Transcript

The Dean Series: Science, Technology and Engineering

Brian McGawBrian McGaw
Email: b.mcgaw@latrobe.edu.au

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Transcript

Matt de Neef:

Hello and welcome to another La Trobe University podcast. I'm your host, Matt de Neef, and today I'm speaking with Professor Brian McGaw. He's the Dean of Science, Technology and Engineering here at La Trobe. Brian thanks for your time today.

Brian McGaw:

Pleasure.

Matt de Neef:

I wonder if we can start today with a question I've been asking the other Deans and that's we know that the Dean is the head of the faculty, but can you give us a sense of what's involved in your role on a day-to-day basis?

Brian McGaw:

Yes, interesting question. We have around 4,000 students and around 500 staff, so as you can imagine it's a fairly complex organization for us to manage. And my day-to-day life revolves around key committees obviously from the faculty in the University which I am member of. It involves me also in daily contact with staff on issues regarding research and teaching and learning about strategic planning too which is a very important part of my role.

And the day-to-day operational staff requests is a great importance, but the future of the faculty depends very much on the clarity of our strategic thinking and that's where the team especially of heads of school, heads of departments, and the team of associate deans work with me very closely to develop our strategies for the future.

As a Dean also, I like to make sure that I keep contact with the students on a regular basis. So that's an important part of my role I think to establish relationships with students. This week for example, I've already met with our international students on an informal basis. And I also do some teaching which I enjoy.

Matt de Neef:

The Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson recently described this era at La Trobe as a period of growth. Has that growth been evident in your enrolment levels in the Faculty of Science, Tech and Engineering?

Brian McGaw:

Yes the Faculty has seen a large increase in the number of students over the last two or three years. And also that has been drawn through domestic but also through international students which are now a significant part of our total student population. The international numbers as you would be aware though in Australia are under some threat from competition from the UK and the US.

I think the difficulties also that our students are facing in getting visas and the processing time that it's taking and also the strength of the Australian dollar is going to make it difficult for the next few years in attracting more international students. But we have plans to increase our domestic student population.

We're very keen to support the trust of the government and the Bradley review to widen participation and to increase the number of 25 to 35-year-olds in Australia who are qualified to a degree level or higher. By 2025, that's going to rise to 40 percent. And this University and my faculty are very much signed up to that both in Melbourne but of course in the regions too where we have a very strong representation in Wodonga and in Bendigo.

Matt de Neef:

Speaking of international students, I believe you were in India and Sri Lanka in late July to meet with representatives from other universities in the sub-continent. Can you tell us a little bit about what that trip hoped to achieve?

Brian McGaw:

It was a very busy trip. We were away for ten days and we covered eight different cities from South India and Sri Lanka right the way up to Delhi. We signed a number of memoranda of understanding which we hoped would progress the develop relationships in terms of our research, but also in terms of attracting students to come to Australia on articulation arrangements typically two-plus-two or one-plus-one arrangements where students will start their degrees whether they'd be bachelors or masters over in India and then progress fully to get their awards here at La Trobe.

This is a difficult position were in at the moment in terms of attracting students, but I think at this time it's all the more important that senior members of the staff go over to India and tell them about the opportunities that exist here in Australia and about the quality of our education which I believe is amongst the best in the world.

The other side of our work involved free press conferences where we were quizzed, as you might expect, about the issue of bashings in Melbourne. I think I was able to reassure students and prospective students that we take great care of our students here at La Trobe, we do our best to minimize risky behaviour by counselling our students not to be out on the streets late at night or to work in activities that would expose them to potential risk.

So I believe that we gave a very strong answer there to that and it was very favourably reported in the press and in regional newspapers. But I still think that the issues relating to visas and relating to the strength of Australian dollar are going to be difficult conditions for us in terms of attracting students from India and China and other places for the next two or three years.

Matt de Neef:

We've just reached the end of Open Day Season here at La Trobe, culminating in the Open Day for the Bundoora Campus just yesterday. From what I've heard it was a pretty hectic day for everyone involved. Was that the feeling for Science, Technology and Engineering as well?

Brian McGaw:

Yes, I was also at the Bendigo Open Day last week as well and this is my first Open Day season, if you like, at La Trobe University because I joined the team here in December last year. I was very impressed with the turnout of our staff and our students. It was very enthusiastic, very welcoming and the feedback I had - well it was anecdotal from the parents and prospective students that I met yesterday in Bendigo - was very, very positive. We had some wonderful displays and wonderful estate to show the students. Our facilities are second to none. And of course we have the added advantage here in Science at the moment of being able to tell them about the new developments in 2012 and the AgriBio building and the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science will be completed.

Matt de Neef:

Would you mind telling us a little bit about these projects?

