Professor Nancy Millis, microbiologist

Nancy Millis received a Bachelor of Agricultural Science in 1945, a Master of Agricultural Science in 1948 and a Doctorate in Science (Hon) in 1993, all from the University of Melbourne. She was awarded a Boots Research Scholarship in the UK and used it to study at the University of Bristol where she received a PhD in 1952. Her doctoral research was on microbial growth and fermentation in cider that started her lifelong interest in anything that ferments. From 1952-1988 Millis was at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Melbourne. She became senior demonstrator in 1952 and lecturer in 1954. She was awarded a personal chair in 1982 and held it until her retirement. She was awarded emeritus professor status in 1987 in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. In her time at the university, she set up the applied microbiology course and worked to link universities and industry. Millis was involved in the setting up of the Recombinant DNA Monitoring Committee in 1980. This committee was replaced in 1987 by the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC), which she chaired until June 2001 when GMAC was replaced by the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee. Emeritus Professor Millis passed away in September 2012.

Interviewed by Ms Sally Morrison in 2001.



Professor Millis founded the first real course in biotechnology, within the Microbiology Department of the University of Melbourne. Today she is an Emeritus Professor in that department. At the same time, she is Chancellor of La Trobe University, and since 1980 has chaired the Recombinant DNA Monitoring Committee. In addition, she chairs the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Quality and Treatment, and is on the board of the CRC for Freshwater Ecology.

Early delights

Nancy, you were born in 1922 in Melbourne, where your father was a fruit merchant at the Victoria Market. Would you say that your first impressions of the world came to you through the markets?

I suppose so, yes. There is a smell about very large amounts of fruit which I find most evocative. I never go anywhere in the world without sniffing the air for that specially aromatic smell of lots of fruit which tells me there’s a market somewhere around.

One of the things the family company did was to ripen bananas, which came down from Queensland or northern New South Wales in dead-green condition. The cases then had the lids taken from them and were put into rooms in which coal gas burners were lit – but in those days it wasn’t really known that the burners provided not only temperature but a little bit of ethylene as well, and that was why the bananas turned yellow as they ripened. When we were kids it was our delight to go in to the market with our father on Sunday morning each week or perhaps once a fortnight and to smell the bananas in these rooms.

I must say I have always enjoyed travel, and everywhere I go I look out the window to see what people are growing, how they’re growing it, what they’re doing, at what time of year. If you look out the window at any piece of countryside you can always see something going on.

The market didn’t cater just for the ordinary Saturday buyer, did it?

Oh no. The fruit that was sold in the greengrocers’ shops all around the suburbs was bought wholesale from the markets as perhaps half a dozen cases of apples or oranges or bananas or whatever it might be. My family was in that wholesale side of the business, and would also contract to very large vessels. When the P&O and Orient ships came in, they would need to provender for their next journey, so the family’s business might provide, depending on the season, large numbers of things like oranges and apples. Perishable fruits like bananas would be bought in relatively small amounts but the shipping lines would certainly buy all of the fruits that could travel well, and they would buy those in Australia rather than in, say, Europe or London.

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School days and play days

I have heard you say that you don’t have any mentors. But surely your family played a very large part in your development. You were the fifth child of six and you had practical, intelligent parents.

That’s undoubtedly true, yes. My parents were wonderfully supportive of all us kids. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, they must have sacrificed greatly to send us to schools which gave us a very good education, and from that point of view I certainly was given every chance.

We lived in Brighton, in an old semi-Victorian house which had no great architecture but was a very happy place to live. There was a central passage with rooms off either side for ever, and a big living area (the ‘breakfast room’) where we ate all our meals. We had a huge kitchen and even a wood-fire stove, on which my mother cooked very well. Our large garden at the back had once had a tennis court, but with four boys in the family we played football and cricket there rather than tennis. And with a huge verandah all the way round the house, we always had somewhere to play.

I felt we had a very contented and fulfilled childhood. We had no expensive entertainment like skiing or ice skating or any of those things which cost money, and as kids we never had pocket money in any sense at all, but we lived near the beach and we used it a lot. We swam as long as the summer would permit – as far as we were concerned, the summer began in September. (When I think of it now I curl up, but we used to consider Show Day as Swimming Day.) Altogether, it was a great way for a child to grow up.

