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The 2000s

Staff Photo --2001

The start of the new millennium was prefaced by the concern for the Y2K bug – but when the clock ticked Jan 1, 2000, no major problems were reported. Almost every bank worked fine, no major power outages were reported, airplanes still flew and the whole world went on with its normal life.

During this decade several staff members died, namely John Miles, Sheila Thompson, Sandy Smith and Glenn Buchan. New staff members were appointed: Alex McLellan, Ralph Jack, Sangsun Yoon, Peter Fineran and Roslyn Kemp. As the decade proceeded it was becoming more obvious that a changing of the guard was beginning to take place and the Department was losing its old ethos as new graduates and staff joined.

Alex McLellan

Alex was appointed in 2003. He did his MSc at the                     University of Canterbury (Christchurch) and obtained a PhD from the Christchurch School of Medicine in 1998. He took up a postdoc in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Würzburg in Germany. He established links and collaborations with European institutions in Switzerland, Austria and Germany. He leads a research group studying the interaction of pathogens and cancer with the body's immune system. He enjoys teaching at all levels, including contributions to courses in continuing education, University of the Third Age, Health Sciences First Year and Pharmacy. The following was his response for the history project:

1. What was your academic background before joining the department?

BSc, MSc (Microbiology) Canterbury, PhD Otago (Dept. Pathology, Christchurch School of Medicine)

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

I applied for a lectureship following my postdoctoral training in Wuerzburg, Germany (1998-2002).

3. What do you consider your main achievement?

The discovery of soluble MHC class II in urine draining inflamed kidneys and the subsequent development of a non-invasive test for renal transplant rejection.

4. Any outstanding events in the Department during your time there?

Exceptional qualities of HOD leadership shown by Sandy Smith and Frank Griffin.

5. Any concluding comments?

The collegiality of the department is unrivaled by other institutes, universities I have worked in.

Alex McLellan explains innate immunity and the arrival of the adaptive immune system 500 million years ago.

His research focused on the role exosomes (extracellular vesicles that contain cellular components) played in the immune response  -- as possible cellular communications  systems.

In 2014 he was promoted to Assoc Professor and currently works on strategies to improve T-cell function against solid tumours using cytokines and chemokine receptors.


Ralph Jack

Ralph (far right) was appointed in 2003 after postdoc research in Prof. Hans-Georg Sahl’s laboratory in Germany. He was a graduate from the Department and his PhD supervisor was John Tagg. His research interests were the interactions and interplay that occur between commensals, pathogens and the host during both health and disease processes. He resigned in 2007 and took a position with Seperex Nutritionals Ltd, a New Zealand supplier of novel and innovative functional foods.

Sangsun Yoon

Sangsun joined the Department in 2007. Originally from Korea, he graduated with an MSc from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and then completed his PhD at the University of Cincinnati Medical School. Prior to beginning at Otago, he was working as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and identified a group of novel bacterial proteins that stimulate host innate immune responses. He is also interested in anaerobic metabolism of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium of clinical importance, especially to patients with cystic fibrosis. He resigned in 2009 and returned to take up a position in South Korea.

Peter Fineran

Peter was appointed in 2008. When asked to respond to the standard questions for the book: he provided the following biopic:

I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Canterbury (1997-2000) where I got a BSc(Hons) 1st Class in Biochemistry. I performed my honours research project in the laboratory of Professor Jack Heinemann investigating the phage-bacterium interaction of pseudolysogeny, a poorly understood phenomenon. Following my undergraduate degree I took up a research assistant position in the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the Australian National University (ANU). I worked at ANU from 2001-2002 under the supervision of Professor Ian Young expressing, purifying and crystallising a IL-3 complex for structural studies.

Next, I took up a PhD position at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Biochemistry (2002-2006) where I was funded by a Bright Futures Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship. There, I worked in the laboratory of Professor George Salmond where I investigated networks of gene regulation that control secondary metabolism and virulence in Serratia. This included the study of N-AHL quorum sensing and various other regulatory mechanisms. Following the completion of my PhD I took up a post-doctoral position at Cambridge supervised by Professor Salmond and Dr Kathryn Lilley (2006-2008). In this project I investigated a bacterial phage resistance mechanism known as abortive infection. 

