This blog is part of the 'Blog a Book project entitled: The Inside Story -- memoirs of the Microbiology Department (University of Otago) from 1950 - 2010. Blogs are usually shown in reverse chronological order (from newest to oldest). For a 'Blog a Book' the posts are changed to be chronologically displayed (from oldest to newest) as one would in reading a book. Click on the building image in the upper left corner of this blog post to navigated to the beginning of the 'The Inside Story'..
The 70's were marked by a rapid growth and expansion in staff numbers, resources and the moving into a new purpose-built building. The justification for the 8-storey building only consisted of seven pages of single-sided foolscap and some back-of-the-envelope calculations of the projected numbers of students and staff. The budget for the building was capped at $2 million. The approach we took was to build it as economically as possible and use the rest of the money for equipment and research facilities. (It is interesting in hindsight that the recladding of the exterior and adding air-conditioning to the building in 2010 cost >$9 million.) At the time of construction, each staff member had almost half a floor of laboratory space. I was in charge of the equipment requests from staff and for the tendering and the purchase. The equipment needs of the Department were modest and it was necessary to push people to think beyond bench microscopes, bench centrifuges, UV lamps and Petri dishes.
The budget for equipment ended up being about $0.5 million – this was in the early 70’s when a $NZ = 2$US dollars. Having recently come from the Molecular Biology Lab in Berkeley, I had some ideas of how to spend the money. Those were heady days being sought after by scientific supply companies and being taken out for lunch. What we didn’t spend we would have to give back, so we were determined to spend it all as strategically as possible. So for example, when it came to ultracentrifuges, which weren’t cheap and since we were so far away from their service and maintenance in Pal Alto, California. USA - we bought three. The idea was that if you needed two, you bought three Beckman, state-of-the art machines -- so at least one centrifuge was in running order. Besides the purchase of a video plate bacterial counting device, the equipment we bought served us well including the high-resolution Hitachi electron microscope. These expenditures were made despite the hard economic times brought on by the Muldoon government and the wage and price freeze during this time.
The NZ economy at that time was based on the cost-plus principle – in other words, whatever it cost to produce something, add another 20-30% for profit and that was the cost to the consumer. In terms of overseas exports the main market was England and they were moving into the European Union. The currency, like the Russian ruble of the day, could not be traded on the international market. Any major purchase had to go through government regulatory bodies and the advice when I was coming to NZ was to bring a car otherwise overseas currency was needed to buy a car. It almost required an Act of Parliament to get money out of the country and this applied to expenses for overseas travel, a daily allowance was enforced – somewhat restricting by today’s standards.
Frank joined the Department in 1973 and we have had a loyal friendship that spanned over 40 years, both as colleagues in the Department and friends in the outside world of personal affairs. Frank must have kissed the Blarney Stone several times since he loved telling stories and anecdotes about his work and his life in the antipodes. In the years that he worked with AgResearch at nearby Invermay, he was often featured in press releases from that research station. He was awarded a personal chair in 1997, the ONZM (Honorary Officer of the NZ Order of Merit) in 2003 for services to science and the deer industry. He served as an aspirational HOD of the Department from 2004 to 2012.
But no one can tell a good story like Frank, so below are quotes from the man himself -- the first one being an introduction he wrote about himself for a Department Newsletter as an introduction to a seminar he gave to the Department in September 1994:
"As one who has lived his life in equal parts in two of the world's most unique habitats. I consider myself to have had a charmed existence. My developmental years were spent in the Emerald Isle; one of the World's special social institutions; the only open-air lunatic asylum in the world. This conditioned me to enjoy in full measure my subsequent sojourn in Godzone, which is unquestionably nature’s unique biological laboratory. Having seen fees in 1963 in Ireland which match in real $ terms, the excesses being visited on New Zealand students in 1993, one continues to experience that (redundant) human emotion: ‘The triumph of hope over experience' (borrowed from Oscar Wilde; the only Irishman ever to be on record (and jailed) for his homotrophic proclivities).
