Mark Shackleton: a day in the life

14 May

Regularly, veski takes you in conversation with our innovation fellows. We talk to them about a range of topics from where they got their start in science to what happens in their lab today.



Here we chat to Dr Mark Shackleton who was awarded a veski innovation fellowship in 2010.

Mark returned to Victoria from the USA where he was developing expertise in melanoma cell biology.

Mark is a Medical Oncologist and Group Leader of the Melanoma Research Laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.


We ask Mark about what a day in his life currently looks like.

Tell us a little about your daily routine at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre?

On average, about 20 per cent of my day is spent chasing up patient-related issues, which I like to deal with early in the day. As for the other time, about 30 per cent of this is taken up by administrative reporting, committee meetings and the like.

What about the other half of the day?

In the remaining 50 per cent of my time I do work more directly related to research activities in the lab. More than half of this time is dedicated towards developing specific research activities and new ‘big-picture’ ideas, where we consider necessary collaborations and infrastructure for our new projects, particularly how we may fund them. This leaves about 20 per cent of the day to attend to the research of the moment through direct meetings with colleagues in the lab, writing grants and papers and so on. I’m often surprised by how little direct research a researcher actually does!

What is your favourite part of the day?

My favourite part of the day is the time spent with my wife and kids when I get home at about 8pm! In a work sense, there’s no question the thing I like doing most is thinking about and discussing new data generated by our research. It’s the creative element that I really like about research; at its core, research is an intensely creative process. Even after 15 years I still get a buzz out of the central cycle of research: “Here's the idea. How do we test it? Do the test. Here's the data. Here's the analysis. What does that mean?” That then generates the next idea that feeds back into the research cycle. The process requires a lot of skills but it’s what excites me most at work and what is the central essence of research that's fundamentally appealing to me.

How is research different to medicine?

Good medical practice is mostly about learning and following rules – a little bit of creativity in medicine is often required, but generally you don’t want doctors thinking too laterally about the different ways they could fix you! Research is different in that it depends largely on an ability to think laterally and creatively. The other cool thing about research is that it changes pretty rapidly. In the past 10 years our ideas about and understanding of cancer have changed a lot. It’s a dynamic field that’s fresh and exciting and perennially challenging.

What does it take to be a researcher?

You have to be a pliable, adaptable person to be a researcher. You can't come to table with too many preconceived ideas. You also have to be a hard worker and to be stubborn. I’ve never had to ‘get back up off the canvas’, in a work sense, as many times as I’ve had to do as a researcher. You also have to be a good salesperson. A great idea can only be tested if you have enough funding and resources’, so selling that idea to attract support is an essential skill.

Does your role get you out and about?

Yes - this is a very important part of my day. I give lots of talks, all across Victoria and interstate.  I also travel internationally to deliver presentations. I see this as very important because it encourages and links the wider science community and often results in collaborations. I’m also passionate about inspiring future scientists and give talks in this context. I’d really like to contribute to attracting more medically trained people into research. There’s a lot of serious, creative brainpower out there in the medical world that is not maximally used due to the nature of medical practice. I’d love to turn some of these minds to addressing fundamental research questions whose answers could positively impact human well being at levels that a career practicing medicine can never approach.

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