After five and a half years in the UK and over 7 years out of New Zealand, I was interested in returning to New Zealand if a suitable job was available. I was fortunate to be offered the position of Lecturer, which I accepted. I had wanted to establish my own group so this was a perfect opportunity. I had met David Jones and Clive Ronson at different conferences in the UK and was aware of some of the research being undertaken at Otago. 

Fineran Lab - March 2009 (from left to right): Andrew McCaw, Peter Fineran, Tamzin Gristwood, James Clulow, Marina Iglesias Cans, Matthew McNeil and Ge (Annie) Huang.

My group is still being established as I have only been here a little over one and a half years. My main achievement to date was the research that I published as first author in PNAS in 2009 based on my work while a post-doc in Cambridge. This has also lead to a Marsden Grant in this area in collaboration with Professor Salmond. I am looking forward to continuing my research at Otago in the coming years."


In the above video Peter Fineran is introducing the virology course at the Microbiology and Immunology at Otago University -- circa 2010. This particular laboratory is an exercise in virology, taught at 3rd year level in which students isolate their own bacteriophage from a sewage sample. It has not changed in format since I first introduced it in 1971.

Peter carried on working with bacteriophages and focused on how bacteria acquire resistance to phage attack. In particular the research was on: 

  1.  Abortive infection and toxin-antitoxin 'innate immune systems'
  2. CRISPR-Cas 'adaptive immune systems'
  3. Phages as antimicrobial agents

This research is part of ‘‘the biggest biological science revolution in recent decades’’ , which is enabling scientists to move on from reading the genome to potentially editing it.

Peter was promoted to Associate Professor in 2015 and appointed to Professor in 2018. He has won many awards for his work, particularly on the CRISPR-Cas systems. He is a frequent invited speaker at international scientific meetings and is an excellent science communicator (as seen below).

Roslyn Kemp

Roslyn was appointed in 2009. She was a former undergraduate student in the Department and completed her PhD with Franca Ronchese at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research at Wellington. She then embarked on a series of international fellowships including a postdoc with Richard (Dick) Dutton at the Trudeau Institute, followed by tuberculosis research in Oxford, UK, and with Ben Seddon at NIMR, London, before returning to New Zealand. Roslyn’s research is focused on CD8+ T cell memory and anti-tumour immunity.

Comments on the 2000s

On April 1st, 2004 Sandy Smith stepped down as the Head of the Department and Frank Griffin took over the reins. Up until then Frank was not greatly involved in the day-to-day running of the department, concentrating instead on his Deer Laboratory, and immunological interests. Sandy continued to maintain his presence in the tearoom and during research seminars, always ready with witty and cutting remarks.

(L-R: Clive Ronson, Trish Smith, John Loutit and Sandy Smith – April 1st, 2004)


Meanwhile on the local scene, in 2002 a government policy that had a profound effect on Otago University was the establishment of Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE’s). Universities were invited to bid for these Centres which carried with them a sizeable financial budget and funding for large innovative projects. It was assumed that Otago would get at least one of these CoRE’s given the presence of some high profile research groups on campus and the close proximity to the research station at Invermay (AgResearch).

For a variety of reasons, mainly the lack of strategic thinking, the University missed out. Following on from the days when Otago had the only Medical School, there was (probably still is) a feeling that Otago was the best and it was our entitlement to a lion’s share of any research budget. There was also a culture at Otago of supporting research ‘prima donnas’ which did not fit the government’s model of collaborative interdisciplinary research groups. The prima donnas could not get their act together – no CoRE was awarded to Otago. During this time Glenn Buchan was the President of the local branch of the Royal Society – the Otago Institute and became the spokesperson for supporting research in the University and attended meetings with government officials in Wellington, promoting Otago. In 2003 a second round of CoRE’s was called and again Otago failed to obtain one.

In 2003 another shock to the prestige of the University was the rating in the PBRF (Performance Based Research Funding) assessment with Otago coming in 4th place with Auckland University at the top.

David Skegg became the Vice-Chancellor in 2004 and refocused the University to research excellence.

