The accidental researcher

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1987

Dr. Minoti Apte is a recipient of the Order of Australia medal for her service to medicine, to tertiary education, and to the Indian community of Sydney. However, a successful career in research and a life in Australia was not planned, says the daughter of an army officer father and chemistry professor mother. It literally happened ‘out-of-the-blue’.

Dr. Minoti Apte talks to The Indian Sun about her journey from being a medical student in Pune to receiving one of the highest honours in Australia.

How does it feel to be recognised with the Order of Australia medal?

I feel very honoured and humbled to be singled out. I feel lucky as well, that I was able to come to a position where I did get nominated. Another vital factor is the support of my husband, Vivek Apte and my family, which is very critical to what we women from our culture do.

How was the award ceremony?

The nomination form can be submitted by anybody in the community and the person nominating you doesn’t need to be your academic or professional colleague. One of my close friends, unbeknownst to me, decided to nominate me. The form was submitted to the Australian Honours and Awards Secretariat. The Secretariat contacts the referees in the list for letters of support and verifies the information provided.

An independent body called the Council of the Order of Australia looks at all the nominees and finally decides on the recipients. The criteria used for judging include whether the nominee has “demonstrated achievement at a high level; made a contribution over and above what might be reasonably expected through paid employment; made a voluntary contribution to the community which stands out from other volunteers”.

Once it is decided to award you, they send you a letter stating that you have been selected for an Order of Australia Medal and if you would like to accept it. I had no idea right up until the first letter which arrived in April and then you get a follow up letter closer to the day saying that my name would be announced.

The award ceremony was fantastic. It takes place in Government House, which in itself is very stately. You are allowed to take three guests with you and I took my parents, Lt. Col. Vijay Phadake and Dr. Sunanda Phadake who happened to be here at the time and my husband. Governor Marie Bashir gave us our medals at the ceremony.

How did you choose your area of research?

A career in research just happened. I started looking for jobs after we moved to Sydney. Given the subject of my Masters degree, I met a few academics who were working mostly on the liver. At the time, I was directed to researchers who had just received a round of funding for alcohol and pancreatic disease. I started working with them after getting my visa sorted. For my Master of Medical Science degree, my research project was aimed at determining the mechanisms of alcohol-induced liver damage. That is how I actually started into research.

Currently, my team and I are working on understanding the mechanisms by which alcohol damages the pancreas. This is not as common, but it does happen. We call it alcoholic pancreatitis, an inflammatory disease that often leads to chronic pancreatitis, where a large part of the pancreas is scarred and damaged. This results in diabetes, mal-digestion and malnourishment. Alcoholic pancreatitis can cause morbidity and treatment can be very costly. Another aspect of our research is related to pancreatic cancer, in particular to study the interactions between cancer cells and their microenvironment within the pancreas. As most people are well aware, pancreatic cancer has a very high mortality rate and unfortunately, currently available treatments are not effective enough.

During my PhD, I was the first in the world to isolate and characterise a particular cell type in the pancreas, called the stellate cells, responsible for producing scarring of the pancreas. Until my research, nobody had been paying much attention to the scar tissue in pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer, but now there are many research groups in the world working in this area, which is great because now we should be able to target these cells to reduce scarring. We hope that this new treatment approach will help improve the clinical outcome of patients with chronic pancreatic or pancreatic cancer.

Do you think your life has changed after moving to Australia?

I now have the advantage of looking back over 30 years to see how my life has changed. If I were in India, I would have done my post-graduation, and set up my own practice and my hospital and become a really busy clinician. With what I see of my friends and my peer group, who I graduated with in India, they are all consultants now. But they are so busy that they don’t have any time to breathe. Moving to Australia and having taken up a different track than I had originally thought and it opened up a whole new world for me. It has just expanded my horizons. You lose something and you gain something. I don’t think I would have been unhappy in either country but I think our migration to Australia just opened up a whole new world for me.

 

Published in The Indian Sun, Sydney

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