At my age, one thinks in decades rather than years, so I'll relate my background in (relatively) large bites. To cut a long story short, l arrived in Dunedin in January 1973 as a fresh-faced post-doc knowing everything about nothing and have progressed in the subsequent two decades, realising that now I know practically nothing about everything. As my father predicated at an early age; 'You have all the attributes of one who started life on the bottom of life's ladder, and are destined to go down' - hence my gravitation from 44oN to 44oS.
I spent the 70's, grappling with the challenges of conveying the concepts of ever changing scientific models (immunological to a generation of science and pseudo· clinical students, while floundering to satisfy my secondary job description (research). Research in that decade was preoccupied by the challenges of immunoreproduction (pregnancy toxaemia) and autoimmunity (NZB mice). A years study leave (1980) in Leeds, rekindled some vestige of self belief that I could design and execute a workable experiment, but more importantly the realisation that the ability to do something relevant from a NZ perspective is premised by one of two requirements:
(a) Novel (leading edge) methodology, (b) Unique resources: Guess which I chose?
In 1981 we positioned our research, and developed the collaborative (still vital) links, with Invermay to access an unique resource. While I began work on sheep (maternal-fetal immunisation) with George Davis (one of Nature's finest fellows) this evolved in 1984 to embrace deer (and Colin Mackintosh; one of nature's most incorrigible and fine fellows). Academic motivation divined that deer were a unique model to study the impact of management stress in the only large wild animal subjected to intensive domestication in the past 5000 years. Pragmatism quickly redirected our efforts, as Tb (the perceived disaster) became the war cry of the emerging deer industry. Since 1985 we have enjoyed (and hopefully justified the support and confidence of) some very special people who make up the NZ deer industry. James Innes entrusted us with the resources to launch the Deer Research Laboratory (his quote; 'Problems are opportunities in disguise, if you can sort them'), Walter Sommerville; a sound Southern man with the intellect to recognise deer as a quarry (for the hunt) or a super source of venison (for the consumer), the ever present Colin, and a generation of farmers and vets who were convinced that 100 year old technology for Tb diagnosis, though relevant, needed to be refined. In contrast with these highs, there have been the inevitable troughs [bureaucracy - where, as the only autonomous laboratory in NZ, we were destined to live with their reaction to our challenge, (of their being challenged)
My experiences in this special area of science has taught me many lessons:
- NZ and Dunedin (OU) is blessed by the challenge that accompanies isolation.
- OU is remarkably proactive in sustaining the entrepreneurial ethic.
- Nature (Biology) abhors (will not tolerate) soft scientific outcomes, The Kiwi joker is not overly impressed by stats or p values. Rather their imperative is, does it work (for me 100% of the time?
- Providing you offer realistic expectations, people will forgive you for your mistakes, but won't necessarily reward you for your success (it is the expected outcome for a job properly done), We need their confidence to live through the reality that 'overnight success is usually founded on twenty years of solid 'input'.
- My mother defined the parameter.' which circumscribe the term 'what’, it is the scientist's imperative to elucidate 'why'.
TB or not TB -- 1993
The following was written by Frank in response to my request to provide some archival material for the forthcoming book: A History of the Microbiology Department 1950 - 2010.
Memories of Microbiology
What was your academic background before joining the department?
1964 - 1967: BA (Mod)* Microbiology, Trinity College Dublin (TCD)
1967 - 1970: PhD Reproductive immunology, TCD
1970 - 1972: PostDoctoral Fellow, TCD
* BA is the only primary degree offered at Trinity, irrespective of discipline. Mod – Moderatorship is the Honours qualification obtained after a 4 year degree.
Why or how did you come to the University of Otago?
