“Australia is a leader in many areas, including psychiatric and neuropsychiatric disorders,” says Professor Dennis Velakoulis, Head of Neuropsychiatry at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Clinical Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Melbourne.
“We have been at the front of world research on Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, schizophrenia and a whole range of other neuropsychiatric disorders. So, we’re an attractive destination for young Greek researchers, even more so because Melbourne is an important destination for Greeks, they enjoy being here and being involved in the community.”
Professor Velakoulis, whose work on neuropsychiatry research, especially in the area of schizophrenia, was acknowledged by the Hellenic-Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which presented him with an Award for Professional Excellence last year, talks about the fellowship he was instrumental in establishing, along with Professor Christos Pantelis, Scientific Director and Foundation Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre.
The idea came as a response to the ongoing crisis, which has sparked many initiatives of the kind, although mostly in the business field.
“The crisis is what really got us thinking about it, because it has led to a lot of difficulties for research,” he explains.
“Wherever there is a financial crisis, one of the first things that governments would cut is research funding. It’s not seen as an essential service, so they are much more likely to cut research funding than close a hospital, for example.”
Wishing to do something to help young psychiatrists from Greece, the two Melbourne-based scientists teamed up with Professor of Psychiatry Nikos Stefanis of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Securing funding from pharmaceutical company Servier Laboratories Australia, thanks to senior product manager Bill Hadjakis, the fellowship was launched in 2015. It allowed for the first fellow, Dr Stefanos Dimitrakopoulos, to come to Melbourne in August 2016 and spend six months contributing to a project that will advance our understanding of brain changes in schizophrenia, especially in those with severe forms of the illness.
Now, a year after he returned to Greece, there is enough funding for a second fellow. “Funding is never easy,” says Professor Velakoulis.
“It’s a very competitive area and people have to work very hard to get grants through The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), only 15 to 20 per cent make it, and the government doesn’t really fund the sort of things that we wanted to set up. The kind of funding that we look for comes from philanthropic funds or pharmaceutical companies, like Servier. We rely a lot on the community for this fellowship. We had a very generous donation from AHEPA and from individuals, both in our social events and through crowdfunding*.”
Professor Velakoulis admits that the fundraising process can be very demanding, particularly since it requires a whole different skill set, than what is usually expected of scientists.
“This has become an important part of a researcher’s work,” he says, laughing, “particularly for medical researchers based in universities. We don’t have to do all of it, but we’re involved in some level, speaking with the community.”
Fundraising aside, Professor Velakoulis explains that it all boils down to raising awareness within the community, letting people know that this is a worthwhile cause.
“Greek doctors and psychiatrists are very well trained, but they do not have as much exposure to research and medical research requires a different skill set than being a doctor and seeing patients at a hospital or in your clinic,” he says.
“There’s a science to being a doctor and there’s an art to it, while research is a more scientific approach which is not as available to young Greek psychiatrists, to have the access and the opportunity to do the sort of work that we are doing and the international standard that our work has.
“This fellowship is mutually beneficial, because we have someone who comes here and is involved in, or helps us with our research work for six months, while at the same time they learn about the process of research, how research works here and then they go back to Greece and continue that and we still collaborate. This is how collaborative research works, it is based on establishing relationships.”
With the second fellowship almost good to go, focus now is on the next ones.
“There are a lot of ideas that we have for both the third and fourth fellowship,” he says.
“We have started some discussions to set up a genetic study in Melbourne, which has a large Greek population, but this too requires further fundraising. As for his main aspiration for the future of the fellowship program, it is to make it into a regular position, rotating for six to 12 months.
“We would like to make it an annual program, something we can offer in an ongoing way. It would be nice to have it evolve into an annual destination for a Greek researcher, or even to get someone back who’s spent time with us.”