Scientists – Made in NZ

By Michael Edmonds 03/10/2012


On the weekend I picked up a newly released book, “Made in New Zealand”, by Chris Miram and Ross Land. Comprising of short interviews with New Zealanders who have excelled in various fields it “examines the attitudes and attributes of New Zealanders through the eyes and experiences of some of our highest and most prominent achievers.”

Included in the book are many sportspeople (including Valerie Adams and Sir Bob Charles), business people (for example, David Kirk, Ralph Norris), artists (Dame Malvina Major, Jon Toogood – front man for Shihad, Sir Jon Trimmer) as well as other prominent New Zealanders, for example Dame Alison Holst, Sir Peter Leitch, Dr John Hood, John Minto and Sir Paul Reeves. All with fascinating stories about how they got where they are today. However the book does seem to be a bit short on scientists. I was incredibly disappointed not to see Sir Paul Callaghan mentioned but perhaps the book was not written in time to include him.

Those scientists included in the book are Professor Margaret Brimble, Chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Auckland, Dr Karen Wilcox, Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Sir Vaughan Jones, winner of the 1990 Fields Medal and Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

(Note – I’m using the term scientist quite liberally – Whether or not mathematics is classed as a science or not Professor Jones’ work has import into the understanding of DNA. Also Dr Wilcox is technically an engineer.  A few other engineers also feature in the book but as they have gained prominence in areas tangential to science/engineering (mainly in business) I won’t discuss them in this post.)

Looking at these three high achievers it is interesting to see that two of the three are working overseas. Only Professor Brimble works in New Zealand, and from her interview it is clear that this is a conscious choice.

The interviews also garner the opinions of these high flyers on various aspects of their career and life in New Zealand. Sir Vaughan comments

“The idea that you do not need to be able to multiply because you have a calculator is ridiculous. It is very frustrating and I have tried year after year to get this whole message across at the highest levels in New Zealand.

“Trying to fiddle with the current [education] system and saying you are going to improve understanding by looking at different algorithms is an unproductive waste of time”

He also has some other fascinating thoughts which I will cover in another post.

Dr Wilcox also talks about education

“I place enormous value on the importance of education in society. In my view one of the big advantages New Zealand has over other parts of the world is that we have an excellent public education system … [in] the United States, education can be fractured from district to district …. I worry that without a dedicated commitment to our public education system, we may be headed in the same way in New Zealand.”

also

“… I love to be involved with young kids and visit primary schools and high schools to show them the types of careers that maths and science can lead”

Professor Brimble points out some of the challenges of working in New Zealand

“It’s much harder though [working in New Zealand] because we have to import all the chemical, pay twice as much for them, and we have to plan our work months ahead because many of the chemicals can only be imported by ship.”

At this point I will disclose that Professor Brimble was my PhD supervisor in the 1990’s and if anyone can plan months in advance, she can. Her comprehension of organic chemistry is formidable and I suspect she has an eidetic memory as I recall her quoting journal names, years and even page numbers when describing where to find a particular synthesis.

Professor Brimble also reveals her “eureka” moment in the second year undergraduate year while she was studying at the University of Auckland

“We made aspirin and I realised that it was a molecule you make, something physical that you actually make in the lab … Then I started thinking about drugs and what was possible… Everything fell into place and I suddenly saw what I really wanted to do.”

Remind me to bring out that quote whenever someone argues that interesting chemistry labs are not important in teaching chemistry.

Finally, Professor Brimble has strong views on how science might be better done in New Zealand by focusing resources at specific unversities

“Some instruments can cost $1 million dollars. Do we need four, five or six places in the country  with those machines or just one and have the best people working together? A lot of smart scientists are doing good things in New Zealand; imagine what we could achive working together more.”

Of course, it is not just the scientists in the book who have interesting views. Each person has insightful comments on how they made it to where they are today, and how a New Zealand upbringing contributed to their success. With the stunning portrait photography of Ross Land and the insightful yet concise interviews of Chris Miram, it is a book worthy of any coffee table, something to glance at, or read in detail. At around $80 it is not cheap, but I think the content is definitely worth it.