Connected Conversations | Andrew Zannettino
Professor Andrew Zannettino’s journey with the University of Adelaide started almost a decade ago and, since then, he’s worked his way through a number of senior leadership appointments before landing where he is now as the Pro Vice Chancellor (Health Partnerships) in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, and Executive Director of Research Strategy at CALHN. A passionate researcher at heart, Andrew was inspired at a young age to pursue a career in medical research. He believes firmly in the strength of strong interpersonal working relationships and connections, and strives to create positive workplace environments. When he’s not juggling multiple roles at work, Andrew’s likely tuned in to the latest true crime podcast or drumming it up for the SAHMRI Band.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ah—where to start? I’m Andrew. I’m a father of two adult children, Aidan and Lauren—24 and 22. I’ve been married to my wife, Zara, for 28 years now. I’m a passionate advocate for wellbeing. I got into cancer research largely based on an interest in the impact that cancer has on everyone that walks this planet, either directly or indirectly. I was trained in molecular haematology and did a PhD that looked at how blood is formed in the bone marrow and how blood cancers develop. I worked at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, which is now SA Pathology, for 16 years.
I came over to the University of Adelaide in 2012 to join, what was, the School of Medical Sciences at the time. I took on the role of chair of the School’s Research Committee, as well as my other academic responsibilities as a professor of experimental haematology. Following the departure of the head of school, I took on the role of Deputy Head of School When three schools were amalgamated to form the Adelaide Medical School, the Executive Dean at the time asked me to do draft a research strategy for the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. After, I applied for and was made the Associate Dean of Research and did that for about three and a half years before becoming the Deputy Executive Dean. When the last Executive Dean left in 2019, I stepped into the role of Interim Executive Dean for about nine months before Professor Benjamin Kile arrived. I then assumed the role of Pro Vice Chancellor (Health Partnerships) and also took on a joint role with the Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN) where I’m the Executive Director of Research Strategy. These days, I co-run an active research group at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI)—the Myeloma Research Laboratory (MRL). I’m a passionate researcher at heart, or frustrated researcher at heart is probably more honest! You learn to be very efficient with your time when you’re doing multiple roles!
Tell us a bit about your time at the University.
I’ve been in the Pro Vice Chancellor (Health Partnerships) role for two years now, and it is a diverse and often complex role. One of the things I’m very lucky to be able to do is interact, principally, with CALHN but also have some reach into the Northern Adelaide Local Health Network (NALHN) as well as the Women’s and Children’s Health Network (WCHN)where I support the more than 50 clinical academics who serve both the University and the Local Health Network. Clinical academics provide a critical connection between the health service, be they from CALHN, NAHLN, or WCHN and provide leadership and excellence in research and teaching. Increasingly, hospitals—especially teaching or tertiary hospitals—are not about having a patient come in, you service the needs of the patient, then the patient leaves. They are a learning institution, just like a university. So, having that connectivity between the University and health services is absolutely critical to a high-functioning, academic health science environment. So that’s what we’re trying to create. My role was really designed to link the University closely with its clinical academic staff and its affiliate titleholders. It’s a role of engagement. I think that’s where I spend a lot of my time—making sure that we have a clear understanding of where we have capacity and where we don’t. That’s, probably, the most important part—to identify where we have gaps in our capacity and identifying the way in which we can build a more cohesive and structured way in which we deal with our health service.
At CALHN, as the Executive Director of Research Strategy, my role is to push the narrative that research is a fundamental pillar to better health outcomes, and research informs everything that we do in the context of our health service delivery. The lovely part of both roles is working with critical leaders in discovery research, translational research, health care delivery, public health and health care policy.
To date, I’ve been working with executive and my team around recreating a structure around research services delivery which is about the stakeholder engagement and service delivery. Fundamental to this is a desire to create a supportive environment to ensure that clinicians with an interest in research can participate in research. The other area of opportunity is around our capacity within the system on advancing health through the application of clinical trials, including sponsored (industry/pharmacology) and investigator-led clinical trials. To me, is what’s important because current medical practice is fundamentally built on historical research. In other words, what we’re offering to our patients today is essentially old medicine. The idea of delivering new medicine or new ways of delivering health outcomes to patients is reliant on informed research and how research can inform the process of better health broadly. That’s in the pre-hospital setting, in public health, but it’s also in the acute setting where you see optimised ways of delivering better outcomes for patients—whether they be with the use of devices, or new drugs and the like.
What has been your journey to get where you are today?
I’ve never been the smartest person in the room. So, for me, I’ve had to work hard to achieve what others found so much easier. That’s my perception of it, anyway, but I just feel fortunate to have made it work. My advice to young researchers is to open your eyes to opportunities and be brave enough to take them. I’ve rarely, if ever, declined an opportunity that I’ve seen as adding value to me as a person but also to me in terms of my professional development. The flip side is where I can add value to an organisation or to a group or even an individual.
I also love mentoring. One of the things I really love, and have seen as a real gift, is that I get the opportunity to train, teach, and interact with r smart people. We get fantastic students coming through the University and having the privilege of their time and being able to teach them is fabulous. I’ve supervised over 30 PhD students in my lab andI’ve got students now working at institutions around the globe, quite a number of them now hold senior leadership roles, in both teaching and research. So, I feel very blessed.
