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The 1990s

The ethos of the Department in the 1990s shaped by the chairmanship of  David Jones and was carried on for the next two decades by the chairmanships of Sandy Smith and Frank Griffin. During the 1990s, several new academic staff were appointed and these included:

Clive Ronson (Top)

Clive joined the Department in 1991 and soon established collaborations with scientists working on rhizobia at AgResearch Invermay. The collaboration led to a joint programme funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and to the discovery of a novel chromosomal genetic element his group termed a symbiosis island. This discovery led to new insight into the role of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in microbial evolution and the work remains one of the best illustrations of HGT in the natural environment.

Clive Ronson was born in Kaikohe, and moved with his family to Palmerston North when he was five. He became interested in genetics through the influence of his biology teacher at Palmerston North Boys' High School. After completing his BSc(Hons) in Genetics at Massey University in 1973, he was awarded a National Research Advisory Council Scholarship and joined what was then Grasslands Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in Palmerston North. After a year there where he initiated his studies on the rhizobium-legume symbiosis, he undertook his PhD studies in Biological Sciences at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. Upon graduating in 1979, he returned to Grasslands as a research scientist for six years.

His early study (at the DSIR) of mutants of dicarboxylate transport genes focused attention on 4-carbon dicarboxylic acids as the energy source that plants supply to the bacterium in rhizobial nitrogen fixation, and significantly altered understanding of the molecular events occurring during symbiosis. Stemming from this work (and perhaps his most important discovery) was the first two-component regulatory system in bacteria.  These systems, in which an environmental stimulus is sensed by one component in the bacterial cell and passed on to a second component, are now recognised as the major way in which bacteria sense their environments. This discovery was made during what was intended to be a one-year study leave at the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. 

 The one-year stay in the Boston area stretched to six years when he joined a biotechnology company in Cambridge, MA. He became director of a large programme aimed at developing recombinant microbial inoculants for agriculture, and his experiences there included overseeing the second field trial of recombinant bacteria in the USA.

Clive has been involved in the teaching of genetics and was a member of the working party that led to the establishment of the Genetics Major in 2000. He was appointed to the inaugural Chair in Genetics in 2003 and Director of the Genetics Programme.

In 2007 Clive became a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

In Oct, 2014, he became the Head of Department.

Gallery of lab photos

Jurgen Thiele (Top)

Jurgen was appointed in 1991 and brought with him a very Germanic outlook on academia and science. His research activities were focused on the microbiology and biotechnology of industrial pollution control. He targeted pollutants that were toxic, persistent and only slowly degraded in nature. Four different pollutants were chosen: (i) fat, (ii) pesticides (DDT/DDE) in soil, (iii) PCB and pesticides in industrial effluents and (iv) the improved solid waste management (sewage).

He developed collaboration with the German Ministry for Science and Technology. Through this cooperation three German postgraduate students were chosen in 1992 and 1993 to study for a degree in environmental microbiology/biotechnology at the University. Since that time many postgraduate students have come to the Department to carry out studies in virology, bacterial physiology and immunology.

Jurgen was passionate about his research and soon became impatient with the many obstacles that were part of administrative academic life. He managed to alienate some of his colleagues and also his students for whom he had set very high expectations.


By 1996 he felt that he could best achieve his goals by establishing his own biotechnology company and consequently resigned from the Department. He continued to work in partnership with Waste Solutions at the MAF, Invermay research station on the development of biotechnology and bioprocesses to maintain a green and clean environment in New Zealand.

Vernon Ward (Top)

Vernon was one of my PhD students and for more about his student days see "My Story" a chapter that will follow.

Vernon was appointed Assistant Lecturer in 1993 after spending six years on the postdoc circuit. In 1987 after graduating with a PhD from this Department he went to the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology, Oxford and worked on tick-borne RNA viruses. He followed this with a postdoc at the Entomology Department, University of California at Davis from 1989 to 1993, working with Bruce Hammock’s group on baculovirus expression systems.

Upon his return to the Department he brought with him valuable expertise in baculovirus expression vectors and PCR cloning technologies. He took a leadership role in the local biotechnology developments and was the editor of Zealand Biotechnology Association Newsletter, 1995 – 1999. He was involved in the development of the Molecular Biotechnology major for University’s Applied Science programme.

Vernon always had the ambition to become an academic and this story is best told by his "My Brilliant Career" video. This video was made during a seminar organised by Heather Brooks for the 4th year students as part of her postgraduate teaching activities (see the section on Heather Brooks for further details).



