Dr Jean Youatt, chemist


Jean Youatt was born in 1925 in China, where her parents were missionaries. The family was interned there from 1941-45. At the internment camp she was taught mathematics by one of the other internees, and received a school certificate from Oxford University. Youatt received a BSc from the University of Melbourne in 1949 and then an MSc. It wasn't possible to do a PhD in Australia at that time so Youatt went to the University of Leeds where she received her PhD in 1954.

Youatt moved to Malaya with her husband and worked with a US Army unit that was doing research into new viral diseases. On her return to Australia, she worked at the University of Melbourne on the drug isoniazid (isonicotinic acid hydrazide), which was used to treat tuberculosis. In 1962, Youatt became a lecturer in chemistry at Monash University, where she continued her work on isoniazid. In 1968, during a study leave in Seattle, she became interested in the fungus, Allomyces. Her interest was primarily in how the chemical environment of the fungus controlled its development. Youatt spent 1987 in Aberdeen where she worked on investigations into how fungal hyphae grew. In 1990 Youatt retired and moved to the Biology Department at Monash, where she continued her research.

Interviewed by Ms Nessy Allen in 2000.


A migratory early life

Jean, although you are Australian, you weren't born here. Would you tell us about your background?

I was born in 1925 in China, where my parents were missionaries – my father from Australia in 1898 and my mother from the UK in 1920. My father married twice: there were two boys and two girls in the first family, and I was the eldest of the second family, with two younger brothers. However, we never lived all together. Only the youngest of the first family lived with us for any length of time.

You came back to Australia a couple of times. Why was that?

It was a difficult time. When the first Communist uprisings began in central China, my parents had to evacuate to the coast because it was so dangerous. I was only small but I am told that we stayed down in Shanghai for a while, and then my father was asked to go to England and also Australia, doing what the mission called 'deputation work'. We were away for quite a time, and had hardly got back when we were asked to go to Australia again. So I came to Australia twice before I even turned four. After that we stayed put in Melbourne, from 1929 till 1937.

I went to many schools. I managed to squeeze seven into two years, just as I was starting high school. It was hard. I changed syllabuses from Victoria to New Zealand, New South Wales and Victoria, and then to the Oxford Certificate in China. They didn't fit together – I had gaps all over the place – and I became a connoisseur of teachers and teaching. Some teachers just did everything that I thought a teacher shouldn't do. But Epsom Girls' School, in Auckland, and McRobertson, in Melbourne, had really good teachers. Everywhere else I went was very patchy.

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Establishing an early interest in science

Were you interested in science when you were young?

Yes. I remember sitting in the classroom, aged probably seven or eight, when we had a visit from someone named Cox, from the Victorian Museum, who brought things out and talked to the class. My father must have known him, because we met up with him again at Mornington on our summer holidays. He took us to Fossil Beach, showing us where to find fossils and crystals and nice things like that, and also to his house, where he had a funnel-web spider and some lizards in a bath. Really, my interest started through that one person.

Then my half-brother visited from Sydney and brought me a child's version of Fabre's Book of Insects, which fascinated me. And I was given a little microscope when I was still quite young. Later I read biographies such as Madame Curie's and Louis Pasteur's, and especially got interested in Louis Pasteur. That's when I thought microbiology would probably be what I wanted to do. I would still have been under 12 at that stage.

Did your parents encourage your interest in science?

Yes, they did. Scientists, and biologists in particular, usually think that people like my father, who defined himself as a fundamentalist, would be hostile to science. But I found more hostility from biologists to religion than vice versa. My father was actually very keen on science, and my older half-sister said he used to look forward to the arrival of papers in China so he could hear the latest that was going on. He was perfectly accepting of the idea that I would study science.

My father transferred me from a small private school to the state school system when he realised that my brothers were being taught maths better than I was.

Mother valued tertiary education and wanted it for me – though not science specifically. She had wanted to be a doctor before she went to China and resented being allowed to take only two years' paramedical training.

Apart from maths, did you take science at any of your schools? Did any of your teachers encourage you in it?

