Professor Pamela Rickard (1928-2002), biochemist

Professor Pamela Rickard. Interview sponsored by the Mazda Foundation.

Pamela Rickard was born in 1928 in Sydney. After completing her intermediate certificate at high school, she spent five years working in the library of the Daily Telegraph newspaper and another five years working as a legal secretary before deciding to attend university. Rickard was awarded a mature-age scholarship to the University of Sydney and received her BSc in 1957, majoring in biochemistry and microbiology. Soon after graduation she took up a teaching fellowship in biochemistry at the New South Wales University of Technology, now called the University of New South Wales. The position also enabled her to receive an MSc in 1961 from that institution. Her thesis research concerned the iron-containing pigments involved in fungal respiration.

Rickard studied the biosynthesis of porphyrins at University College Hospital Medical School, University of London and received her PhD in 1964.

In 1964 Rickard returned to the University of New South Wales and spent her working life there. She was initially a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Biological Sciences before being appointed to a lectureship in biochemistry in 1965. In 1981 she was appointed foundation chair of biotechnology and served as head of the school until her retirement in 1988 when she was awarded emeritus professor status.

Interviewed by Ms Marian Heard in 2001.


An intellectual undercurrent

Pamela, perhaps we could begin with your family background.

I was an only child, born in Sydney in 1928. My father was a journalist and my mother was a housewife. She would have liked a career, preferably as a doctor, but coming from a large family – she was one of 11 – she had no opportunity to do any study.

Were your parents interested in science?

Not particularly. But they were both avid readers and read widely – everything from English literature to comparative religion, and popular science written for the layman was included along the way. I was very lucky, I grew up in an intellectual atmosphere.

My parents didn't really encourage me to become a scientist. My mother would have liked me to have been a doctor, but I wasn't interested in medicine. (I didn't like sick people. If I was going to study anything, it was going to be the normal rather than the abnormal.) I was interested in science, though, particularly biological sciences. In my early years I always liked botanical things – flowers and plants in general.

Did your teachers encourage you in science?

The only science subjects available at the school I went to were botany and of course mathematics. I don't think the teachers singled anyone out for encouragement. It was wartime when I was at high school and the classes were very large, usually about 40, and I don't think the teachers had time to give special attention to a particular person.

Because of the war we weren't encouraged to go on at school. I would have liked to go to Fort Street Girls' School but zoning prevented that option and I was allocated to an Intermediate high school. Consequently I left high school after only three years, the time it took to get the Intermediate Certificate.

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Exploratory by-ways

You didn't feel strongly about science or having a career?

No, I had no ambitions at that stage. I was very romantic: I wanted to get married and to have six children. You see, I resented being an only child, and a house filled with children seemed very appealing.

Like a lot of other young girls at the time, I did a secretarial course. But I didn't actually become a secretary. Instead I worked in the library of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, where my father was a journalist. (Sometimes newspaper libraries are called 'morgues'.) There the papers are cut up into their individual stories, classified and filed away to be available later for reference. If there was an earthquake, for example, the journalists needed access to all the previous reports on earthquakes. Incidentally, I did this work with the Intermediate Certificate; now you need a university degree and a postgraduate diploma in librarianship!

After about five years I realised that a friend of mine was finding her job as a legal secretary very fascinating so I thought I'd give that a go for a change, and I became a legal secretary for the next five years. I enjoyed that thoroughly.

So how did you complete your secondary education?

I went to the TAFE college at night and did two years' study for the Leaving Certificate. I wasn't planning to go to university, but the careers adviser at the college said it would be a good idea if I did go, and encouraged me to apply for a mature-age scholarship to Sydney University – and I got one.

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Joining the science flow

So then you decided to become an academic?

Oh no, that was not my plan! I just thought, 'Well, if I go to university, what will I study?' I knew I didn't want to do secretarial work any more but I had always been interested in cooking (as well as science) and I fancied becoming a dietitian. For that I had to do a science degree, with particular emphasis on biochemistry in second year. I was dreading this subject, because everyone had told me it was rather horrendous – challenging yet boring. But I loved it, and I majored in biochemistry and microbiology.