After state school you went to Merton Hall, where you came across a marvellous maths teacher. Would you tell us about her?

She was a remarkable lady named Winifred Waddell, who had many interests. She was a mathematical tripos from Cambridge, but was also greatly interested in the native flora of Australia and became an expert, particularly in the High Plains flora. She was an extremely able teacher but she wasn’t very much interested unless you had maths ability! She was a bit inclined to say, ‘Do you understand that, child?’ and if child responded, ‘No, I don’t,’ she’d say, ‘Oh, give it a miss and do French.’

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A shaky start in the work force

When you were still in your third year at Merton Hall, your father had a serious heart attack. What happened then?

Because my father’s heart attack was pretty severe, it was decided – and I could understand this – that it was appropriate for me to be able to earn a living if anything happened to him. And so I went to a business college, where I think ‘learnt’ would be slightly overdescriptive of my skills in typewriting, shorthand or bookkeeping. But I did all of those things and I later had a job as a bookkeeper in the office of a Customs agent. Oh God, it was a terrible job, but never mind, I did it. Then my sister heard that CSIRO was looking for technicians, which sounded a lot more interesting than what I was doing in the Customs agent’s office. So I became a technician in the then Department of Forest Products, down on Yarra Bank Road where the casino now stands.

You were measuring the strengths of woods for aircraft frames, I believe, by sitting on a crossbeam on top of a table and looking through a telescope! Whatever was that about?

Well, on this occasion they were measuring the strength of ‘timber connectors’ – instead of great big beams, they had beams which were in parallel and held with a metal connector. They wanted to know: if you put pressure on the end of a beam, how much would it withstand before breaking? In order to measure this they put a ruler across the middle of the beam and then compressed it from above, and somebody had to measure the rate at which the beam distorted and finally broke. But to do the measurements you had to be fairly high up in the air, so there I sat – with my telescope – on top of an extraordinary collection of tables and chairs and scaffolding.

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Enjoying life as an agricultural student

Eventually you managed to do your Matriculation part-time, over two years. Your sister Jean (eight years older than you) had already done science at university and was by now a biochemist, and you wanted to do science too. But when you rolled up to the University of Melbourne you were told, ‘’Fraid you can’t enrol in science, because you’ve done your Matric over two years. We require it done over one.’ So what happened then, Nancy?

That was a bit disappointing, of course. But again my sister helped me, with the very good advice that the degree of agricultural science would be particularly interesting and similar, in fact, to the science degree. So I went across to the Faculty of Agricultural Science and told Professor – later Sir Samuel – Wadham that I had applied to Science and they would not accept me. He looked at my Matriculation passes and at what I had been doing, and said, ‘Oh well, I’ll give you a go.’

Your year was the first one ever to go to Dookie Agricultural College, where you had a good time. Can you tell us about that?

Dookie is situated in the northern central part of Victoria, not far from the Broken River, in a very pretty part of the world. The rolling countryside is not particularly fertile, but the college had an excellent teaching area, with a dairy, a piggery, chooks and sheep. It was a very pleasant place from that point of view.

This was in the days before coeducation had come in, and usually there would be only one or two women in the agricultural year – sometimes none at all. But ours was a bumper year, three of us, with about a hundred young gentlemen at Dookie. The diploma there was very much for practical farmers, and they were all from farms or wanted to run farms or to be assistants to agricultural scientists.

I enjoyed my life as an agricultural student enormously. Getting up to get the cows in at five in the morning was not exactly your choice – particularly in winter, which was inclined to be a bit chilly. But Livestock, which we did on horseback, was always a pleasure and we used to enjoy that.

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Recalling some memorable contributions by women

The agricultural course started in 1918. In the 27 years to 1945, when you graduated BAgSc, there were only 24 women graduates. What was the fate of the women who were with you in your year?

Jane Kent-Hughes married a fellow ag, and she and her husband farmed down Maffra way. Later, she taught in the high school in Sale. So here was a person who had done an ag science degree and contributed back to the community, both in bringing up a happy family and by teaching in secondary schools. My other colleague, Pat Howard, was the most gorgeous looking girl, a very nice person and sharp as a tack – she won all the Exhibitions. She also married, and had a family of four delightful daughters. Pat and her husband, a medico, lived in the northern New South Wales towns of Grafton and Lismore. He was an eye man and Pat assisted in that. She was an enormously important person in the community and would have contributed greatly to the wealth of the cultural life there.

