Professor Graham meeting Princess Diana at the Institute's Royal Ball, 1996

30 years of heart research

Institute staff share their memories of 30 years of heart research

15 February 2024

From scientists to support staff, our research discoveries wouldn’t be possible without the dedication and hard work of the people who have called the Institute home.

We spoke to our longest serving staff members who have been with us since the '90s to find out how they got their start at the Institute, what memories they hold dear, and what they think is the key to three decades of lifesaving heart research breakthroughs.

What drew you to working at the Institute?

Eliana De Sousa, Database Administrator: I was 11 when Dr Victor Chang died, but when I saw the ad for the job at the Institute in 1998 I remembered the story and thought it would be an amazing place to work. Also my dad had his first heart attack at 37 and I thought it would be a good fit.

Professor Bob Graham, Founding Executive Director and Head of the Molecular Cardiology laboratory: St Vincent’s was my alma mater. I trained and left and went overseas and there was nothing really to come back to. I had risen through the ranks and I was the Chairman of a big department of cardiovascular research at the Cleveland Clinic, which is the biggest cardiovascular centre in the world, and so I was recruited to come here and start the Institute.

Dr Siiri Iismaa working in the lab in the Institute's early days

Dr Siiri Iismaa working in the lab in the Institute's early days

Dr Siiri Iismaa, Senior Staff Scientist in the Molecular Cardiology laboratory: I still remember the shock of hearing that Dr Victor Chang had been killed. The news affected the entire research community. Founding an institute in Victor’s memory was a fitting legacy. I was asked by John Shine if I might be interested in working with Bob Graham, the then newly-appointed Director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. After having a chat with Bob, I felt this newly-established institute was in good hands and that I very much wanted to be a part of the research that would help put this institute on the world map. I was the second employee in Bob Graham’s lab.

Professor Richard Harvey, Head of the Developmental and Regeneration Biology laboratory: When I interviewed in 1998, the Institute was just an engineering demountable in the carpark of the Garvan Institute. Bob Graham, recently arrived from the Cleveland Clinic, had set up a lab of two or three people, including longest-serving Institute staff member, Siiri Iismaa. They were working on “gene shears” or similar technology, which I was not so keen on, being a genetics snob. But Bob wore me down. A key event was a lunch he set up with newly found supporters, Amana Finley and John Kean, who laid on the charm, and it was done. Amana helped launch the Institute, including playing host to Henry Kissinger and Princess Diana, and raising the money for the Sir Peter Finley Chair in honour of her father, which I have held. It was a heady time - we were part of the birth of a new institute and an important new international scientific collaboration.

What is your favourite memory from your time at the Institute?

Elly with Crown Princess Mary, 2008

Eliana meeting Crown Princess Mary in 2008

Eliana De Sousa: Probably the amazing people I have met. In 2008, I got to meet Queen Mary when she opened the Institute (and we finally had our own home) followed by a private dinner which King Fredrick attended. Not many people can say they have met a king and queen!

Professor Bob Graham: Many favourite memories: one of them was Sister Bernice, who was like the fairy godmother of St Vincent’s - she was an unbelievable character. We were struggling initially so I went to see Sister Bernice, who I’d known since I was a house officer at St Vincent’s, and she told me some people who could help – including Neville Wran, who had just stepped down as NSW premier. I took him out for lunch and I said, ‘I need a Chairman, will you take on the role?’. After he became Chairman it was a lot easier and things started to really roll.

Dr David Humphreys, Senior Staff Scientist in our Innovation Centre: There are many. My favourite scientific memory was the first time I successfully cloned microRNAs – just at the time the field was really heating up. I was very new to molecular biology and it was really inspiring time and gave me confidence to give things a go.

Professor Richard Harvey: My favourite memory was when Bob Graham saved the life of a gardener on street level after he collapsed. When I came by, the patient seemed to be in good hands but, trying to be useful, I went looking for a clinician at the Institute. It was early morning and few were around. Luckily, I found Bob and asked him to come down. The guy had turned blue by then and Bob got to work saving his life. All in a day’s work at the Institute.

What has been your biggest achievement at the Institute?

Professor Bob Graham: It would be remiss of me not to mention two of our major recruits: Professor Richard Harvey and Professor Sally Dunwoodie. I think they really established the excellence of the Institute, which has carried on to this day.

Professor Harvey at his Royal Fellow ceremony

Professor Harvey at his Royal Fellow ceremony

The other thing would be asking the senior clinicians, who were doing research, to become part of the Faculty at the Institute - people like Professor Michael Feneley and Professor Peter Macdonald. There’s often this schism between clinicians and researchers, so it was good to have them feel part of the Institute.

Dr David Humphreys: Being able to adapt to the technological advances and changes in genomics. When I started, cloning genes and measuring gene expression could only be done on a small scale. Within a decade, technology advanced so quickly that the output of experiments yielded millions more data points than what I could have done manually when first joining the Institute.

Professor Richard Harvey: The biggest achievement for any scientist is having an uninterrupted career limited only by your own cleverness – and I’ve pretty much had this at the Institute. There have been some big papers and big grants and some awards to celebrate – the fellowship of the Royal Society of London is perhaps the one I am most proud of.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen at the Institute from your early days to now?

The Institute's 'Class of '97' at Garvan Institute

The Institute's 'Class of '97' at the Garvan Institute

Eliana De Sousa: When I first started at the Institute there was approximately 30 employees and we had half a floor at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. Ten years later we had our own building, state of the art equipment and now we have hundreds of employees.

Professor Bob Graham: One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve had not only Faculty but people on the Board for many, many years. I think part of that is that we try to make the Institute a family – now that might sound a little schmaltzy, but I think people need to feel like they’re part of an organisation that cares about them.

Dr David Humphreys: Research projects have become a lot more sophisticated and complex. Scientists now have to navigate a data-rich environment.

What do you think has been the key to the success of the Institute?

Eliana De Sousa: The scientists are amazing - I love seeing how passionate and dedicated they are to their work – as are our donors, we couldn't do this without them. But mostly I view everyone at the Institute as one great big family - not just my colleagues.

Professor Bob Graham: A lot of our recruits have gone on to do great things – not the least of which is our current CEO and Institute Director Professor Jason Kovacic who trained with me, I’m very proud to say. And of course the discoveries we’ve made as an Institute are right up there, Professor Richard Harvey and Professor Sally Dunwoodie are amongst the leaders in the world in developmental biology and embryology respectively. And of course, probably the biggest achievement is Professor Peter Macdonald’s work, which has revolutionised heart transplantation.

Professor Peter Macdonald and Dr Yashutosh Joshi at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney

Professor Peter Macdonald and Dr Yashutosh Joshi at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney

Dr David Humphreys: People. I have had the pleasure of meeting so many wonderful people through the Institute – this includes both scientists and support staff. Science is really a team effort and I am convinced that this has been a major factor in the success of the Institute.

Dr Siiri Iismaa: The passion and drive of our scientific, administrative, and support staff over the years has been truly admirable. Together, we have made the Institute what it is today. I look forward with confidence to the next 30 years.

Professor Richard Harvey: I think the key to the Institute’s success is keeping the bar high and making everyone feel part of it – the rest takes care of itself.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years