Firsts in genomic and computer revolution

The genetic and digital revolutions rank among the most important developments of recent decades.

Foundation Professor Peter Parsons set up a unique department, Genetics and Human Variation, for a time the largest in Australia. He was author of a seminal text on behaviour genetics and supervised many successful postgrads, including John McKenzie who went on to become Dean of Science at the University of Melbourne and later Deputy Chancellor of La Trobe.

One of the great biological puzzles of all time – the location of the sex-determining gene – was solved with the help of La Trobe’s molecular genetics lab led by Jenny Graves.  A team headed by one of her doctoral graduates, Andrew Sinclair, working in London at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund with La Trobe co-researcher Jamie Foster and materials developed at La Trobe, isolated the gene in 1990 near the tip of the Y chromosome.

Since his PhD studies in biological anthropology in the early 1970s, geneticist Neville White maintained close links with remote Arnhem Land Aboriginal communities – in ‘Ten Canoe’ country – helping local Donydji people gain access to educational, health, housing and other services.

Much of his research and community work has been carried out from what is sometimes dubbed as La Trobe’s most remote ‘campus’ – an old caravan parked in bushland.

John Mitchell’s studies in population genetic have advanced our understanding of human evolution and the structure of global populations. He heads the Australian and Pacific section of the world-wide Human Genographic Project, and recently was scientific consultant and host of SBS’s popular television series, DNA Nation.

Ground-breaking international research by geneticist Jan Strugnell has helped explain the origin and global distribution of deep-sea marine life, and provided critical insights into ecology and climate change.

During the 1980s, when the computer revolution was just a gleam in most people’s eyes, staff in philosophy and sociology, Tom and Lyn Richards, pioneered software for qualitative data analysis.  This led to the Melbourne-based firm QSR International which now has offices in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Its products are licensed for in 150 countries.

La Trobe physicists John Riley and Robert Lecky reversed the direction of the high-tech scientific instruments trade, by designing and building a toroidal electron spectrometer – and exporting it to Germany, in the mid 1980s and a second version in 2003. The device rapidly measures electron emissions from all angles at once, allowing scientists to probe the properties of critical materials like silicon and semi-conductors used by computer, electronic and optical industries.

Installed at the Berlin Synchrotron, it was La Trobe’s first international patent. It was later also used in one of this country’s most significant pieces of science infrastructure – the Australian Synchrotron.