Graduation address given by Dr Tim Entwisle

The Chancellor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, introduced Dr Entwisle as follows:

Our speaker this afternoon is Dr Tim Entwisle, the Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens Trust.

Dr Entwisle graduated in Science from the University of Melbourne then with his doctorate from La Trobe University. He has worked for the last 12 years in the senior management of botanic gardens in Melbourne and Sydney. In 2004 he was appointed to his current position where he has responsibility for the Sydney gardens, including the Domain, and the Mount Tomah and Mount Annan gardens.

Dr Entwisle is an internationally recognized plant scientist; is the author of more than 70 scientific publications, including three books and has chaired many state and national botanical committees.

Interestingly, he was recently appointed, New South Wales Government Botanist, an honorary position established in 1817 by my predecessor in office, Governor Macquarie.

On that historical note, let me invite Dr Entwisle to deliver the occasional address.

Dr Tim Entwisle

The photo of guest speaker Dr Entwisle is copyright, Memento Photography.

Graduation address

Firstly, congratulations to everyone who graduated today. There are ups and downs in life, and this is certainly an up!

I had a ‘down’, when I was appointed Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens, a radio host in Sydney described me as a 'fat, lazy, bureaucrat'. Fat and lazy OK, but a bureaucrat!

It’s becomes a term of abuse. You know how it is in the papers or on the news, ‘senior government bureaucrats deny’ and that sort of thing.

Similarly, a scientist who generalizes about his work, who uses less technical words and tries to relate what he does to the daily life is often looked down upon by serious scientists. But not here of course!

Today I’d like to sing the praises of science bureaucrats and science communicators, and encourage you to not only remain good scientists but to do other things as well.

We need more scientists and we need good people to become scientists. But we also need good scientists to become administrators, journalists, lawyers, and politicians.

Rather than starting with the 21st century let me drop back to the 18th for a moment….

Joseph Banks, who traveled with James Cook to Australia in 1770 is perhaps the best known botanist or plant scientist. But he didn’t publish anything from his collections in Australia. He certainly wouldn’t hold down a research job today.

Around the same time the German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, spent 5 years traveling around South America. He wrote up his travels in 30 volumes. It did take him a long time so once again his tenure would have been under pressure. But he did make major personal contributions to scientific knowledge.

Banks did it in a different way. What Banks did was persuade the king and government to support science, to sent scientists on their trips of exploration, encourage the setting up of botanic gardens and scientific collections of plants. Of course he funded some of this himself, at least while he had money. He was one of our first science administrators or bureaucrats. But he started as a scientist…

Banks wasn’t much of a communicator – his Endeavour journals weren’t published until 1962… Even though his diaries included such gems as the first known written description of surfing, from Tahiti, in 1769!

As everyone here would know, to communicate you can’t just write something in your diary journal and hope the world will find out by osmosis, or something more paranormal. So scientists need to publish!

There are various figures floating around for the number of people who read peer-reviewed scientific papers, but I think it is something like 7 on average.

A public talk will attract a larger audience, usually, but maybe no more than a hundred or so.

When I first arrived in Sydney, and at the botanic gardens, 8 years ago I prepared a serious of talks called Bizarre Plants: The nightlife of plants, plants that kill and eat, that sort of thing…

I gave a couple of them but after one in David Jones at lunch-time that drew about half a dozen colleagues and few elderly ladies who needed someone to sit down, it lost the sparkle. I still give talks, but I soon found a better way to talk about plants.

Major radio stations can reach 100,000 to 150,000 people. Television of course can get to millions… As they say, ‘you do the math’.

For a few years I did a regular spot on ABC Breakfast radio in Sydney. I’m now doing a regular spot on a weekend radio gardening show, but linked to website information and a picture. ‘Passion for Plants’ allows me to talk not only about gardens and plants, but also about science. The latest stories have been about parrots drunk on fermenting nectar, whether the ingredients needed for nachos available 6000 years ago, ant house plants and more about the amazing Wollemi Pine….

But I’m not suggesting scientific papers aren’t important. They are, and so is the peer review and rigor of that process. Otherwise when we talk to our radio and television audiences we might be talking rubbish. And even if only one person reads your paper, they may go on to extend this research to a life saving discovery or link it to another fertile area of research.

I also think 40 minute talks have their place too and will continue to give these to keen audiences.

Now some people will be good at the writing scientific papers and not at explaining their discoveries to the general community. And vise versa.

I think the cricket team analogy is a good one for science. We have our specialist researchers, our expert communicators, our administrators, and some all-rounders. We shouldn’t expect all scientists to be good communicators but we can expect them, like Glen McGrath, to try and to take pride in getting 50 runs when they need to. And of course if you can bat, you should make as many runs as you can – whether this is communication or administration.