She actually took the Exhibition ahead of all those chaps, and the other two of you did well also. But you were the only one to become a professional academic, perhaps because your family understood independent women and indeed had a tradition of producing them. Would you tell us about the Millis aunts in the office?

There were 11 children in my father’s family, and his older sisters ran the office for the family business. Elizabeth and Florence – Liz and Flo – were remarkable ladies. Flo was large, and I am afraid I have inherited her rather large chin. They lived in Brighton, as we did, and they would pick us kids up to go to school. (They would drop me off by the Shrine [of Remembrance] and I would walk up to the school from there.) Flo was the one who ‘drove the car’. She was an absolute menace on the road. She would talk like a thrashing-machine, and it was always very hazardous. That journey in for school was always exciting, because you never knew what sort of traffic hazards my aunt would create on her way.

Your mother, who brought up a family of six children, was in her own way quite independent and strong-minded, wasn’t she?

Oh yes. My mother was in no way professional, yet she was an outstanding woman – a lovely person of great intelligence, with a splendid sense of humour. She too lived in the community and contributed a great deal through the various activities which went on in her neighbourhood. Though not an academic person herself, she understood about these things and was very encouraging for the family.

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Glimpsing a different world

Jean also belonged to the family tradition of independent-minded women, continuing her work as a professional biochemist after she married. I’d like to hear about the time you spent with her in Singapore after your graduation.

After Jean graduated she joined the staff of the University of Melbourne, in the Biochemistry School, and then later she went up to the University of Singapore – which was then still part of the University of London – and was on the staff for 11 or 12 years. She was interested in the nutritional intake of children. Many people in Singapore were pretty poorly nourished, and there was interest in assisting to improve the diet of the various ethnic communities: Chinese, Indian and Malay. The Chinese were much easier to help, in that they had a broader tolerance of what foods they would actually eat, but certain groups had religious problems, particularly, with eating such meats as pork. Those could simply not be added to the diet.

My sister had a team of young folk – Chinese or Malays or Indians, as the case might be – who went around into the various shop-houses in Singapore to weigh children in their homes. There’s no way that the mothers would go to a clinic as you might go to a health centre here, so the team had to go to them. When I visited my sister on one occasion I went around to see how it was all done. These little shop-houses would be no more than about 10 or 12 feet wide. You’d walk through whatever activity was going on in the shop, right through to the back, upstairs, and off a passageway, there would be small rooms for three or four families, perhaps, living in the rooms. So you might find that a bed for father and mother would have then an underlayer and an overlayer and a side layer as well.

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The Masters graduate preparing for something completely different

When you graduated in 1945, the state Department of Agriculture made you a rather boring job offer that sent you scurrying back to university to do a Masters degree.

Well, in those days the Department of Agriculture was about the only employer of female ag science graduates. They told me there was a job in the seed testing section. This was certainly an important section of the work, but in effect you just counted out 100 seeds on blotting paper, put ’em in the incubator so they germinated, and then counted how many did germinate. I thought, ‘God, have I done four years for a job like this!’ So I rather explained to them that I wasn’t specially interested in that one.

About that time, however, the then lecturer in microbiology asked if I would like to do a Masters degree, and that sounded an awful lot better. So I began to study a soil organism, pseudomonad, that denitrifies nitrate – that is, it reduces nitrate to nitrogen gas. Studying how it does that, and why, was a very much more interesting activity than counting seeds.

As a Masters graduate you joined a project which the Department of External Affairs, under Sir Paul Hasluck, had going in Papua New Guinea. What was that, Nancy?

By then I’d had a bibful of the academic life and thesis writing and all that stuff. I decided I’d like to go to an outdoor job, so with Mary Eggleston, another agricultural graduate, I joined the department to be a field officer in the Papuan agricultural extension service. Neither of us knew too much about agriculture or anything else in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, so we were sent first to the School of Pacific Studies – in a lovely spot on Middle Head, Sydney – to spend about three months learning a little bit about New Guinea government, some anthropology and so on.

