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Field of Dreams

At 16 Dr Chris Stanley left school to pursue a promising rugby career. It didn't work out. Starting over, he found his true calling in the laboratory, and along the way he proved anything is possible with a lot of hard work. 

1. How did you get into science? Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?

Yes, as a child, I was always inquisitive, but I lacked the focus to be a great student during high school. I preferred sport to study, so I left school at 16 to pursue a career in rugby union in the UK.  At 21 I was managing a sports centre and working as a personal trainer, but I had discovered that my real passion was the human body. I enrolled in a sports science degree which only increased my thirst for knowledge, so then I enrolled in a physiology /pharmacology degree. From here, my path was set, I found a British Heart Foundation PhD studentship and never looked back.

2. Why did you decide to make such a big change in your life?

Well I guess there aren’t many people who spend the majority of their time on the rugby field focused more on the workings of their circulatory system instead of on the competition. One of the critical aspects of sport is the body and how it performs. I compete in triathlons now, and I just finished an Ironman in New Zealand. I love to think about the internal workings of my body, how my skeletal muscles contract and relax to do the work required, how blood vessels dilate to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles and how the heart is really central to this, driving the whole process. The body is a fascinating machine and understanding it and its susceptibility to disease is, in my opinion, is the greatest, most worthwhile puzzle of all.

3. You specialise in cardiovascular research; can you imagine working in any other field of science? If not, why not?

I am interested in all scientific areas, but my direct answer would have to be no. The heart, arteries and veins are fascinating. They work as a dynamic system powering us through everything we do; steadily ticking away during rest and powerfully pumping during stress. The cardiovascular system is the driving force of our lives. Not only is it a privilege to spend my days studying this great system, but it's also a privilege trying to build on the work of the great cardiovascular pioneers that have gone before me. William Harvey, James Black, Robert Furchgott and our own institute's namesake, Victor Chang, have all made contributions that have changed paradigms, enhanced cardiovascular research and improved cardiovascular health. I consider myself extremely lucky as I attempt to stand on the shoulders of these inspirational giants.

4. Before you came to Australia’s Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, you completed your postdoctoral work at the University of Oxford, how do these two organisations differ in their approach to science and research?

At both places I have been lucky to work with fantastic scientists who have made landmark discoveries and have served as a constant source of inspiration for me. I guess the difference would have to be that the VCCRI is the only institute I have worked at that has been solely focused on cardiovascular disease, which gives me almost unlimited access to a range of cardiovascular experts. I feel the way the VCCRI is set up is perfect for solving the big questions in cardiovascular disease. 

5. What’s been one of your proudest moments as a scientist? Why was this moment so special to you?  

My proudest achievement so far would have to be my role in the discovery of a novel mechanism of blood pressure control seen in models of sepsis.  I am incredibly proud of this work and proud to have been part of the fantastic team that produced it. This breakthrough was accepted into the journal Nature and won the St Vincent’s Clinical School Publication of the Year Award.  Now NSW Health has offered grant funding for the next three years to support the continuation of this research as well. 

6. Briefly describe your aims for this grant? And what do you think led to the success of obtaining this grant?

The grant’s main aim is to start the translation process from experimental findings into clinical application. Key to this is to prove that our newly discovered mechanism of blood pressure control exists in human sepsis. Once we have done this, we can then set about optimising treatment strategies. It is for this reason that I think the grant was successful, this grant has real potential to provide a solution to a currently untreatable disease.

7. Do you have any advice to young students who might be considering a career in science?

 Yes, pretty simple really. Follow your passion and devote yourself to understanding and answering the questions which intrigue you.

8. Do you have your own mentor who has been particularly inspiring as you forge a career in STEM? What advice have they given you?  

 I have had some great mentors, each of which have given me good advice specific to me or a current piece of work. But the best piece of advice I have taken is through what my mentors have shown me, that is you should have passion and pride in the work you do. Each mentor I have worked for has had an indescribable amount of love, passion and pride for the work they have done. I only hope that it comes through in my work as strongly as it does in theirs.  

** Dr Chris Stanley was a Vascular Biologist at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute until 2020. 

Read more about Dr Stanley's research