I was shocked the first time he told me that he’d always wanted to ‘do something significant’ with his life. I couldn't imagine even daring to think like that. To be honest, such was the intensity of my family’s focus on my brothers’ sporting prowess when I was growing up, the most significant thing I could have imagined doing with my life would have been to marry a Port Adelaide footballer.
When I asked Bob how he came to think of his life in such a consequential way, he put it down to growing up in post-war Britain, where there was so much to do to create a future and people were impatient for change. He wanted to be a part of making things happen.
So I’ve decided to bring you his story. This is the Occasional Address delivered by Professor Robert (Bob) Seamark on the occasion of receiving a Doctor of the University degree (Honoris Causa) from the University of Adelaide. I hope you find it interesting:
“To receive this recognition from a University that has played such an important part in my life is a special honour. It was this University that 62 years ago offered me, an under-qualified,17 year old ten-pound Pom living in a migrant camp, the chance of a tertiary education.
My ambition was to do medicine but medical students were then required to have their own microscope. These cost a 100 or so pounds - well beyond my means at the time. So I enrolled in Agricultural Science, a course with similar first year subjects allowing me the possibility to transfer to medicine in year 2 - if I could save some money.
What I didn’t anticipate was one of the lectures during that year transforming my thinking and radically altering the course of my life. The lecture by the Professor of Agriculture, Colin Donald, was on the Malthusian Theory of Population Growth. This theory, posed in 1798 by an English scholar, the Reverent T R Malthus, predicted that the world population, if left unchecked, would outgrow its resources, with disastrous consequences.
Professor Donald’s data showed the Malthus prediction was alarmingly on track. Demand for food was rapidly outgrowing supply. A crisis point, where demand exceeded supply, would be reached within my lifetime. To a young man with ambitions to do something significant with his life, what greater challenge could there be than to sign on to a field of science that focused on addressing such a critical issue.
So I continued in Agricultural Science and on graduating was awarded the Barr Smith Travelling Scholarship in Agriculture to do my PhD in Cambridge. Following an exciting Post Doc year in Germany at the height of the Berlin siege crisis, I returned to the University of Adelaide as a lecturer in the newly established Department of Animal Physiology at the Waite Institute.
The timing was perfect. The Australian economy was still riding on the sheep’s back and the government and livestock industry were investing heavily in research to enhance livestock reproduction, my area of expertise.
My research group at the Waite flourished
Five years on, to the surprise of many, I transferred to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the medical school.
I was enticed there by a visionary head of department named Lloyd Cox. He wanted O&G to move from being somewhere where, to use his words, ‘failed surgeons came to practice”. He wanted O&G to be a world-leading science-based discipline. To achieve this, he needed the focus and energy being shown in our livestock research applied to human reproduction. I was to be the conduit between the disciplines that would allow this to happen.
I quickly realized the new position would allow me to both continue my research on food production and address the other Malthusian issue: human fertility regulation. How could I not be enticed?
Bridging disciplines proved to be a brilliant initiative by Lloyd Cox. The two-way exchange of information and innovation that followed triggered an explosion in research activity. The result was a wealth of new knowledge of the reproductive process; knowledge that allowed the development of advanced reproductive technologies, so commonplace today, such as IVF, cloning and trans-genesis. These technologies have transformed our society and, pleasingly to me, contribute globally to further delay the still-pending Malthusian crisis
From the beginning, we were fully aware that the realization of Lloyd Cox’s vision required the Department to attract quality staff and students. We accepted, even back then, that funding from Government sources alone would never suffice. Our growth would only be possible by translating our research into goods and services of commercial value. In short, we needed to engage with the commercial world - an almost unthinkable proposition for academics at the time.
Notwithstanding our naivety and lack of business acumen, we did engage and when I left the Department in1995, I counted 16 successful commercial enterprises stemming from our ventures. Together these thriving businesses were contributing over 85% of the funding needed to support the, by now, world-leading scientific enterprise Lloyd Cox had envisioned. Clearly, academics can translate ideas into useful goods and services without loss of credibility, reputation or respect.
I suppose I surprised everybody again when, after three happy and productive decades in O&G, I moved to CSIRO in Canberra to become Director of the Pest Animal Control Cooperative Research Centre. I was drawn to this by an idea formulated by the previous director, Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe.
He, like me, was concerned about the devastating impact that introduced pest animals, such as the European rabbit and fox, were having on Australia’s unique flora and fauna. His novel idea was to reduce their impact through a new generation of humane, biological control agents that worked through fertility control rather than killing. He proposed doing this using genetically modified viruses as self-propagating contraceptive vaccines that could be tailored to each species. A brilliant academic idea but could it be translated into product? That was my challenge!
It took 7 years, but we were finally able to show that such viruses could be created and Hugh’s concept was feasible. However, given the public’s suspicion of both viruses and genetic modification, his futuristic approach has yet to attract the national support it needs to allow release.
I returned to Adelaide to take up a part time role as Director of the Flinders Medical Research Institute. This allowed me time to continue to act as scientific advisor to several exciting start-up biotechnology companies working on stem cells and ground breaking cancer treatments. It also allowed me the opportunity to tutor Year 1 medical students at Flinders University. Yes, Year 1 - the very year I failed to complete.
To the graduates gathered here, my sincere congratulations on successfully completing this stage of your life’s journey.
Beware the trap of thinking you now know where life is leading you. Don’t let your degree define the path you take. Underpin? Yes. Define? No.
As a newly minted graduate, sitting where you now sit, I could never have imagined the amazing, fun-filled journey that awaited me or where it would lead. Like you, I had yet to discover, that the true excitement of life is to be found not in the world you know but in worlds that you don’t even know exist.
Bon voyage and enjoy.”