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Professor Rakesh Kumar retires from UNSW after 40 years

After 40 years as one of UNSW Medicine’s most memorable educators, Professor Rakesh Kumar is retiring to the NSW Southern Highlands.

However, he hopes to keep firing the imaginations of students, as he plans to spend part of his weeks there assisting in high school biology classrooms.

He was a 22-year-old graduate of the All India IMS when he joined UNSW in 1977, accepting an unexpected job offer as a senior tutor.

He has enjoyed an innovative research career in respiratory pathology, focusing on the immunopathogenesis of asthma, and has been a generous and willing mentor to junior colleagues, some of whom have been promoted to senior academic roles at UNSW and elsewhere.

But his passion was in education, and he was such a popular and memorable lecturer at one time that students had started a Facebook fan page to exchange their favourite quotes and stories.

“Students keep you young, every year they find new questions to ask you,” Professor Kumar laughs.

“Every year they come up with a different wrinkle on an old problem so you can’t expect to walk in and do the same thing over and over again, which is what makes this job endlessly self-renewing.

“The other lovely thing is you can sit down with a bunch of students and talk about something that’s convoluted and interesting, and have that real joy of watching the tube lights go ‘flicker flicker’ and turn on around the room as they get it.”

UNSW Medicine Associate Dean (Education) Gary Velan was one of his students.

“I first encountered Rakesh in 1983, when he was a lecturer in pathology and I was a third-year medicine student at UNSW,” he recalls.

“My first memory of him was a lecture on 27th September 1983, the day Australia II won the America's Cup. Rakesh bounced into the lecture theatre and scrawled ‘We Keeled 'Em!’ in large letters on the blackboard.

“At that moment, I knew that Rakesh was someone who would be interesting to work with.”

Professor Velan says Professor Kumar's “mellifluous voice and wicked sense of humour” will be missed.

“It is through his educational endeavours that Rakesh has left an indelible mark on me, as well as thousands of students who are fortunate enough to have experienced his teaching,” he says.

Professor Kumar’s teaching has been acknowledged with several awards, including two Vice-Chancellor's Awards for Teaching Excellence, and he was behind the introduction of virtual microscopy to UNSW in the early 2000s.

He notes the influence of technology as the biggest change in his decades of teaching. But he warns not all e-learning developments are as useful as they first appear.

“I think education is not just a function of having stuff delivered to you, I think it’s a function of interacting with other smart human beings, in part your teachers and in part your peers,” he says.

In retirement, Professor Kumar has been awarded an Emeritus Professor title, and as well as playing more bridge, watching missed seasons of The West Wing and improving his golf game, he looks forward to contributing in the classroom.

“I do what I do because I had teachers who made me see the world differently,” he says.                        

“You never know when you’ve planted the seed and you never know when it might germinate and in what form it will grow, but if you keep doing it, and you mean it, things will happen.”