From student to Chairman: Meet Professor Len Kritharides

Meet the team

The Heart Research Institute is pleased to welcome Professor Len Kritharides to the role of Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Prof Kritharides has had a long-standing relationship with the HRI. He is distinguished by being the first cardiologist to complete a PhD at its facilities, and his journey to becoming Chairman of the Institute has spanned 26 years.

As he remembers, “In 1990, I was finishing my clinical cardiology training in Melbourne and contemplated pursuing a PhD in cardiovascular cell biology, which was uncommon in Australia at the time. But I had heard of a new place in Sydney which had commenced an exciting research program in vascular cell biology and lipid biochemistry.”

That new place was the Heart Research Institute, which had only just been established in 1989. Prof Kritharides approached the then-director Prof Roger Dean about the possibility of doing a PhD at the HRI, and they put together a proposal to the National Health and Medical Research Council for funding.

The proposal was successful, and Prof Kritharides joined the HRI in 1991 as a PhD student studying macrophages, their metabolism of cholesterol and oxidation of lipoproteins. Some of the analytical methods and foam cell models he established with Prof Dean and Prof Wendy Jessup during his PhD are still in use today.

Prof Kritharides subsequently became a post-doctoral scientist at the HRI and then Group Leader. He was appointed Staff Specialist in Cardiology at Concord Hospital in 1997, and his lab moved from the HRI in 2002 – first to UNSW, and then to the ANZAC Research Institute (on site at Concord) where his lab remains today. Now as a full-time clinician and Head of Cardiology at Concord, he supervises research staff, but no longer undertakes laboratory research himself.

He remembers fondly the excitement of becoming familiar with the processes underlying scientific research, of tackling problems in the lab and the challenge of finding new directions and problems to solve. “Great researchers, like my mentors, continually reinvent themselves and move on from one challenge to the next.”

Reflecting on his research career, Prof Kritharides advises, “Do research for the right reasons: it’s something you passionately want to do and are curious about. In my PhD, the most important insight I gained was an understanding of how little I really knew.

“The general principles and skills you learn as a scientist undertaking a PhD, not just the knowledge, but the processes – the ability to analyse problems, to think critically, and not be intimidated by new technology – stand all young scientists in good stead throughout their careers, within and beyond medical research.”

During the diverse roles of his career, from clinical to research to governance, Prof Kritharides developed a deep understanding of how clinical medicine and clinical research interact, as well as how external organisations relevant to cardiovascular research operate and can help strengthen the overall research effort.

Throughout, he remained an interested party in the progress of the HRI as it established itself as a world-leading medical research facility. This resulted in his appointment to the Board in 2008, alongside peers he had met and worked with in the past. “The professional relationships you build with colleagues, supervisors, students – these are most important, fulfilling, valuable, and can last a lifetime.”

Now as Chairman, and supporting the Board in its governance of the HRI and the HRI’s scientific progress, Prof Kritharides states:

“If we are able to assist the Director of Cardiovascular Research, Shaun Jackson, and the scientists of the HRI accomplish top-tier science that changes people’s lives – then we have achieved our purpose.”

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