Staff, students mourn loss of lecturer

Staff, students mourn loss of lecturer

02 Aug 2010

Robert Glaisher

She feels it close now, the appointed season:
The invisible thread is broken as she flies;
Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.

Try as she will, the trackless world delivers
No way, the wilderness of light no sign,
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

From ‘The death of the bird’ by A.D.Hope.

The electron microscopy laboratory, hidden in the basement of the Applied Science Building on the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, was the arena of operation for a remarkable microscopist and visionary teacher. Here, Robert Glaisher educated students to become scientists, not ‘stamp collectors’ or ‘knob twiddlers’ or simply being good at passing exams. Here, he taught students to think critically, to solve problems and to add skills to their toolbox as apprentice scientists, which they could use to obtain employment. In his 16 years of teaching at La Trobe University, he made a crucial difference to many students’ career choices.  

Robert completed a Bachelor of Applied Physics with Distinction from RMIT in 1974 and in 1975 began work as an electronics technician in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne before embarking on further studies. In 1978, he enrolled in a Masters preliminary year, completing it with first class honours and receiving a Postgraduate Research Scholarship. While undertaking his PhD studies, Robert was a resident medical physics tutor at Newman College and a laboratory demonstrator in the third year diffraction laboratory for the School of Physics. It was here that his patience and dedication to undergraduate and postgraduate students became apparent. Robert could take a black and white photograph covered in an array of dots and lines and, through exclaiming excitedly and pointing out the finer detail, would instill a sense of achievement in the undergraduate student producer of the image.
 
Rob’s PhD thesis High Resolution Electron Microscopy of Tetrahedral Semiconductors was completed in 1987.  The day the thesis was submitted, he left for his first post-doctoral position as a research associate in the Physics department of Arizona State University. Here, he continued to explore his research interests in imaging semiconductor material and developed some general principles for studying defects and interfaces. He applied himself to other research projects which involved high-resolution imaging of metals and semiconductors, and widened his breadth of experience and expertise. Another post-doctoral position at Oxford University followed.  When getting off the train at Oxford, he recalled feeling that ‘he had arrived’ and immersed himself in the scholarly atmosphere with great joy. 

Rob loved both of his post-doctoral positions and he established an international reputation in high resolution microscopy, publishing a number of seminal papers in the field. He began to develop a real sense of what industry needed from new graduates. He returned to Australia in 1990 to undertake his third post-doctoral position in the Electron Microscope Unit at the University of Sydney. During his three years in Sydney, he applied his now considerable research expertise to the field of layered compound semiconductors.  He formed strong collaborative links with research groups at the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics and with the Telecom Research Laboratories.

In 1993 Rob, by now pre-eminent in his field, took a position in the Physics department at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University. He came armed with an impressive research record, a thorough background in all aspects of scattering theory and a mastery of the technical skills in specimen preparation and instrumentation. La Trobe gained a first rate scientist with a broad knowledge of physics and instrumentation, many contacts in a rather specialized circle and a talent for teaching and assisting emerging researchers.

Rob set out attempting to shape the University toward his vision for a research community with strong ties to industry. With great tenacity, Rob established an analytical facility that could be accessed by industry and students. His design was a deliberate synthesis of seemingly disparate users. He wanted students to learn in an environment close to what they would face once out in the real world, and the money earned from outside users supported his specialized teaching with expensive instrumentation.  Rob’s network of professional microscopy contacts and highly developed practical skills allowed him to obtain and maintain instruments that are unusual to have in a regional university campus. 

Rob was a challenging yet gentle teacher. Teaching extended beyond his specialized subjects; it included conducting tours and hands-on sessions with local school children and supporting PhD students from other disciplines allowing them access to highly specialized studies in Bendigo.  Rob has been a mentor to many postgraduate students from a range of areas including physics, instrumentation, biotechnology, plant physiology, chemistry and ceramics. His support for students went far beyond just the academic curriculum. He helped students and colleagues think about and plan their careers. He derived great satisfaction from following the careers of those students who maintained contact with him. In 2008, Rob received a Carrick award (now ALTC – Australian Teaching and Learning Council) for excellence in teaching Electron Microscopy. The award is testament to Rob’s capacity to develop and deliver amazing courses that are highly valued and appreciated by students and fellow staff. 

About ten years ago Rob transformed the somewhat disjointed structure of electron microscopy at the Melbourne campus by unifying it with the small Bendigo Electron Microscopy facility. In achieving this, he earned a high degree of respect for his managerial skills, his vision of a functional unit and his ability to work with strong characters across a range of disciplines, each of whom had their own particular requirements from the facilities. At the same time, he developed an innovative subject on imaging and materials characterisation at Bundoora, using the same principles as he had for his Bendigo subjects.

But universities in the 21st century are very different from Rob’s vision of scholarship and learning. At the end of 2007, with a management structure in place, and to remove the strain of constant travel between campuses, Robert relinquished his Bundoora responsibilities to refocus his efforts on his Bendigo activities. In 2009 Rob went on a period of extended leave.

Rob was a very private person, and we will never know the anguish he experienced about his family, his work and his own well-being during his last year of teaching at the university and whilst on leave.   ‘Go gently into your night’ was the greeting with which he finished his telephone conversations in the last few months; we are confident that he is now at peace having done just that.


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