Gallery of lab photos

A footnote: Vernon became a professor in 2011 and the Head of the Department in 2012. In August of 2014, he was appointed Dean of the School of Biomedical Sciences (formerly the Otago School of Medical Sciences). He was interviewed by TV Channel 39 shortly after his appointment.

Andy Mercer (Top)

Andy has had a long association with the Department -- as an undergraduate student, as John Loutit’s Ph.D student and then after a period overseas, he returned in 1984 to the Virus Research Unit (VRU) as a post-doc. He is currently the Director of the VRU and holds the Chair of Viral Pathogenesis. In his own words he describes the activities of the VRU:

Terry’s recollections of the Virus Research Unit take us up to late 90’s. Since that time many things have changed but much of the essence is the same. Merilyn Hibma joined the VRU in the 1994, establishing a new and successful research direction for the group with her work on human papillomaviruses. Steve Fleming has developed our investigations of poxvirus factors that manipulate the immune system and Lyn Wise is leading our development of virus proteins that have exciting potential as new therapeutics in non-viral settings such as improved wound healing. We have remained reliant on external funding but diversified our sources of funding. In recent years these have included not only Health Research Council (HRC) but also the Foundation for Research Science and Technology, Cancer Society of NZ, local industry sources and international pharmaceutical industry. We have welcomed an increasing number of postgraduate students for MSc and PhD study, with many of these coming from other countries. We have also formed strong collaborative links with other labs in the Department and around the university. Currently these form an HRC-funded Programme that includes 10 University of Otago Principal Investigators supported by 8 technical staff and a similar number of postgraduate students. These come from 6 laboratories across the Departments of Microbiology & Immunology, Biochemistry and Pathology. In another illustration of the continuing evolution of the VRU and its role within the Department, in 2010 I was appointed to the inaugural Chair of Viral Pathogenesis. Despite these changes much remains as Terry recalls it. Social activities remain a big part of the VRU, even if the parties are quieter these days. And for me, like Terry, the VRU is, at heart, a great group of people and a great place to work.

Photo Gallery

The VRU remained somewhat aloft from the day-to-day running of the Department and the teaching programme. But it did feature large in taking on students for postgraduate training and supervision. Since the scientists in the VRU were carrying out research and were not distracted like the rest of us with teaching, it became an attractive place for students to work and the VRU usually had the pick of the bunch when it came to attracting the best students. 

Andy Mercer proved to be very competent director of the Virus Research Unit and faced the troubles of the world with a quiet and engaging smile. He always seemed to be the person who was at the right place at the right time.

Robin Simmonds (Top)

Robin wrote the following description of himself for the 1994 Microbiology newsletter.

Undoubtedly the greatest influence on my research career has been an insatiable curiosity and the need to know why things happen. These traits have provided a motivating force in an unorthodox and seemingly chaotic path to my present position.

I was born a tradesman’s son. and long before I journeyed to university I was skilled with my hands. These skills found a ready application in microbiology and my curiosity an outlet in research. I graduated with a PhD from the Department of Microbiology. University of Otago in 1982 and immediately began postdoctoral studies at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

I returned to New Zealand late in 1985 to be confronted with the mindless violence of the Rainbow Warrior bombing and post Muldoon inflation. New Zealand as I remembered it no longer existed. Rather than return immediately to research I decided to use this opportunity to acquire new skills and in 1986 I enrolled at Auckland College of Education to study for a Dip. Teach. The ensuing three years saw a return to “the trade”, great for character building, lousy for the publication record.

1990 brought the chance to return to active research in Dunedin, working with John Tagg on bacteriocin-like inhibitory substances (BLlS). A remarkably peaceful two and a half years was spent on this project before a career move took me to Pitman-Moore in Upper Hutt to work on the development of small animal vaccines. Unfortunately this was followed very swiftly by another move back to Dunedin when Pitman-Moore decided it was no longer interested in maintaining research facilities in New Zealand.

As of July 1 1994 I have been appointed as Assistant Lecturer in Microbiology and I am looking forward to the challenges that I know this will bring. In the next three years I hope to continue my research on BLIS and to put into practice those teaching skills learned in the classroom.


Sam Hou (Top)

Sam was appointed in 1994 and in 1997 resigned to take up a position of Group Leader at Edward Jenner Institute for Vaccine Research, UK. He provided a description of himself for the 1994 Departmental newsletter.

I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Dunedin with the entire family when I was three. After developing a reasonable Kiwi accent and completing a MSc degree in the Department of Microbiology in the University of Otago I decided to add a little Aussie slang to my repertoire and moved to Melbourne to complete my doctorate in the Department of Veterinary Preclinical Science in the University of Melbourne.

