Key anatomy journal honours Monash BDI scientist’s career

Professor John Bertram

Professor John Bertram, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) scientist and world-renowned kidney expert, has had a Special Issue of the highly respected US journal The Anatomical Record devoted to his achievements as a researcher and longstanding department head.

Professor Bertram, Head of the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, is known globally for his research into nephron endowment in human kidneys. Nephrons, the tiny filtering units in the kidney, are fixed in number before birth. His findings over the years have had far-reaching clinical implications, particularly concerning people with low nephron numbers who are vulnerable to developing hypertension and renal disease.

The October edition of the American Association for Anatomy’s journal includes a personal perspective by Professor Bertram on his 18 years as Department head and opening sections by the BDI’s Professor (Mary) Jane Black, an Associate Editor of the journal, and by Dr Megan Sutherland, Guest Editor of the Special Issue, both collaborators and colleagues of Professor Bertram. It covers a broad spread of renal-associated topics related to Professor Bertram’s expertise by contributors who are either his research collaborators or former students – many of them from Monash.

Professor Black said her choice as an Associate Editor to run a tribute to Professor Bertram over a whole edition was relatively unusual. “That a US-based journal is doing this just shows John’s standing in the community. The Anatomical Record is 150 years old and published by one of the best publishers, Wiley, so it’s quite an honour for him.”

Professor Bertram said that publication of the special edition was “an unexpected honour”.

“It was especially pleasing that so many of my current research collaborators in Australia and overseas, as well as former PhD students and fellows now running their own labs were keen to write original research articles and review articles for the edition. It is also wonderful recognition for the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, clearly one of the strongest such departments in the world,” he said.

Professor Bertram commenced as Head of the then Department of Anatomy in 1998 – and had a challenge on his hands. He recalls that at the beginning of his appointment morale among academics was low, research performance and outputs at a low ebb, and the standard of educational offerings “patchy”. In his first week he was presented with a petition signed by 200 students complaining about anatomy teaching.

By 2016 when he stepped down, the Department had grown from one of the smallest in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences to one of the largest, with an associated surge in research profile in both output and quality. The number of staff and graduate students had increased from around 50 to about 230, and 30 research groups were based in the department, almost all with nationally competitive research support. Research income increased 10-fold, publications from about 50 to more than 200 per annum, and graduate numbers from approximately 20 to more than 50. The Department had developed into what Professor Bertram proudly wrote was a “vibrant, scholarly environment where the rich nexus of research and teaching (is) realised.”

He resumed the role as Acting Head in 2019 when Professor Benjamin Kile left for another position in South Australia and now heads the Department again.

Professor Bertram has made major contributions to making Monash a world leader in kidney research. His landmark studies, along with his collaborators, have been instrumental in identifying the wide range in nephron endowment in the human population. More recently he has become a global authority on podocyte development – highly specialised epithelial cells within the filtering units of the kidney – and their response to injury. He is Australia’s leading expert in the field of stereology – the process of sampling and counting three-dimensional material or tissues using two-dimensional cross sections. He is also involved in developing new time-efficient techniques as alternatives to these approaches.

Monash BDI Director, Professor John Carroll commended this remarkable achievement.

"This is a wonderful tribute to John and due recognition of an enormous contribution to the field. We wish him all our congratulations," Professor Carroll said.

About the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University

Committed to making the discoveries that will relieve the future burden of disease, the newly established Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University brings together more than 120 internationally-renowned research teams. Our researchers are supported by world-class technology and infrastructure, and partner with industry, clinicians and researchers internationally to enhance lives through discovery.