I had part of a year of chemistry at Hornsby High, in Sydney – I loved the teacher there, who suited me very well – and a little bit in New Zealand. But we had to go back from Sydney to China, and there it was just general science, School Certificate level. It didn't have enough of anything in it, really, for what I needed later.

In Australia I was only 13 or 14 and I think it was too early for my teachers to encourage me in science. In China they didn't think much of science; they thought girls should be teachers or nurses, and if I wanted to go to university it would be much better if I did Arts. But it didn't shift the position, because that had been established when I was much younger.

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Internment in China

You were interned in China for four years. Did that ordeal influence your character and your life?

I think the major influence was my father. He had been in China during the Boxer Rebellion, when 200 missionaries were killed, and his obsession with martyrdom had a profound effect on my childhood. But he died when I was 13.

In 1941, after Pearl Harbor, we were enclosed by the Japanese, first in our own compound and then in another small one, and finally all shifted to a big one for the whole of north China. There were a lot of children to be looked after, and at the age of 16 and 17 I had to do quite hard physical work, with lots of washing and mending and things like that.

It was very difficult to go on with our education. The camp had assembled a sort of library, but the only science text in it was a 1910 botany which I thought was probably not worth learning. Somebody said they would teach us some chemistry but without a textbook that proved too hard. But then I found a Miss Hancock, from Yuencheng University (Peking), who was a lovely person and liked teaching – she was keen to have someone to teach, but the camp had 1600 people and it took us a while to find each other. She was an excellent teacher of maths, and the year I had with her made a huge difference when I did get back to Australia.

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A daunting prospect: filling in the science background

Finally, after the war, you arrived at Melbourne University. How did you catch up on the specific sciences that you hadn't studied?

It was very daunting. I went in to ask if I could enrol in science. Because I had not actually matriculated to Oxford University, I had to write and ask if they would enrol me at Oxford with only an exemption from matriculation. (I was eligible for that because in their School Certificate I had got straight As.) But all this came through very late, when term at Melbourne was about to start. Having the exemption meant it was assumed I was capable of doing the courses without the background, but it didn't mean I had done the work. Then, when I realised how much more everybody else knew than I did, I didn't dare let on – I thought I might be told to leave. I had to do it by myself, and it was a very hard year: all work and no play.

Were there any women members of staff – or anyone at all – who helped?

I didn't ask them. I did have a friend, Nancy Hayward, who had known my sister-in-law in London. She came out to be a lecturer in microbiology, and was a pleasant and helpful person. She asked me later why ever I hadn't told her about it, but I really didn't feel I could tell anybody.

The women on the academic staff were almost entirely demonstrators. I had a woman demonstrator in first year, but no woman lecturer. I don't think things have changed that much!

Did you ever feel any discrimination in those days?

Not as an undergraduate. The discrimination comes later, I've learnt – nobody minds who they teach, but it's different when they want jobs.

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Developing resourcefulness: a microbiology MSc

After graduating in early 1949, you went straight on to do an MSc. What subjects had you graduated in?

In chemistry and microbiology. I had been torn between microbiology and biochemistry, but in the end the timetable determined it.

Which of those was your MSc in?

Microbiology. I had been cheeky enough to go and ask Professor Trikojus if I could do a Master's degree in biochemistry, learning some biochemistry at the same time. But he said no, so it had to be microbiology. (Oddly enough, in England a little later I did a PhD in a biochemistry department, and did learn some biochemistry there.)

I worked with Vic Skerman, predominantly on the effects of oxygen. He had the only polarograph in the university – people these days wouldn't believe how bad the equipment was then in Melbourne. We did two major kinds of experiment, showing that it was just about impossible to stir enough oxygen into cultures for them to keep aerobic, and also trying to find out how much oxygen could be tolerated by the three anaerobes that caused tetanus, gangrene and botulism. We were using cysteine, thioglycollic acid and ascorbic acid to take out the oxygen, and then finding when the organisms could begin to grow again as the oxygen levels came up.

Did you get much help with your MSc from your supervisor?

