A letter to year 12 students from the co-inventor of the cervical cancer vaccine

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Ian Frazer

Professor Ian Frazer is a clinician scientist, trained as a clinical immunologist in Scotland. As a Professor at the University of Queensland, he leads a research group working in cancer research. He is recognised as co-inventor of the technology enabling the HPV vaccines, currently used worldwide to help prevent cervical cancer. He was recognised as Australian of the Year in 2006. He was recipient of the Prime Ministers Prize for Science, and of the Balzan Prize, in 2008, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2012. He was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2013.

Immunologist Ian Frazer talks about the importance of finding a mentor and a passion outside of your career path.

Perhaps like you, in my final years at high school, I was quite unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. My passion was ski-ing, my hobby astronomy, and my education had been science focused. I had applied to study Physics at university, with a view to training in Astrophysics.

However, I met by chance the father of my pen friend’s girlfriend during a 3-month vacation job in Germany. He was a professor at Tubingen University and his advice and mentorship during a holiday week with his family that summer set me on a different path, which seems to have worked well for me.


His advice came in three parts:

  • follow your passions while you’re young, and build your friendships about them – these friends will be with you for life
  • keep your hobbies, especially those that are practiced alone, as hobbies – don’t make a career out of them or they will lose their appeal
  • if you are lucky enough and smart enough to be able to choose your career path, pick one that can help others, as this will become more important to you as you grow older, and where you are challenged to use your abilities to the fullest, as this will give you the greatest satisfaction even when things don’t work out as you might like.


So, trusting my mentor, and to some extent my instincts, I still went to university, but with a different plan

  • My passion for ski-ing led me to take an active part in the University ski club, and taught me management and people skills, doing everything from fixing broken skis to running ski holidays in the Alps. I met my life partner through the club, and many of my lifetime friends, and I still keep fit enough to ski in the Rockies for 4-6 weeks each year
  • I keep my interest in astrophysics alive by reading the relevant papers in Nature each week.
  • I changed my University enrollment to study medicine, with a view to doing medical research. I wanted to study immunology at the best place possible, and that led me to Australia, firstly as an undergraduate student, and subsequently to train in basic and clinical immunology research, at the WEHI. During my career I have had the good fortune to collaborate with colleagues and contribute significantly to medical science, and the privilege to help the career development of many bright young science focused students.
  • I continue to be mentored by colleagues, who still help me to shape my future plans, even at the age of 67.


So my advice would be that you always have a mentor you can bounce your ideas off, make sure you have a passion outside your career that you can enjoy with friends, and, whatever you choose to do in your career, never give up in trying to achieve your goals.

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