Not feeling satisfied with this addition, I decided to add a Southern drawl and moved to Memphis, Tennessee U.S.A. to work with Dr Peter Doherty in the Department of Immunology at St Jude Children's Research Hospital. But after 5 years, it was time to retrieve the original Kiwi intonations, my vowels had softened too much and you can only take so much of Southern fried chicken, and I returned "Home" to take up a lecturing position in Immunology in the Department of Microbiology in the University of Otago.

After ten years away, it’s good to be back. I am very interested in the mechanism(s) involved with the maintenance of T cell memory, particularly to viral infections. The work begun in Memphis using a mouse model for a respiratory parainfluenza infection hinted at possible answers and it is this area of research in which I would like to continue and expand in my studies in Dunedin, perhaps moving to a bacterial infection (tuberculosis).

Photos of Sam Hou's Farewell

Heather Brooks (Top)

Heather was appointed in 1994 and as an introduction to her seminar “The Search for E. coli 0157” the following article was written for the 1994 Departmental newsletter (for more see her ‘My Brillant Career’ video).

Heather Brooks joined the Department of Microbiology as a Teaching Fellow in June 1993 and was elevated to the rank of Lecturer in February 1994. A graduate of Surrey University, UK, she developed an interest in E. coli as a urinary tract pathogen whilst studying for her PhD under Professors Frances O'Grady and Bill Cattell at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London.

Her interest in urinary tract pathogens continued during her time at Massey University. Heather's career was then punctuated by several years out of the work force bringing up a family. On returning to the world of microbiology she decided to redirect her research interests - same bug, different disease.

Preview of Heather's seminar.

One of the more exciting developments in medical microbiology in the past decade has been the discovery of a new class of intestinal pathogens; the Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). Spectacular outbreaks of food poisoning due to EHEC serotype 0157 have occurred in the USA in recent years, mainly due to the consumption of contaminated, undercooked hamburgers sold by fast food outlets. A common pathogen in the UK and Canada also, EHEC 0157 gained a certain amount of notoriety because of potentially fatal sequelae. EHEC 0157 has become the unacceptable face of food poisoning causing a disease which may he fatal to otherwise normal healthy children.

The problem is considered to be so serious in the USA that legislation banning both the sale and import of meat containing EHEC 0157 is being considered. With its repercussions for the meat industry in NZ, EHEC seemed to be a worthwhile area of research. Very little is known about these organisms in NZ and a small grant from the Dean’s fund enabled me to conduct a survey over the summer months to find out if 0157 was present in the Dunedin population.

The results of the survey were both unexpected and intriguing - but if you want to hear more you will have to come to the seminar.

Heather has been a consistent favourite in receiving the Otago University Medical Students' Association (OUMSA) Teaching Excellence Awards. In 2014 it was the sixth consecutive year that she received the award for the second-year programme and one of the several years she received both the second and third-year awards. 

An example of her inclusive teaching style is a seminar for the 4th-year postgraduates entitled "My Brilliant Career" in which Vernon Ward and Robin Simmonds participated.


Judith Bateup (Top)

Judith joined the Department as a teaching fellow after spending her undergraduate and postgraduate years in Microbiology. Below are her microbiological memories:

I was born and bred in sunny Nelson, attending Nayland College. As Nelson is not a University-city, those wishing to undertake further study must move, most go to Christchurch to attend Canterbury University. I wanted to apply for entry into the School of Pharmacy, so I came to Otago in 1987 to undertake Pharmacy Intermediate (very similar to the current HSFY [Health Science First Year]). I was offered a place in the second year Pharmacy intake, but by then I had found Microbiology and the change in career was permanent. In 1991 I graduated with a BSc (Hons) First Class and enrolled in studying for a PhD. I chose Gerald Tannock as my supervisor, both for my interest in gastrointestinal research and also for his amazing teaching style. After three and a half years studying the bile salt hydrolase enzyme in lactobacilli I graduate with a doctorate. I had got married to Phil Page (also a Nayland College ex-student) in my final year of PhD study. Phil, a law student, used to come into the lab on particularly long days and wash my glassware for me (probably frowned upon in these days of Health and Safety).

In 1994, at the conclusion of my PhD I was offered a Teaching Fellow position in the department, initially involved in the teaching of the new BIOL115 paper (the precursor to HUBS) with John Cross, and 200-level Microbiology. After about five years I took up more Microbiology teaching and left BIOL115.

Now in my seventeenth year of teaching I have amassed a variety of responsibilities - from chairing the departmental teaching committee to convening two papers - MICR221 (Microbes to Medicine) and PHCY219 (Microbiology and Immunology for BPharm) - the girl who came to study Pharmacy Intermediate has come full circle! Along the way I have gained three gorgeous children and still haven't acclimatised to the Dunedin winters!

