“It is okay to not know what you want to do when you immediately leave school. At times young people put too much pressure on themselves to choose the right career path right from the start. Find something you are interested in and pursue it, but even then, it is okay to change”.
Now a Professor within the School of Chemistry and Molecular Bioscience in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health at the University of Wollongong, and a Fellow of the lllawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, former St Mary’s College student Heath Ecroyd said he knew he liked ‘science’ but did not really know what he wanted to do with it and it took many path changes before he found his perfect career choice.
Today his job involves both teaching students and running his own research group.
“I am now what is known as a protein biochemist, that means I study the chemistry of biological molecules,” he said.
“I lead a research group and we do research on the underlying causes of disease of the brain, in particular Parkinson’s disease and Motor Neuron Disease.
“We hope that by better understanding what goes wrong in these diseases, we will be able to develop new drugs to treat, and maybe even prevent, these diseases.”
Now 46 years of age and happily settled in Wollongong with his wife
Annabel and their children William (15) and Samantha (13), Heath teaches biology, chemistry and biochemistry to students at the University of Wollongong, with typically around 500 students enrolled in a biochemistry class in their second year of university.
Born at Coonabarabran in 1975, to Doug and Lurleen Ecroyd, Heath grew up in Gunnedah with his younger sister Kristy after the family moved when he was three years of age.
He attended St Xavier’s Primary School and then crossed the road to St Mary’s College for his secondary education.
“I enjoyed school and have many fond memories of my time there,” he said.
“I particularly liked maths and science subjects and, of course, playing rugby league – I started playing when I was five and continued to play up until I left Gunnedah and then played for the local university team.
“I always had great teachers at school and they really fostered and encouraged my interests, particularly when it came to maths and science. One particular example is Mary Richard who taught me physics in Year 12 – she nominated me to attend an International Science School at the University of Sydney, where I spent a week with Year 12 students from many different schools. We stayed at Cranbrook School and each day went into the university to participate in different activities. This really sparked my interest in going to university and science as a career choice.”
After completing his HSC, Heath began a Bachelor of Computer Science degree at the University of Newcastle, but soon discovered that computer programming and designing computer software was not for him.
“After six weeks, I withdrew from university and came back to Gunnedah to work as a removalist with Gollan’s of Gunnedah – I started working there when I was 14, washing trucks, and continued working for Bill and Lyn in school holidays right up to when I had left for university,” Heath recalled.
“Looking back now, this was the best decision I could have made and I am very grateful to Bill and Lyn Gollan for taking me on. I spent 12 months away from studying, and was able to travel around NSW and Queensland while at the same time earning some money.”
Heath re-enrolled at the University of Newcastle in a Bachelor of Science degree the following year – he was still not sure exactly what he wanted to do, but knew it would be something in science.
From there he finished his degree, graduating with first class honours and the University Medal and went on to do further studies until he completed his PhD.
“Just as I was completing my PhD, I was offered a job in France, working at the French government equivalent of the CSIRO, on a project looking at the disease Scrapie in sheep – which is similar to mad-cow disease,” Heath said.
“In 2002 my wife Annabel and I set off for France only six months after our wedding – we spent close to two years overseas.”
Annabel taught Business English during their time in France.
Back in Australia the couple settled in Adelaide for four years, where the young scientist was awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council research fellowship at the University of Adelaide, to look at the fundamental biological steps that lead to a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Creutzfeldt (mad-cow) disease.
Four years later they moved to Wollongong.
“At each step along the way I was building my career with the aim of getting a permanent job at a university,” Heath said. “Annabel has been amazingly supportive of me, giving up her own permanent position as a teacher, so that I could pursue my career in science.
“Over the last few years, working at a university during COVID has been tough – as it has been for all of us.
“At the university, we had to quickly pivot to teaching online and had restricted access to the laboratories, so most research came to a halt – and teaching via Zoom is nowhere near as much fun as getting to actually see students in lectures and the laboratory.”
Heath said he has always been inspired and supported by his family.
“Mum and Dad made many sacrifices to ensure that my sister and I were able to obtain a great education,” he said.
“My dad passed away 10 years ago and my mum, Lurleen, now lives in Salamander Bay, while my sister, Kristy, and her family – husband Darren and their two boys, Declan and Brandon – live at Chisholm near Maitland – we have fond memories of growing up in Gunnedah.
“I was lucky to do well at school and university – I enjoy the process of learning new things. At the end of my degree at the University of Newcastle I was fortunate to be awarded the University Medal for academic achievement – this helped me to get a scholarship to do a postgraduate degree at the university and ultimately to get paid to work at a university as a scientist.”
Heath says science research as a career is extremely rewarding, but like most things can have its ups and downs.
“You have to be pretty resilient to be a scientist – lots of times your experiments don’t work the way you thought they would and so you have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
“But these setbacks make it all the more rewarding when your experiments do work and you uncover a new aspect to how something works. These are the ‘eureka’ moments and one of the best parts of being a scientist.
“The best part of my job now is getting to work with students who come into our lab as part of their studies – they spend time working on an aspect of the research we are interested in and it is always a thrill when you see these students succeed.
“I have been very lucky to work with some amazing young people who have since gone on to do their own research.”