Graduation address given by Professor Michael Thompson

Professor Michael Thompson, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney. gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Science graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 29 May 2009.

The photo of Professor Thompson is copyright Memento Photography.

Professor Michael Thompson

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dean, Dr Symmonds, staff of the University and, most importantly, new graduates and their families and friends; congratulations on your achievements and graduation at today’s ceremony.

I will begin by saying 'thank you.' Thank you to the University for bestowing the honour of inviting me to present this Occasional Address, and thank you to graduates and their families for giving me this opportunity to speak, especially in the 150th anniversary of the opening of this Great Hall.

Occasional Addresses provide an opportunity for the speaker to impart wise words. I am not sure that I am able to do that; instead I will delve into my own experience and share with you some of the joys, privileges and opportunities that stem from graduating from a great institution like the University of Sydney.

Don’t under-estimate either the greatness of the University of Sydney, or the advantages of graduating from here. This University is truly one of the great universities of the world. As Australians, we often overlook the global importance of the local. Don’t look at Sydney as the University “down the road”, but rather appreciate that it is among the very top universities in the World, and that you are a graduate of a great university.

Many of you have either majored in some aspect of biology, or have taken some units of biology. Some of you have been taught by me. Most of you will have taken science in general, and biology in particular, because you have an innate fascination and curiosity for nature. To some in the wider world, that might seem like an indulgence. Sometimes you will be asked, “but what good is that to humanity?”, and I will say more about that later. For now, I want to congratulate you on your curiosity-driven passion, and your families for valuing education and allowing you to chase that passion. If you do not already, you will come to realise the value of that ongoing support from your families.

Passion is important. Sometimes parents of prospective students are not so pleased when I advise their son or daughter at information days in this Great Hall to follow their hearts when selecting their courses. I give that advice because, by following your passion, you will always do better. Some of you will have come here not knowing what your true passion is, in which case I hope that your time at the University has helped you find your passion. Some of you will go on to careers in biology or other areas of science, but many of you will not. However, you are all now very well educated about the natural world and you will be in positions to use that education to make a difference in the future. You understand the importance of the natural world and the value of a good education.

I have the luxury in an Occasional Address to use myself as an example. I developed a passion for the biology of lizards when I was 5 years old and I caught a blue-tongue lizard, which terrified me at the time. My parents allowed, actually encouraged, me to indulge my curiosity and supported me to go to university, where I ignored all advice to the contrary and chased my passion for herpetology. My attitude was that I would enjoy the party while it lasts, and when it stops, cross the bridge to something else then. You know what – the party is still going.

So, is it an indulgence? Becoming an academic has allowed me to pursue my interests, where ever they take me. I am still working with lizards, and recently I have been working on their placentas. It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that one in every five species of lizards and snakes give birth to live young. That blue-tongue that I caught when I was 5 years old was born alive; it didn’t hatch from an egg. What is more, the placentae of some lizards are every bit as complex as human placentae. More about that later.

First, I want to tell you about a recent discovery in Europe. A natural chemical that is a potent promoter of cancer tumours was discovered in 2007 in human cell cultures where the DNA of the cells had been damaged. The chemical is a potent promoter of cancer tumours because it causes blood vessels to grow from healthy tissue to supply blood to support the growing tumour. So far, production of this chemical has only been found in cells in culture and not in living animals.

During pregnancy, blood vessels also must grow – in this case in the uterus to support the developing foetus. None of you would be here now if that didn’t happen. I currently have a bright young student who is studying the growth of blood vessels in the placentae of lizards because we are fascinated by the topic. It is a fundamentally interesting phenomenon. Recently, she has discovered the natural occurrence of that human cancer chemical in one of the species of lizards, where it is involved in promoting growth of blood vessels to support pregnancy. Thus, she has discovered the first natural occurrence of this compound in an animal, which of course now has the potential to be exploited for human cancer research.

The point that I want to make is that fundamental, curiosity driven science is of paramount importance because you never know where the important discoveries lie. We still have some way to go before we can use that lizard species in the study of human tumours. We did not set out to discover something that will be of direct benefit to people, but we may have discovered it anyway. That brings me back to my earlier comment about valuing the local – this species of lizard has been described as the most common lizard in Sydney gardens. Many of you will have seen it, but probably none of you have ever wondered about its placenta, let alone related that to cancer research in humans.

I use this as a small example of how fascinating the natural world is. It also serves to illustrate the importance of fundamental science, and is an example of the importance of valuing what happens locally. Most importantly, I hope that it acts as an example of the importance of following your passion, and taking opportunities no matter where they lead.

The last thing I want to talk about is friends. You have made some terrific friends during your time at the University. Some will be life long friends with whom you share many things, particularly your time at University. I did not realize the value of those friendships at the time of my graduation, but I can tell you that some of those people are as important to me today, as my beard gets greyer and greyer, as they were when I graduated. As a member of academic staff, I can say we also value your friendship and will be interested to follow your careers as they develop. I hope that you take advantage of the growing activities offered to alumni by the University and keep in touch.

Again, to graduates I say “congratulations on graduating” and to families and friends, I say “thank you” on behalf of the graduates and the whole university community for your support. And, all the best for the future and remember, never lose your curiosity or your passion.

Thank you.