Otago did recover its prestige somewhat after the second round of PBRF in 2006 ratings by coming to the top of the league table. 

In 2000, the Government of New Zealand appointed an independent Royal Commission on Genetic Modification to preside over an ambitious 15-month inquiry into genetic modification (GM). The Royal Commission heard testimony from hundreds of interest groups and experts, as well as the views of thousands of members of the general public. Staff members from the Department and the University participated in this exercise -- since making genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is what we do.

In July 2001, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification reported to the Government and recommended a precautionary approach which preserved options for the future. The Green Party wanted to make New Zealand GE-free, and fortunately their views did not prevail. The effect on the working microbiologist was the need to keep records of every novel organism produced and to work in a PC-2 compliant laboratory. The compliance requirements have become more stringent with every safety audit and it has created a whole industry of its own.

In 2002 we had "Corngate", a political scandal which involved the suspected release of genetically modified corn seed in 2000. The possibility of the presence of a small percentage of GE corn in a seed shipment from the US was raised publicly by Nicky Hager in his book: Seeds of Distrust. The book was released a few months prior to the 2002 Parliamentary election. A select committee, including members of the Green Party, was formed to investigate the matter. The final report, released in late 2004, was inconclusive due to a lack of clear evidence, poor reporting of the original incident and the deletion of raw data critical for a full re-evaluation. The incident highlighted the problems of testing for the presence of GMOs when available detection methods have a relatively high base threshold before results become reliable.

During that time on the world scene:

* The first draft of the human genome was released in 2000, a race between private enterprise – Craig Venter and publicly funded research – Francis Collins.

* England had a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak resulting in 20 million animals being slaughtered and burnt.

* The September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 on the Twin Towers in New York attack had long lasting effects and are still felt today. Ultimately it led to the United States, United Kingdom and other nations invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as implementing various anti-terrorist measures at home and abroad in what was known as the War on Terror.


* The Queen Mother died in 2002 (aged 101).

* Globalization continued to influence the world in the 2000s. The financial benefits were an increase in trade and linkages and technologies that benefited many countries, in particular China and India. China began to become an economic power and showcased its progress while hosting the summer Olympics in 2008. However, in other parts of the world such progress failed to address ongoing struggles with modernity, most notably characterized by the rise of al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups. The economic growth due to globalization was shown to be vulnerable to global disruptions. This was illustrated by the financial crisis of 2007. A crisis was triggered by the lack of liquidity in the United States banking system caused by the overvaluation of assets (the packaging of subprime mortgages). This resulted in the collapse of large financial institutions, the bailout of banks by national governments and downturns in stock markets around the world (the vertical axis is the value of bad loans in billions). New Zealand did not escape –the global economic downturn meant less money for education and research and more students enrolling for university courses since there were fewer jobs.


* Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, was inaugurated in 2009 -- with the “yes, we can” motto.

In 2008 work began on a $9 million upgrade of the Microbiology building which will be reclad, with windows replaced and air conditioning installed. The cladding had developed 'concrete cancer' due to reinforcing steel beneath rusting and cracking, causing pieces of concrete to fall from the cladding. The implementation of new Health and Safety Standards had meant that a number of laboratories required upgrading and renovation. The work was completed within the estimated two years.

There were several anniversaries during this decade -- the 50 years of NZMS (New Zealand Microbiological Society) in 2005 and an associated annual meeting, the Microbiology Alumni function, and 60 Years of the Virus Research Unit, along with celebratory dinners for the department, Sandy Smith and James Kalmakoff.


  • 2002 -- 50th Year Microbiology Celebratory Dinner
  • 2004 -- Name changed to Department of Microbiology and Immunology
  • 2004 -- Sandy Smith Farewell Dinner
  • 2005 -- 50 years of NZ Microbiological Society cocktail party
  • 2005 -- Joint NZMS/NZSBMB scientific conference held in Dunedin -- Click here for photo gallery
  • 2005 -- 50th Alumni Dinner at Staff Club
  • 2008 -- 60 years of Virus Research Unit -- (Click here for previous posting)
  • 2008 -- James Kalmakoff Farewell Dinner