And how do we attract people into science? In an Australian Academy of Science panel discussion last year, some leading scientists got into their fields there were words like curiosity, creativity, and interestingly optimism (to go with the punches from failed grant applications and negative comments on papers submitted).

It was also mentioned that learning science, teaches you how to think – and that is a skill you can transfer to lots of other jobs. Interestingly, one of the panelists also said science is a good way to makes lots of money – from your successful invention (I’m not sure you should bank on that one).

Two other things are particularly important. Firstly we need role models, heroes and people to inspire us. I was inspired to do botany in first year university by a couple of wonderful lecturers – they tempted me across from maths and science. In fact a picture of a plant cell really excited me – I never knew there was all this detail inside the plants I saw every day…

I was later drawn to my research interest of algal taxonomy by another inspiring lecturer in my final year. If you have a passion for science, or thinking in general, the topic isn’t really the important thing.

Secondly we need big questions to answer. In a sense it doesn’t matter what they are – most scientists could turn their mind to any research – but once you get into a field you soon identify where the questions are, and where solutions re needed.

In my own field of ‘whole plant’ plant biology, there is still a large proportion of life on earth to discover - perhaps 90% of it, maybe more (insects, fungi, algae, bacteria…). Odd that we leave earth to discover life when we know a little about a tenth of what lives on earth!

My real passion has been the algae that grow in our streams – the native and the weedy species. In one group of algae, the red algae, we thought we had the same species that grow in the northern hemisphere, traveling on duck’s feet or the wind…. It turns out most species are restricted to Australia, or Australia and New Zealand, and that their origins date back to Gondwana.

Interesting stuff but also valuable for conservation (we have important parts of our flora to look after), water management (we have species restricted to pristine water and good indicators of aquatic health) and aquatic ecology (we know a bit about the bugs in our streams but bugger all about the algae they eat and make houses from – if the algae disappear so will the bugs, the fish and so on).

To broaden out again, climate change is relevant to us all. Any changes to the distribution of plants and algae will of course effect us to – pollinators, recycling of nutrients etc. for agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

To take a simple example, do we connect our natural reserves to allow communities to kind of migrate with the climate changes, or will this favour the fox over the marsupial mouse, or lantana over a rare orchid? (there is an argument for maintaining carefully patrolled 'islands').

Then there are big theoretical but fascinating questions to answer like the origin of flowering plants - a question that Darwin found to be ‘an abominable mystery’ and one which has come closer to being answered in recent years (it is likely to share characters with a few select small shrubs and vines in New Caledonia and northern Australia).

Or the multiple origins of a group like algae, which I work on, that are more diverse than the plants and animals together, and have origins with cells being swallowed up by other algae and becoming permanent hitchhikers...

But why does all this classification stuff matter? There is a great example from a former colleague of mine, Geoff McFadden – we studied together at the University of Melbourne. I worked on freshwater algae, he worked on marine algae (he had a surfboard always beside his desk). The tiny algae he worked on had evolved from multiple swallowing ups of cells – that is, endosymbiosis (a cell becomes trapped inside another cell and evolves into the chloroplast or mitochondria – bits of cells).

But anyway a few years ago he had moved onto other microscopic organisms and discovered that the parasite that causes Malaria is in fact a type of algae (a dinoflagellate) that has lost the ability to turn sunlight into sugars.

He realized this because it has a colourless leftover that used to be a plastid. It then meant that a kind of ‘herbicide’ would be trialed to control this bug, something that would not harm animals and us. It also explained why some antibiotics had been successful in the past. They kill bacteria, and the plastid used to be a free living blue-green bacterium relatively recently in its past.

Similarly, the recent discovery that a parasite that kills many HIV patients is more closely related to fungi than animals means that anti-fungal drugs can be used.

If you don’t want to be a gene-jock, you can contribute to the Atlas of Living Australia, a nation-wide project to bring together all information available on the plants, animals and microorganisms of Australia with identification and modeling tools, all linked to the reference collections held in herbaria and museums. A kind of ‘biodiversity google’.

This, linked perhaps with barcoding, using bits of DNA to find quick ways to identify everything may mean that one day you’ll be able to use your mobile phone to do everything else as well as identify plants…

Anyway, there is no shortage of interesting and useful scientific questions to answer, and so much to contribute to society. I’ve talked about just one small area of science.

There is also a lot of dogmatism and misinformation, so we need good logical thinkers, willing to test theories and willing to be wrong (a key part of science!).

Australia needs more scientists, and we need scientists to do more than science.

So the burden I leave you with is to be great role models for the future students…

If you become a scientist, do great research, write high quality scientific papers, give talks, go on radio and TV, and then in your spare time contribute to management and all those other parts of the society that could benefit from a good scientific mind!

If you do something else with your life, remember to think like a scientist.