Punching above our weight

By Aaron Small 02/11/2009

Prof. Richard Faull may not be known to many of you. In fact, until last weekend, he wasn’t know to me either. I happened to be reading the latest issue of North and South Magazine, and an article on the new Centre for Brain Research at Auckland University of which Prof. Faull is the director.

What was suprising to me, is that Prof. Faull and his team (plus colleagues in Sweden) were the first to discover that diseased human brain cells can regenerate – that is they have a repair pathway. We previously didn’t know this (we thought once they died that was that), and as such it turned accepted knowledge on its head. The discovery was so astounding, that the research plan couldn’t even be written into the original grant application for fear of rejection because it was ‘dreaming’. Here is yet another case of a New Zealander conducting world class research that has ashamedly slipped under the radar.

Prof. Faull also mentioned in the article that he likes to keep the facility in NZ, because here we were small enough to remain flexible and adapt to new challenges as they arise. That reminded me of comments made by Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, that NZ’s advantage was its small size (something that some may find hard to believe) and something that Shaun Hendy has touched on with Innovation Networks – that NZ must remain flexible enough to change to any new demands, as the Finn’s did with Nokia and the mobile phone boom – that is easiest if you are small.

We like to think we punch above our weight in sport (and we do), so why don’t we take this frame of mind and apply it to other areas like science and business? I know the people active in these areas most certainly do, as do I, but the whole country should take a sense of pride in people like Richard Faull and the ground breaking work they’re doing.

0 Responses to “Punching above our weight”

  • Giving credit where credit is due….

    It is important for all concerned, including Prof. Faull and his group, that a couple of misapprehensions in Aaron Small’s blog be corrected. Firstly, Prof. Faull and his group were NOT the “first to discover that brain cells regenerate”; that the brain cells of many non-human animals have this capacity had been known since the 1980s. The fascinating story of the discovery of neurogenesis in canaries, for example, can be found in Fernando Nottebohm’s paper in the New York Academy of Science, Vol. 1016, 2004, pp 628-658. Secondly, the discovery/evidence for adult neurogenesis in humans can not be associated exclusively with Prof. Faull’s group, irrespective of the great work this group are doing.

    • Thanks for your comments birdie. The post has been duly changed to reflect the points you made. Cheers, Aaron.

  • I don’t think that saying that Richard Faull’s contribution “has ashamedly slipped under the radar” is a fair statement. Prof Faull has been the director of the Neurological Foundation of New Zeland Human Brain bank for many years and has repeatedly been the face of the Neurological Foundation’s TV fundraising campaigns, as well as one of the more vocal advoates of neurological research in the country. Prof Faull has given talks every year at the Brain Open Day at the University of Auckland and is constantly travelling and giving public talks about Neuroscience. His work has been exensively covered in the media, and he has been profiled in numerous mainstream publications. He was named the New Zealand Herald New Zealander of the year in 2007, he is a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, he received the the New Zeland Order of Merit (ONZM) in 2005, the Liley Medal by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, and the Rutherford Medal in 2007. If anything, I would argue he is one of the ‘least’ under the radar scientists in New Zealand.

    • Ok, so maybe a bad example! But my point really is that while NZ’ers think we punch above our weight in sport, I think they are unaware that we do in science also. Richard Faull just happened to be in the media and caught my attention. It was new to me, so most definitely ashamedly under my radar! Thanks for your comments.