My current passion is liaising with secondary school teachers in the Dunedin and Otago region to help provide teaching resources and knowledge to ensure that Microbiology is well taught at the secondary school level. Many of the secondary schools in Dunedin bring classes into the department for year 11 workshops during the mid-semester breaks.

The staff in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology are its greatest resource and are professional and knowledgeable colleagues. Each year brings in a new cohort of young microbiologists. I often wonder who will be the groundbreaking researchers of the future.

In 2016 Judith received both a University of Otago Teaching Excellence Award and a National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award. She modestly said that the awards reflect the contribution the Department makes to the teaching of undergraduate programmes at Otago. Over the years, Judith has made the second-year microbiology laboratory exercises a positive learning experience and has mentored the students in a caring way.

Margaret Baird (Top)

Margaret was appointed in 1998 but she had previous connections with the Department. The following is an excerpt from the newsletter in 1994:

If you've got it, flaunt it! - Dendritic Cells as Antigen Presenters'" Dr Baird has sent the Newsletter a brief preview of the seminar she will be presenting today. "Dendritic cells are the most potent of the cells that present antigen in a recognisable form to the immune system. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that they are essential for the initiation of an immune response. This seems extraordinary in view of the fact that they are present at very low frequency in most tissues. This seminar will cover work carried out over a four year period in which the activities of these cells have been investigated in a number of different contexts.

Glenn Buchan presented this profile for the seminar: "Dr Margaret Baird was in fact an early product of the Diploma of Immunology Course run by the Department of Microbiology. She was one of the "class of 78” - the first year the course was run. Other (now famous) graduates that year included Drs Ken Beagley and Glenn Buchan. Margaret survived her 4th Floor experience and moved on to do a PhD with Professor Barbara Heslop. She worked on the immunological response behind transplant rejection. Her interest in dendritic cells developed long before they became 'voguish' and she has made considerable contributions to both transplantation and dendritic cell research. Following Barbara’s retirement. Margaret has assumed the mantle and currently holds a Health Research Council grant to enable her to study the role of dendritic cells in the activation and regulation of immune responses to mycobacterial antigens. Over the years Margaret has taken an active role in promoting women in science and her talks are always a joy to attend."

Upon the request to provide information for this book, Margaret replied to the following questions:

What was your academic background before joining the department?

Although joining the department in 1998, my associated goes back to the 1960’s when as a Zoology student I took a course in microbiology. I remember the vibrancy and enthusiasm of Molly Marples (also Brian her husband who was in the Zoology department) and lectures by Sheila Thompson who elegantly sat on the edge of the desk with long legs crossed explaining recent ideas on bacterial genetics.

Upon returning to academic study in 1978, I enrolled in the inaugural Diploma in Immunology course taught by Frank Griffin and Bruce Gibbins. Although it was only a class of nine, it had four members who went on to have academic careers in immunology: myself, Kevin Mariarty, Glenn Buchan (also a Zoology student) and Ken Beagley. Upon completion of the course I was offered a PhD scholarship by Barbara Heslop in the Pathology department and carried out research on histocompatibility in inbred strains of rats. I continued working in Pathology until joining the department in 1998.

Why did you choose to join the department?

One of the unique features of the department is the ability to collaborate with a wide variety of disciplines and skills – from virology, gut ecology, genetics and other immunologists.

What do you consider your main achievement?

My research concentrated on the earliest stages of the immune response, particularly on the dendritic cell. This cell was relatively unknown to immunology but now it is recognized as being the key ‘decision maker’ of the immune response: they determine whether or not an immune response is initiated to foreign material or ‘altered self’ detected in the body. I am proud to be recognized and associated with that development in immunology.

Any outstanding events in the department during your time there?

As convener of the postgraduate students, I have been able to share many of the ‘highs’ and the ‘lows’ of the students who have come through the department. I feel honoured to have been part of their lives and to see many of them develop into world-class scientists and to continue to maintain links with them.

Any concluding comments?

One of the issues that I feel strongly about is the gender balance in the university. Whereas there is a greater than 50% enrolment of females in university courses, there is a very small percentage of women in senior academic positions.

Margaret was very popular with the graduate students in the Department and became the postgraduate co-ordinator. She devoted a great deal of time helping young students and researchers. She hosted an annual breakfast at her home for all the new departmental postgraduate students at the beginning of the academic year. They loved coming to her home and being hosted -- that personal touch which showed she cared. She was known for her "distinctive laugh" and her boundless energy and enthusiasm. 

