Biobanking Conversations #2 with Gavin Higgins (Victorian Cancer Biobank)

Your Name: 

My name is Gavin Higgins

Explain your role in brief: 

I am the Project Manager for the Victorian Cancer Biobank. I  manage client inquiries, project applications, implementation, and coordination of projects across the consortium. This may include dispatch of banked specimens and associated data to researchers, a bespoke collection of biospecimens, and clinical trial support.  

A tool, habit, or hack that makes you very productive: 

An effective project manager is only as good as the team of staff they have to assist with projects. At the VCB, it is fast-paced and there are numerous requests for VCB biospecimens. I am fortunate that we have a team of knowledgeable and dependable staff that can assist with various aspects of the project delivery. 

A book/podcast/channel you’d recommend to everyone in biobanking or in general in clinical research, informatics, etc.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a must-read for anyone in biobanking. 

What’s your typical day like? 

A typical day for me can vary a lot from one day to the next.  In this COVID world, we are now in I spend a lot of time in meetings with various stakeholder groups – VCB staff, clients, our legal counsel, central operations management all via Zoom/Microsoft Teams. Between meetings, I’m running queries in  OpenSpecimen, managing client contract negotiations, and invoicing projects. 

What according to you is an ideal break to get away from the busy schedule of biobank? 

An ideal break for me generally involves travelling and going somewhere I can disengage mentally from work. 

How often do you get to do this? 

Right now, not often given the pandemic. 

A hobby outside work that has influenced your career… 

Genealogy is a hobby I got into last year which has led me on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. I think it is important for one to understand the origins of where they have come from to gain clarity on where they are heading moving forward in life and naturally with their career. 

How did you get into biobanking? 

I previously worked as a postdoctoral researcher where the procurement and archiving of tissue and blood products was a major aspect of my work. I was keen on a new challenge and wanted a role that was unique that would allow me to have a broader impact enabling research locally and abroad. The VCB happened to be looking for a project manager and the stars aligned. We haven’t looked back! 

A ‘mantra’ that you would like to give to a younger version of you stepping into a similar role:

“Always take the winding road”. Knowledge is gained through experience, and experience only comes with patience and a willingness to try new things. 

The most challenging thing you’ve done in your career so far:

Career pivoting. It’s daunting, it’s exhilarating, and it can be the most rewarding thing you will do when you succeed and have fun while doing it! 

Your most treasured recognition or achievement:

My family is all the recognition I need that I am on the right path. Everything else is irrelevant without them.  Achievements are only worthwhile when you have people to share them with that have been with you every step of the way. 

What excites you about biobanking these days? 

Many things. We have only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. Biobanking can be a driving force behind many biological and biomedical science breakthroughs of the 21st century. 

How was your biobank established? 

The Victorian Cancer Biobank consortium was formed in 2006 with the support from the Victorian Government to bring the five established biobanks in Melbourne together to create a network biobanking infrastructure for easy access of cancer biospecimens and associated clinical data for research. The members of the consortium consist of Austin Health, Eastern Health, Melbourne Health, Monash Health, Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute, and Cancer Council Victoria as the lead agency.  

What challenges and opportunities have arisen from the corona pandemic for your biobank?

We have just come out of 111 straight days of stage 4 lock-down here in  Melbourne due to COVID-19, with most of us restricted to a 5 km radius from our homes during that time. The mental impact of this on VCB staff during this time cannot be denied. However, I believe the pandemic has also brought us closer together as a  consortium. We have learned that in the face of severe adversity we can endure and succeed, which may not have been possible as standalone biobanks. 

What can the biobanking community learn from the Corona crisis? 

The value of general archival collections. While we have been unable to actively bank specimens during the lock-down here in Melbourne, we have still been able to service several large projects during this time by drawing upon our vast collection of archival specimens. 

What types of entities do you provide biobanking services to and what is the mix? 

We are an open-access platform. While a large percentage of our clientele are academic, we have a steadily increasing number of commercial partners that we are presently servicing. Our mix at the present time would be 80/20 split between academic/commercial clients. 

Where do you think the biggest growth area will be for biobanking in the next five years?

Automated biobanking. As the demand for archival specimens grows and we become more educated in the benefits of precision medicine the need for better equipped and technologically advanced biobanks will come to the fore. 

Has your biobank received or in the process of receiving any certification like CAP, ISO, etc.?

The VCB recently achieved CTRNet certification, with a view to pursuing NATA  accreditation for ISO 20387:2018 biobanking standards in near future. 

How long have you been using OpenSpecimen and what is your role in the application? 

I  have been using OpenSpecimen for 12 months and am an end-user. 

Any specific feature you like a lot, why? 

I use OpenSpecimen Queries frequently for searching suitable cases for researchers, generating reports of specimen dispatch history for projects, and sharing queries with my team for project collaboration.  

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