veski's portraits of innovation

At the crossroad of sport and science

When Christopher McNeill was a high school student in Newcastle NSW there were some science shows he’d visit, but few role models to guide him toward a career in science.

“It was a faith journey,” he says. “In years 11 and 12, I chose to study what I found interesting. At university, I chose quantum mechanics because I liked physics and maths, but I wasn’t worried about what job would come up in future.”

Chris’s dad made him promise he’d never follow in his footsteps as a physics teacher in TAFE, “teaching people who didn’t want to be taught”, but Chris thinks his father would have loved his job as a Senior Lecturer in the Monash University Department of Materials Engineering, Faculty of Engineering.

Chris’s mother, who did casual teaching in “rough schools”, also to an unreceptive audience, had her own hopes for him: she wanted her son to be a merchant banker.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Chris says. “There are some things about merchant banking that I find interesting, but I am motivated by curiosity. I liked asking questions like ‘How does this light work as both a particle and a wave?’ I wanted to find my niche area and discover things out for myself, gain recognition from my peers, and travel and collaborate.”

Chris returned to Australia from Cambridge University, taking up his veski innovation fellowship in March 2011.

Chris’s wife, Leonie, a consulting engineer working on large-scale industrial projects, also grew up in Newcastle. When the couple heads back to NSW to visit family, Chris is often asked if he has “discovered anything lately”, to which he replies, “The aha-Eureka moments, like the Higgs-Boson particle discovery, just don’t happen every day, unfortunately”.

Now residing in Melbourne, he says he enjoys having access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch a game of cricket but he misses wielding the willow for a Cambridge social club which had its own professional groundskeeper to maintain the pitch. On the subject of sport, Chris says there’s a tendency in Australia to think Australians don’t do well in science and that we only do well in sport. “That’s not the case,” he says.

The one thing Chris misses more than playing cricket on English summer evenings is the fact that “Cambridge was a hub for people coming and going – a great crossroad of ideas and thoughts, history and architecture”, he says.

“In Cambridge, there were 30 or so fellows in my college from across disciplines and we’d regularly meet over dinner and lunches. Also, in my department in Cambridge there were around 70 people working in the same research group as me, whereas at Monash there are fewer people to bounce things off.”

Chris says at Monash, which lacks the collegiate structure of Cambridge, there are fewer opportunities for interactions with other academics, making him appreciate his membership of the veski family, alongside other veski innovation fellows, board members and veski innovation fellows.

“What’s made the transition to Victoria much easier is that I have taken advantage of the regular opportunities veski offers to get to know the city and interact with like-minded people. So far, I have been to Parliament House, the Savage Club, and the Victorian Investment Centre as well as many other random places in Melbourne. It’s been an amazing introduction to Melbourne.”