Two lectureships were advertised in Microbiology and Immunology. On applying for the post in Immunology I was advised that this post was not being filled as the incumbent had not left. One month later a message came from John Miles advising that Immunology position was now on offer. In responding I attempted to get an indication from John that my application would be likely to succeed – in response John demonstrated an ability in side-stepping that would have done justice to Bernie Fraser. I was offered the job and arrived with Vi in Dunedin to brilliant sunshine on 22nd January 1973. This seemed a reasonable alternative to a more challenging climate in CSIRO, Townsville, where I had another job offer.
Reason for coming was that I had first hand experiences of Yanks and Ozzies and as a naïve/idealistic youth I considered that countries like Canada/NZ would offer a more inclusive lifestyle. Historically many family links with NZ and the perception that NZ was a social paradise in the South Pacific with a particularly good rugby team. Due to my associations with veterinary sciences, the only academic activity I associated with Otago was the leading research being carried out by Mike Gemmell in the Hydatids Research Unit.
What do you consider your main achievement?
Above all else the high points of my career have been the birth of Tane, our son and Kiri our daughter, with the recent addition of Lilah and Hugo, our grandchildren.
Professionally my modest achievements include:
- An attempt to advance democracy in the feudal 1970s University environment. More latterly advocacy to empower general staff and have their role rightfully recognized in the fabric of academic life.
- Contribution to charting Immune functions involved in disease control in domestic livestock
- Development of novel models to study infectious disease ‘in natura’
- Advocacy for farmers faced by bureaucratic and inflexible regulations
- Being privileged to have access to more than 60,000 undergraduate students over the past 37 years, and the opportunity to imbue them with some of the passion for science that has sustained my working life.
- The award of ONZM for my contribution the diseases in deer, in June 2003, affirmed that I had made some modest contribution as an immigrant-citizen with Permanent residence in Godszone.
Any outstanding events in the Department during your time there?
- The evolution of Microbiology teaching/research from its traditional role as a descriptive quantitative science to become a leading qualitative science based on molecular biology/genetics.
- Fostering the growth of Immunology teaching/research from 1.0 EFTS in 1973 to a 4.0 academic EFTs and multiple Researchers in our Immunology programme in 2010. Developing the only comprehensive undergraduate immunology programme offered in New Zealand.
- The emergence of a number of world leading scientists as colleagues within the Department
- Collegial support and benevolence within the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Sharing many happy evenings with Sandy and The Boyos over an ale or three
- Shedding the mantle that Microbiologists ‘Do Stuff’ to the recognition that the Department of Microbiology and Immunology provides a platform of teaching and research that is of world standard, underpinned by a mantra that attempts to aspire to ‘Excellence in Everything’
- Establishing the relevance of large animal models for infectious disease research/teaching as a core resource at the University. Outreach through research to NZ’s farming sector and a group of valued colleagues throughout the world
- Discovery of heritable resistance/susceptibility to mycobacterial infections. Establishing breed-lines of deer that display extreme phenotypes for resistance or susceptibility to chronic intracellular infection
Any concluding comments?
I affirm that it has been a privilege to spend a career in an area of science that has practical relevance and has always been my source of recreation rather than work. I’d be happy to work here for no pay if I could afford it.
- The satisfaction of working with students far more capable than myself, without constraining their potential or damaging their dreams.
- The hope that springs eternal from working in an area of biology with inbuilt redundancy and ever expanding knowledge
- A life’s effort that I trust leaves the department better for my contribution with limited harm or damage along the way.
- The joy of a life spent in the world’s most educated city, nestled in an Antipodean Garden of Eden.
- My appreciation for a career in academic life, that has progressed in spite of my foibles and shortcomings, that allowed me to express any minor talents I possess, without personal compromise.
- Working in an environment where “ I did not have to compromise my Passion or Anger” for all the things I believe affect our community and the Institution which I am proud to have been part of for almost 40 years.
Alumni Dinner -- 2005
The Last Word
In the book: A History of the Microbiology Department 1950 -2010, Frank, as the HOD, exercised his prerogative to have the ‘Last Word’ .
The Completion of a Small Cycle
The past 64 years have 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.
