DR KARL
SPREADING THE GOOD WORD OF SCIENCE

Interviewed and written by Avi Bart

Spruiking the benefits of science on radio, TV, print, and the internet, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s enthusiasm for science has inspired Australians of all ages. Holding degrees in Physics, Maths, Biomedical Engineering, and Medicine, and having worked as a physicist, tutor, filmmaker, car mechanic, labourer, and medical doctor Dr Karl really has done it all!

Instantly recognizable by his trademark psychedelic patterned shirts, Dr Karl has become an Australian cultural icon, with the National Trust of Australia honouring him as a ‘National Living Treasure’ in 2012. Named Australian ‘Father of the Year’ in 2003, Dr Karl is currently the Julius Sumner Miller Fellow at Sydney University, where he continues to spread the good word of science, educating Aussies from all walks of life on the benefits of reason, knowledge, and understanding.

For more information please see https://drkarl.com/.

“My job is to understand everything in the universe which I know is impossible but I'm giving it a go anyway.” – Dr Karl

WHY MEDICINE? 🏥

I studied medicine as a mature aged student. I first entered the hospital system as a scientific officer doing research and found myself absolutely entranced by the inner workings of the human body. There was just so much stuff going on inside it that I had no understanding of. It made me want to expand my horizons, so I left that job to study a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at UNSW.

After graduating, I worked for the ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, whose pioneering efforts in the ophthalmology field restored the sight of more than million people from all over the world. While working with Fred I designed and built a machine that tested whether or not a person’s retina was still functional under a clouded cornea. At this stage I had three PhD offers.

One time I was testing a patient whose sight had been affected by a motorbike accident 20 years previously. When my machine showed that he was suitable for a cornea transplant, the patient asked me “So are you going to do the operation?”
I said, "Well no, I'm not a medical doctor."

"Why not?" he replied.

I thought – why not? So then, I didn't go to do a PhD, instead I enrolled in medical school.

It was kind of weird because I was 32 when I started studying medicine. I certainly thought about the fact that by the time my medical training finished I’d be 42 years old. But I figured, well actually I'll be 42 years old anyway, whether I do medicine or not. So I decided to go for it.

WHY LEAVE MEDICINE FOR SCIENCE COMMUNICATION? 🔬

The reason I left medicine was the anti-vaxxers. I was working as a doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney and saw the first death from whooping cough in 20 years. It was directly related to a TV show segment about vaccines. They didn't care whether it was true or not, all they cared about was selling dog food through ads. Advertisements, that’s what’s important, and they don’t care so long as they make lots of sales. The baby died and I was at the kid’s hospital when it happened. This was totally unnecessary. The baby did not have to die. So I decided to get out of normal medicine and move to communication. Although being a doctor in a kid’s hospital was the best job I have ever had, I realised I could do more good educating the public on the benefits of science and modern medicine.

ON BALANCE ⚖️

One thing I realized early on is the people who cry most at your funeral are your family. Spend time with your family, they’re more important than anything else. There is a real trap that people fall into where they sacrifice their families for less important things like their careers

How do I deal with balance? Well it's hard. I try to be efficient and not waste time. I'm not incredibly smart, but I am pretty efficient. My IQ is only about 110. Everybody I know is smarter than me.

The other thing is saying “no”. It's a good skill to have. Two things. Number one, the word “no” is a complete sentence by itself. You don't have to add anything else to make it a full sentence. Number two, silence is powerful. If you just say nothing and make the other person fill a gap, that's cool mate.

CURRENT STATE OF AUSTRALIAN SCIENTIFIC LITERACY ✍️

Not really any different from what it’s always been. Which is there is a small number of people who try to stick to reality and figure out what’s true, and a lot of other people just living in dreamland following whatever their tribe tells them. It's always been that way I guess.

ADVICE FOR MED SCHOOL 👨🎓

The first thing to realize is that the body of knowledge you need to be a medical doctor is huge. You've got to load your brain up with that knowledge. If you don't then you'll be an inferior doctor and you won’t achieve the best outcomes for your patients. During med school I spent a bit of time doing TV and radio which, in retrospect, I should not have done. I just barely scraped through with a lot of help from friends. I wasn't as good a doctor as I could have been had I just concentrated on medicine. Trying to do other stuff at the same time was a dumb choice in retrospect. Do the stuff you want to do outside of medicine afterwards.

Clinical practice is where it's at. It really makes everything make sense. See patients as often as you can and spend time with the nurses who go around taking blood.

Become the best doctor you possibly can. That's it, just do your job as well as you can and be the best you can be.

WHAT DO YOU MISS ABOUT MEDICINE? 💔

Making people better. There's nothing as good as having that direct interaction with one person and making that person's life better. That is really fantastic if you can do that. Coming up with a very clever diagnosis is good for the ego but then there's also other stuff like finding a way to get some stairs installed at home for a patient with mobility issues. If you can make a patient’s life better, mate, your job is done.

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