On a mission of discovery

Matthew Flinders Distinguished Emeritus Professor Marcello Costa AO FAA in front of white board

Medicine foundation academic and neuroscience researcher Emeritus Professor Marcello Costa AO FAA has enjoyed many years of discovery at Flinders University.

After an illustrious 47-year career at Flinders University, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Emeritus Professor Marcello Costa AO FAA retired in February from his most recent roles as the Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor and Professor of Neurophysiology with the College of Medicine and Public Health.

Professor Costa first joined the University in 1975, when he was appointed foundation lecturer in Physiology in Flinders’ newly opened School of Medicine (now the College of Medicine and Public Health).


However, it was not a straightforward journey to Flinders. After growing up in Argentina, then returning to his birthplace of Italy to study medicine and complete compulsory military service, Professor Costa emigrated to Melbourne. Five years later, opportunity knocked from Flinders University, which proved to be a long-term move for the Professor and his young family.

He says, ‘I had plenty of other offers to move within Australia, or even to go to Europe or the United States, but I found that being at Flinders was a unique opportunity. From the very beginning we had the opportunity to create something new. And I think we did.

‘We were lucky to be a medical school within a hospital, where teaching, research and patient care could come together – a virtuous cycle inspired by foundation Dean, Gus Fraenkel, and implemented by foundation Chair of Medicine, John Chalmers.

‘By doing this, we never lost track of what medicine was requiring, what was feasible, and the questions the students were asking that needed answers. And that kept us alive.

‘Research, teaching and medical practice; if they are together, in the long term it’s better.’


A pioneer in enteric neuroscience, the second brain found in our gut that controls the gastrointestinal tract, Professor Costa found himself in the field almost by accident. Wishing to study the brain while in Italy but being unable to do so, he instead turned to the anatomy of the gut, finding the two weren’t that dissimilar after all.

‘At the time, very little was known about the second brain because the anatomists, the physiologists and the pharmacologists hadn’t talked to each other over the last 150 years. Once I moved to Australia, colleagues and I were able to bring them all together for the first time in a way that changed the field very rapidly.

‘We were very lucky because everything we were looking at was new and the discoveries we found in the gut could be applied to the spinal cord and to the brain too.’


It’s a passion for discovery that has long kept Professor Costa in the laboratory, even after he reached his 80th birthday.

‘Science by and large requires a sense of wonder and imagination about the world, but the reality of nature is that it’s even richer than we can think of.

‘There is always something new to find and there is no end to it. This is what keeps research alive.

‘I encourage every young person to take this view of discovery very seriously. As I keep saying to my grandchildren, if you want to do something, and it’s not harmful to yourself or to others, do it.’


Supporting the next generation of medical students and researchers has been an important pillar of Professor Costa’s career.

Since 2003, alongside his research and teaching, he has donated to a range of education and research projects, including the Matthew Flinders Scholarship and neuroscience research. He sees it as a way of sharing what he has been given throughout his lifetime.

As his retirement begins, Professor Costa hopes he has encouraged a curious but critical mindset in those who will follow. He acknowledges that, for all his achievements, without him the world will not stop.

‘There’s nothing I did that could have been done without the input of my older and younger mentors and my peers. Every time I took a step in my research it was always with somebody else. And that’s important – we don’t do things on our own.’

2022 Encounter magazine – Read more

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2022 Encounter magazine

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