It was good that first year with Vic: we were in the same lab and talked about things, and worked together on some of the experiments. (Vic had a lot of interests, and I did all sorts of odds and ends. It was sheep dips and everything!) But at the end of the year he got the Chair in Queensland. I was in a mess because the two universities wouldn't sort it out. Queensland wouldn't give me credit for what I had done at Melbourne, Melbourne wouldn't let me finish in Queensland, and Vic went off with all the apparatus I had been using. So I moved into a corner of another lab, sat down and thought about what I could do for the rest of the time. I had to work with very little equipment and, from the department, no supervision. But I did go across to the Biochemistry Department once or twice and talk to Jack Legge and Bill Rawlinson, who were helpful. I learned that you have to seek the help you need where you can find it.

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A PhD based on bucketsful of autotroph cultures

Why did you do an MSc instead of going straight on to a PhD?

You couldn't do a PhD in Australia at that time. It was introduced, in fact, while I was away doing my PhD at Leeds.

Why Leeds?

It was the time they called 'Austerity' in England, so it was difficult to get in anywhere. They were trying to settle their war debts – they still had rationing and so on – and the universities were very hard pressed for money. I went off to some interviews, but people would not be able to give you an instant answer because they didn't know what the money situation was. Then I met a friend of a half-brother who lived in England. He and the professor at Leeds wanted to isolate an autotroph in a process they were interested in, so when he heard from me that I had done a literature review on autotrophs he suggested that I go to Leeds. I still had to try to find some money in the time it took to get a grant, and a Brisbane businessman – a Mr Hubener, the father of one of the microbiology staff members – helped out. I'm very grateful but, amazingly, I've never met him. I did get an offer later that would probably have suited my career better, but I had said I would go to Leeds so I did.

There I worked on an autotrophic organism which broke down thiocyanate. I was rather surprised recently to find that my PhD work was still being cited, because the autotroph is still being used for dealing with industrial waste. In England it was breaking down the thiocyanate in gasworks liquor, in the days when gas was made from coal – it had to be removed before they could discharge the waste water. It was hard to isolate because it was a strict autotroph, and it was even harder to keep in pure culture. It didn't grow in very great quantities so I used to produce it by the bucketful, which physically was quite hard. I grew 80 litres a week to support my experiments.

Was your supervisor helpful this time?

Well, Howard Rogers was appointed to a job down in London within weeks of my arrival in Leeds, and my other nominal supervisor, Professor Haphold, told me – years later – that, noticing I was rather independent, he left me to my own devices! But it was easier there. We 12 postgraduate students shared things with each other, and the department had staff members from different disciplines. In that, Leeds differed very much from Australia: people just came from all over the place to work together, so it was a very interdisciplinary school. But I also walked up the hill to the Chemistry Department to see Professor Challenger about sulphur chemistry, and by that stage I was pretty well used to going and finding someone to help.

I did meet Howard again once, though. Before I could publish anything about this culture I had to take it live, by hand, to lodge it in a type culture collection – they had to have a living culture and it was very hard to send it to them – and Howard arranged to meet me in the refreshment rooms at Victoria Station! That was it.

So you never really had a mentor?

No. Professor Haphold would have been a mentor for me, had I not married and left. He gave me an Honours student to supervise when I was still doing my PhD, and offered me a temporary lectureship, but at that stage I felt I had to go to Malaya, where my husband had gone. I am sure he would have helped, had I still been around.

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Living in Malaya, married and overqualified

After you finished the PhD in 1954, the normal thing would have been to do some postgraduate work.

Normally, yes, I would have gone on to something like that. Before I ever went to England a contact had been set up for me in the USA, where I would have gone if I hadn't found something in the UK. It would have been difficult. I had a birth certificate showing 'Born in China', and in the McCarthy era people who had been born in China sometimes couldn't even get a permit to go to America. Anyway, I had got married, and Gordon, my husband, had gone to Malaya. It was compulsory for all university graduates in those days to do two years' military training or, alternatively, they could declare conscientious objection or they could do two years in the Colonial Service. He chose two years in the Colonial Service.

