A few decades ago, the Stuart Highway was the only road into Darwin – just a handful of traffic lights were needed to keep cars moving. The Northern Territory felt incredibly remote, Mark Mayo recalls. People would put pen to paper and wait for the postman to deliver news.
Growing up, Mayo and his fellow students began to plan careers in the government and military. A role in science wasn’t an obvious choice, but it was first-hand exposure to indigenous health concerns in Mayo’s community that inspired him to drive change. He accept a traineeship with Menzies School of Health, one of Australia’s best research institutes and has gone on to become a senior researcher. More than 25-years later, he’s still making a difference.
Ear disease is a significant health problem for indigenous children. “If you can’t hear you can’t learn,” Mayo points out. Reducing or eradicating this condition will have broader social and educational outcomes. Among the most rewarding aspects of his work is seeing the ways medical innovation is changing the Northern Territory for the better, not only now but for generations to come.
He’s not alone in his commitment to the NT. “In the past, people used to travel away to uni and stay away. Some people are now going away, still getting that degree, but they’re bringing those skills back,” he says. This has created an increasingly dynamic city. Residents with a broad range of skills and backgrounds are contributing to a positive and exciting future.
With lab skills and a degree under his belt, Mayo developed microbiology and molecular biology skills. Throughout his career at Menzies, he’s had the opportunity to improve indigenous health outcomes and broaden his own horizons, too.
Travelling regularly from Darwin to Asia, Mayo helps find solutions for conditions such as malaria. “It’s been good to be able to work with collaborators over there, see how they work, understand their culture and how they approach diseases,” he says.
His main focus is an infectious disease called melioidosis, which is caused by a form of bacteria that develops in soil and water. It causes fevers, chest pain, weight loss, and in severe cases, death. Mayo studies its presence in the environment as well as the impact it has on those infected with it. There are approximately 40 to 50 cases reported and four or five deaths each year across the tropics. Melioidosis is found across South East Asia, so the research is not only essential in Darwin, but will potentially save lives in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and beyond.
“The internet is changing a lot of things. I collaborate with people overseas through video conferencing, which is pretty seamless now,” he adds. But he doesn’t only benefit from exposure to international medical advancements. Projects taking place on NT turf are just as impressive. “We’re working with local researchers that are at the top of their game.”
To aspiring researchers and scientists that haven’t thought about medical careers in Darwin, he says the opportunities in the Territory are increasing. Residents might once have left Darwin to get ahead, but now they can build a world-class medical career without journeying across the country.
What does he love most about his job? “Science is all about learning, asking questions and moving forward,” he says. Being able to implement the results of that in the NT just adds to the pleasure of going to work each day.