After I graduated, in 1957, the only way I could do a course in dietetics was to go to Newcastle Hospital. But when I mentioned this at the university, Professor Vincent – the professor of microbiology – didn't think it was a good idea at all. He rang my mother and said, 'Do what you can to discourage her from becoming a dietitian – she'll be a glorified cook.' (He apologised afterwards for going over my head, not realising I was a mature-age scholar nine years older than my peers.) He had some money available for a half-time position in his department and encouraged me to become a research assistant there and study for a Masters degree.

There was a change of path, though. I had also applied for other positions, and six weeks after I started in the Microbiology Department at the University of Sydney, I was actually offered a teaching fellowship in biochemistry at the NSW University of Technology. It was appealing to accept that, because it was in biochemistry rather than in microbiology, that was where my main interest lay. I was very grateful when Professor Vincent accepted my change of mind in his usual gentlemanly style – we remained friends for decades after. During that teaching fellowship I was able to do a Masters Qualifying, which enabled me then to enrol for a Masters degree in biochemistry at the NSW University of Technology rather than a Masters degree in microbiology at Sydney University.

What sorts of other positions had you applied for?

I applied for one at Royal North Shore Hospital, as a research assistant in the porphyrin research lab. When I got there for an interview, they spent three hours trying to convince me that I should go back to secretarial work and become secretary to the head of the department. They even called in the director of the hospital to persuade me, but I'd spent three years at university to get away from a typewriter and I wasn't going back to one!

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'So this is a porphyrin'

What was your Masters thesis about?

Its title was The iron-containing pigments of certain fungi, with special reference to those concerned with respiration. Those particular pigments are very important large molecules called cytochromes. They are responsible for the final stages of metabolism in most living organisms and are essential to the life of organisms that depend on oxygen.

My Masters degree supervisors were Professor Bernhard Ralph, who was head of the then School of Biological Sciences, and Dr Frank Moss, who had come to the NSW University of Technology after prior medical research at Sydney University. Dr Moss instigated and encouraged my study of the respiratory pigments. He had been interested in cytochromes for some years – and my interest in them lasted for the next 20 years. The interest in fungi came from Professor Ralph, whose long-term interest in wood-rotting fungi arose from their ecological significance. He and Frank Moss speculated that perhaps the very slow growth of these fungi was in some way related to their respiratory activity, and hence their cytochrome concentration. So you could say this study combined the interests of the two supervisors.

Did you find what you were asked to look for?

I surveyed a range of wood-rotting fungi and measured their cytochrome concentrations, but although they all proved to contain cytochromes, there was nothing really noteworthy and those results were not published. The interesting thing that did come out, though, was that one of these wood-rotting fungi accumulated porphyrin, a precursor of the cytochromes. This was a coincidence, because it was in the porphyrin lab of Royal North Shore Hospital that I had been offered the job as secretary to the head of porphyrin research about three years before. Porphyrins had found me again!

My supervisors were not familiar with porphyrins; they hadn't heard of them. But when I found this unusual pigment in amongst the cytochromes they introduced me to Dr John Falk, of CSIRO in Canberra. He recognised it as a porphyrin and advised me.

So in 1961 your Masters degree was conferred by the University of New South Wales. What do you consider you had gained from your studies?

I gained a Masters degree and a grounding in research methodology, a knowledge of cytochromes and a very good knowledge, by this time, of porphyrins.

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'The Vampire' attacks porphyria

Was it John Falk who encouraged you to go to London for a PhD?

Yes, he had worked in London with a Professor Claude Rimington, a world authority on porphyrins, and he encouraged me to further my porphyrin studies in the same way. So I applied to go there and he supported my application.

Then I thought, 'If I'm going to go halfway round the world, I might as well do a PhD while I'm about it.' Very luckily for me, Professor Rimington had a Rockefeller Scholarship which was to pay a student's living expenses and university fees during studies for a PhD under his supervision. He offered it to me, and I said, 'Yes, please!'

And what was the title of your PhD thesis?