Arriving in Malaya, I made some inquiries and found a US Army unit was doing research into new viral diseases. They interviewed me, thought I was overqualified, but after a whole month decided that maybe they would put up with that. So I started to work with them. (The two people that they recruited without any qualms were a BSc from South Africa and a nurse.) They kept coming to take a look at what I was doing down in my lab, to make sure I wasn't doing any research of my own. They did have some justification: I was growing leptospirae and I'd have loved to try and devise a medium of my own. But I didn't, I was good.

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Becoming acquainted with isoniazid

When you returned to Australia, in 1955, what happened about jobs?

It was harder now, and for the first time I ran into what I felt was discrimination. I had a telegram from Professor Rubbo saying he had 'suitable' work, and my idea of suitable work was either a lectureship or some research. Instead it was a routine public health laboratory. When I said, 'Can't I have a better job than this?' I was quite explicitly told, 'You're married. You're going to have children. You won't be able to work.' I was terribly disappointed, and after nine months of such unscientific stuff I was so frustrated that I said I couldn't do it anyway, even if I didn't have something else to do. So I resigned from that. Professor Rubbo then produced a research job, which was much more to my taste. It was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council to work on the drug isoniazid – isonicotinic acid hydrazide – used to treat tuberculosis.

Initially I was a research assistant and later a research fellow. I stayed on that subject at Melbourne University till I left there in the beginning of 1962, and for some time afterwards as well.

It was enjoyable work, although any safety officer these days would have an absolute fit at the things we did. We worked with toxic chemicals with no fume hood, and I worked with open cultures of BCG, the organism that is used for vaccination, in the same lab with people who were working with virulent human tuberculosis. It really was a very unsafe situation, but I still was able to get quite a lot done.

I was particularly concerned with trying to explain how isoniazid worked. There were one or two theories around, but I showed that they couldn't be right and I set up some criteria for how I would know the right one when I found it. I had to find something that isoniazid would do at very low concentration (the organisms were extremely sensitive to this drug) and that other isomers didn't do at all. I did find that coloured substances were being produced by the organism in the presence of isoniazid. I tried to find out what they were, but they had terribly difficult properties: they were unstable, they wouldn't extract into solvents and so on. While I was wondering what next to do about it, I moved to Monash University.

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Seeking a more interdisciplinary environment

Why did you go to Monash?

I got fed up with annually renewed grants. If you had to order something to be made, and it was going to take more than a year, you wouldn't even know whether you would still be there next year when the thing became available. After a number of years of that I said, 'No more,' and I applied for a lectureship at Monash. It was to teach biochemistry from a chemistry department, which really appealed to me because of my background at Leeds. I thought Australian biochemistry was not chemical enough, and Leeds had been such a good example of people coming in from different disciplines and working together. (Even now I think biological scientists in Australia don't get nearly enough chemistry. I could talk for several hours on why I think that!) And no other school in Australia was teaching biochemistry from a base of chemistry.

At a very early stage, however, Monash was persuaded to hand the course over to the professor of biochemistry in the medical faculty. I was offered a choice of moving across to the Biochemistry Department to go on teaching biochemistry, or staying in chemistry to start teaching chemistry. I liked the people I was working with and Professor Brown had said to me he was quite happy for me to go on doing microbiological research, so I chose to stay with the chemistry.

I kept working on the isoniazid, although I hadn't intended to. When I first went to the Chemistry Department, I hadn't really planned what I was going to do, because clearly I was going to be pretty busy for a while, setting up new courses and things. When I gave a seminar to the chemists, however, they said they could easily find out what these coloured substances were and so I was persuaded to start in again – I was back to buckets of cultures. But it was about 20 years too early: the equipment that they thought would solve the problem was not sophisticated enough in the early 1960s. We failed to identify the compounds but I showed that there was an enzyme involved. Deciding I couldn't push it any further at that stage, I decided to write a review of what both I and other people had done. I put quite a lot of effort into that, writing to lots of people to fill in gaps so that if they had forgotten to put something in their papers I could still make it a pretty complete account. I submitted that and then went off on study leave to think about something new to do.

Were there any problems with getting research funding for the isoniazid work?