Brian McGaw:

Yes, of course. They're incredibly exciting obviously with the AgriBio building is the most advanced and they'll see it's already under construction on this campus. We're expecting to have 400 staff in there which 100 will be La Trobe and 300 from the Department of Primary Industries. And that building will be completed in around Easter time 2012.

Very exciting opportunity here to support one of Victoria's largest industries to do cutting-edge research in partnership with colleagues in Victorian government, but also research with international implications because the issues facing agriculture in Victoria are not dissimilar to those cases in other parts of the world where climate change, where desertification, where increase salinity of the soil are all major problems.

The other building, the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, another fantastic opportunity for us on creating some of the world's best laboratories here on this campus in Melbourne. That will be ready in Christmas time 2012. One hundred million dollar enterprise shared between the government and the University. And that service oversees our requirements into the future for cutting-edge research in biochemistry and molecular sciences at the same time also serve for teaching our students and as an outreach centre to attract more school children to think about exciting careers in Science and Technology.

Matt de Neef:

How does the University and the faculty go about securing funding for those sort of projects when you're looking at buildings that are costing you know $288 million and like you would say with LIMS is $100 million? Where is the funding for that sort of thing come from?

Brian McGaw:

Well, the funding for these two buildings will come from government in case the DPI from the Victorian government and in the case of the LIMS building has come from the federal government. And of course, in order to do that you have to persuade these funding bodies that we have the potential, the ability to spend this money wisely and so it's a strong investment for the future for the state and for Australia.

La Trobe University in receiving this has received a resounding endorsement from the government that we are the place where a high-quality research should be carried out. And it's an investment not for the next 10 years, not even for the next 20 or 30 years, it's an investment well into the future for this University and secures our future in these important areas of research.

Matt de Neef:

The University has a strategic plan called Vision 2015 and it's all about ensuring La Trobe's place in the changing higher education landscape, and like you said LIMS and Agri-Bio will be finished in 2012, where would you like to see the faculty being in five years' time in 2015 once those projects are finished and under way?

Brian McGaw:

I'd like to see this faculty not just challenging, but really right up there with the GO8 universities in terms of the quality of our teaching in Science and Technology where I think we're already there, but in terms of our research we are already the faculty in the University which generates the most external income for La Trobe University. I would like to see that, over the next five years, doubling.

And soon our research is known internationally for its quality and also for making a difference. I think that's the important thing about our research is that it focuses on real problems and real issues, issues that are important for the community's reserve but also for industry.

Matt de Neef:

You said before you've been the Dean of Science at La Trobe since December of last year. Apart from all the fantastic things that are happening, what are some of the challenges that you've faced along the way?

Brian McGaw:

Since taking over this role? I think the challenges when you join a large organization like this is actually understanding how it works and understanding the strengths and the weaknesses and also the opportunities that we have. Obviously when you start a new job there's a real enthusiasm to get on with these tasks, but at the same time you must temper that with gathering the knowledge and understanding of history of the institution, the aspirations of the individual staff and of the institution itself too.

Getting to know all the staff is a task which I have started and I guess I will feel never completely succeeded in doing. But it's so important for me that we work together as a team. The faculty is a major part of the University, but it's made up of individuals and it's those individuals that share into, "that is where we want to be in the future." They're going to be the people who'll deliver the high-quality teaching, the high-quality research. So I think that's always going to be the biggest challenge. It's getting to know everyone and getting to know how we can work together effectively and also to encourage them and to facilitate their own aspirations.

Matt de Neef:

Speaking of looking forward to the future, a few weeks ago we saw a group of students from St. Helena Secondary College winning the prestigious 'Sleek Geeks' Eureka Prize for Science Communication. Can you tell us a little bit about what La Trobe Science, what they're involvement with the project was?

Brian McGaw:

Well, they were the project. Obviously very much gathered by a team of very able staff. We worked with these school children, Francesca Calati being foremost amongst them. We take our outreach activities very seriously and Francesca and many of our staff are engaged on a daily basis in working with schools to try and increase their understanding of what it means to be a scientist and to enthuse them with the ideas of becoming a scientist in the future.

This kind of work is very important because without it I think we'll find that Australia as a nation will underperform because we won't have sufficient graduates coming forward to take on the difficult tasks of becoming scientists, engineers and technologists in the future which our industry so much depends upon.

So we are particularly pleased actually to be involved with this school and obviously to submit for a very prestigious prize we were delighted to win. I think these prizes are important because they give a focus, they tell the world what we're doing, but they represent in the sense the tip of the iceberg in many other wonderful activities we're engaged in on a daily basis which aren't necessarily for prizes. I'm looking forward to meeting these school students who won the prize. We're arranging a meeting shortly so I can congratulate them in person and wish them all the best.