I got a bit cheesed off with the anthropologists: they were telling us very interesting stuff about how tribal life was organised and so on, but as agricultural scientists we wanted to know what our role would be in such a system. In other words, if the agricultural systems we were learning about were to slash and burn and move on through the forest, should we continue to do this or promote other methods of agricultural production? And if other methods were to be used, how could they be least disruptive to the way of life of the group? I didn’t find that the anthropologists addressed that latter question at all.

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A perilous episode

What happened when eventually you arrived in Port Moresby?

We were meant to go and make contact with the Papuan women. The women do the agricultural work – the men just assist by first felling the trees – so the concept of having women agricultural officers is pretty sensible. But when we arrived it was clear that nobody had thought about what they were going to do with us. We spent about two months just doing odd jobs around the place – organising their library, fixing up various bits of correspondence that hadn’t been done, and working up people’s CVs for them. In fact, we were sort of administrative people.

We were supposedly waiting to go down to the Fly River, of all places, where they had an outpost of empire which was concerned with production from sago palms. Fortunately for me, the ship was late and I didn’t actually catch it.

This is Nancy Millis’s idea of good fortune, I might say – not everybody’s!

The reason was that about then I picked up some pretty virulent bug which gave me a most unpleasant time of very severe abdominal pain, and I finished up with a massive peritonitis. Again I was a bit lucky, though, in that a reasonably good surgeon who was with one of the petroleum companies happened to be in Port Moresby, so he did a Zoology I job on my stomach and put in a few drainage tubes and so on. But things didn’t go too well. I had a pulmonary embolus and renal failure and all sorts of stuff went astray, and I was in hospital there for nearly three months. I was not awfully well.

You only survived the episode because they managed to send some streptomycin up from Melbourne.

Yes. In those early days, penicillin was all that was freely available, but as I now know, it doesn’t do much good for the organisms you have in your alimentary canal if they get into your peritoneum. So although I was given penicillin and it probably helped, streptomycin was a very much better and more effective drug against that combination. Otherwise I might not have been here.

They flew me in a little aircraft to Brisbane and put me into a huge Crimean War style ward – it still had board beds. Oh dear, it was uncomfortable. But never mind, I made it to there. Then they flew me down to Melbourne, and I went into hospital because I still had pretty severe pneumonia in about 1½ lungs; I had about half a lung to live on at that stage. I had to dry out there for about a week.

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Another country, another research topic

Home in Melbourne after that terrible experience, what did you do next?

I had no money and no job, and it was not advisable to go back to the tropics, so I looked about for a job. Then I saw an ad for a Boots Research Scholarship in UK, at Bristol, with a closing date pretty soon, and I wrote them a most awful application – the more I think about it, the more embarrassed I am – saying I’d like to come. But just then an aunt of mine left me a small legacy of £200 which would just get me a steerage class berth on the  Largs Bay  (a ship of no great beauty which rolled its way to Britain over about three weeks) so I wrote that I was coming anyway, gave a bank address and said that if they wanted to see me they’d have to write to the bank. And off I went, with no idea whether the outcome would be good, bad or indifferent. I knew I could bum a bed with one of my friends taking PhDs in Cambridge, London or somewhere, and that’s what I did on arrival. I was lucky enough to be interviewed for the scholarship and to be given it. So I spent three years very pleasantly at the University of Bristol.

What choices of topic did you have?

When I was interviewed, they said that had three areas which might be of some interest to me because of my microbiological background. One was the phenomenon of gleying in Scottish soils – presumably sulphate reduction in waterlogged clays, which sounded rather dull and wet so I didn’t go for that too well. The next was strawberry littleleaf, a virus disease of strawberries. Knowing absolutely nothing about viruses, I thought it best not to buy that one. Thirdly, I might like to investigate the disorders which strike cider. That seemed to me a very much more pleasant activity, so for three years I looked at the fermentation of cider.

