Bio21 Guest Message - Prof Emeritus Andrew Holmes - A Journey Through Bio21 - 31 August 2020

When I and my co-workers arrived in Melbourne in October 2004, we found that the construction of the Bio21 building was not as advanced as we had hoped.  Fortunately, we were able to occupy temporary laboratory space in the teaching laboratory of the School of Chemistry. We were eventually moved into the south wing on the fourth floor of Bio21 on 4 Jan 2005, the very first research group to occupy the building. The first month or so was devoted to unpacking all the laboratory equipment that had been shipped from Cambridge and to converting all the UK 3-pin plugs to Australian fittings.  We were regular customers at Jaycar, then located in A’Beckett Street.   

At that time the north wing of the fourth floor was just a slab of concrete, and we had the privilege of designing and overseeing the fit-out of our dedicated laboratory space, thereby providing the University of Melbourne with the opportunity to advance the cause of infrastructure for synthetic chemistry in Australia, something that was lagging behind what was available in Europe and the USA.  With the support of the inaugural Director, Professor Dick Wettenhall, state-of the-art bench and fume hood design was introduced, and the laboratory turned out to be about 98% perfect.  Dr Scott Watkins deserves most of the credit for ensuring that the design specifications were turned into reality.  The then Director of Buildings and Property, the late Dr Doug Daines, was keen to pin us down on the final contract and he actually photographed us signing the documents!   Doug had delegated Mr David Jenkins to oversee the day-to-day building works.  David brought enthusiasm and experience to the task, even arranging for the Premier fume hoods to be shipped from Paisley in Scotland in a huge Russian air-freighter so that construction could be kept on schedule.   These came with ceramic bases, glass lining and a thermally activated inert gas fire extinguisher to guard against accidental lab fires.  When I had the privilege about ten years later of showing the then Secretary of State for Science in the UK, Mr David (now Lord) Willets our laboratories in Bio21, I proudly drew his attention to the fume hoods, saying “These Premier fume hoods were imported from Paisley, Minister”.  He retorted “By goodness is that the best we can do in exports to Australia”.  I felt rather deflated and endeavoured to convince him that well-equipped fume hoods are the bread and butter of a practising synthetic chemist.  We also had oxygen sensors for safety and solvent vapour detectors to avoid fires in the lab, some of the most sophisticated safety provisions that I had ever encountered.

The synthetic chemistry laboratory was formally opened by Professor Richard Schrock (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 2005) on 2 February, 2007 in the presence of the Vice-Chancellor and the Victorian State Treasurer, the Hon John Brumby MP, who had been one of the state government champions of the development of biotechnology in Victoria.

Bio21 was established to harness, communicate and exploit the numerous opportunities in the field as a result of the presence of the richly endowed Parkville biomedical precinct. It has provided the best laboratory facilities that I have ever experienced.  It really is a palace. With the expectation of interdisciplinary collaborations over a wide variety of disciplines there is ample opportunity for every member to conduct creative and productive research at the interface. As Chemistry is such a central science it is perfectly positioned to capitalise on these opportunities as has become evident from the productive output of my colleagues in Chemistry as well as from the many other occupants of Bio21. It is a special privilege to be able to work in Bio21. Our link has been with Professor Malcolm McConville on intracellular signalling, and we have also collaborated extensively with Professor Tony Burgess and Dr Bruno Catimel, firstly in the Ludwig Cancer Institute and subsequently in the WEHI. 

I continue to admire the founders of Bio21 and particularly Professor Dick Wettenhall, the inaugural Director who steered its construction and initial operation. The successive Directors (Tony Bacic, Malcolm McConville and Michael Parker) have all added to the vision of those founders with the establishment of the Elizabeth Blackburn School of Science, the NCRIS Metabolomics Australia facility, the Nancy Millis Building and the Ruth Bishop Building and Ian Holmes Imaging Centre. On top of all that the number of industry partner companies on the precinct has exploded. 

Over the years all the Bio21 Directors have provided generous support and encouragement. We are particularly fortunate to have Dr David Keizer as Scientific Research Manager.  Some of you may think that David literally lives in Bio21 and that is almost true!  We are indeed fortunate to have so many dedicated staff working with David to making the Institute meet the aspirations of its founders.

Most recently I have had the privilege of serving as President of the Australian Academy of Science. That has been a rewarding experience. One thing I learnt from my engagement with our political leaders is that politics is the art of compromise.  We as scientists find that difficult as we strive for perfection in our research.  However, in politics it is unlikely that the outcome will be absolute perfection and one must learn to accept that there are very few “absolutes” in political outcomes.  When first appointed in 2014 I was asked what my goals would be and I listed communication of science to, and engagement with, our political leaders as the number one priority.  It was a rather barren landscape at the time.  However, over the years the level of engagement improved through a variety of productive activities.  To my mind the most significant was the establishment by the Academy of Science of a communications strategy to share and explain science stories to the general public in a series of short videos.  You can see examples of these on Facebook or Twitter or simply by connecting with .  Try it out. Over the last two years the number of followers on Facebook increased from a few hundred to over two million.  This increase in the thirst for knowledge has resulted in the Academy being invited to provide advice to Government on bushfires and the covid-19 epidemic. A dedicated covid-19 news and resources hub has been established (see ) and the Academy is leading the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) that is chaired by the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel. Quoting the President Professor John Shine AC PresAA FRS in a recent message to the Fellows of the Academy “The strength of this forum is that the Prime Minister, ministers across portfolios, the Chief Medical Officer and other decision-makers are able to directly ask RRIF questions as they emerge and receive the best available multidisciplinary evidence to address their question within 7 to 10 days. The responses provided to government are independent, relevant and timely, and enable science to directly inform decision making. In a fast-moving and complex environment, it is appropriate and necessary that the expertise of Australia’s science, research and innovation sectors is being brought to bear, and that the value of science as a driver of social and economic well-being is recognised.” These words echo the earliest vision for Bio21 to be a place where expertise across both old and emerging scientific disciplines would lead the way forward through innovation and discovery.

All around the world and particularly in Australia we are hearing our political leaders stating that decisions are being taken on the basis of the scientific advice. For me it is most satisfying that the vision of Bio21 has taken root and spread beyond the building itself.

Professor Emeritus Andrew Holmes AC FAA FRS FTSE

Melbourne Laureate Professor Emeritus

School of Chemistry, Bio21 Institute