veski's portraits of innovation

Links and reconnections

In his heart, Professor Michael Cowley will always be a country boy and he wants his family, particularly his young children, to experience the Australian outback as well as the city. Its no surprise then that the veski innovation fellow jumped at the opportunity to tour Australia in 2011 as part of the National Science Tour.

“We had the opportunity to visit schools in different parts of the country and what amazed me was the questions the kids ask and their approach to understanding their bodies and their health. At every school we visited, from Warrigal to Cairns, the students asked the same sorts of questions,” Michael says.

While Michael is delighted to be back in a “bigger city” after a period of time in Portland, Oregon, USA, he and his wife Fiona Kelly are pleased they could give their children the best of the American cultural experience. Fiona is also a high achiever and was a director of a management consultancy, looking after clients on the West Coast.

“Being part of the veski family has been fantastic for me, my wife and our two kids, Lachlan and Imogen,” Michael says. “After ten years away, our networks had dispersed and the veski family made us feel connected again. The most important thing was that veski wasn’t just welcoming ‘Michael’, they were also welcoming my wife and our whole family”.

Michael says his whole family feels connected to the veski family, particularly his 11-year-old son Lachlan who hit it off with the Chairman’s wife from the moment they met and the pair have maintained a good rapport ever since.

Michael returned to Melbourne as a veski innovation fellow in 2008. His final US post was as Associate Professor in the Division of Neuroscience, Oregon National Primate Research Center, Oregon Health and Science University, Beaverton, where he specialised in research into obesity. He has since established his laboratory at Monash University as part of the Monash Obesity Initiative and, with his team, developed a new approach to understanding how to control blood glucose levels in type-2 diabetes.

In his current work, Michael is working to understand the link between obesity and metabolic diseases, such as weight loss and hypertension. He says this presents “an unmet medical need and there are no therapies in this space yet despite it being the biggest cause of preventable death, even exceeding smoking. And it’s not just prevalent in the developed world, it’s in developing countries too.”

He is particularly excited to be back in Australia where he says there is “huge potential to develop therapies for these diseases rather than relying on other countries to develop the research and sell us the drugs”.

“I really enjoy developing new methods to understand the way the brain functions … particularly the thrill of discovery – the idea that tomorrow we may well peel back the onion and understand the body,” Michael says.

He is impressed with the ease with which the public will engage in discussions about health if it’s pitched in the right way. Michael believes this runs counter to the popular suggestion that people don’t like to talk about this sort of stuff because it’s too complex.

Michael believes veski has given him a great foundation on his return to Australia and he has no doubt that the organisation had an impact on him being nominated for membership of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and on being awarded one of the Prime Minister’s Prizes in 2009.