Take a deep breath: The biosynthesis of porphyrins, with special reference to those concerned with transformation of porphobilinigen into cyclic pyrrolic structures. I concentrated on porphyrin biosynthesis because porphyrins were precursors to cytochromes, in which I had an interest, and because I had wanted to know more about them ever since they had turned up in that wood-rotting fungus.

Professor Rimington's expertise was particularly directed to porphyria, a nasty disease in human beings which results from a dysfunction of the biosynthetic pathway to cytochromes and other pigments, causing porphyrins to accumulate. King George III had porphyria, which caused the madness for which he is known. And eventually porphyria is fatal.

It was of interest, then, to get more information on the biosynthetic pathway so that it might be useful in finding some sort of treatment or even cure for the condition of porphyria. I worked with human red blood cells because they make porphyrins, and I needed about 100 millilitres of blood every Monday morning to do my experiments. They were cheeky enough to call me The Vampire! To get 100 millilitres of blood, I had to have it taken by a medically qualified person, so that was done by one of the doctors over at the hospital. And I was very lucky. One day I took one of the lads in the laboratory – I think he was doing a Masters degree – over with me and he got a crush on one of the nurses. So it was no trouble to obtain my blood samples after that: every Monday morning he said, 'I'm ready to go over to the hospital!'

Did you enjoy being in London, and taking part in the activities there?

Oh yes. It was great – the theatres, the ballet, the opera, the galleries. And I was particularly keen to visit Kew Gardens, which I did on several occasions. Also, it was a marvellous jumping-off place to go to other parts of Britain for long weekends, and in the summer holidays I always went to the Continent.

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A flood tide of enthusiasm

What did you do after you were awarded your PhD?

I finished in 1963 and it was awarded in 1964. Afterwards I came back to Australia. Frank Moss had offered me a position as a postdoctoral fellow, back in the School of Biological Sciences.

I loved the University of New South Wales (previously known as the NSW University of Technology). It was founded in 1949 as the first university built since 1911 and the first 'second university' in any city in Australia. The people there really had the pioneering spirit. To me, other universities seemed by comparison a bit moribund – which is probably being a bit unfair, but I loved that pioneering spirit and the challenge which arose because the community didn't really accept this second university in their city. For most people it was Sydney University or nothing, and to be part of the team making it socially acceptable was great.

There was a general sense of enthusiasm throughout the university but particularly, I think, in our school. Professor Ralph was an absolute dynamo of energy and Frank Moss was equally enthusiastic; their attitude was infectious and rubbed off on me.

So you felt that your career was beginning there?

Oh yes. I think that was the beginning of the snowball effect. In 1965, after one year as a postdoctoral fellow, I applied for and was successful in gaining a lectureship in biochemistry, a permanent position. That meant I needed to supervise research students. The methods I had built up during the postdoctoral fellowship were then put into operation with the research students we attracted.

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Developing biotechnology

I understand that the school was re-formed in 1966 as a new Department of Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering.

Yes, with just three of us: Professor Ralph, Dr (later Associate Professor) Moss, and myself. Getting it started was quite a challenge. We were only the third department of biotechnology in the world, and certainly the first in Australia. The department remained the only one in Australia for about 25 years – although after its fifth name change it is now the Department of Biotechnology.

So you were partly responsible for establishing a department which is still there today, still at the forefront of research and teaching in biotechnology in Australia.

It is. It was realised back in the '60s that there was a need for biologists to be trained in the technological application of biology in, for example, the pharmaceutical, agricultural and food industries. In the decades that followed, the need for biologists trained as technologists grew and grew, as did the discipline of biotechnology, to the point where it became known as a 'sunrise industry'. Because of such fast development over those decades, we had to keep up with the advances. The school has done that and it has grown. It has an establishment now of 15 people on the lecturing staff and they are still working hard to keep up with the rapid changes in biotechnology.

What is the difference, or maybe the relationship, between biotechnology and genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering is a facet of biotechnology. There is a great deal of interest and activity in genetic engineering these days – the media are fascinated by its very name – but for its application it depends on the fundamentals of biotechnology.