There hadn't been, but people were beginning to say that we didn't have a tuberculosis problem in Australia any more – that it had been largely solved through public health measures. Although it was and still is a major health problem all round the rest of the world, I got a bit nervous about whether or not the work would go on. But mainly my decision was made because I was getting no further with identifying the crucial molecules for answering the problem.

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Hyphal growth cycles: getting Allomyces to 'jump through hoops'

So what did you decide to go on to after that?

My study leave was in Seattle. I went there in 1968 to learn a bit about microbial genetics, but ended up doing some chemical work for them instead. One person there was working on Allomyces, a fungus which sounded interesting, and during an International Botany Congress I attended an informal meeting where a young geneticist was very keen to get a team of people working on Allomyces. I decided I could be in that, because it didn't require anything I wouldn't have access to in the Chemistry Department, and I liked the idea of a number of us being able to work with this fungus.

Fungi were new for me. I had always worked with bacteria, where all you see is a little dot or dash, but these things grew like little trees: they had roots and branches and produced different kinds of fruiting structures. Looking down the microscope, you could actually watch what was happening; you could then take samples away and analyse them to see chemically what was happening. I decided this was the nicest combination of things I could possibly get. On my way back I visited Berkeley and got cultures from Professor Emerson – he had first worked with these organisms and was a very nice, encouraging man – and from Dr Machlis. Then I headed off back to Australia, and started to work with Allomyces.

Was that a good choice of project for someone in the Chemistry Department?

Yes, it was. I had to get extra funding, but I switched at that stage from the National Health and Medical Research Council to the Australian Research Grants Committee, because it wasn't a medical research subject. This dear little organism is a good one: it doesn't harm anybody or anything. I did all sorts of things with it, but I became predominantly interested in how its chemical environment controlled its development – and, as some friends at Aberdeen subsequently said, 'teaching it to jump through hoops'. I knew how to make it do things to order, which was very useful.

Some of my results were controversial, though. Just studying various aspects of this organism, I realised that I had moved – almost accidentally, I suppose – into what the biologists know as growth cycles, when a cell goes through a series of changes and then divides. A cell cycle is the time between one nuclear division and the next. The literature said that fungi grew exclusively at the apex but I observed that Allomyces in each cycle alternated between growth at the apex and growth at the base of the hypha. Terry O'Brien, in the Botany Department, who was always very helpful, explained to me how heretical this was and said we would have to be very careful about recording it, to make sure that we established very clearly what was happening.

Terry had what we needed for time-lapse photography, and a very bright student turned up who was interested in doing it: Ann Cleary, who had done both botany and chemistry. So it was possible, with the things I knew about managing the organism, for us to make a time-lapse film of these events. I wrote a paper and sent it off.

Mr Bennett, at CSIRO, rang me up and said, 'One of the overseas referees says not to publish your paper because he doesn't believe it. But I'm going to publish it, because you've got your data there.' That was nice, but over the next few days I began to think, 'If this one doesn't believe it, perhaps I've got to go and show a few people or they won't believe it either.' That was about 1986. I began to think of somewhere to go, asked for study leave, and went off to Aberdeen the next year.

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Investigating why hyphae grow this way and not that

Why did you choose Aberdeen?

I had looked around to see who was working on growth in other fungal organisms and found that three people in one department had published. In particular, one person working there (Neil Gow) had theories about how hyphae grew. He was measuring the tiny, tiny electric currents that flow into and out of growing cells. I realised that my organism was the perfect one for testing his theory that these currents determined the direction of growth: the current should reverse and flow the other way when the fungus switched from growing at the tip to growing at the base. I wrote off to them that I had this organism, and they invited me across.

It was difficult to grow Allomyces exactly as Neil needed for the experiments. His vibrating probe electrode was very fragile and under the microscope had to be moved close to a single hypha. The hyphae had to be firmly attached to the agar medium on which they grew so that the vibrating electrode would not shake them loose. The organisms had to be well separated and facing in the right direction. I had to use chemotropism to make them grow in the right direction and eventually we were able to take the measurements. Bad luck for Neil, they didn't reverse. He was rather disappointed, because that wrecked his theory.