I came home in December/January. I knew the organism I had been primarily working with in the UK could affect beer, so I thought the brewery might like to employ me. Down there, everywhere I went I saw huge great burly blokes with CUB [Carlton United Brewery] written across their middles, and I thought, ‘Oh God, what sort of a place is this?’ Finally I got into the labs and said to the guys, ‘Here I am. Wouldn’t you like to employ me?’ I think I was a bit of an embarrassment, though; I don’t think they had ever employed a female in such a context. So I’m afraid I got the heave-ho.

I wasn’t all that keen to look for a job anyway. After three winters and three so-called summers in UK, it was so lovely to have a nice warm summer that I thought, ‘Oh, who wants to work?’ and for a while I really didn’t look too hard.

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Gathering and sharing ideas in microbiology

So how did you return to working in microbiology?

I went in to see Professor Rubbo at the University of Melbourne and told him, ‘If anybody wants a microbiologist, I’m in the market.’ With that I went home and ‘the living was easy’. About three weeks later he phoned me up, ‘Would you like a job in the Department of Microbiology?’ and so I joined the department.

In 1952 and ’53 you were a demonstrator in that department. The next year Professor Rubbo appointed you as a lecturer. Also, seeing a future in the fermentation of penicillin, which by then was being done in a large way, he sent you to Marvin J Johnson’s laboratory.

Marvin Johnson was in charge of the fermentation and biochemistry area at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. He had a very active, lively lab of about 14 or 15 people: half were Americans from every state in the Union, and the other half were from all round the world. We had Indians, Australians, Swedes, Dutch, you name it. This man was remarkable, the most imaginative and demanding person but an excellent teacher. I’ve been very fortunate in the people with whom I’ve been associated, and he was an extremely good person. His special skills were in understanding how to manage a mould – which needs lots of oxygen and has traditionally been grown on still-surface cultures – so that by the use of appropriate aeration technology it would grow in a great big tank. The understanding of how to do that, and its importance, was an enormous contribution that Johnson made.

Between 1954 and ’63 you set up the Applied Microbiology course, concentrating on fermentation techniques and the physiology of micro-organisms. Then your sabbatical fell due and for the first three months of it you returned to the United States.

I went to the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford, not far from where Cannery Row (of Hemingway fame) is situated. This laboratory was run by C B Van Neil, an outstanding microbiologist who gave a summer course each year – a course that really can only be given by an absolute master of the literature and the history of the subject. He explored the concept of how microbiology developed, and the significance of discoveries in allowing ‘the next big step’ to happen. He was very conscious, too, of the importance of equipment. If you could measure something by using spectrophotometers or electron microscopes or whatever the piece of technology was, a new piece of information could be put in place and would assist in developing new ideas. His contribution to me was to make me aware of the way in which ideas develop in a science. It was a wonderful cultural experience.

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Making the most of international collaboration

You went to Japan for the rest of your sabbatical. What did you do there?

I went across to the Institute of Applied Microbiology at the University of Tokyo, because the work being done there in a link-up between chemical engineers and microbiologists had sounded interesting when I read about it. I began by meeting the person in charge of the laboratory, Professor Shuichi Aiba. He was a very mathematically minded engineer and very authoritarian – not in any bad way, but with a great understanding of the hierarchy of the system, which quite suited his personality. I’m not entirely wrapped in that approach to life, but when you’re a guest in a lab you have to go along with it.

I was trying to learn how to experiment with continuous-culture techniques, a technique which was just coming in at that time. But I had a problem: because he had so many very bright young people doing the experiments, and I was regarded as a visiting  Sensei, a visiting scientist of ‘great renown’ – which is quite untrue, but I was a visiting scientist, and I was a woman, and I had white hair – it was absolutely impossible for me to  do  anything. Just when I was getting enormously frustrated, Shuichi told me that he was expecting a visiting Fulbright from the United States, Arthur Humphrey. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll await Arthur’s arrival and see whether between us we can’t salvage something out of this.’

You were just about to write to Rubbo to say, ‘Think of any reason to bring me home,’ weren’t you?

More or less. But when Arthur came I found we had a marvellous mix. I had a fairly strong biological background, Arthur had a good background in biology and a reasonably good background in engineering, and Shuichi (whom we called ‘Schlitz’) was first-rate in engineering, especially the mathematical aspects. So the three of us could really tackle how to scale up a fermentation process from something you can do in a little flask to something you can do in 100,000 litres – a very different set of problems.

