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Shepparton neuroscientist improves the lives of infants around the world

By Spencer Fowler Steen

To say Shepparton's Deanne Thompson is excelling at life would be a gross understatement.

Now an associate professor, a senior neuroscientist at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and leader of the neuro-imaging team for the Victorian Infant Brain Studies group, Professor Thompson's work has helped the lives of countless people around the world.

Among her many achievements, Prof Thompson's research has led to brain imaging becoming more of a standard of care in hospitals for premature babies, and her software has been used around the world to help high-risk infants.

But it hasn't all been smooth sailing.

There were times when she wanted to be anywhere but Shepparton, and moments at university when she felt like she was a "fake".

Born in Numurkah, Prof Thompson, 41, moved to Shepparton when she was nine and attended St Georges Rd Primary School and Wanganui Park Secondary College, an experience that set the early foundations of her success.

“I think at Wanganui the teachers were super supportive and really believed in me and helped me to be my best and grow,” she said.

“They took a really personal interest — I wasn’t just one of the crowd, I felt like I was special, which definitely helped.”

But despite loving the country environment, there were times when Prof Thompson was fed up with living in Shepparton.

“When I was teenager, I thought there wasn’t really much to do in Shepparton,” she said.

“But when I went to Melbourne and came back a few times, I realised how good it was.”

Originally, Prof Thompson had her sights set on becoming a vet, but after the first year of her Bachelor of Science at The University of Melbourne, her marks fell short of the entry requirements for vet school.

So she specialised in botany, microbiology and genetics instead, a long way from the field of neuroscience she works in today.

But part way through her honours program looking at how to genetically modify cotton, she realised her heart simply wasn't in it.

“I had a change in heart and realised I wanted to do something that helps people more directly, so I looked for positions in medical research and found one as an assistant analysing MRI scans,” she said.

“I really liked the idea of helping babies who have a difficult start to life.”

So just like that, Prof Thompson dived headfirst into one of the hardest things you can do — a PhD in neuroscience.

But to say she felt at home there — despite quickly carving out a name for herself among the towering figures in the field — would be misleading.

“I felt like a bit of a fake because I hadn't studied neuroscience,” she said.

About 17 years ago, Prof Thompson landed a position at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute studying premature babies and other high-risk infants, where much of her work has involved looking at their brain development in the hope of improving their lives.

And as well as mapping how the brain develops, Prof Thompson looks at possible treatments to improve outcomes for these premature babies.

“The MRI imaging has shown that some of the interventions have an effect, and our research has led to changes in how hospitals care for very premature babies,” she said.

“We focus on very premature babies — 10 weeks or more early — where over half have problems with thinking, motor skills and learning.

“It’s about finding out how to intervene.”

Prof Thompson and her dedicated team are creating never-seen-before software to analyse MRI scans using the latest in machine-learning technological wizardry.

“When we started, there was no software for this, so we had to create it,” she said.

“Our software has been used around the world to help high-risk babies.

“I’m trying to get money to get our software into the clinic because doctors need to be able to know what’s normal or abnormal in infants’ brains.”

Herein lies the biggest challenge for Prof Thompson and her team: finding the funds to convert blood, sweat and tears into meaningful change in people's lives.

“Finding funding is the most challenging thing — it’s like a treadmill,” she said.

“Once you get to a higher level, you have to do more and more with more responsibility and it escalates as you go, and the higher you get, more is expected of you, and one day, you feel like you’re going to fall off this treadmill.”

In the meantime, Prof Thompson is helping run a separate study looking at the effects of mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy on their children, research she feels confident will go ahead despite the pandemic.

“Because my team was well established, they had no problems working from home, and they’re highly motivated so they won’t slack off,” she said.

Now living in Sale with her husband, Mark Daymond, Prof Thompson has developed a green thumb, tending to her vegetables, flowers and colourful plants in much the same way she cares for the lives of people through her work.

When she's not doing that, knitting, crocheting or painting, Prof Thompson said she loved travelling back to Shepparton every few months to visit her mother, Pam, sister, Sherrie, and brother, Adrian.

A long way from the conferences at which she regularly lectures in various countries around the world.