veski's portraits of innovation

Putting Melbourne’s science on the global setting

When Professor Andrew Holmes AC was a boy at Scotch College in Melbourne, he volunteered as a lab monitor so, in his own words, he could play around, unsupervised, with chemicals, and set out the chemicals for our classes.

Andrew believes all scientists can point to a particular time in their school years when they got a feel for science – and a teacher who ignited their interest in the subject.

He doesn’t know any scientists who were not inspired by a science teacher – and encouraged by their family. He cites as evidence Leonard ‘Lenny’ Basser, an educator at the Sydney Boys High School who taught chemistry from 1931 until 1959.

“Lenny is proof that a science teacher can clearly have an influence on minds passing through. He taught Graeme Clark, Lord Bob May, President of the Royal Society and seven other Fellows of the Royal Society, as well as leading geophysicist Herbert Huppert, and the Nobel Prize winner Professor John Cornforth, who attributed his lifelong interest in chemistry to the teacher,” Andrew says.

The pioneer of research in organic electronics was awarded the inaugural veski innovation fellowship in May 2004 when he returned to Melbourne from Cambridge University where he worked from 1973 to 2004. While in the United Kingdom, Andrew and his wife Jenny had their minds opened to the world of performing arts, particularly classical music and choirs, a passion they continue to feed today by attending concerts at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.

On his return to Melbourne, the son of a chemist and a social worker became University Laureate Professor of Chemistry in the new $100 million Bio21 Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Institute, founded by the University of Melbourne, where he completed his undergraduate studies.

The elder statesman, forever humble about his achievements, who recalls making molecular models with plasticine and matches, is now a CSIRO Fellow and has been elected the next President of the Australian Academy of Science.

While his roles do not permit comment on education policy, Andrew does express concern about the current state of science education in Australia.

“I have always tried hard and believed in practising until perfection and we had the opportunity to do things ourselves – much the same as the inquiry-based learning so popular now, but the facts are that Australian performance in science is falling behind in the Asia Pacific region.”

“We need to be competitive in science and give our nation an enthusiasm for science alongside philosophy, religion, languages and the three Rs. Science should be given equal weight. We need to start with young people. It should become a norm in our community.”

“We need to use scientific evidence to make decisions in all aspects of society. One should be able to judge data for themselves and make their own mind up. For that they need a good science-based education, a basic competency,” he says.

Awarded a 2012 Royal Medal by the Royal Society, Andrew says he started life as a “pot-boiling organic chemist” who then became interested in plastics and electronics.

At this stage of his long career, working 50 per cent of his time at CSIRO, Andrew says his ultimate dream is to replace silicon in solar panels with a lightweight, printable substitute however, the decorated scientist is quick to support the idea of moving aside for younger scientists, who he believes are, by nature of their age, more prone to creativity.

“Not many scientists do great work as they get older because they lose their dexterity and become less creative in science. It’s important to give room to young people to do things.”