Graduation address given by Professor Kiaran Kirk

Professor Kiaran Kirk, Head of the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at ANU, gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Science graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 15 June 2007.

The photo of guest speaker Professor Kirk is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Kiaran Kirk

Occasional address

Chair of the Academic Board, Acting Vice-Chancellor, colleagues, and, most importantly, new graduates and your families, friends and supporters.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.

Sincere congratulations to all of you who have graduated today.

Congratulations to your family, your friends, your partners who have supported you throughout your degree.

And congratulations as well to your teachers. You may or may not realise how proud they are of your achievement.

I have sat in this hall, where you are sitting now, twice before. I graduated from the University of Sydney with a BSc in 1985, and with a PhD in 1989.

Presumably, there was a guest speaker giving an occasional address such as this one. As I stand here before you, I’m embarrassed to say that I have no recollection of who the guest speaker was at either of my graduations, or of what they said. I am under no misapprehensions that it will be any different for you.

With this in mind, it is my aim today to be brief.

I did want to try to say something encouraging, so let me begin by telling you the results of a 2003 study - an analysis of the medical records of nearly 10,000 students who graduated from Glasgow University between 1948 and 1968. The analysis showed that students who studied science at University, as well as those who studied medicine, went on to live longer and healthier lives than those studying any other subjects. In particular, those who, like you, graduated with science degrees had a substantially lower risk of mortality than those who graduated with arts degrees.

It is not entirely clear why.

What is clear is that, with a few exceptions, most of us, including our shorter-lived friends and relations with arts degrees, have a greater life expectancy, are living longer, than at any time in the past.

It is also clear that this is, to a significant extent, a consequence of scientific advances.

Let me give just a few examples of scientific advances that have benefited human health.

I have a very vivid memory from twenty years ago, of being a PhD student at this University and hearing a seminar from Professor Tony Basten describing what was then a relatively new disease - HIV AIDS. I still remember being shocked by his saying that everyone who contracted the disease died within eight years. That was true then, in the 1980s; it is no longer true today.

The drugs that we have today to combat HIV AIDS are so effective that in western countries, where we have access to these drugs, the life expectancy of someone infected with the HIV virus is approaching that of someone without the disease. Many of these drugs inhibit or block the so-called proteases that are produced by the virus. A protease, as many of you will know, is a protein that chops up other proteins, and the AIDS virus uses these proteases to reproduce, to make and release new copies of itself.

The anti-HIV drugs, the protease inhibitors, are small molecules that are just the right size and shape to fit into the part of the protease that does the chopping. With the drug in place, the proteases can’t work, the virus is unable to reproduce, and there is, as a result, in AIDS patients taking protease inhibitors, a 99% reduction in the number of viruses in the body.

Just as scientists have designed drugs that interfere with proteases of the AIDS virus, so too have they developed drugs and vaccines that target other disease causing agents.

Let me give you a couple of Australian examples.

One is an anti-influenza drug. If, as may well occur, the strain of avian influenza virus that is presently circulating in the chicken markets in Asia mutates into a form that passes from human to human, and causes a flu-pandemic, one of the two drugs with which the disease may be treated was developed in Australia in the 1990s.

The flu virus has on its outer surface, a protein called neuraminidase. The neuraminidase protein effectively acts as a pair of molecular scissors - it chops the ends off chains of sugar molecules - and the virus needs these molecular scissors to complete its lifecycle.

Graeme Laver at the ANU in Canberra used hundreds of thousands of chicken eggs to grow flu viruses from which he purified the neuraminidase. He made solutions of the protein and from these solutions he grew crystals.

He sent the crystals to Peter Colman and his colleagues working at the CSIRO, who took these crystals, shot X-rays through them, and from the diffraction pattern worked out the exact molecular structure, the shape of the protein on the surface of the virus. They found that the neuraminidase protein is shaped like a mushroom and that it has, at the top, a pocket or cleft which has exactly the same shape no matter how the virus mutates.

Mark von Itzstein, an organic chemist from Monash University, designed and synthesised a small molecule which fitted exactly into this pocket - a small molecular plug which is one of the most effective anti-flu drugs that we have.

The three of them - Graeme Laver, Peter Colman, Mark von Itzstein - shared the Australia Prize for this work.

A second Australian example is the work of Ian Frazer, last year’s Australian of the Year. Ian Frazer developed a vaccine that protects girls and women against the cancer-causing human papilloma virus, and which will save many thousands of lives. This is another example of how understanding a disease-causing-agent, such as a virus, at a molecular level can lead to a major breakthrough.

The three examples I have given - the anti-AIDS drugs, the anti-influenza drug, the anti-cancer vaccine - all illustrate how science can benefit our society. How it can solve serious problems. They are all from the area of medical research, because this is the area I work in and know best. But just as the medical scientists will design solutions to particular diseases. So too will the plant scientists, through sophisticated breeding strategies, and through genetic manipulation, develop plants that will tolerate the increasing heat and salinity to which crops in Australia, as well as much of the rest of the world are exposed. So too will the physicists and the chemists develop and refine alternative sources of energy so that we will become less reliant on fossil fuels.

Science can do, has done, will do, astonishing things.

In watching and listening to the media today it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges, the challenges of diseases, of aging populations and of global pandemics, of global warming, climate change, drought. The list goes on. There are undoubtedly many challenges facing us. But, and this is my main point, we will solve these, and the tool with which we will do so is science - the discipline in which you are the world’s newest graduates. The world desperately needs people like you. More than ever before we need people who, like you are trained to think scientifically, who understand and can apply scientific methods.

We need you to carry out the research that will underpin solutions to the various problems that face us.

We need you to work in industry and in relevant government departments, translating scientific discoveries into practical benefits for society.

We need people like you to teach science at all levels, from primary school through to university so that our children understand the importance and the potential of science.

We need people like you in our parliaments, we need politicians who can understand and evaluate scientific evidence and who can try to ensure that when it comes to scientific issues the national agenda is driven by scientific rather than political considerations.

We also need people working in areas not directly related to science but who nonetheless understand how science works, who will explain it to their workmates, to their family.

These are the sorts of things I hope that you will do.

Congratulations again on what you have achieved and what we are celebrating today. You have graduated from one of the great universities of the world. Our need for science graduates, for people like you, is acute. There are great opportunities for you. There are great challenges to be met but, with the training you have received here, you have the tools to meet them.

Good luck!