Hidden in plain sight, the University of Otago, Christchurch has been punching above its weight in world-class medical training and health research for a surprising 45 years.
Based in an 8-storey main building on the Christchurch Hospital site, the campus hosts 1000 students either in years 3 to 5 of their medical training or postgraduate students studying up to PhD level, and internationally renowned research project teams which include students, scientists and hospital physicians.
Deputy Dean and Research Professor Vicky Cameron says it is a popular choice for the 330 trainee doctors because of the hospital right next door. However, lesser known are the 700 postgraduate students from varied backgrounds. An astonishing 60 postgraduate programmes are available to PhD level, plus professional programmes. The graduate entry Nursing Masters course is popular: it enables students with any undergraduate degree to obtain their nursing qualifications in just two years!
The PhD in bioengineering is also sought-after. Students have the opportunity to be involved in researching tissue regeneration using 3D printing. Other world-renowned research teams are establishing new blood markers for heart disease, examining cancer genetics, and investigating the genetics of drug response.
Many students bring a BSc or BSc Hons in health sciences, biology, biochemistry or genetics, but no areas of expertise are excluded – “We have graduate students from a really broad base, not just the lab sciences,” Vicky says. “Our Psychological Medicine Department trains and researches in mental health, and those students come with degrees in Psychology.”
The campus’ reputation draws students. “They read international journals and discover the research has been done right here, we have a reputation as a centre of excellence,” Vicky says. Small and collegial, the environment is non-hierarchal with supervisors working alongside students. Experience intensive, the students work hand in glove with the hospital next door and many staff are employed in both the hospital and on campus.
Internationally respected names lead research teams: the Dean – David Murdoch – is an expert in the field of Infectious Diseases, Christine Winterbourne in free radical biology (oxidative stress), Mark Richards in heart disease risk assessment through blood testing, and Martin Kennedy in the genetics of adverse drug response. The Christchurch Health and Development Study has tracked 1200 people from babyhood to now 40 years, leading to key legislative change including the fencing of swimming pools and removing lead from paints and petrol.
Some of the past graduates have become high flyers overseas, such as Dr Robert Peach PhD, who became a successful biotech entrepreneur, the co-founder of a company that was bought out for US$7.5 billion. Vicky gained her PhD here, and her research centres on the genetics of heart disease. “I know I am going to make at least a small difference in answering some of the difficult questions within the system,” she modestly says.
For most of the postgraduate courses there are no fixed enrolments but check the website, and scholarships are available from the University of Otago.