In May of 1964 while studying for a BSc in zoology at Otago, she met her husband-to-be Stephen Baird, in the chorus of that year's Capping Concert and they also took part in a spoof skit based on a current TV show, Dr Kildare. The relationship grew and they were married in January, 1967. After completing her degree in zoology in 1967, she taught science at St Hilda's Collegiate School for three years. In the 1970s, she accompanied her husband, Stephen, when he taught mathematics in the British Solomon islands and later in England. As already mentioned above in 1978 she took the Diploma of Immunology Course and went on to pursue a PhD in pathology under Barbara Heslop. 

In 2012 she retired from the Department and took up a part time research position back in the pathology department, working with Anthony Braithwaite on tumour-suppressing proteins. In 2013 she received the Derek Rowley Medal for services to the Australasian Society for Immunology.

In September of 2016 she died after a brief illness with cancer, aged 71. She is survived by her husband Stephen, their daughters Sophie Baird and Harriet Pope, and grandchildren Dan, Alex, Lucy and Daisy.

Gallery of Lab Photos

Gregory Cook (Top)

Greg was appointed in 1998 and provided the following information for the book.

What was your academic background before joining the department?

I completed all my degrees (BSc, MSc(Hons) First Class, DPhil) at the University of Waikato (1984-1991). My DPhil was completed in the Thermophile Microbial Biochemistry Unit at the University of Waikato and focused on Ethanol production by thermophilic microorganisms and how this process was regulated. I then headed to Cornell University in Ithaca New York (1992) for my first postdoc with Professor Jim Russell focusing on rumen bacteria and control of energy source utilization. I stayed in Ithaca for 3 years and absolutely loved the place for its high-powered University, beautiful scenery and interesting people. It was a shame to leave, but I had become more interested in microbial genetics and molecular biology and needed to head in this direction. I went to Kings College in London in 1992 for a postdoc with Professor Robert Poole to studying a putative haem transporter in E. coli. I learnt a lot of molecular techniques, including attending the Advanced Bacterial Genetics Course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Rob Poole accepted a position at the Krebs Institute in Sheffield and that is where I stayed until 1997. In late 1997 I was offered the position of lecturer in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Otago.

Why or how did you come to the University of Otago?

I was encouraged to come to the University of Otago through interactions I had with Professor David Jones. I had never been to Dunedin before I took the position here and I instantly liked the place. I wanted to return to New Zealand for an academic post and my goal was to always gain a position at Otago.

What do you consider your main achievement?

The awarding of my personal chair in 2009. This was my number 1 goal since I can remember so it was nice to make the milestone.

Any outstanding events in the Department during your time there?

The most outstanding event during my time in the Department was the agreement reached between the Departments of Biochemistry and Microbiology to fund the Centre for Protein Research.

Any concluding comments?

I have enjoyed my time in the Department since 1998 and the key to staying fresh and focused has been the 3 sabbaticals I have had during this period. I have no regrets about coming to Otago and I look forward with great anticipation to the years ahead.

Gallery of lab photos

In 2014 Professor Greg Cook was featured in the November issue of the University of Otago Magazine.

Closing Remarks for the 1990s

At the departmental level the 1990s were a time of growth and vibrancy as the new staff brought with them their energy and enthusiasm. The change to a free market economy previously mentioned by David Jones had an impact on university student fees, which resulted in student protests, disruption to University Council meetings and a two-day occupation of the Registry. The ‘management style’ of Graeme Fogelberg, the new Vice Chancellor, tended to inflame employment conditions and caused hostility in settling staff salary and wage negotiations.

In 1996 when David Jones took up the Deanship of the Otago Medical School, Sandy Smith became the Chairman of the Department. Since the Department was in good shape financially and well organised from the efforts of David Jones, Sandy took a minimalist view and let the Department run on its own momentum and intervened only when necessary. He became famous for his photocopied handwritten agendas for the weekly staff meetings.

On the world scene the Soviet Union dissolved -- On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct and ceding all the powers still vested in it to the president of Russia: Yeltsin. On the night of that same day, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. In 1994 Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, ending apartheid.

And finally in 1999 President Clinton visited New Zealand and made this famous comment about Queenstown: "Let me say from the bottom of my heart, this has been a magical trip. I think every person, when he or she is young, dreams of finding some enchanting place, of beautiful mountains and breathtaking coastlines and clear lakes and amazing wildlife, and most people give up on it because they never get to New Zealand. This has been an amazing thing for me and for all of us."

In the next chapter we will explore the social life of the Department during these times.