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A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital

22 Nov 2018

‘Phenomenal contributer’ to the University of Melbourne, Helen Cain retires

We asked Helen Cain, Senior Lecturer within the University of Melbourne's Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute a few questions ahead of her retirement.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher like my aunt and my mother (who was a primary school teacher and principal of our local school). While studying science at High School I became interested in a career in pharmacy as I enjoyed chemistry. However, I will be forever grateful to my Form 6 (Year 12) Maths and Physics teacher who introduced me to Medical Laboratory Science, which I subsequently studied part-time while working full-time as a trainee Hospital Scientist at the (now defunct) Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.

What would you say is the biggest success you have achieved during your career?
I was very proud to be awarded the Australian Society for Microbiology David White Excellence in Teaching Award in 2016. However, I rate as my biggest success the improvements seen in the students who have come to me for assistance with their approaches to study. It is incredibly frustrating to find so many students being held back by poor study techniques, and incredibly rewarding to see the progress they make when they apply the strategies we discuss.

What has been the most challenging moment?
The most challenging moment (apart from - oddly - being given the task of catering single handedly for a bacterial pathogenesis conference here at the university in the first few months of my current job) was dealing with the aftermath of the Business “Improvement” Program (BIP) undertaken by the university – where every administrative area was put through a change process simultaneously (with the loss of key staff and much corporate knowledge as a result). I’d have to say that managing student expectations in the extremely competitive environment of the B. Biomedicine degree has also been challenging at times.

What is the biggest development or breakthrough you have seen in your area of research/work during your career?
In terms of the medical microbiology that I teach, the development of molecular microbiology methods has been the biggest advancement in the field – with the scope of whole genome sequencing changing the way in which diagnostic microbiology is practiced.

What is the biggest technological advancement you have seen, and how has it changed the way you work?
The introduction of information communication technology across all aspects of undergraduate and post graduate teaching has been the biggest development during my teaching career here at the university, and in many ways it has made life both easier and more complicated. I recall the days of overhead projectors and hand-written notes. We now have powerpoint, video (You Tube), instant polling, electronic discussion boards, social media and an online learning management system as a repository for all subject-related material. The impact of lecture recordings being made freely available to students cannot be underestimated – this has totally changed the teaching dynamic in the traditional lecture-style forum, as many students choose not to attend these classes at all. In addition, students have a wealth of information at their fingertips (in fact information overload!), so our job is also to facilitate their ability to manage and understand the material they access.

While the introduction of technology has not greatly impacted our teaching in practical classes (just facilitated the dissemination of information), it has led to the development of different styles of teaching like flipped classrooms and other small group teaching methods designed to develop more independent learning in our students.

What’s your hope for the next generation of teachers?
I hope that the next generation of teachers are able to utilize the new technologies and new teaching techniques being proposed, without ever losing sight of the key importance of the face-to-face interactions between teacher and student.

What do you believe will be the next cure, breakthrough treatment or vaccine, and do you think you will see it in your lifetime?
Having spent the past nine years listening to lectures to the “Molecule to Malady” 3rd year Biomedicine cohort by Professor Sharon Lewin on HIV research, my hope is for the discovery of a cure for HIV – and I believe I will see it in my lifetime (using the ABS Life Expectancy calculator, Sharon you have 22 years!).

What are the benefits you have experienced while working in the Doherty Institute as a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital?
I have benefitted from the collegiality of the institute, having made many friends across all levels of the Doherty; from the inclusion of research-led teaching by experts doing cutting-edge work who have lectured to our undergraduate subjects: from the ability to place students in laboratories across the Doherty for Biomedical Science Research projects which provide the students with an invaluable introduction to what research looks like at the coal-face; and from the connections to wonderfully talented PhD students to utilize as demonstrators for our practical classes. The facility itself has been a pleasure to work in, especially the Practical Teaching Laboratory purpose-built for our practical teaching.

As a member of the Doherty Institute, I also have been fortunate to reconnect with my former work colleagues from VIDRL (formerly Microbiology and Virology at Fairfield Hospital).

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