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May 31, 2010 | by  | in News |
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Chemistry is cool, man

Professor Martin Banwell, a Vic graduate, returned to his old uni a couple of weeks ago to receive an Honorary Doctorate. Salient news editor Angela Mabey spoke to him about his research and what it’s like to have not one, but two doctorates.

Coming back to Victoria University to get his second doctorate was a “terrific honour” for Professor Martin Banwell.

Since getting his PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1979, Banwell has worked his way up the ranks and is currently Director of the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University, where he is responsible for supervising 240 staff and students and overseeing a budget of $18 million.

His work in researching the synthesis of biologically active molecules relevant to medicine has earned him numerous awards, and now he has an Honorary Doctorate to sit alongside them.

Banwell says although the Doctorate is an honour, it is a bit overwhelming.

“I worked very hard for the first one, and now I have another one. It’s a huge honour to be recognised by my alma mater.

“I do wonder whether I deserve all the fuss however, achievements in science all involve more than one person.”

Banwell says the nature of science means collaboration is important, and something that New Zealand and Australia do well.

Banwell’s work has had a major impact upon medicine and he has collaborated with major chemical pharmaceutical companies worldwide, such as BASF and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

His team is currently involved in the synthesis and research of a tiny sample found in coral off the Great Barrier Reef that looks to have properties which might be beneficial in the treatment of lung cancer.

He says an issue arises with translating the discoveries made in science to non-scientists.

“What might be a major breakthrough in the field will likely not have an impact outside of the lab for years.

“It’s because of this, and because of the view that scientists are a bit stuffy that we have a bit of a public relations crisis.”

Banwell says enrolments in science studies are dropping in Australia, and attracting young people into science is getting harder.

“Science is perceived as being a bit insular, we need people to get out there and promote science to improve its image.

“We need more people articulating the excitement of science, there is a perception that people work too hard for little reward.”

One way around this, suggests Banwell, is to encourage more students to study both arts and science.

“It can be hard to combine but it would be good for the future of science.

“I have a huge respect for how articulate arts graduates are. If we could get more of that in science, it would really help.

“We need people to get out there and translate science for the non-scientist and promote the wonderful work our students and researchers are doing.”

Banwell was impressed with the new facilities in the recently opened Alan MacDiarmid building on campus.

“What universities do with their modest budgets is amazing, but they really do need more.

“Without the budgets to do the interesting and relevant work, we won’t attract the younger scientists.”

Banwell is hopeful the government’s recent increases in research and development funding is “new money”.

“The announcement is encouraging, but I do hope that the money is not a smoke and mirrors game and will translate to real increases in funding.”

Banwell says there is a limited pool of funding and it is a real challenge to balance the time spent on sourcing funding versus the actual science the funding is for.

“The system is not encouraging younger scientists to get out there.

“There is limited funding, and everyone is competing to get the same grants.

“Younger scientists have to ride on the coattails of more established scientists to get the funding.”

Banwell says it is important to support the younger staff to help them establish their careers.

“I really do worry about the support for younger scientists, and how to attract them into science as a career.

“Younger scientists will help attract new students, they will see a bond, picture themselves in the job, not just as an old stuffy professor.”

Banwell stood alongside four academic generations of chemists at Victoria’s Science graduation to receive his honorary doctorate.

Russell Hewitt, the youngest, graduated with a PhD in organic chemistry. Hewitt’s supervisor Dr Joanne Harvey (herself a doctoral student of Banwell’s) and Professor Banwell’s former PhD supervisor Emeritus Professor Brian Halton were also present.

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News Editor and Chief Editor-Annoyance. Thinks you should volunteer to write news. Is easily distracted by shiny things.

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