Also, between us we gave probably the first integrated course in biotechnology in Japan. We called our course Biochemical Engineering, but today I think it would be called Biotechnology. That made those few months very good for me, very useful and instructive. Later, when we each returned to our respective labs, we wrote a text based on our course – if not the first textbook of its kind, certainly one of the earliest. I think it proved quite a useful document. Writing it was an interesting exercise, because Arthur wrote in what I must say was excruciating journalese, Schlitz wrote in rather stilted English, I wrote in whatever English I’m capable of, and I made myself the editor to rewrite Schlitz’s English and curb the worst of Arthur’s journalese! So we exchanged manuscripts round the table, so to speak. (Remember that the three of us were 6000 kilometres or so apart.) Finally I had Shuichi come down here and stay in our house for a week or so, to sort out the worst of our problems.

Tell me how Shuichi and your Mum got along.

They got along very well. My mother looked after him beautifully, and I knew enough about the custom to realise that he would need to be waited on so we made sure that all happened. And I also made sure we  always  had rice; that was essential. Fortunately, Schlitz very much enjoyed my mother’s home cooking, and especially breakfast, which was a great meal as far as he was concerned. They respected each other, and altogether it was thoroughly acceptable.

By the way, we called him Schlitz because he enjoyed Schlitz beer when he was in the States. ‘Schlitz’ was near enough to ‘Shuichi’ for us to call him that – so we did.

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Surviving in an unfamiliar society

As a woman in Japan, did you encounter any obvious differences in social customs?

Well, I had an interesting cultural problem  when I was invited for a meal with other biotechnical people. I would always be the only woman, because the custom is not to have your wife go along on a social occasion. We would go to, perhaps, a large fermentation company. Schlitz, Arthur and I would all sit down to a very nice meal with the people from the company, and each course of the meal would be presented on the delightful china with which all Japanese food is served. But I didn’t ever know when the signal would come for us actually to pick up the chopsticks and eat. It wouldn’t be the hostess who would begin that operation, as it might be here. Knowing for sure that it wouldn’t be me, I could just sit and let it all flow by, and when the host of the day raised his chopsticks I knew I too might do so.

The meal would take a great deal of time. We might have seven or eight dishes, and although the servings were very small – delicate, delightful, but not large – they would take a great deal of time and a good deal of sake was consumed. Not that that worried me at all.

You would have been on your knees for all that time.

No, I sat Buddha style, cross-legged, as the gentlemen do. Much later I discovered that no lady ever does that. I’m glad I didn’t discover it at the time, because I tried sitting ‘properly’ and it’s absolutely excruciating. So as far as I’m concerned, I might have sat as no lady should but it was the only way I could survive the night!

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The roles of applied and basic science

In Japan you would have found that university research and the business community had extremely close links. Was this approach useful to you when Australian universities came up against the necessity to make money if ends were to meet?

I’ve always been an applied scientist so it’s never really worried me that the work I do has a fairly direct, practical application. I have found that if industry wants to work with an academic, it is usually because there is some problem or difficulty or process which the current staff do not have the time or perhaps the skills to deal with. Therefore, any work with a company in that way is nearly always to tackle a problem rather than to do some routine job. Companies can get plenty of people to do analytical stuff for them, but if you work with a company which has a problem, you’ve got a challenge. Consequently it has never seemed to me to be too much of a difficulty at the professional level.

Making the actual connection between an industry person and an academic is something which has been very slow to develop in the Australian system. We haven’t had a long tradition of doing this. By far the best of the schemes that the government has developed is the Cooperative Research Centres, where the money that the government puts up must be met by at least an equal, and often larger, contribution from industry. And always industry is the driver of the process. So the three arms are together developing something which industry wants. That is the key to the matter: getting the connection with industry prepared to pay and to have a strong part in developing the research program. I believe that has worked extremely well.

But where does it leave basic research, Nancy?

