Associate Professor Robb de Iongh
What are your research interests/background?
I completed my BSc (Hons) at The University of Sydney, majoring in Physiology and Histology, after which I worked as a research assistant and completed a MSc degree working on mechanisms underlying the Thalidomide embryopathy. Following a year working in Paris at the Institute of Embryology, I returned to Australia to work as hospital scientist at Concord Hospital on developing diagnostic methods for a genetic disease affecting respiratory cilia. My PhD studies at the University of Sydney involved identifying the expression and role of fibroblast growth factors in lens development and my post-doctoral studies at the Save Sight Institute involved the characterization of the roles of the transforming growth factor-beta family in lens development and cataract. Since coming to Melbourne University, I continued my interest in the roles of growth factor and extracellular matrix signalling pathways in regulating lens development as well as developed an interest in retinal degeneration.
What attracted you to teaching?
I was fortunate to have several influential teachers at high school and at university who have inspired me and led me to appreciate the value of good teaching. In addition, having parents who were teachers and academics as well as marrying a teacher has meant I have been strongly inculcated as a teacher as well as a researcher. One of the most rewarding aspects of my working life is to be able to influence a person’s perception of the world and to see that light bulb moment when a difficult concept becomes clear.
Why is it important to educate students on interdisciplinary topics such as stem cells and emerging technologies?
When I was a student, tertiary study was very often constrained within a limited range of disciplines and approaches. However, the dramatic increases in knowledge and information has required and indeed facilitated our capacity to address problems from a different perspective and with novel and innovative techniques. For example, understanding how a bacterium (T. aquaticus) can survive in hot springs indirectly led to the development of a reagent (Taq DNA polymerase) that now is used universally in polymerase chain reactions to amplify DNA in almost every area of biology and biomedicine. Similarly, investigations into how bacteria protected themselves from infection by bacteriophages led to the development of one of the most powerful techniques (CRISPR) to engineer genomes in virtually all cells. The modern cell and developmental biologist now ‘borrows’ techniques and knowledge from various traditional disciplines to successfully solve current biological and medical problems. Stem cell biology is no exception and is often at the forefront of interdisciplinary research because of the huge promise they hold for addressing various diseases and conditions. With such promise comes intrinsic ethical, societal, and regulatory issues, which require an even broader inter-disciplinary context, expertise, knowledge and innovation
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
My approach to learning and teaching is a blend of didactic, experiential and interactive, with a focus on students adopting active styles of learning to achieve both depth and breadth of learning. I am passionate about students learning to identify gaps in their knowledges, how to ask questions and to investigate and research these questions. Critical to this is instilling the capacity to make connections among different disciplines, to communicate with their peers, to work individually as well as in groups and recognise people’s different strengths and to apply their knowledge to solve problems. Finally, with the proliferation of misinformation it is vitally important that students develop skills in how to ‘demystify’ and communicate scientific findings in ways that are appropriate, relevant and accessible to general audiences.
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