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Yeast cytochromes and the Crabtree effect

Your research, I think, was concentrated mainly in two areas: first on yeast biochemistry and physiology, and later on enzyme technology.

That's right. The early research was in yeast biochemistry and physiology. Frank Moss was very interested in studying the synthesis of cytochromes in yeast, so that's what I contracted to do when I came back from London. Frank had always done his studies qualitatively, using reflectance spectrophotometry. But we realised it was necessary to turn it into a quantitative technique so that we could compare concentrations under various conditions, and I played a major role in achieving this. It took about 12 months to get the data together to establish a quantitative reflectance spectrophotometric method, but that method was then used by several workers for many years afterwards.

What findings came out of the yeast work as it continued?

Well, we had started this on Frank's assumption that it would be shown that yeast cytochromes were inversely sensitive to oxygen and that more cytochromes would be formed when the oxygen concentration was low. This is true of human haemoglobin: when we go up onto a high mountain we produce more haemoglobin to compensate for the low oxygen concentration. Frank considered it would be true of cytochromes as well, because they are related to haemoglobin in molecular structure. He thought that if we starved yeast of oxygen by keeping the oxygen very low, the cytochromes would increase in concentration.

Actually, it wasn't true for yeast. The cytochrome concentration didn't vary very much with oxygen concentration. But we had expanded the work considerably to look at the effect of other variants on cytochromes and other metabolic parameters. And the first very interesting thing we found was that in all cases a phenomenon known as the Crabtree effect occurred. This is the repression of synthesis of cytochromes at high concentrations of glucose, which we were using, or of any sugar.

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Pioneering work on yeast metabolism

What other findings came out of this study?

We found that the glucose, as well as repressing cytochrome synthesis, inhibited cytochrome activity and, in addition, enhanced synthesis of the fermentation enzymes and activated them during fermentation. You see, all yeasts have two means of metabolising glucose or any other carbon source – either they take it right through to carbon dioxide by utilising oxygen, or they only partly metabolise it by producing alcohol. And to go right through to utilising oxygen, cytochromes are involved. Some yeasts prefer one way, utilising oxygen; others prefer to only go as far as alcohol.

We had thought that the various species might have different control mechanisms, particularly in their synthesis of cytochromes, but there weren't any fundamental differences. We concluded that presumably the differences between the various species were just a matter of degree of control.

We published a total of 11 papers on this, with a mass of information on a wide range of yeast metabolic parameters. Because industries such as brewing, wine-making, industrial alcohol production and baking all utilise yeasts, they were interested in these studies that we were conducting. In fact, we got some financial backing from them.

I should hope so! Was this a very active area of research?

Not in Australia. There was some work on yeast metabolism going on overseas but we were the only people in Australia working on it, and I think our results were of fundamental importance to the understanding of yeast metabolic control.

During the course of this study you took sabbatical leave in 1970-71.

Yes. I had three months in London, and it was nice to get back there again for a while. Also, I had five months at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

Under a mutual agreement, my biochemist host at Johns Hopkins allowed me to use his very special spectrophotometer for some yeast work that I was doing and as a quid pro quo I got his continuous-culture apparatus working. It had been there in mothballs for about 18 months since he bought it as a commercial apparatus, but I had had a lot of experience with continuous culture and I got it going about a week before Christmas. Being a continuous culture it was going all the time, and as Christmas Day approached, h invited me to midday Christmas dinner and after dinner with him and his wife and family he said, 'Now we'll go back to the lab and take some samples from the continuous culture'! He was quite devoted to newly operational apparatus.

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Moving on to enzyme technology projects

What about your research on enzyme technology?

That came later, in the '70s. It started with a study of the use of enzymes in enhancing juice extraction from grapes, especially non-traditional wine-grapes. There was a glut of sultana grapes at the time, and one idea was to use them for production of cask wine, in particular. Because they don't give up their juice as readily as the traditional varieties, the industry was looking to enzymes which break down the pectin in the grape so that the juice would be more readily released. I did a survey of a range of commercial enzyme preparations, with a view to determining which were the most efficient at releasing the juice. Lindeman's financed these studies and provided all the grape samples from their vineyards. And one of my students continued this work after I retired.