‘Excellence in Everything’ will hopefully sustain us for the next 50 years.
Fast Forward to 2016
(ODT Article June 20, 2016)
He hopes to continue an involvement as an emeritus professor and is also continuing as director of Ag@Otago, a new university-based initiative.
Irish-born Prof Griffin (70) did his primary degree in microbiology then his PhD in reproductive immunology.
He started work at the University of Otago as an immunology lecturer. At first, he researched pregnancy complications in women but later focused his attention on animals. For more than 30 years, he has led a university-based research team devoted to solving animal health problems in the deer industry, including developing diagnostic tests for the detection of two major bacterial diseases - bovine tuberculosis and Johne's disease - and a vaccine for the prevention of yersiniosis.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Prof Griffin said retirement was not a sad occasion. He was very conscious that it was important, "irrespective of how relevant your work is'', to vacate academic space to bring in younger people with new skills. With his retirement, that meant finding a new home for his research team, now known as Disease Research Ltd (DRL), if the work was to continue. That home had been found at Ag Research's Invermay research centre, with access to "excellent'' facilities.
It was "absolutely ideal'' and it also allowed the team to get closer to the deer research group based at Invermay, he said. DRL would be under the control of Otago Innovation Ltd, a University of Otago company, so there was a link back to the university with the new structure, and he would be involved as a research consultant. DRL would continue in the Johne's disease area and wanted to extend the scope of its research. One of its aims was to develop much stronger relationships with the dairy sector and it believed it could make a contribution in basic diagnostics, in both Johne's disease and bovine viral diarrhoea virus (BVD), and also with a new initiative looking at parasitism.
They were three critical diseases affecting livestock in New Zealand and Prof Griffin believed DRL was the last animal health research group in the country. One area DRL was particularly interested in developing was parasite prevention. It believed persistent use of anthelmintics had a real downside. It was expensive and it also happened in the most productive part of an animal's life. DRL believed there was an opportunity - although it would be a challenge - to change the concept of parasite control. DRL wanted to look at a new strategy for parasite management, with the ultimate goal of turning natural infection into vaccines.
Most of the initial work would be developed on deer, hopefully transitioning to sheep and cattle later on. Prof Griffin was quite enamoured with the fact DRL was not just going to be providing diagnostic services. "If we look at animal health as a theme at present, we're in the middle of a perfect storm on a two-foot surfboard and it's challenging,'' he said. Long term, he believed a mixed-farm model was where New Zealand needed to be, producing quality branded product and, hopefully, a balance that included sheep, deer, dairy cattle and beef. Instead of looking at "feeding the world'' with commodity products, the focus should be on providing branded niche products that consumers paid more for, having an interface with nutrition and medicine. Through that, the environment had to be protected, it had to be sustainable, and the health of animals had to be ensured. There was a need to move from single-trait selection for just production to multi-trait, including health and welfare.
New Zealand had always been regarded as an innovator in agriculture and it needed to continue to innovate in animal health. Already, discussions were being held with key agencies in the dairy industry to, hopefully, ensure any contribution that was made was relevant. He believed there had to be a change in research motivation and attitudes towards funding research. Farmers needed to be asked what they wanted and needed. Sometimes, that did not involve new knowledge but marshalling existing knowledge. There needed to be more collaboration between researchers and producers, tailoring science to meet needs. "I think, hopefully, now we're coming into a new phase where we can apply really exciting science to providing new solutions,'' he said.
Prof Griffin's chosen career had filled his life with amazing experiences. The fact that, periodically, he was able to do "little things'' that could make a difference had been a huge privilege. He had been surrounded by a great team at the university and there had been wonderful support from the deer industry. He was excited that deer farmers were at present retaining capital stock.
When it came to the high point in his career, it was his children and his grandchildren, he said. Aside from his involvement as research consultant with DRL, and with Ag@Otago, he was looking forward to being a "little more time rich''.
"I've got a lathe, I'm going to produce some decorative firewood,'' he quipped.