Besides that main work, at times when Neil was away I did all sorts of other things. Before I left I wrote it all up, and we published a paper on what I had done. But when I went back to Monash I was getting rather close to retirement age and wanted to finish up a lot of other things, so I put the Aberdeen work out of my mind and just went back to my own program.

Weren't you invited to return to Aberdeen in 1990? I think the Australian Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce gave you some international cooperative research money.

Yes. Professor Graham Gooday had written to me, saying that they would really like me to come back and check out another theory for Neil – but that they couldn't produce any money. Well, it was difficult: Australian universities don't usually let you go on leave in your last year before retirement, and I was going to have to find the money. Then the Department in Canberra gave me a grant and the university agreed I could go, but I could only take two months. I just had too much else to do.

This time, Neil wanted to see whether, even though the currents didn't reverse when the direction of growth reversed, maybe the flow of certain ions would reverse instead. Again it needed special equipment, but nothing like as hard to set up this time as previously – except that Neil was too busy and I had to go and find another person who could do the same thing. I couldn't come back and tell the government I hadn't done the work after all. But again it was disappointing for Neil.

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Chelator specificity: upsetting the assumptions

That time I felt even more like a wet-blanket. They were using the compounds we call chelators and assuming that they were specific for calcium; they didn't really want to know about it when I said they weren't. We had great difficulty in agreeing what we were going to publish because of the calcium question. I came back to Monash in quite a dilemma and started thinking what I should do about the calcium story.

I asked one of my chemistry colleagues at Monash to write a computer program for us to calculate the concentrations of ions other than calcium, and I started looking up the literature and writing to people. Gradually I got sucked in more and more, but it was very disillusioning. I couldn't believe that anything could have gone so badly wrong as that whole biological literature on calcium. And when I wrote to people I got a fairly hostile response. The first time I tried to write something about it, I entitled the paper 'Do fungi need calcium?' and referees wrote back, 'Of course they need calcium! She's not allowed to ask this question.' That was what I was dealing with.

By then I had moved across to the Biology Department, and, being retired, I wasn't very inclined to do anything more about calcium. But editors said that I had to do some more experiments. It was very hard to get the work published. Referees wouldn't read papers properly and they would just say they didn't believe it – a whole mountain of papers on the subject couldn't all be wrong. But they were wrong, because right at the beginning, in about 1960, someone had made a statement and everybody else had followed it without checking. It was quite a disaster.

When the compound that most of them were using initially – EGTA – was first synthesised, all the stability constants for a whole stack of cations had been published. Had people looked in the literature, they would have found that EGTA was a more effective binder of iron, zinc and manganese ions, for which there were well-known functions in cells, than of calcium. And the way they were using it, they were going to make the cells deficient in these other essential ions and not necessarily in calcium at all. For all of that long time since someone started the ball rolling, people had been saying EGTA was specific for calcium, yet it was known not to be.

I went through each one of a whole lot of other chelators that people were using and found that although they didn't always have a complete range of stability constants, in all of them calcium was less well bound than other important ions. Yet everyone was behaving as if that were not so, and when I did my review of the literature it was just amazing to be constantly reading 'This is specific for…'. I wrote the review when I found they were actually beginning to define another chelator as specific for manganese, and I thought, 'It's got to stop somewhere.'

I couldn't get the first paper published in the Journal of General Microbiology, because the referees were all in the calcium 'clique'. But in the end I wrote to another journal, saying that the paper had been refused by the Journal of General Microbiology and asking them, 'Please will you at least have one chemist as a referee, who'll understand what I'm talking about?' And so I managed to get two experimental papers published about the problems in the use of EGTA. Getting the review published went more smoothly: the outside cover of Critical Reviews in Microbiology said that they liked controversy.

Have you managed to persuade people of this now?

Some. One group in America repeated what I had done with another organism, getting exactly the same results. When I sent them my second paper, telling how some of the chelates were actually toxic and therefore it was even harder to use them, they wrote back that they had found the same thing themselves. And a number of people would go so far as to say, 'Yes, we've been pretty careless and we've assumed too much that what is true of mammalian cells is true of plants and microbes. We'll be more careful in future.' But I found recently from the Citation Index that some of the diehards, even though they're still citing my review, aren't actually doing any of the things I said needed to be done. I think it is going to take some time.

