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The Last Word

Special thanks to Frank Griffin, who shared the vision that A History of the Microbiology Department 1950 - 2010  had to be written  before the 'old gang' dispersed and also thanks for providing the departmental financial resources to make it happen.

It is entirely appropriate that he exercise his prerogative as Head of Department to have the ‘Last Word’ for the book:

The Completion of a Small Cycle

The past 64 years has seen Microbiology at Otago evolve from a Clinical Diagnostic service platform to include research into mycology, virology, microbial genetics, environmental microbiology, molecular biology of viruses, microbial physiology, immunology, and molecular genetics. In 2010 the cycle has gone full circle as we have returned to embrace human and animal pathogens as a central feature of our research and teaching. The separation of clinical microbiology in the hospital from academic microbiology within the Department since the 1960’s has been a major impediment to sustaining Otago’s position as a contributor to Infectious Disease science and research over the past 40 years. In reviewing priorities for areas of excellence within the department 10 years ago, it was recognised that while clinical microbiology had been historically very important it would likely be subsumed into new generation specialities involving molecular biology/genetics. Perversely, in the new millennium clinical microbiology has reasserted its relevance as a key area in biomedical research where pathogens have continued to evolve and the human population accumulates ever increasing numbers of people who are immune compromised. Infectious disease is now a major focus of world attention as a definer of social and economic development, fuelled by increasing population mobility internationally and climate change that provides new habitats for old infections. The emergence of MRSA, Flesh eating bacteria, TB (re-emergence),tropical infections, HIV, SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu in recent times suggest that the battle with Infectious diseases is far from won.

In reflecting on almost 40 years as an academic staff member the Department of Microbiology and Immunology I believe that the department has responded appropriately to ever changing research demands and priorities set by society and the funding agencies. While New Zealand research obtains modest support by developed country standards, Otago continues to ‘punch well above its weight’ and has contrived to provide ‘best international standard’ research in microbiology and immunology. The department has access to leading edge molecular technology platforms and highly talented staff that allow it to deliver research that is current and strategically relevant. The department currently has at least 5 research programmes of International quality.

The foundation studies by John Miles promoted and supported the ‘Coloniser concept’ of Antipodean Infectious Disease research for Indigenous Peoples, underpinned by the Virus Research Unit’s 50 year involvement with virus diseases. Since the 70s, succeeding generations of scientists in the department have responded to ever changing priorities. The inability to harness the unique microbial genetics skills of Sheila Thompson long term was an impediment to Otago developing its microbial genetics research platform. The arrival of James Kalmakoff in 1969 saw the introduction of molecular biology as a speciality, resulting in a paradigm shift in the way research was carried out. Since then, molecular biology based ‘scientific method’ has blossomed and it now encompasses almost all research in the department. We are currently blessed with exceptional academics and professional support staff who together make an outstanding contribution to teaching and research within the Department.

As science modalities have changed over the past 40 years so have the social norms that define our collegial interactions responded. Historical management practices nurtured by John Miles in the 1960/70’s continued under the John Loutit in the 80’s, David Jones in the 90’s and Sandy Smith in the new millennium. The department has always espoused a spirit of collegiality, underpinned by inclusiveness and decency, that has made it a very interesting working environment. Testament to its success is the length of tenure of many staff, which spans more than 30 years. While the department has nurtured a sense of inclusiveness, it has been less successful in addressing gender imbalance among our academic staff. This has become a significant challenge when upwards of 60% of our students are female.The new election process for appointing HODs has become more democratic and informative. Multiple rounds of consultation with colleagues leave an aspiring HOD in little doubt of their manifest defects as a potential leader. My response was to assimilate the criticism and mitigate my administrative defects with input from professional general staff who were more skilled than I. Since 2004, we have introduced a more consultative management model where decision making is largely devolved to academic and professional staff. The success of this model has been considerably enhanced by the exceptional inputs from our Administrative general staff whose custodial care of academic and administrative matters have been outstanding. While devolved management has been rewarding and empowering it has contingent challenges, as devolution requires more consultation, better communication and transparency.

There have been continuous challenges in responding to ever changing funding models for teaching and research over the past 20 years, that have compromised our imperative to develop a vision for the academic future of the department. As NZ researchers are almost totally dependent on Government funding, our scientists are entirely beholden to the political aspirations of the party in power. This mitigates against support for long term fundamental research and requires us to follow whatever political kite is ascendant at the time. In a world where academic performance (PBRF) and outputs are closely monitored, and Impact Factor (IF) is sacrosanct, it is increasingly difficult to find the correct balance between fundamental and applied research. The tension between the ‘creation and translation’ of science, has never been more evident.

Our mantra:
‘Excellence in Everything’ will hopefully sustain us for the next 50 years.

Alumni Dinner -- 2005