This is very troublesome. In my view, basic research has to be a national responsibility. If you do not support basic research, you cannot apply anything. As I remember it, Einstein said, ‘It is relatively easy to organise to use a discovery, once made, but not to make one.’ In other words, you can’t organise ideas, ideas are there – and it’s relatively easy to apply them, which is why I’m an applied scientist. Doing fundamental work is extremely difficult, and it is given to relatively few people to make truly major new advances. But if these are not nurtured in universities – with appropriate funding, which is not tied to some set of biscuits in a bag – then we’re in trouble. We run out of intellectual capital.

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Monitoring the application of recombinant DNA technology

That brings us to the problems ensuing from the recombinant DNA work, which started as basic science in laboratories. I was involved in setting up part of the lab that did that in the Microbiology Department. You took the practical line, as ever, getting involved with the Recombinant DNA Monitoring Committee which was set up in 1980 and replaced by the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee in 1987, and you have chaired it ever since. What does that committee do?

It resulted from a concern, which I think was very reasonable, that people might construct organisms which could have a downside – some ill effect that you didn’t want to happen. A bunch of people was wanted who were prepared to spend time reading each proposal to take a gene from here and incorporate it into another organism. Would the outcome from that be in any way detrimental, whether to people’s health, to the environment, to livestock, to plants, to the general biota, to the cycle of things in soil, and so on? In other words, could any hazards be envisaged that might be associated with the construct? For this the government felt – properly, I think – that they needed an independent authority.

They set up committees of some 15 or 16 members, all of whom have expertise relating either to the molecular aspects or to environmental, health or ethical and legal aspects. This group of people has to have a very broad range of biological skills as well as ethical and legal skills, because all of these impinge upon the assessment of risk and the management of the risk. Our task as a committee is to identify any hazard that could conceivably arise as a result of the particular action, then try to assess how likely it is to happen, how awful it would be if it did happen, and whether you can do anything about minimising or, indeed, eliminating it. And we offer advice on our judgment about that to the person wanting to do the work and to the government.

The policing of recombinant DNA technology must be a very difficult area.

Yes, it is, for a number of reasons. One of them has nothing to do actually with the safety of the process. A number of people are concerned that the process of taking a gene from one organism and putting it into another with which it wouldn’t ordinarily exchange DNA is against nature, against God’s laws, or against their moral or religious views. You can only say that that is someone’s view – it is not anything to do with the safety of the process or its efficacy. And to those people you can only say that most people will accept the technology. For example, most people believe that it is better to have a growth hormone preparation which has been grown in a bacterium than to take one from a cadaver, with the possible risk that you will give the recipient Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CJD. But although people will accept that in principle, they have a difficulty sometimes if the same technology is used on food. I don’t quite understand why they have that difficulty, but it is important to recognise that it does exist and therefore the best you can do is to inform people of the process by which you arrive at a decision.

Let us say a cotton plant has been protected from caterpillar attack by putting into it a gene from a bacterium, such that the cotton plant produces a toxin which knocks off any caterpillar that eats the plant. For some people that is an unacceptable activity.

For the cotton grower it means that his plant is protected, so that whereas previously he might have to use 12 to 15 sprays of an insecticide in order to get his cotton crop off, he now can reduce that number to between four and six. The pluses which go with the process are not only a saving for the purposes of applying a biocide, with all the labour that goes with that, but the release of very much less biocide into the environment – a big plus.

The downside could be that the toxin will attack things other than caterpillars, and anybody who wanted to carry out such a test would have to provide data showing that only caterpillars are affected by this particular toxin, and that when the toxin falls onto the ground as part of the plant it is degraded and does not cause difficulties. These are the sorts of questions we would be asking.

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Why Port Phillip isn’t green soup: an ecological investigation

You have talked about reducing pesticide use. You have also done a lot of work on the environmental aspects of water quality, haven’t you?

Yes. I’ve been interested in water, and its effects on the environment which receives it, for a long time. For quite a number of years we studied the cycling of nutrients in Port Phillip Bay and Westernport Bay. In particular, the sewage treatment plant at Werribee discharges treated effluent into Port Phillip Bay. The nitrogen it contains is often in the form of nitrate, or is, indeed, denitrified in summer, but certainly in winter a fair amount of ammonia goes into the bay. The question has been what happens to the nitrogen when it is released.

II have always felt that denitrification is a very important process – which takes me right back to my Masters year – in the bay’s ecology. And CSIRO has recently completed an absolutely marvellous, five-year intensive study of the health of the bay, which has nailed down the question in some extremely nice experiments.

