James Kalmakoff 1969-2009

Memories of Microbiology

Address given at the Farewell Dinner – November 7th, 2008

One gets the usual question: why did you come to NZ? And it seems that over the years the answer keeps changing – a clear case of the ‘false memory syndrome’.

What I would like to do is to tell you my story and take you back to 1969 – I was doing a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley. 

The Americans had just put a man on the moon so there really was no other place to go except New Zealand. – An aside.

Looking for a job in NZ

Having decided to go to Neew Zeeland, I did what is probably unthinkable now – and composed a ‘Do you have any jobs?’ letter and enclosed my CV and addressed it care of the HOD, Department of Microbiology to each of the six Universities --- not really knowing if they had a Microbiology Department or not. I did a similar thing for all the potential Biochemistry Departments since I could teach that as well, having taken as many biochemistry courses as microbiology.

About 3 weeks later a Teletext arrived from John Miles, Department of Microbiology, University of Otago. It was a very cryptic message that said: we have an academic vacancy here teaching Microbiology to Science students – are you interested? I replied immediately and said: yes, I am interested, please send more details.

Then there was this long silence and I began to think: ‘I have blown that option’, then weeks later a Teletext arrived offering me the position at a lecture’s scale at salary of NZ$3,000. I had no idea what this meant in terms of money or living costs or average salary.

We (a wife and two kids) were living in a housing estate in the middle of a black ghetto in Richmond – which is just outside Berkeley. It was one of those Govt initiatives to upgrade the standard of housing in these types of areas and so there were people from all countries of the world living there since no white Americans would go there and blacks couldn’t afford it. There was a New Zealand couple living there so we invited them over for dinner to get some information about living in NZ. The guy was studying city planning (which sounded promising) and his stunningly beautiful Polynesia wife was doing a sociology degree and ran the local kindergarten. His wife did most of the talking and the bloke just listened and drank beer. So towards the end of the evening I asked him: Is $3,000 enough to live on in NZ? His reply after pondering the question for awhile said: “Ah yeah mate, that’s enough to keep you in beer money”. His wife later translated that into – yes, you could live comfortably on that.

Accepted the position in NZ

So I Teletexted back saying: yes, I’ll accept the position, please send more details. A wad of mimeographed information about the history of the University came back, followed by a curious thing called an aerogram from Nancy Campbell. I don’t know if you are familiar with this type of airmail letter. It is a thin piece of paper which is designed so that it can be folded and sealed to become an envelope. It was used by the British during the Second World War to send dispatches from the front. If you held this particular aerogram to the light you could see holes punched through it by the letter “e” of a typewriter. You had to be careful as to how you opened them since if you opened it incorrectly you would have trouble putting the bits of the letter together. Also in the case of Nancy, she had the habit of writing along the vertical edges of the letter as well. She outlined some of the features of the Department and said that things would get sorted when I got there. I wanted to know what equipment and facilities were available and I knew very little about science in NZ -- there was Dick Bellamy in Auckland working on reoviruses and Merv Smith in Dunedin working on bacteriophages. 

I was working in a well-endowed molecular biology lab at Berkeley, The latest technique then was polyacrylamide gels for separation of proteins and nucleic acids. So I thought I am not going to take a chance, so I bought a supply of chemicals and reagents – electrophoresis tanks and bits and pieces of specialized lab equipment like columns. I worked out that I could operate for about six months with the reagents I was bringing. I packed them as household goods since the University was willing to pay for the removal of household effects – which I thought was pretty generous. 

The other thing everyone advised me to do is to bring your car. Like everyone else that lived on the West Coast in the flower-power 60’s we had VW Combie van – complete with flowers painted on the outside. So we packed all our household stuff into the van. Also I was able to come to a creative arrangement with a shipping company which was willing to classify the van as a container with wheels. Technically he said we may have to take the wheels off to qualify as a container -- but in the event that was not necessary.

Arrival in NZ

So we went back to Canada to say our farewells and from there we flew to Sydney – then onward to Christchurch. It was a cloudless day so the pilot said as we were approaching New Zealand – “if you look on your left, you will see Mt Cook on the West Coast. We will now begin our descent to Christchurch airport” I remember thinking: what the country is only the width of an airport flight path!! It made me realize how small the country was. Also the pilot said in a good-humored way “Could you put your clock forward by two hours and your years back by 20”. Those two things made a lasting impression upon my arrival in NZ.

We received a very warm welcome in Dunedin – Margaret Loutit in her family-oriented way organized things for us. We could stay at Owen’s Motel until we found suitable accommodation – again courtesy of the University. We bought a 3-bedroomed house up North-East Valley surrounded on three sides by paddocks. We thought that was great and the part about moving the years back by 20 didn’t bother me since Dunedin reminded me of the small town atmosphere I grew up on the prairies. 

The Microbiology Department at that stage was on the 3rd floor of the Scott and Hercus buildings. As I suspected there was very little in the way equipment or facilities that I was accustomed to – hence the lack of feedback information but John Miles suggested I put in a request to the MRC which consisted of a single page – a paragraph describing what you planned to do and then a list of items requested and at the bottom the total of the amount of funds requested. Needless to say since John Miles was the chairman of the Medical Research Council, the application was successful.

So I got a technician and some pieces of equipment and supplies to work on interferon. There was a research project funded by the DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) on the biological control of the NZ pasture pests – grass grub and porina. This was a project which I was to inherit and we proceeded to look for viruses. The use of DDT had been banned about 4 years prior and there was wide-spread damage to pastures throughout the country.

So there was plenty of things to do and I managed to attract some excellent PhD students and so things began to hum along.

Looking back -- the 70’s were the golden years at the University, departments were growing and expanding, there was money for new initiatives and it was possible to have investigator-lead research programmes. Also there were very few compliance issues. I remember applying for a radioisotope user license and receiving one by return post. Eventually the Radiation Officer came down from Christchurch on a tour of duty and I asked him about the safety regulations and he basically said that if you were foolish enough to work with radioisotopes then that was your own look out.

During that period there seemed to be more time for social activities in the Department. The students worked hard but they also seemed to have time for socializing and the Dept had the large family atmosphere fostered by Margaret and John Loutit (Mum and Dad) and John Miles, the patron saint.

Concluding comments

I think also those of us who joined academia in the 70’s looked upon it more of a vocation than a job. It was something you wanted to do with your life and there was a sense of building long-term relationships with your colleagues both locally and overseas. You knew that you would never be rich (maybe famous) but that you would lead an enriching and challenging life.

Finally I would just like to say – I have enjoyed my time in this Department. I have been able to do many of things I wanted to do. Although I am leaving the Department, I don’t see this as a retirement but a change in direction – on the immediate horizon there is the History of the Microbiology Department and some web-site consultancy projects – so I will not be looking for my pipe and slippers.

So I wish you all the best in the future and I am sure we will continue to have some interactions -- all be it in a different role.

Thanks for your support and friendship over the years AND the iPhone.