Dr Alan Finkel has written an article for the Australian Neuroscience Society’s October newsletter. In the article, Dr Finkel thanks his PhD supervisor, Steve Redman, for helping to start a course that is now an integral part of the Australian and New Zealand neuroscience fabric.

For Steve, a deeply perceptive man, it was all about describing a mathematical model of motor neuron synaptic transmission.

I’ve never thought too hard about what lies on the other side of the door marked “opportunity”. So when I tentatively pushed open the door to the Biomedical Laboratory in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Monash University little did I anticipate the years of hard work and ultimate reward that lay ahead. In neuroscience, in electrical engineering and in the business of growing wiser.

I was amazingly lucky to find my PhD supervisor, Steve Redman, inside the lab. For the next five years I worked with Helix aspersa (the common garden snail) on the one hand and Steve Redman on the other.

The contrast, Steve will be pleased to know, was substantial. Not only did one have a simple brain and the other a sophisticated one, but they worked at different paces and with dramatically different aspirations. For Steve, a deeply perceptive man, it was all about describing a mathematical model of motor neuron synaptic transmission. I learned from Steve the importance of commitment to detail, deep analysis, the pursuit of quality and when all else fails, receptivity to serendipity.

Along with all of that, Steve was charming. But tough. He threw me into the deep end of the Australian PhD program, which in my mind is a very long swimming pool. Then for the next five years Steve coached me from the sides as I desperately swam for the distant, shallow end. As I clambered up the ladder and reached for my towel Steve offered me the gold medal – an invitation to a postdoctoral research fellowship at the John Curtin School of Medical Research where he had been invited to be the Director of Neuroscience.

After two years working closely and enjoyably with Steve, I jumped ship and swam to another distant goal, the dream of starting my own company in Silicon Valley. I formed Axon Instruments to make scientific instruments and software initially for neurosciences and eventually for genomics and drug screening too.

Axon was successful, mainly because on the day that I formed it I was the world’s expert on designing single-electrode and two-electrode voltage clamp amplifiers. Why? Because of the incredible support I got from Steve Redman, and also from colleagues at Monash University, the John Curtin School of Medical Research and others across the country.

I owed everything to the Australian neuroscience community, so when I had the opportunity to turn my attention to Australia and start the third trimester of my life my very first action was to plan the establishment of the course that ultimately became known as ACAN. As the head of Axon Instruments I was familiar with the summer training courses offered at Woods Hole and Cold Spring Harbor. I mentioned this to Steve and pretty soon we were brainstorming the concept of a Woods-Hole Down Under, but instead of the unpronounceable acronym WHDU we opted for AANRI (Australian Advanced Neuroscience Research Initiative) and ultimately ACAN (Australian Course in Advanced Neuroscience).

The goal then, and now, for both Steve and me, was to help train early career researchers in the difficult laboratory research techniques that are as problematic to learn from the methods section of a research publication as mastering your mum’s chocolate cake from her recipe that listed most of the ingredients but omitted the secret sauce.

As I noted once before in this newsletter, Steve took on the gruelling task of being the inaugural course director. After two seminal years establishing the course and setting it admirably on its long-term path Steve handed over the reins to his protégé John Bekkers, who ran the course marvellously well for many more years to come.

The reputation of ACAN could not be higher. Steve’s contribution to conceiving it, leading it then continuing to serve as a member of the governance committee is a huge part of the reason for ACAN’s success. I deeply thank Steve for helping to make it so.

Dr Alan Finkel