In the middle of the bay there is a big layer, about 20 centimetres, of soft, sludgy material which contains very large numbers of burrowing worms and shrimps. When nitrogen comes into the water column it tends to go towards the bottom of the bay, carried there both in solution and as particles of algae and other pieces of organic material. There it is broken down. The ammonia in that water layer, because there’s oxygen about, is oxidised to nitrate. Then all these little burrowing insects that live in the bottom suck the water – and of course the nitrate – down into their burrows. In the anaerobic environment of the sediment outside the burrows, the nitrate is denitrified by bacteria, and now the nitrogen is in the form of gas and goes out of the system.

That big cycle of nitrogen removal, whereby combined nitrogen goes in, gets oxidised from ammonia to nitrate, and then is reduced to nitrogen gas which is released, is an enormously important reason why Port Phillip Bay isn’t green soup. And so it’s very important that the ecosystem in the bottom of the bay is not disturbed.

There is always the problem, too, that if you just go on loading up the system it will collapse. Its capacity to handle the load will be exceeded. So the amount of nitrogen being released into the bay must be carefully controlled and limited. Indeed, the Environment Protection Authority has a careful eye on this.

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A scientific solution to a mysterious mess

You also helped to float the Melbourne Concert Hall in Yarra mud. Could you tell us about that?

Oh, this was a really fascinating story. The Arts Centre and the Concert Hall are set down into the banks of the Yarra, in an enormous flood plain of very deep layers of silt. Those are pretty anaerobic, so that the groundwater there doesn’t have any oxygen in it at all and any iron which is always present is in the reduced form.

The people digging that large hole realised that there might well be small amounts of groundwater seeping in, so they arranged to channel it into little drop basins, to be carried down into the basement of the building and away in the sewer. After some months, however, they discovered that the drainage holes were all blocking up with some mysterious bright brick-red material which they thought perhaps was algae. They sent the stuff along to our labs, but when I looked at it I thought, ‘Gosh, I don’t know what on earth this is.’ It looked exactly like completely uniform tubes of spaghetti – on a micro-scale – covered in, well, brick-red tomato sauce. These tubes were very clearly defined but I could see no structure in them at all.

Suddenly, about two days later, it dawned on me what I was looking at. There are micro-organisms called  Sphaerotilus  which grow as cells within big long tubes and then are shot out the end as if from a pea-shooter. Then what you see is often just the sheaths in which they were once living, and around them an oxidised form of iron, because these organisms gain a lot of energy from oxidising reduced iron. What was happening was that the groundwater (containing no dissolved oxygen) met this little junction box thing and dropped down, becoming aerated. Then the bugs got busy converting the reduced iron to the oxidised form, which grew as a great sludgy mess – iron hydroxide is absolutely jellylike in water – and glocked up the pipes.

The solution for that was easy: just make sure that the material from the drainage area simply went down into the tube without getting aerated in the junction box.

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What it’s about: self-assurance, self-expression and honest dealing

Nancy, you have reacted less than calmly to some things – for instance, to the arrival of mail inviting ‘Professor Millis and wife’ to various functions, or to your being only the fourth woman ever appointed to a professorial position at the University of Melbourne. Yet you have been a very resilient soul and say you have had no dark moments. What, then, satisfies you most when you look back on your career?

One of the helpful things, I think, is that I am not too bad a listener – even though I’ve talked a lot today – and I can be independent. People know that really I haven’t got any axe to grind, and that is wonderfully liberating. You can do and say what you honestly think, and that’s a very easy way to get on with people. They respect that.

Let’s return to the young girl at the side of her tall, handsome father with the dark hair and the blue eyes, visiting the Victoria Market all those years ago. What advice would you give to that child’s equivalent today?

I don’t know what on earth I’d say, because I have never planned my life, not at all. I have been the biggest opportunist ever. It is no use to advise anyone to choose their parents, but if your parents can give you the courage to believe in yourself and give you the opportunity to express yourself in whatever way is good for you, then you’ve won the battle before anyone has drawn the battlelines. That really is what it’s about.

Thank you very much, Nancy, for talking to us.

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