What do you love most about working at the University of Adelaide?
It comes down to the people. I value my relationships more than anything. I’ve got a wonderful family life—very patient wife and children. Certainly, from my perspective, I also have very productive relationships wherever I work. I see that as an important part of what we do in leadership roles. It’s not about making people feel comfortable and relaxed, it’s about making sure that they feel safe and able to do their best. Their success is not mine, it’s theirs. But, if we add to each other’s success, then we have something great. I love working in environments where everyone is rowing in the same direction. It makes life a lot easier. But, not withstanding, I think everyone can then share in the reward of pulling together.
If I was to say to you that every interaction and every relationship I’ve had the University was fabulous, that would be an absolute lie. But, I have to say the reason for being here is pretty clear–we want to create great graduates who have opportunities to impact the community. That’s the wonderful thing about being in health and medical sciences, in terms of impact on an interpersonal level, I can’t think of any other field that delivers people that have connectedness to other people, and often in times of profound sadness, profound need, enormous anxiety. It’s at the most vulnerable times in people’s lives that they connect with our faculty’s graduates. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
Where’s your favourite spot on campus?
When I was a student, there was this little underground café that used to sit under where the Braggs building is now. You used to go down there, and it was a little coffee lounge underground. It was dingy, it was terrific. I loved it but it’s long gone. When we were probably less barista-focused, it was great to go down there and grab a coffee and have a chat. They had little booths down there, and it was dark, it was fabulous!
Have you ever had a life-changing experience?
As a 17-year-old, I lost a brother to a brain tumour. Up to that point, I was probably not sure what I wanted to do and that tragedy really cemented for me what I wanted to do– have some sort of impact. So that really formed my interest in, and started me on a trajectory, in research. So, I think, losing my brother to cancer at such a young age was probably the most defining moment for me. The other defining moment was meeting my wife. We knew each other for about three or four years before we started dating so I’ve known her for more than 30 years. That was probably another defining moment in my life.
What inspired you to pursue a career in health?
During my university years, I had the good fortune of working down at F. H. Faulding & Co, a pharmaceutical company based in Thebarton at the time. Probably its greatest claim to fame is it was the manufacturer of Neutrogena, which was then sold to a big US company. But, before that, it was based here at Thebarton. My neighbour was a doctor of organic chemistry at the University of Adelaide and also worked at F. H. Faulding & Co and he got me a job during university holidays. It really reaffirmed my desire to do something in research.
It wasn’t glamorous! I was a regular dog’s body, really. At the time, there was a drug that they invented which was an antibiotic called erythromycin. It was a carbohydrate-coated to allow it to be resistant in the acid environment of the gut so it could be absorbed slowly in the intestine. During the development phase of that, there was a spray coating of these little pellets of antibiotic, and I just used to sit in front of the machine and monitor the machine. Other times, I was decontaminating rooms where penicillin had been grown. They used to grow penicillin mould to make antibiotic in a couple of the old rooms at Thebarton and I was asked to decontaminate them with hypochlorite. It was fairly unglamourous and I didn’t have anything to do with the actual invention, but erythromycin is still used today to fight bacterial infections.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Oh, lord—there’s a few things. I’m just a sad sack for podcasts. I’m a big listener of Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live — I download it every day and I listen to that first thing in the morning. Dare I say it… I like crime podcasts as well—true crime podcasts (which is sad).
What else about me? I took up drums last year. I played bass guitar for more than 20 years and decided to take up drums as a means of stress relief. And now, I’m drummer for the SAHMRI Band, which is really sad, isn’t it? If they can’t find a better drummer than somebody who’s been playing for a year, they’ve got real trouble, haven’t they? One never rates their own talents, but I can keep a beat, which is what I’ve been led to believe is all I really need to do as a drummer? We’re having a lot of fun. We have practice on Saturday or Sunday afternoons and it’s a fabulous stress reliever.
What are your top café/restaurant recommendations around Adelaide?
I like Golden Boy. I reckon it’s a cracker! The times I’ve been, we’ve always gone for the ‘Tuk Tuk’ banquet option, which is great because you get a whole variety of different things and you leave not wanting more. I’ve also got a little bit of a soft spot for Jolleys Boathouse on the River Torrens. It’s a really nice little spot. Don’t tell anyone, but I love their pork belly.
What kind of difference would you like to make in the world?
This is going to sound corny as hell. My research is one thing that I’m really proud of in terms of our contribution to the discipline and our specialty area. But the thing I probably want to have the biggest impact in, and am working towards now, is to contribute to creating an environment that is supportive of the people that I, and others, have trained have the ability to do fabulous things in South Australia—far better than I could ever have imagined.
As a researcher and as a scientist, you’re quite driven and somewhat selfish. It’s competitive, you’re fighting for funding and so forth, and that’s still very much the case now. But I’m slowly stepping away from that being my driver. I think my biggest driver now is making sure that we have the right settings here in South Australia to make health and medical research a genuine strength for this state in terms of the impact of our research, opportunity for employment and the opportunity to spin out small to medium sized industries. I think that’s the thing that I’m enjoying and it’s where I’m devoting a lot of my attention and time to now.