A novel approach
Professor Colette McKay is always looking for bright new ideas and challenges – not pipe-dreams. Ameliorating the impact of deafness in people’s lives is one of them; writing a ‘whodunit novel’ set in the science world so she can tell a story using her lay knowledge, is another.
“I think people would describe me as stubborn,” Colette says, “Because once I decide to do something, I don’t dither around. I stick to my guns and I do it”.
Colette’s own life story has already had plenty of fascinating plotlines and one imagines it will continue to be this way.
At the age of 14, having decided she wanted to learn how the world worked, the Year 10 student wrote a secret letter to the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in Lucas Heights asking what she should do in order to become a nuclear physicist.
“I received a really encouraging reply suggesting I go to uni, do a degree, then come up and work for them in the Summer holidays - all of which I did,” she says.
Recognising Colette’s interest and ability, one of her teachers aided and abetted her covert operation by feeding her university-level physics books.
Colette went on to complete a PhD in theoretical nuclear physics because she still “wanted to know how the world works, right down to the last atom”.
Then, having worked with equations for three years, she realised she had “gone far enough to know how far it was possible to go” and happened to mention to a female colleague that she wished there was a profession working with people rather than protons. The response? Audiology.
In September 2013, Colette accepted a veski innovation fellowship and became the Leader of Translational Hearing Research at the Bionics Institute where her role is to mentor and develop colleagues across various disciplines.
Prior to returning to Victoria, Essendon-born Colette was the Chair of Applied Hearing Research at the University of Manchester, from 2007 to 2013.
One of her current, self-imposed challenges is to “suck the brain-drain out of Europe, to Melbourne”.
Having found it easier to get collaborations going in the UK “because it’s closer to everywhere”, she has taken it upon herself to circumvent this obstacle by organising a symposium in Melbourne “using a Manchester colleague as a lure”.
Colette is seeking out new contacts and partnerships for one specific purpose: to conduct imaging of a baby’s brain in order to understand how language develops in deaf children. This new research will complement her veski project that will enable infants as young as three months old to receive an accurate cochlear implant.
Her work is already paying off: Colette will be the senior consultant on a National Institutes of Health (USA) grant for a Phase I safety study for a new auditory midbrain implant to restore hearing - an international collaboration between the Medical University Hannover, University of Minnesota and Cochlear Ltd.
As mother to Matthew, Brett and Ruth, and grandmother to three under five years of age, Colette wishes just one thing for her grandchildren: “To be happy and do what they want in their lives”. She hopes the world will allow this for them.