Alumni Awards – ‘La Trobe ethos’ spans generations

Posted on September 4, 2012

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Australia’s former top bureaucrat, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2008 to 2011, Terry Moran AC, and respected author and speechwriter Don Watson have been awarded La Trobe University’s highest honour – the Distinguished Alumni Awards for 2012.

They are joined by the architect of Australian industry superannuation and pioneer of clean energy investment Garry Weaven and Melbourne conservationist and Director of PNG’s Tenkile Conservation Alliance, James Thomas.

Dr Hala Raghib, a medical researcher who has developed a prize-winning system for animal-free drug testing, has won the University’s coveted Young Achievers’ Award.

Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar says while Terry Moran, Don Watson and Garry Weaven – who were among La Trobe’s first students – are well known for their achievements, Dr Raghib and James Thomas represent the next generation.

‘Yet they all exhibit the same spirit of challenging the status quo and a desire to make a difference in the world. This is the prevailing ethos that lies at the core of our great University – and is the common thread that links one generation to the next.’

Part of our cultural fabric

Professor Dewar says he is delighted that in his first year at La Trobe the awards are being made to distinguished recipients spanning generations – back to the University’s first student intake in 1967.

‘Our graduates from those days remain among the most strident voices in Australia. They were part of La Trobe’s radical beginnings and helped shape our early identity, which makes them part of our cultural fabric.

‘La Trobe’s mission was to be at the forefront of change – to explore, highlight and lead the changes necessary for a just and prosperous society. Part of our planning for the future includes acknowledging our rich past and a need to reconnect with our founding ideals.

‘It is through the achievements of our former students that we gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a graduate of La Trobe University: bold thought leadership, a commitment to social justice, a willingness to make a difference.’

Conservationist helps wildlife – and village life

Mr Thomas with son Tadji and Jan Thomas

James Thomas graduated from the University in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in botany and zoology. He has spent ten years in remote Papua New Guinea saving endangered wildlife and improving the lives of local villagers through water and sanitation programs which have resulted in better health for thousands of people.

Under his internationally recognised leadership, the alliance has saved PNG’s endangered Tenkile Tree Kangaroofrom almost certain extinction, established 14 conservation research sites, secured a hunting moratorium on endangered wildlife and protected more than 100,000 hectares of rainforest.

Mr Thomas has dedicated his life to his conservation causes. His work is centred mainly in Papua New Guinea’s Torricelli Mountains where he and his family lived for a decade before returning to Australia recently.

They now live in Don Valley, in the Yarra Ranges near Warburton, bringing up their young son while Mr Thomas manages his PNG work on a ‘six weeks in, six weeks out’ roster, he says.

He and the Tenkile Alliance team of 40 full-time staff work with local people to create a new model of village life, based on environmental respect, resource conservation, education, health, childcare, and nutrition.

The Alumni Award recognises that Mr Thomas’ achievements have been ‘hard won and at times life-threatening. His successes are testament to his passion to make a difference, but equally his courage and tenacity’.

His contributions have been acknowledged by the people and government of Papua New Guinea and internationally. He has been shortlisted for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize and sponsored by well-known conservationists Australia’s Professor Tim Flannery and British primatologist Dr Jane Goodall.

In one of the latest projects, for water supply and sanitation, which began in 2010, thirty-nine villages and nearly 10,000 people have received 243 water tank sets.

To the heart of the problem – without animal testing

Dr Raghib

Dr Hala Raghib received her Bachelor of Medical Science in 2002 followed by a Graduate Diploma and then Master of Business Administration in 2010.  The Kuwaiti born Palestinian arrived in Australia as a non-English speaker at the age of 12, and has won La Trobe’s coveted Young Achievers’ Award.

Her research, which has developed a prize-winning system for animal-free drug testing, has been inspired by her twin passions – her love of animals and a desire to help with her family’s history of heart disease.

She works as Regulatory Affairs and New Projects Manager for the pharmaceutical company Dr Reddy’s Laboratories (Australia).

Dr Raghib is testing a system that predicts what effect drugs will have on the heart. She says before new medicines can be tested on humans it is important to know their effects on the heart.  Sometimes even medicines already on the market are recalled due to unwanted cardiovascular side effects.

To establish and guard against such potential negative side effects, drug trials usually involve tests on animals.

However, Dr Raghib’s research used human cells, rather than animal cells, pioneering a technique which has the potential to significantly reduce the use of animals for pharmacological testing.

Her work has been widely acknowledged by scientists as being superior to animal models, providing better predictability of the drug effects on humans.  It has won awards including the 2005 Young Arab Australian Achiever’s Award in Science and an Australian Museum Eureka Prize in 2007.

That year she was also listed as one of Melbourne’s ‘Top 100’ most powerful and innovative personalities for scientific and personal achievement in The Age Magazine .

Dr Raghib combines her work in the pharmaceutical industry with lecturing at the Australian Catholic University.

As she said on the ABC program Catalyst when her work won a Eureka Science Award: ‘I’m so proud that I was able to do my research without using animals – and I think my cat would have been proud too if she understood.’

 The La Trobe University Alumni awards – for outstanding professional or community service achievement, inspirational leadership and exceptional human qualities – were presented by Chancellor Adrienne E Clarke AC, and Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar at a special dinner on Wednesday, 5 September 2012.

Read about last year’s awards