RACP Fellows in Focus: Professor Nikolai Petrovsky

Date published:
27 Sep 2021

Fellows in Focus Prof Nikolai Petrovsky

Director of Endocrinology at Flinders Medical Centre with a conjoint position as Professor of Medicine at Flinders University, Professor Nikolai Petrovsky is also the founder of Vaxine Pty Ltd, and principal investigator on multiple vaccine contracts from the US National Institutes of Health to develop novel vaccine technologies.

In addition to his research into the causes of diabetes, Nikolai has worked on vaccines against multiple diseases including avian influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, hepatitis B, ebola, onchocerciasis, malaria, Japanese encephalitis, tuberculosis, anthrax, typhoid, rabies, HIV, allergy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and even drug addiction. He has authored over 200 peer-reviewed research papers and is invited to deliver keynote addresses at international conferences every year.

”My three biggest research achievements to date were developing the world’s first swine flu vaccine to enter human trials during the 2009 pandemic, developing the first vaccine designed by artificial intelligence to enter human trials in 2019 and developing the first Australian COVID-19 vaccine to enter human trials.”

So, how did Nikolai start on his journey to becoming a pre-eminent, multiskilled research expert, alongside his clinical role? He shared, “I always had an interest in science and biology. I came from a very medical family, both my parents and my sister were doctors, and I saw medicine as an opportunity to pursue my interest in science and to study mechanisms of disease. I’ve never been afraid of setting ambitious goals and I wanted to be good at both treating patients but also finding cures for them.”

“I also appreciated the importance of establishing balance. A balance between clinical work, research, teaching, learning and family life.”

Nikolai went on to talk about the importance of role models and mentors during his career. He noted, “From my father to my university professors, the clinicians I worked with, my PhD supervisor, and the many famous researchers I have met, what has always impressed me is their passion for research as an integral part of medicine. They all demonstrated an ability to think at a deep level and see important subtle differences others may dismiss. They had this ability to see beyond the obvious and an uncanny ability to frame problems as a series of questions and then identify what needed to be done to find a solution. I really had the most wonderful mentors, who constantly challenged me and inspired me to always try and reach for greater heights.”

Turning our attention to Nikolai’s contribution to the field of medicine, he commented, “Each time I publish a scientific paper, I hope that the additional knowledge will, one day, lead to better treatments and cures. Science discoveries don’t just turn themselves into cures. It takes enormous effort, time and resources which means (generally) only very wealthy pharma companies can achieve this. Many researchers spend their whole lifetime focused on trying to solve a single problem or disease and many retire never having reached their goal. I've taken projects from people who'd spent 30 years themselves trying to solve a problem and I've then spent the next 30 years advancing it.

"My contribution as a clinician, educator and researcher is to be part of a continuum where my role is to pass the baton on to the next generation of clinician scientists. I trust that I have inspired all the young clinicians with whom I have interacted to have an interest or at least a respect for medical research.”

For future generations of Fellows, Nikolai had some sage advice, “Fellows should remember to extend themselves beyond the immediate task of treating the patient. The primary role of a physician is to treat individual patients, but that should not be the end of it. Each consultation should be the start of a journey, as each patient has something unique to share, and can provide new insights into their disease. Generally, physicians don’t get paid extra for teaching or after-hours research, but it's such an essential part of being a good physician.”

With Nikolai’s long list of achievements and accolades, he must have discovered a way to squeeze more time into the day. He laughed and said, “I have to be honest, I work 80 plus hours a week, because I love it. It's a bit like people that spend 40 hours a week pursuing a hobby. My hobby and passion is medical research. Yes, it's a very serious hobby when you're managing $30 million grants, you’re responsible for a research team tasked with delivering Australia’s first COVID-19 vaccine and you still need to keep up with day-to-day clinical commitments. For me, research is what I do to relax after hours and on weekends”

Looking to the future and building on his extensive list of achievements, Nikolai said he’d like his legacy to be upholding the importance of clinician-researchers. “We are a dying breed with articles in college journals about how to combat this. So, part of my role is to try and keep that legacy alive.”

“It is not just about more research money as some suggest, but about giving young clinicians a passion for research and then giving them the time and resources to pursue this passion. Unfortunately, enthusiasm for research can be crushed by administrators who don’t always see the importance of research to clinical care, plus funding agencies like NHMRC that inadequately support new clinician researcher entrants.”

“The younger generation of Fellows see all these negative signals and increasingly shy away from PhDs and research careers. We need to turn this around,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to disagree. A modern concept is that scientific dissension is bad. To the contrary all my greatest discoveries have come from sticking to my guns when everyone told me I was going down the wrong path. Remember, the herd is rarely right. If the herd were right, they would already have solved all the important questions. Believe in yourself, but remain humble. Remember, nature is far smarter than any of us and always has a few tricks up its sleeve to trip you up...if your colleagues don’t do that for you first.”

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