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Questions of reputation, responsibility and opportunity

You retired in 1990 but you have already said you did not stop working.

No. I moved over to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – which I think has just changed its name again. (All around the world people keep changing the names of their biology departments, and it's hard to keep track.) I did sundry things there, but I was still working on this calcium stuff and I was helping out with some other fungal work. One of my friends broke her working wrist, and I did some work with her for a while when she couldn't use it. And I had contacts with students and things like that.

You established your international reputation in the Allomyces area, didn't you?

There aren't very many people working with Allomyces, but yes, I think I could say my name would be associated with it now. In fact, in 1994 after a conference in Canada, I spent two weeks in California because Professor Bartnicki Garcia was sceptical about whether the non-apical hyphal growth could be true, even though I now had the people in Aberdeen saying it was. He was also wanting to do some experiments with micro-organisms in a kind of microcell. So I showed him the phenomenon and how to set up the culture.

What effect did it have on you that referees, in particular, just refused to believe what you were writing?

I found it terribly disillusioning. It doesn't fit in with my idea of what science is like or about. I'm currently helping a woman from Shanghai with a business ethics course that she is doing from the University of Queensland, and from my experience I would agree with the idea that we should introduce ethics courses into science faculties. A lot of issues need to be handled – and not just the obvious ones like faking results or pinching other people's data but also the responsibility of referees to be open-minded and do a proper job, read things carefully, and the supervision of students and also, from some of the gossip I've heard, reading PhD theses carefully. There are a lot of these things that just relate to responsibility.

For the life of me I don't know where we stand with respect to women in science. Not long ago I was having some disagreement at Monash because I said, 'I don't go out to schools persuading girls to do science. If they've caught the bug I will do anything I can to help them, but if they haven't, it's not a good bug to catch if you are married or if you want to be, and particularly if you want to have a family.' Some of my colleagues were quite cross, saying their graduate students were getting good jobs, so I said, 'Well, tell me about them.' Their reply was, 'Oh, they're reps for this or that company, and they love having their new car,' so I said, 'Yes, and where's that going? Find me a woman chemist in Australia who has a good job, and who has had a family and children without that being really difficult to do.' They haven't come back.

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Administrative and professional puzzles

Your administrative skills are legendary at Monash University, especially in connection with the science timetable but also in general.

Well, it's one of those things. Monash only started in 1961, and in 1964 I was asked to look after the first-year laboratories and tutorials. All the students had four tutorials a week in those days. No university, we were told, had ever grown as fast as Monash did, and I found unbelievable confusion. With a class of 300 they had over-enrolled by 100 students and so there was a lot of reorganisation to do. I said we would have to cycle experiments so that the rare equipment was shared, but people said, 'Oh, you can't do that.' I did get chemistry practical classes sorted out.

By then I had become aware that although classes began in March, it was June before the registrar sent out accurate class lists. So I started an unofficial faculty enrolment – did it solo the first year, and got the other departments in to help for a couple of years until it became faculty policy – and from doing that I went to giving individual students their timetables so that both they and we knew where they had to be. The faculty eventually took that over too and it was done by computer. Oh, and then the chairmen were all planning to build one big lecture theatre. But I said they would need six small ones. When they said, 'Prove it,' I had to write notional timetables for the year 1970 with all the additional courses we were supposed to have.

So I had quite an impact on a lot of people. That's why the legend happened, really. I went on doing timetables as required until I retired. I like doing timetables. I don't like getting the information, I don't like persuading people to accept the results, but the timetable itself is a nice puzzle.

Yet you were never promoted, Jean, despite your very impressive list of publications – a book and some 60 research articles. People are promoted in universities on much less than that. Was it because you stayed in the Chemistry Department when they stopped teaching biochemistry that you never became associate professor?