The next project I became interested in was the use of enzymes to break down ligno-cellulosic waste, the fibrous waste from certain industries such as the sugarcane industry. Because of the oil crisis in the early '70s (we've had several more since – they come and go) some people suggested running cars on ethanol or a blend of ethanol and the precious petroleum. It was realised that if we could break the ligno-cellulosic waste down to its component sugars, they could be fermented to alcohol, which in turn could be used as a petrol extender. Noel Dunn and Peter Gray had already started this work, and I joined them. We were supported by NERDDC, the National Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Council.

What other projects did you work on?

One small project was very interesting: applying enzymes in the process of breaking down animal waste to produce gelatin. By getting the conditions just right with this enzymic breakdown we were able to produce high-quality gelatin that can be used to encapsulate capsules in the pharmaceutical industry. This was work-in-confidence with the gelatin industry so it wasn't published, but it was one of the research staff who did the work under my supervision. He got his MSc Biotech, and the company got its process optimised.

Also, by this stage Professor Ralph was interested in biological transformations that were applicable to the mining industry. I did some work with him, and about half a dozen papers were published out of that.

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New approaches to producing ethanol

Let's return to your project on the use of enzymes to break down ligno-cellulosic waste. I think there are two phases in the process. Did you work on both phases?

Yes. The two phases are the digestion of the ligno-cellulose to its components, and then taking the sugars released and fermenting them to alcohol. The total cellulose consists of 60 per cent simple cellulose and 40 per cent hemicellulose. The hemicellulose is a much more recalcitrant polymer to break down than the simple cellulose, and moreover not as much work had been done on it. My special role was to take over the study of the hemicellulosic fraction of the cellulosic waste – first its digestion and then the fermentation of its sugars to alcohol. This was rather challenging, because cellulose simply digests to glucose but hemicellulose produces other sugars that are not as easily fermented.

Tell me about the digestion phase.

Noel Dunn, who is a genetic engineer, had manipulated a bacterial strain to digest the cellulosic fraction of the total cellulose. Taking his mutant strain I found it was active towards the hemicellulosic fraction – it behaved the same way towards hemicellulose as it did towards cellulose in being more active than its parent strain. Then I was able to optimise the conditions for maximum digestion of the hemicellulosic fraction.

And the fermentation phase?

I worked on that in tandem with the digestion phase. Not very much was known about the fermentation to alcohol of the sugars that are released from hemicellulose except that it was more difficult to ferment them than to ferment glucose. I attacked this part of the problem by screening environments rich in cellulosic waste materials, and from those environments I isolated Candida tropicalis, a strain of yeast which was active in fermenting these sugars. The interesting feature was that it only fermented them in tandem with fermenting glucose, and it was even more interesting that the ideal mixture of glucose and these other sugars was the same as occurs in nature in the total cellulose. This might seem obvious, but everyone had been looking at either the fermentation of the glucose or the fermentation of the non-glucose. No-one had mixed the two together and found that the best situation was to ferment them together.

I should say that by the time we had done this work, the panic was over and it wasn't taken up industrially. But only this month, 20-odd years later, there was an announcement in the press that the federal government was putting $8 million into development of a process for blending petroleum with 10 per cent alcohol produced from waste biomass!

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Research teamwork for knowledge and outcomes

Would it be true to say that your research contributions led to better understanding and use of enzymes and of micro-organisms, especially yeast, by industry?

Oh yes. I didn't do it single-handedly, but I did write a fundamental review as early as 1974 on the use of enzyme technology in industry. I was a great believer in teamwork, and I collaborated with people in my own department as well as other departments and schools at the university, particularly Chemical Engineering but also Chemistry and Physics to some extent.

So you would have had a number of PhD students working under you?

Yes indeed. It was, of course, the PhD and other research students, and the support staff – some of them in the school, some of them supported by grants – who did all the hands-on work.

The grants, by the way, came from industry, from the Australian Research Grants Committee (ARGC), and from NERDDC. There was some money from CSIRO, too.

