute in Sydney. Her curiosity of understanding chemical reactions and her family’s personal battle with heart disease was her motivation, and what was supposed to be a two-year-position turned into 20 years of research. However, she could never quite let go of her desire to teach. Her new job will combine her two passions: research and teaching.

What do you do?

My work focuses on the disease atherosclerosis, which is the main cause of heart disease. I am trying to understand how the cells in the artery change their function early in the disease. This is important because when the cells in the artery walls do not function as they should, it causes fat to build up which creates an inflammation in the arteries, and ultimately can lead to heart attacks and stroke. My focus has been understanding why reactive chemicals, which are called oxidants, change the way the cells function. The oxidants are produced by white blood cells, and it is normally a very controlled process by the immune system to kill bacteria. However, when there is an inflammation in the arteries, the white blood cells produce oxidants in elevated amounts and instead of killing bacteria they cause damage to the cells and accelerate the disease. What I have been looking at is trying to understand the pathways involved in that damage and finding ways to stop that damage from occurring. 

Why is your research important?

At the moment there are no drugs on the market that cure heart disease, so there is a great need to develop better drugs. My approach is to try to understand changes in the disease very early on in the process and try to stop them from happening before the fat builds up to an extent where it blocks the arteries and cause heart attacks.

How did you get into this field?

When I did my Ph.D. in chemistry, I was looking at how these reactive chemicals are involved in joint damage in arthritis and that is what captured my interest in these types of reactions. Then my supervisor moved to Australia, and when you live in cold, rainy northern England the idea of going to sunny Sydney was quite appealing. He was working in a heart research institute and offered me a job in his research team and that is when my focus changed from arthritis to heart disease. 

I am also motivated from my personal life. My grandmother died of a heart attack, and my father and brother have type 2 diabetes, which is a major contributor to heart disease, so I think it is a very relevant problem both personally and professionally.

What is it about SUND that you find interesting?

When the position opened up, I could see how the research that I do would fit into the department. There are lots of people I could work with and opportunities to get more involved in teaching, which is something that I have always been keen to do. I almost did not do a Ph.D. because I had actually applied to do teacher training. I was planning to be a high school science teacher, but my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Michael Davies - who I am also working with here now – suggested to me that I should do some research first and then get back to teaching later if I still wanted to do that. And here we are.

Tell me about a high point in your career…

Just before I left Sydney, I received an award for my mentoring. That meant an awful lot to me, because mentoring and working with students and junior scientists is the side of my job that I love the most. Otherwise, I think it has been managing to attract funding for my research. I have had three quite important fellowships in Australia. One of them was the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, which is a very prestigious one. Seeing my name among the list of successful applicants who received the fellowship was definitely a high point in my career.

What do you like about Copenhagen and Denmark?

European cities are very different from the cities in Australia. Copenhagen is much more similar to the cities I grew up in, in England. If I look out the window from my office, I can see the churches and the buildings of the city, which is pretty amazing, and very different from where I worked in Sydney. I love the historical buildings, the cafés where you can sit outside with a blanket and the fact the city is close to the water. Also, I like the active lifestyle here. Everybody rides their bike to work, and even if they do not, the public transport is fantastic! At the top of the road where I live, there is a bus literally every five minutes. In Sydney, you can wait hours for buses.

What do you do when you are not at work?

When I was in Sydney, I ran a Girl Scout group for many years, where we would take groups of girls camping and do cooking, crafts and teach them leadership skills. I was a leader for nearly 25 years because I ran a similar group in England as well. I also used to be a member of a dragon boat team, but I have not been able to find anything like that in Denmark. It is a paddling sport similar to kayaking except you are in a much bigger boat with 20 people on the team. My team took part in races, where the boat has a dragon head and tail attached on the front and the back. I used to train three times a week so now I need to find something similar to do in Denmark, particularly now the weather is getting a bit more water sport friendly…