I think we are turning the corner both here in Australia and in Europe and other parts of the world in increasing the number of students that are now considering Science, Engineering and Technology as a career. In the late 90s, there's a significant drop in the number of students who were interested in studying Science in the university. And I think we've done a lot to address that and it's beginning to flourish.

Matt de Neef:

So you mentioned before that as well as your administrative role as the Dean, you're also doing some teaching. Can you tell us a little bit about what teaching you are actually doing and why do you continue to do that when you might not necessarily need to?

Brian McGaw:

Well, I actually love teaching. I started my scientific career in the Scientific Civil Service in the United Kingdom and made a conscious decision at that point that I wanted to do more that just simply research. I wanted to teach. I wanted to tell them about my research and enthuse a next generation of scientists. So I started my career in universities in the early 1990s in the UK.

So research and teaching have always been, I guess, the areas which have turned me on as a scientist and enthused me to do a job as an academic. And I guess bit by bit as you progress through your career, you do more and more administration, leadership, management. And bit by bit the research and the teaching get the smaller and smaller part of your life. It was a great opportunity for me when I joined La Trobe to start my relationship with colleagues in the Chemistry Department and to start my teaching again.

I really enjoy it. I'm teaching a class which is a combined class of honours and masters students on my area of expertise which is 'inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.' I gave a short lecture course on that and I really enjoyed it. Good results too because the students did very well.

Matt de Neef:

Before you started at La Trobe in December of last year, you had a couple of years at Deakin University, but before that you held a similar role to the one you hold at La Trobe now over the University of Lincoln in the UK. What originally brought you over to Australia?

Brian McGaw:

That's a good question. I'd long considered going to Australia because my wife is half-Australian. Her mother was Australian who immigrated to the UK in the 1950s doing things, I guess, in reverse to some extent. So I've been out to Australia many times to see family. I have three children, three girls. And we've decided I think that we would either come to Australia when we're younger, but that somehow didn't work.

And then we reconsidered that when our kids have left home and we're in work or in university that we felt we could leave home and start a new adventure. So that's what it's all been about really, a new adventure. And we haven't regretted it so we've loved every minute of it. It's a lovely country, a wonderful place.

Matt de Neef:

As well as your work here at La Trobe, you've been involved in the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre. Can you tell us a little about your role there and what the Centre has hoped to achieve in its time since 1986?

Brian McGaw:

Yes, I'm on the Board of the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre and this is very important research institute for us up in Wodonga. As you say, it's been going since the 1980s. I think we're entering a new phase now. The Murray Darling Basin Plan was held up by the general election. It should be announced fairly shortly and will guide us obviously in the work that we'll be doing into the future.

Our collective view in the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre and of the board is that we would focus more on strategic rather than tactical research which has been what we've done largely until now. A lot of very important contract work has been done, but I think we would all recognize that across the whole basin what we're needing is long-term data sets to be able to show how best to use our water resources.

It's a major issue for Australia. Obviously it's Australia's largest river system and it's a river system which is failing. The demands for the water from agriculture from the towns along the basin as well and the river is effectively drying out. In the last year, remember, it no longer reached the sea. And this is a terrible catastrophe and Australia is being watched by the world as to how we behave here because water resources are a major issue internationally.

And the Murray Darling Basin is just one of the many examples of water issues which are bedevilling agriculture and communities along the banks of the rivers and also international relations in some places too. So I think it creates great opportunities for us to actually demonstrate to the world that we understand this system and can improve it. We can use this knowledge to actually help other river systems across the world.

So we have ambitions to think about, a masters degree for example in Water Resource Management which would combine the expertise that we have as scientists alongside that and other faculties and learn management for example. And to develop lots of disciplinary approach to river management and water management which could be used for training scientists and policy makers both in Australia and internationally.

Matt de Neef:

We've had one of the wettest winters here in a long time. Has that rainfall been reflected in the Murray Darling Basin at all?

Brian McGaw:

It is as you say. It's somewhat ironic that at this point we're building a desalination plant as well in Victoria that this has been one of the wettest winters for a long time. I've only experienced two winters here in Australia but this has reminded me a lot of Britain, I have to say in these last few months.

Obviously it's good news. But I think the indications are that this would be an aberrant year and that it's highly likely that we'll return to the drought conditions that we've seen over the last decades. Obviously we hope that isn't the case but I think there is these strong indicators out that it is.

Climate is such an unpredictable thing. But the data sets that we have indicate we do need to take strong action both to secure our water supply, but also to make sure that we look after the environment.

Matt de Neef:

Professor Brian McGaw thanks so much for your time today.

Brian McGaw:

Thank you very much.