Would you say your work was always in applied science, or did you carry out pure research?

The early days were pure research, knowledge for knowledge's sake, and very much encouraged. The yeast work was all fundamental research, really – just understanding how yeasts' metabolic mechanisms work and particularly how they are controlled. But throughout the '70s when I started the enzyme work, that was always with a mission. It was part of a general shift in science to emphasise outcomes.

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The thrill of teaching

Which did you enjoy more, research or teaching?

Ah, teaching. I think I was doing teaching for industry's sake rather than research for industry's sake, especially in my teaching fellowship days.

I discovered teaching when I was seven years of age. From the age of five to seven I was taught at home by my mother, who was pretty thorough in her methods. When I then went to a private school, St Catherine's, the teacher realised that my arithmetic was pretty good so she left me in charge of the class quite often while she went and had a cup of tea – and I thought that was lovely.

Was this interest rekindled at university?

Yes, when I went to the NSW University of Technology (later renamed University of New South Wales) as a teaching fellow in 1957. I was really interested in the teaching that I did at that stage, mainly because of the students who were converting diplomas from the technical college to degrees at the new university (still only eight years old). Among them were some rather senior people who were working in industry but who hadn't done any biochemistry for their diploma, so biochemistry was a popular subject to take in the conversion to a degree. I enjoyed that teaching because the people were senior and keen.

One person who only had a diploma got his degree, became a lecturer in our department and ended up as a professor at ANU, so it was a very important conversion course. Our department, together with other departments in the university, was innovative and believed in in-service training. Of course, that involved quite a bit of evening work, and often the night classes went till 9 o'clock.

I understand that you were such a good teacher that even in the 1960s you were attracting biotechnology students from prestigious Japanese universities.

I'm not going to take all the credit for that. It is true that they were coming from Japan. The point is that biotechnology was a new discipline – new to Australia, new globally. Because of our special interest (we were the only department offering this course in Asia) we attracted a lot of students from Pakistan, Japan, Korea and, especially, Indonesia. They were supported by our government with the Colombo Plan and later AUIDP, the Australian Universities International Development Programme.

Biotechnology was burgeoning and changing rapidly, and we had to keep abreast of the literature to pick up all the developments. As time went on we were able to expand our staff and to bring in geneticists and chemical engineers.

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Widening ripples in the pool of knowledge

At what level did teaching start in the department?

It started with a postgraduate biochemical engineering diploma. The three of us – Bernhard Ralph, Frank Moss and myself – had two objectives: to teach biotechnology, and to teach biology and biochemistry to engineering graduates.

My first teaching assignment was to teach biochemistry to engineering graduates. That was very rewarding because, for example, there were civil engineers working with the Water Board who could not understand the biochemical transformations in some of the papers they read. I developed a crash course in biochemistry, only 42 lectures long, and the students often came to me afterwards and said, 'Oh, it's great, I understand those papers now.'

Next we took Honours students and gave them biotechnology research projects. Then we started a formal Masters, an MSc Biotech, which involved biotechnology subjects such as my particular subject, protein technology (including enzyme technology).

Interest in the discipline of biotechnology was growing all through this period, so we went down into the undergraduate years. We gave two units of biotechnology to third year undergraduates, and eventually an introduction to biotechnology to second year science students. So we went down, down, down, teaching biotechnology at earlier and earlier stages of university education.

Did you prefer teaching the undergraduate students or the postgraduates?

Oh, the postgraduates. But over my career I went the full spectrum, because although I preferred postgraduate teaching, I did once give some radio courses in biology. These were designed as bridging courses for students coming from high school to university, and they were taped and used over and over again by the Radio University station. It was very nice to keep getting royalty payments.

Did you ever lecture overseas?

Yes. In 1978 I was one of several science academics invited by the Chinese government to give a series of lectures at research institutes and universities. I went back to China in 1986 as one of a group of biotechnologists; we conducted a workshop at Wushi for academics and students who came to that city for it. I went on from Wushi up to Shandong and gave a couple of lectures up there, as well.

