How a thirst for knowledge led to a career among bones

Dr Rita Hardiman started her journey when she was given a chemistry set aged 9, but she has found her passion studying anatomy

Published 27 October 2015

I was born in a small village in north Germany. I was an only child and had two sets of grandparents living in the village, so was never without someone to visit. We came to Australia when I was six and I couldn’t speak a word of English. I recall people using a lot of sign language at the beginning.

My grandmother wanted me to be a flight attendant, because I’d get to see the world. I had a chemistry set when I was nine; I was always very drilled down to science. There was something about the way things worked, the way things fitted together and the mechanics of life. Primary school academically was easy for me, so my teachers and parents used to find other things to keep me occupied, like algebra.

Dr Rita Hardiman in her lab with a lion’s skull. Picture: Shelby Oliver

I was fortunate to get a scholarship to University High, but funnily enough the most challenging subject was maths! I really had to pull my socks up – most of the kids were very accomplished at mathematics and hard sciences. I had a few things on my list of preferences for University. Science at Melbourne was first, and that’s where I ended up.

I started anatomy in second year and suddenly a light went on! I just fell in love with it. The answer to how things work – anatomy was the connection to that, the thing that I’d always been looking for.

I’ve taught yoga instructors, massage therapists. When you teach for those different purposes, you learn so much as well. I work a lot with students – everybody brings something along. Many ideas come from just talking about things in the corridor, or if a student asks you something and you don’t know the answer – this is part of the interaction and the learning.

I spent six years working as the Curator of the Harry Books Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology at the University of Melbourne. It’s important to learn to treat people with dignity and respect when learning anatomy – as important as learning about the mechanics of the human body.

If it’s done respectfully, I think we can be a bit more open about what goes on in anatomy departments.

By keeping it a secret, you actually make it more illicit, and you’re inviting people’s imaginations to make up the story for you. And it’s just not like that, it’s very very mundane.

A rattlesnake skull, one of the specimens from the Melbourne Dental School’s Odontology Collection. Picture: Shelby Oliver

In 2011 I was hit by a truck on my way home. It took me five months to claw myself back out of hospital. I was at the Royal Melbourne for nine weeks and it’s totally out of your control – you’re so vulnerable. And I understood everything the doctors were saying … the nurses gave me earplugs for the 7am doctors’ rounds, so I couldn’t hear them talking about me in horrifically gruesome detail.

An experience like that makes many people realise what they really want to do, but for me it brought into sharp focus that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I learnt about my resilience and my determination – big lessons – but I didn’t change, I knew what I wanted and I just wanted to get back to my work and to my family. It’s not very common to know exactly what you want to do – I’m very, very lucky. When I was at University we were discouraged from working in the field of anatomy – many of my fellow students studied anatomy on their way to medicine, or physiotherapy. But after all these years, I’ve never not worked in anatomy! I think that’s really important – if it’s something you really, really want to do, you have to at least try.

An alligator gar skull – a type of fish with a spiky looking bite. Picture: Shelby Oliver

Reinvigorating the Melbourne Dental School’s Odontology Collection is so exciting. Hard tissues, like skulls and teeth, are sneaky little things, because by the time you look at them, all the activity that goes on in life has stopped – you’re getting a little frozen view.

Their real lives are hidden, but there’s still so much that we can tell from skulls and teeth and bones.

I’m interested in comparative odontology and comparative anatomy. When you look at human and animal skulls, like those we have in the collection, you see that everything is firmly based in a structure and function relationship. When you place a human skull next to an animal skull, the differences and comparisons become very stark. It’s a story, and one that you can tease out just by looking.

We use the Odontology Collection as a teaching tool in anatomy classes. The Melbourne Engagement Grant we received will allow us to buy a Microbot 3D surface scanner and a 3D printer. We’ll be able to scan and print samples of skulls and teeth and use these as object-based teaching resources - students learn so much more from these than from looking at a photograph.The grant will also allow us to put the collection online for the public to access.

I also work with a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. He’s retired now but is interested in work that involves moving tissue around when there’s been a defect. For example, when you have to remove a tumour but then move the skin around to replace what was there. You need to do a great deal of basic anatomical work with this kind of activity and there’s lots of research that can be done. This satisfies all my desires, bones and soft tissues and it’s all anatomical, it’s my niche.

It takes a while to find your niche. Even the niche of anatomy has sub-niches. It’s taken me a while to get where I am - my trajectory is not rocket-like, it’s more meandering. But I think I’ve finally found the way forward, and I think it incorporates everything that I want to be doing.

Banner Image: Samples of macaque skulls from the Melbourne Dental School’s Odontology Collection. Picture: Shelby Oliver.

As told to Shelby Oliver

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