Chris Sharpley: the professor who went back to university at 60
Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Belinda Smith chatted to the University of New England neuroscientist about his academic journey.
When clinical psychologist and former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine at Bond University Chris Sharpley walked into a first-year chemistry class at the University of New England in 2007, he wasn’t there to teach – he was there to learn.
At 60 years old, Sharpley had four decades on most other students in the lecture theatre. But it marked just another twist in the neuroscientist’s tale.
Victorian born and bred, Sharpley was told in high school by a guidance counsellor that he’d make a good teacher. “You never know what you want to be at that age,” he laughs, but he took his counsellor’s advice and completed his teacher’s certificate, quickly backing it up with an arts degree with majors in psychology and philosophy.
He taught locally and overseas. But after a few years, he found himself drawn to how children learn. Why do some learn better than others?
So Sharpley’s life took a turn when he decided to become a school psychologist. Following a Masters by research, he completed a PhD at the University of New England on how rewards affect behaviour.
Shortly afterwards, he presented his work at a conference, catching the eye of people from Monash University. So from the early 1980s, he was back in Melbourne – close to his beloved AFL team, the Hawthorn Hawks – where he stayed 16 years, eventually to move to Bond University in Queensland to establish their Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine.
But Sharpley slowly found himself questioning his field. He looked for a deeper understanding of behaviour than that given by psychology’s “cognitive” models, so briefly turned his research attention to the underlying biology of disorders such as depression and anxiety. But in 2004, he retired.
“At 57, I needed a change of life,” he says, and sailed the Queensland coast with his wife, Vicki Bitsika, occasionally joining him when her job as director of Bond University’s Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorder allowed.
But Sharpley couldn’t stop thinking about neurobiology. And he knew he could contribute more to research, but simply didn’t have the neuroscience and physiology knowledge and training.
He managed two years of sailing before deciding – once again – to go back to university. He enrolled in one subject, but soon found himself in a full undergraduate physiology degree, sitting in lectures with legions of teenagers.
What did his wife think of his decision to go to back university? “I don’t think she was surprised,” Sharpley laughs. “She’s known me long enough to know I’ll try to do something challenging.”
After another Masters by research – this time in the neurobiology of depression – he was appointed a staff member at the University of New England and established the Brain-Behaviour Research Group.
The Brain-Behaviour Research Group explores how physiological processes affect mental health – not just limited to neuroscience and psychology but extending to fields such as genetics, oncology and immunology.
The group’s work has fed into undergraduate and postgraduate neuroscience degrees at University of New England. But, Sharpley says, his research must be translational into real life. He calls it his “basic principle”.
One of his group’s projects, PROFILE-D, has been running since 2012. It aims to create profiles for different depression subgroups, incorporating factors such as genetics, heart rate, brain waves, hormones and immune system responses to stress.
Another project looks at how hormone therapy, a common treatment for prostate cancer, affects the mental wellbeing of patients. The treatment blocks testosterone and shrinks the prostate. It’s highly effective but side effects include erectile and sexual dysfunction. And this can contribute to depression.
Sharpley’s team’s research suggests oncologists should inform patients about various counselling and medication options when they’re undergoing treatment, and – importantly – that things should return to normal soon after treatment is over.
In November, he and his group will start an IT Club on the Armidale campus for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In a small group, the children will spend two hours per week for 10 weeks being taught IT skills by a computer scientist.
Not only does Sharpley hope the course will help children develop social communication skills, it could give some the idea that they may have a future in the field.
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Sharpley adds, once said a good educational system is a series of just-achievable hurdles – where children tackle problems or activities that take effort, but aren’t so hard that they fail.
“I think life is like that,” he says. “If you can have things to do that really demand a lot but you can achieve them with effort, for me that’s the way to be satisfied and happy with life.”