I think it was a major reason. People seemed eventually to be very confused as to what I was. Chemists couldn't quite see me as a chemist and often introduced me as a microbiologist, and when I spent my study leaves in microbiology departments for a change of air I was always introduced as a chemist. I did twice go and see professors about promotion, but I got no encouragement at all and I didn't know then what to do. To this day I don't know what the process is. I didn't know you could go ahead and apply anyway, so I just gave up. But that was part of my upbringing too: I had the reverse of assertiveness training.

You and your departmental colleagues were working in very different areas. They didn't quite know what you were doing, did they?

No, except on odd occasions when I'd come round to the stage of wanting to identify some unknown molecule that had cropped up in my cultures. That was something they could relate to, but the rest was total mystery.

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Lighting the way for others

You have a very strong social conscience and have helped with various community projects. Can you say something about those?

Well, I worked on Lifeline emergency telephones for four years, back in the '70s. And among other things I have written some submissions on social issues, such as for the Victorian inquiry into dying with dignity. While I was still teaching, I did a little bit of language tutoring under the Home Tutor Scheme – not as enjoyable as what I'm doing now with Holmesglen TAFE, because I get tertiary educated, professional people who need to upgrade their English for the sake of their work. I learn new things with them, like tax law and business ethics, as I said before.

In universities, I understand, you much preferred research to teaching, but you have a reputation as an excellent and dedicated teacher.

I do like teaching. It's funny, my two half-sisters said, 'Don't, whatever you do, be a teacher,' but perhaps it is a good idea to be a scientist first. I see it as research: you have to find out what the problem for your student is. I like trying to work out how to solve a problem for somebody. And I had memories of my first year at Melbourne, when it was such a struggle, so I used to look out for students trying to do the same sort of thing. I suppose that's where the reputation came from.

And perhaps from a book you wrote.

I got interested in programmed education. I experimented on a first-year class with some drafts and I was very impressed – I had to plead with them to go home, which is rather different from giving a lecture. So I started to write a course for our first-year organic chemistry course. It became a joint effort in the end, and it was published in book form. We used it for quite a long time, 20-odd years.

You went to a lot of trouble to locate those students who needed help, and always made time available to them.

It arose when I was first looking after first year. I saw a lot of enrolment data and looked through it for what kind of students we had. I had thought that my problem was a peculiar one just caused by the war and so on. But to my surprise I found that some students in first year had either failed chemistry at HSC or hadn't done it, and I knew how difficult that was going to be. So I experimented over time, trying to find ways of helping them. It was very difficult because, like me, they didn't really want to let on that they were having a problem. But in the end – 1967, I think – I put out a questionnaire to the first-year students. They asked for the impossible: someone sitting in the library eight hours a day, ready to answer their questions. As next best, Mrs Williams, in the department, set up a resource centre where they could go, not eight hours a day but any lunchtime, and get questions answered as they arose. They didn't have to identify what their problem was; they could just go in with their question. That is the best solution we have been able to find.

And you yourself helped them a lot.

When I first went there, we were all told not to encourage students to come and consult us privately, because it would waste too much of our time. But I never ever found any student who abused that. I used to tell them where I was and say, 'You might come at a time when I'm in the middle of an experiment, and if I ask you then to come back some time else, it's not a put-off. It just means I will see you but right this minute I can't.' And that worked. It had been unnecessary for people to worry that students would make a nuisance of themselves. They didn't.

So, having never had a mentor, you have acted as one to others.

To some, yes. On one particular occasion, in 1975, I went to the university at Aberystwyth, and the professor there reminded me that I had given him some very good advice when he was the Honours student I looked after in Leeds. It's interesting, students don't always have an appreciation of how academics are going to view something. He was their top student and he wanted to go to somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge, but he was scared that if he asked the professor to support him in transferring to do a PhD at Oxford he would somehow get himself into hot water. And I said, 'I don't think so. I think Professor would be very proud of you and would like to show off his product.' So Gareth plucked up his courage and went to Oxford with Professor Happold's blessing. I'd forgotten the incident, but he told me it had really set him on the right path, because he then went to a very good lab in America and so on – which is the way things work. See, I knew what people should do, but I didn't know how to do it for myself!

Jean, you have obviously made an enormous contribution to at least three disciplines. Thank you very much indeed for participating in this interview.

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