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Lumen Summer 2016 Issue
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James McWha Award

Neuroscientist Professor Mark Hutchinson and financial expert Christopher Koch are the 2015 winners of the James McWha Award of Excellence. The award recognises outstanding alumni who have graduated from the University of Adelaide within the past 15 years and are making a significant contribution as emerging leaders. It is named in honour of former University Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor James McWha AO in recognition of his significant contribution to the alumni relations program.

Forging a career in finance

Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch
It wasn’t long before Christopher Koch discovered that the world of finance can be an exhilarating if not scary place. The 2015 James McWha Award recipient joined Macquarie Bank as a graduate in 2007 – the same year that the global financial crisis hit and world markets went into meltdown. It was a manic period during which Christopher was involved in $35 billion of transactions around the world, working in equity capital markets and equity syndication.

This was one of the busiest periods for capital markets in Australian history and he squeezed a lifetime of banking experience into less than four years. Working three or four days straight without seeing a bed was not unusual.

“This was an extraordinarily busy time with a lot of recapitalisation of Australian companies that needed to be re-equitised,” he says.

Macquarie was also severely impacted as the crisis deepened with many of Christopher’s colleagues either sacked or opting out. “In the end I think I was one of the very few left in my cohort,” he says.

Christopher came through the ordeal with his enthusiasm for economics intact – if not strengthened – and has gone on to become an emerging leader in Australian finance. However, it’s a career that nearly didn’t happen – when he enrolled at the University of Adelaide he intended to become a lawyer. He studied economics alongside his law degree and found that far more interesting.

“After a year I realised the law wasn’t for me,” he says. “But I loved economics and this influenced my further study. I ended up skewing my law degree more towards the corporate law side and it proved quite a good mix.”

Christopher graduated with a Bachelor of Economics in 2004 and a Bachelor of Laws with Honours in 2007. While he was at Macquarie Bank, Christopher also completed his masters in finance at INSEAD graduate business school’s campuses in France and Singapore. Christopher later joined the Swiss-based UBS Investment Bank in Melbourne focusing on mergers and acquisitions in the technology area.

During his four years at UBS he worked his way up to the position of director before joining Freelancer Limited as Deputy Chief Financial Officer in 2015. Freelancer is the world’s largest freelancing and crowdsourcing marketplace, connecting more than 16 million employers and freelancers around the globe.

“It’s a business founded by Australia’s leading technology entrepreneur Matt Barrie,” says Christopher. “I’ve taken on the role that is focused on the finance function as well as mergers, acquisitions and public markets.”

But after overlooking a life in law and making a name for himself in the world of finance, Christopher admits a career change is not out of the question. While studying at Adelaide he also pursued his passion for politics, working in the office of former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer AC.

“I always had an interest in politics but at that period in my life I felt I needed to do something substantial outside of politics before considering it,” says Christopher. “That’s still a possibility – you can’t rule these things in or out – it’s a matter of waiting for the right opportunity.”

Finding a cure for chronic pain

Mark Hutchinson

Mark Hutchinson
Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that brings misery to the lives of millions of people around the world. It’s the fourth most common health complaint and has the single biggest impact on society. Yet the medical science community knows surprisingly little about the causes and treatment regimes are fickle at best. That could be about to change with breakthrough research by the University of Adelaide’s Professor Mark Hutchinson. An award-winning neuroscientist, Mark has been working on a radical new approach linking chronic pain with glia, the immune cells which support the brain’s nervous system.

This is a major departure from the common belief that nerves control all pain. The discovery helps explain why traditional drugs such as morphine and codeine are often ineffective with Mark’s research demonstrating they can make the condition worse.

“All existing pain-relief treatments target the nerves or wiring of the pain system but in chronic pain the treatment is hit and miss and there are a range of side effects,” says Mark. “The research I’ve been doing indicates that the immune system is to blame.”

The 2015 James McWha Award recipient has been carefully building his case since graduating from the University of Adelaide with honours in science in 1999 followed by a PhD in 2004. Mark undertook postdoctoral training at the world-renowned Centre for Neuroscience at the University of Colorado before returning to Adelaide to run his own laboratory – the Neuroimmunopharmacology Lab in the School of Medical Sciences.

His ultimate goal is to develop a diagnostic blood test to identify people with an over-sensitive immune reaction to pain and to find treatments to prevent and cure the condition. Happily, giant strides are being made and it is a key area of study for the recently established Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, which Mark heads up as Director.

The centre, bringing together the support of a multi-talented transdisciplinary research team of physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians and engineers means anything is possible. Indeed, it’s not only chronic pain being investigated by Mark and the team, but also molecular processes surrounding fertility and heart disease.

With $38 million in funding spread over seven years, the centre is focused on driving new approaches to understand cellular processes within the human body. Headquartered at the University of Adelaide, it brings together scientists from Macquarie and RMIT universities as well as research partners in Europe, the US and China. About 50 scientists and PhD students are directly involved with the centre in Adelaide.

“We’re pushing the boundaries of science and trying to create new windows into the human body,” says Mark. “The frustration we’ve had in the past as scientists is that we haven’t had the tools to examine cells how we would like, or to measure certain chemicals, proteins and molecular signals. The centre is all about trying to create these new tools.”

Mark is hoping this hugely expanded research capability will help him in his quest to identify the molecular signatures of what pain actually looks like. This will be a major step towards delivering a chronic pain blood test and that elusive cure.

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Story by Ian Williams


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