Also, in 1984 I was invited to give a plenary lecture to the Malaysian conference in biotechnology, in Penang.

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Encouragements received and shared

You have had a very unusual career, I think, for a woman of your generation, and particularly one who started in academia so late. Do you feel you were ever discriminated against in your career?

No, I don't. I had been told that for a woman to get anywhere in any position she had to work seven times harder than a man. I don't think it was true then, and I certainly don't think it's true today.

Did you ever have a mentor?

Not as such, but a lot of people encouraged me and influenced my life. There was Professor Vincent, back at Sydney University, Professor Ralph, Professor Moss, Dr Falk and of course Professor Rimington, in London.

My best encouragement, though, came from my husband, a businessman and the most supportive, wonderful person that any woman scientist could possibly marry. He was very ambitious for me – to the point one day when he said, 'You ought to apply for an associate professorship.' I told him you couldn't do that until you had been on the senior lecturer scale for six years, and I'd only been there for four years. 'You're ready for it,' he said. I didn't think I was, but he nagged and nagged until I hurled the scrubbing-brush that I had in my hand across the laundry floor and said, 'Well, I'll make out the application and you just see what happens to it!' He was right, and I got accelerated promotion.

So you had married, relatively late and (unusually for a woman scientist) to a non-scientist, and now you were moving up in the university world. I think that after six years you became the first woman professor in a science faculty at the university.

Yes. When Professor Ralph retired in 1980, I was appointed as head of department and ran the department in that capacity for 18 months. During that time, the Chair that he vacated was advertised as the Chair of Biotechnology. (He had always retained its title as it was in his original appointment, the Chair in Biochemistry, but on his retirement it was changed.) I didn't apply, but it wasn't filled after the first advertisement and the second time it was advertised I was encouraged by my colleagues and also by the dean of the faculty to apply.

I was appointed in 1981 as the foundation professor of biotechnology, but not the foundation head of biotechnology – that had been Bernhard Ralph. By then, however, the job of running the school wasn't new to me. In getting the foundation Chair of Biotechnology I think I really was the right person in the right place at the right time.

I have heard that you ran a very friendly department. Did you enjoy the administration?

I did, but it was very time-consuming. I ran the school democratically. I liked getting the opinions of the rest of the staff, and we had regular staff meetings. I was probably ahead of my time in debunking the concept of god-professor – nowadays the idea of running departments and schools democratically is much more widely accepted.

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Contributions recognised and enduring

At the same time you were on a number of professional committees.

Yes. I was on ARGC at one stage, and also on one of the subcommittees of NERDDC, the Synthetic Liquid Fuels Subcommittee. I understood and so could assess the applications for conversion of biomass to synthetic liquid fuels, and could advise my fellow members of the committee. Also, I was on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Australian Journal of Biotechnology.

When you retired, the university conferred on you the honour of an emeritus professorship.

Yes. That's usually conferred after 10 years in a Chair. I'd only been in the Chair seven years but I had been with the university over 30 years, and I was absolutely delighted when they gave me the emeritus professorship.

You mentioned that in your retirement you continued with studies of enzymes in the wine industry. Did you go on with any other work as well?

I continued to supervise my students who hadn't completed their degrees and were still doing research. Also, I wrote a short history of the School of Biotechnology. And after several more years I became a foundation committee member of the Alumni Associates of the university, which is my current interest.

The alumni associates are retired staff members. The regular alumni are graduate students of the university, but before Alumni Associates was formed, a person might work at the university for many years – sometimes decades – and have no further contact with the university unless they were an emeritus professor. Now we invite all retired members of staff to become alumni associates, join in our activities and keep in touch with the university. My job with that committee was to form a database of retired staff and keep it up to date. Although not completely comprehensive, it was the biggest database of retired staff that the university had, and even the Vice-Chancellor had to use it in order to send out invitations to ex-members of staff. I have since handed it over to the university and it is on the computer of the alumni office.

Pamela, you have played a large part in developing aspects of your discipline and you made major contributions which were of fundamental importance to industry. It's been a great pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for participating in this interview.

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