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As the Heart Research Institute celebrates its 35th anniversary, we spoke to a few of our alumni about their time at the Institute.

This includes Prof Phil Harris, one of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) cardiologists who helped establish HRI; Dr Stephen Hollings, who has been both Chairman and CEO of HRI; Prof Clare Hawkins, who spent 20 years at HRI including as Scientific Director and the Inflammation Group Leader; and Richard Wylie, former Director of Fundraising and Brand.

Here are some of their fondest memories and reflections.

What did it mean for you when the doors of HRI opened?

Dr Phil Harris: The opening of HRI meant that for the first time there was a unique opportunity for cardiologists and cardiology trainees to collaborate with outstanding basic scientists in pursuing cardiovascular research goals within an environment dedicated to the highest scientific ideals.

What drew you to work for HRI?

Dr Stephen Hollings: I was invited to join the Board of HRI in 2009. It was a particularly busy time in my life as I held a very senior role in the commercial world – and the commercial world had been and still was being buffeted by the effects of the global financial crisis which had begun in 2008. So, initially, I said no but then relented to the point of saying I would meet some of the scientists. I did so and was so impressed by the research, the dedication, the vigour, and the need for the work that I could not do anything but agree to join the Board and help in any way I could.

I joined the Board as a Director, then became Deputy Chair and then Chair, again driven by wanting to assist in allowing the scientists and their groups to undertake their research in the most effective manner possible. Following that, the Board gave me the great opportunity to become CEO.

Prof Clare Hawkins: I was offered a postdoc position to work with Michael Davies, who was looking for someone with expertise in a specialised technique called electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy. I had used this technique extensively during my PhD and was keen to apply my knowledge to a new disease – atherosclerosis. My PhD was focused on rheumatoid arthritis. I knew I would have the opportunity to expand the methodology and learn new techniques, as well as apply my knowledge to a new topic. I was also excited to have the opportunity to work with Roger Dean, who was the HRI Director, who I had met during my PhD studies, and Roland Stocker, who I had heard give an interesting and controversial lecture at a conference.

Richard Wylie: I became involved with HRI in the mid-nineties, when then Fundraising Director Maggie Johns approached Mojo (the ad agency I was working at) to create some advertising for HRI (free of charge, of course). That initial introduction and the award-winning work that followed led to me being invited to join the Corporate Fundraising Committee. Unbeknownst to me, that committee contained some of the most influential people in Australian business. Over time I was invited to join (and eventually Chair) HRI’s International Fundraising Committee. After the sale of my ad agency Ursa, I was then engaged to develop the Institute’s first five-year strategic plan. That engagement led to me being appointed Director of Fundraising and Brand and a member of the Executive Leadership Team… where I stayed for seven years.

What is your favourite memory or highlight from your time at HRI?

Prof Phil Harris: My favourite memory is not scientific. It occurred in the early days when we were searching for funds. A facsimile arrived in the office of the Superintendent of the RPA. It was addressed to the Chairman of the Board of the HRI. It said something like “in tonight’s budget, my government will allocate five million dollars to HRI”, signed Bob Hawke.

Dr Stephen Hollings: It is impossible to have a single favourite memory or highlight from my time at HRI, because so much amazing work happens at the Institute. While the senior scientists all have impressive scientific and leadership records, it was always the keenness and enthusiasm of the fresh minds of the young students that gave me such great pleasure. Listening to them making three-minute presentations on their PhD theses, listening to them when their research started to give them substantive results to discuss and publish, and then listening to them armed with their PhDs as they became postdocs in Groups and continued their innovative work – all extremely powerful and gratifying.

And then looking at the other side of the Institute and its success – the actions of the generous donors never ceased to amaze and humble me. The Institute has been blessed with long-term donors, of which the James N Kirby Foundation and the Kirby family stand out, and with some incredibly generous million dollar and in some cases multi-million dollar donations and bequests. The names of all of those who have left bequests is inscribed on metal hearts to be found in the sculpture in HRI’s foyer – a fitting tribute to their importance. And then HRI has received regular donations from tens of thousands of wonderful individuals in the community, who realise the scourge of cardiovascular disease requires significantly more research and are motivated by the wonderful work of our scientists.

My proud­est moment was keep­ing research going safe­ly through­out COVID when research was lim­it­ed or halt­ed com­plete­ly with­in uni­ver­si­ties and oth­er insti­tu­tions.” — Stephen Hollings

To lose momentum in research can be devastating to success. Being able to find a safe way, through the invaluable partnership with Genetic Signatures, to use HRI’s facility at Eliza Street to maintain the research of our Groups and allow our scientists to continue the work for which they had earned grants was incredibly rewarding.

Richard Wylie: The opening of the Eliza Street facility was a major milestone. The funding was made possible by the wonderful work of Maggie Johns and HRI’s fundraising team, who positioned HRI as an early adopter in the face-to-face/regular giving fundraising wave. Another special moment was when we helped secure $150M from the NSW Government, in collaboration with senior leaders at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, to grow cardiovascular research capacity in NSW. Being flown to Las Vegas by Microsoft to receive a global collaboration award at the Microsoft Inspire Conference (and feature in a keynote talk) was another moment that I cherish.

But for me the biggest joy in my association with HRI came in watching young researchers flourish and achieve things they hadn’t thought were possible.

HRI has always had a proud record in cul­ti­vat­ing young tal­ent… and that con­tin­ues to this day.” — Richard Wylie

Prof Hawkins: I was at HRI for 20 years, so it is difficult to decide on one favourite memory. I think what I have the fondest memory of is the camaraderie that developed between the postdocs and PhD students at the HRI. Many of the postdocs were from outside Australia, and so there was a supportive network to lean on, and people to socialise with outside work.

I never minded sometimes working out of hours to finish experiments and use specialist equipment because there were often others around doing the same thing. Many of the young scientists I met in my early years at HRI are still close friends.

From our CEOs through to our scientists and operations staff, it is clear that our research wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of all those who have worked for HRI over the last 35 years.

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