Dr Thomas Barlow, (BSc 1993)
In Australia, it is often said that education has to be “relevant”. At the school level, we hear that education must be connected to teenage interests – hence the recent dumbing-down of physics’ syllabuses in NSW schools. At the university level, it is claimed that education must be applicable to young peoples’ career aspirations – hence the rampant vocationalism of many contemporary university courses.
My experience, however, has been that the only education that matters is a good education; and, for this reason, I feel privileged to be a graduate of the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney.
I left the School in 1992 – in which year I undertook an honours project with Tony Haymet, then Professor of Theoretical Chemistry. My research focused on the reaction dynamics of freezing in supercooled water. To my knowledge I was the first honours student to do an experimental thesis in the Theoretical Chemistry Department.
Afterwards I went on to complete a doctorate at Oxford University, with Graham Richards, doing research into drug design and protein structure prediction. In 1996 I was appointed Janssen Research Fellow in Bio-Medical Sciences at Balliol College, Oxford. I also spent some time at MIT.
But I wasn’t to stay in research – or chemistry – for long. In the late 1990s, I surprised myself by co-writing a screenplay, which was made into the comedy feature film, “Married 2 Malcolm”. This starred Mark Addy, from the Full Monty. It cost around 3 million pounds to make, and despite being a fairly awful film, it recouped its costs, being eventually screened in theatres in Europe and on cable TV and video elsewhere in the world – including Australia, much to the amusement of my family.
Later on, I became a weekly columnist with the British newspaper, the Financial Times: first with a fictional column – “On the Breadline” – about a character who lived in London without much money; then with a medical column; and later with a column about science and society. By 1999, I was writing full-time.
Returning to Australia in 2000, I continued to work for a while as a columnist for the Financial Times. In 2002 however, Dr Brendan Nelson, the Australian Minister for Education, Science and Training, appointed me as his Science Advisor. For a three-year term of government, I was his key advisor on all aspects of research policy – relating to government, industry, research agencies and universities. It was a role in which I gained some striking insights into how governments see the scientific world, and why scientists so often fail to connect with governments.
Leaving the world of politics late in 2004, I have since written a book about the status of Australian science and innovation – “The Australian Miracle”. This book dispels a number of myths about Australian science, affords a somewhat wry perspective of Australian politics, and provides some much needed optimism about the prospects for innovation in our country. It will probably leave me with no friends, but it is due to be published by Picador in April this year.
Perhaps as a consequence of my varied background I am now also regularly called upon as a consultant for a variety of public and private organisations, providing advice on business and innovation strategy. This year, too, I have been appointed the CEO of a start up company called UCOM Ten. Coincidentally, this company is bringing to market some very exciting new technology invented by Cameron Kepert and his group right here in the School.
Looking back, my degree has provided no explicit recipe for the life that has followed. There isn’t much I’ve done that is strictly “relevant” to chemistry. But I have consistently found that a chemist’s outlook is a great advantage. Whether I have been working in research, in technology development, in consulting, in politics, in newspapers, or the movies, I have always believed that I couldn’t have made a better start than with my degree in Chemistry from the University of Sydney.
Check out Thomas' new book about innovation in China and the US. It's available from Amazon: