Graduation address given by Dr Murray Cameron

Dr Murray Cameron gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Science graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 19 May 2006 in the Great Hall. Dr Cameron is Chief, CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences, CSIRO.

Graduation address

Chancellor, new graduates, families and friends, honoured guests, Ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to address this important event. For many of you this is a major milestone in your lives. You have worked hard over many years and made a number of sacrifices in order to get here. So too have the new graduates! Congratulations to all of you – your achievements are worth celebrating.

Today my aim is not to speak too long and to provide you with a short message worth remembering.

I believe strongly that we in Australia are not producing enough science graduates. You can influence this by spreading a message. The message also relates to how you might use your education. The message is this. Study Science for the social life.

My bias and examples are in the mathematical sciences, but I believe the message holds across the spectrum.

My career, hugely enjoyable, has focused on finding problems in science and in industry, where statistics and mathematics makes a difference and where existing mathematical methods are inadequate.

My working career began in earnest while I was completing an M.Sc. thesis in the Carslaw building. I went about half a kilometre up the road to Newtown and began working with CSIRO. There I began learning the difference between doing mathematics and applying mathematics and, in my case, statistics, in an innovative way. I learned that difference by talking with my new colleagues there and learning from their experiences. In particular I learned the right questions to ask so I could contribute to the work of people in other disciplines. I started plying my trade and learning as I went by interacting with others - engineers, physicists, oceanographers and marine scientists. We did interesting work and had quite a bit of fun as well.

I continue to this day interacting with people from other disciplines both in science and in industry. Contrary to the popular image, by studying science you have equipped yourself for a great social life.

Unfortunately it is not well understood that a training in science equips you for many different careers. Through your training you have learnt many facts, theories, theorems, laws and problem-solving strategies. Above all however you have learned how to ask questions, take on new information and think critically. These will serve you well no matter what career you follow. Richard Carleton the journalist was trained as a mathematician and his colleagues felt that this showed in his ability, through his questioning, to get to the heart of the matter.

Let me give you a feeling for the breadth of careers open to a mathematics or science graduate.

In the last few weeks I have met a person working in computer animation, the head of an insurance company, the former head of a few government departments and the head of a major software company. All were trained as mathematicians. Mathematicians have even been known to become Vice-Chancellor.

Each of these people will spend much of their day working closely with others, asking questions, solving problems and having some fun along the way. Of course, these social interactions do not generally occur in bars (though they can). A lot of research and business breakthroughs are made over a coffee, a meal or a beer. Watson and Crick famously spent much time at The Eagle pub in Cambridge and first publicly announced their theory of the double helix there. The legend is that Redmond and Silicon Valley have advanced information technology through shared pizza and caffeine.

Another career built around strong social interactions is teaching. Most people working in science have been started by a teacher who is both inspiring and engaging. Such teachers, either at school or university, are critically important for all our futures. The best teachers excite our curiosity, provide us with insights into how to formulate and solve problems and gain enjoyment from the interaction that comes with exchanging and passing on knowledge. Very much a social life.

It is now widely recognised that most of the scientific breakthroughs in the future will come not in one discipline but at the boundary between disciplines. This is highlighted in biotechnology where advances are coming from the interplay of mathematics statistics, physics, and information & communication technologies with molecular biology. The sequencing of the human genome was greatly accelerated by the existence of the Internet and database technologies. Likewise nanotechnology and materials science in the future will depend on a similar interplay of disciplines and people. That interplay is enhanced by social interactions.

In CSIRO we have set ourselves a number of challenges in what we call national research flagship programs. These programs are a partnership between researchers, government and industry. Those researchers are in CSIRO and in universities. The research flagships are aiming for things like healthier, more productive lives for Australians; clean, cost-efficient energy; more productive and sustainable use of water. For example researchers in my division of CSIRO – statisticians and mathematicians - are working with others – molecular biologists and nutritionists - to work out how to detect colorectal cancer earlier and how to reduce its incidence through changes in diet. We are also working with companies that can turn our results into widely available diagnostic tests. Through those tests we will improve people’s lives. That common purpose brings people together but the lively social interactions bring out the new ideas. Social life again!

I have been emphasising multi-disciplinary research because I enjoy it and I think it is important. However the importance of bigger teams is also important in research in a single discipline. Open a research journal of 30 or 40 years ago and count the number of authors on a paper – generally only 1 or 2. Open the same journal today and the number of authors is 3, 4 or 5. Teamwork is increasingly important.

I have probably worried some of you. Many of us are not extroverts moving easily into new social interactions. Is a career built on science only for the extrovert? Not at all. You will find that the shared goal of cracking a challenging problem and the excitement of learning about other people’s fields will generally make the social interactions easy.

So, what do I hope that you will remember from this? Firstly, that by studying science you have gained skills that can create many more opportunities for you than you might have thought. Secondly that in chasing those opportunities you will naturally build many strong working relationships with people, some of whom will become lifelong friends.

And finally, we need more science graduates, so I hope that you will spread the message that you study science for the social life.