An unplanned career in plants (Tim Entwisle)

This is the full text of Tim Entwisle's keynote speech at the La Trobe University Graduate Research School launch on 4 May 2015 (John Scott Meeting House, Bundoora).

The School is one of a number of initiatives led by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Keith Nugent, that responds to the research objectives outlined in the University’s Future Ready strategy.

Professor Tim Entwisle
in full speech mode
I spent about three and a half years at La Trobe University, studying the taxonomy and systematics of an alga called Vaucheria. Professor Bill Woelkerling was my PhD supervisor and Professor Alan Wardrop was the head of Botany.

Professor Wardrop’s research and rule were waning when I was there, but he had been a highly distinguished plant cell wall biologist in the 1950s. He had also left his mark as the foundation Chair then Dean in Biological Sciences, and foundation Professor of the Department of Botany. Interestingly, he was a champion of unity in biology and was unhappy in the 1960s when separate schools emerged for botany, zoology, and the like, preferring the intermeshed model very much in favour these days.

Bill Woelkerling had an equally formidable reputation as a scientist, part of Australia’s first wave of internationally important phycologists (algal specialists). He was much more self-contained than Professor Wardrop, and would have flourished in any school or department and under any disciplinary hierarchy. Bill had wallpapered his office with books, subdividing it to create more room for bookcases. His approach to work was regimented, orderly, and methodical. There was nothing left to chance. I was attracted to that at the time.

I’d done my undergraduate degree in Science, with an honours year, at the University of Melbourne, followed by a year at the Royal Botanic Gardens working as a (indoor) horticultural assistant while I decided what to do next. It only took a few months to realise that, yes, I enjoyed working in the botanic gardens – who wouldn’t? – but I needed to stretch myself intellectually first.

I wanted to discover new things and, looking back, to also create something new. Something like a thesis.

I also concluded during that year that I would be better off somewhere other than the University of Melbourne. Not because I didn’t like the university (I loved it) or the people (I had great friends there and my honours supervisor, Professor Gerry Kraft, remains and inspiration and mentor for me today).

But I had been there, enjoyed it, and needed to move on. My peer group from that time had bogged down a little and were becoming a little disorientated and disorganised. The chance to make a fresh start at Bundoora was attractive. Oh, and so was working closer to my girlfriend, and now wife, Lynda (who was a research assistant in the Department of Botany and now a teacher of French).

I’d thought it all through: Bill would add the bits that were missing from my Honours training under Gerry Kraft at Melbourne. I’d always liked writing, but my essays at university were all over the place, fully of over-dramatic, loose, and inaccurate writing.

MC for the launch:
Lara Bereza-Malcolm (2014 3MT People's
Choice Winner)
I was more interesting in creating memorable prose than in responding to the essay question. One of my essays in ecology started with "The farmer crumbled the soil in his hands…", and circled around the topic of soil chemistry in fairly clichéd prose for about a third of its length. This effort quite rightly earned me a fail. Gerry tore apart my honours’ essays in the kindest way, and got me thinking about what I was trying to say and to whom. Bill added to this and taught me how to write like a scientist, and gave me phrases and words to use that were grammatically correct and would please referees. I should say, and I’ve told Bill this, that I then had to unlearn a lot of that style so I could write for a more general audience.

Learning to write is a long and evolutionary process. I’m pretty sure I needed to write like a scientist first, then strip it back.

Bill and I negotiated over the topic of my thesis. He was working on marine coralline red algae at the time and I’d been working on freshwater red algae for my honours project. I went out collecting and brought in things to try and find common ground. We eventually agreed on Vaucheria, a yellow-green algae that was found all over the place, but never studied in Australia. It grew at the edge of the sea and in freshwater streams and swamps, so we were both happy with that. For me, it didn’t really matter what the organism was, but this kept Bill and me happy for three and a half years.

Last week, I was talking to the gifted speech-writer and writer, Don Watson. He studied at La Trobe University in its even earlier years and worked for a time as an academic. He dropped out of academia upon offer of tenure. From there, he moved from comedy writing to speech writing, most famously for Paul Keating. We didn’t have time to talk in any detail about what it was about academia that turned him off it but, like me, he found his calling outside the university.

Equally, like me, he didn’t plan his life but was able to head off down various paths and find useful things to do, fuelled by his own particular skills and interests.

I started university with an interest in maths and physics. I did a botanical subject just to make up the points. By the end of the year, however, I was converted to plants. I got converted again to algae in later years, then back to flowering plants when I got a job (again) at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria after my PhD at La Trobe and a postdoc at Melbourne (both on freshwater algae).

Along the way, I realised I was an OK researcher, but perhaps a better communicator. I don’t know that I ever thought I was a better administrator, but I do remember always wanting to be the one who made decisions rather than just having them handed down to me. My mother and my wife can attest to the fact that I don’t like being told what to do – a failing, particularly when they are right.

Of course, you are never the real boss: as Director and Chief Executive, I report to the chair of a Board and, indirectly, to a government minister.

(L to R): Lucie Semenec, Jen Wiltshire, Oonagh Bodin

At La Trobe University, I had space to work, equipment like microscopes and culturing facilities, and access to Bill’s personal library, as well as the Borchardt Library (which Bill had made sure was well stocked with algal literature). Compared to the University of Melbourne in Parkville, the architecture was fairly ordinary, but I liked the space and freshness of the campus. The eucalypts and patches of near-natural vegetation were attractive.

Parkville was urbane and cosy, but in Bundoora you could spread your wings a little. As a younger university, it felt less inhibited and inhibiting. You could do anything, achieve anything. That was the vibe.

And there was the extra stuff: I spent a lot of time in the record shop, buying vinyl, but also borrowing LPs for radio shows I was doing on Plenty Valley Radio – the Pablo Picasso Show (a new music show named after a famous Jonathan Richmond tune), then Brainwaves (a science show). I frequented the second-hand book shop, building my own library as I read through the alphabet trying to expand my breadth of reading (the plan I had was to read two or three novels by authors starting with each letter of the alphabet, selecting deliberately to stretch my interests and read good literature). That worked pretty well, and I recommend it!

After my PhD and back at the University of Melbourne doing a postdoc (again with Gerry Kraft), I started work on the ecology of algae in the Yarra River basin. Just as importantly, given the roles I occupy today, I started writing freelance pieces for The Age on all kinds of scientific topics. I wrote my first Age piece after the Science Editor for the paper, Graeme O’Neill, gave a talk at the university and suggested we all write on what we knew. I wrote on algae, then many other things.

So, I diversified. I suspect I was an early adopter of the short-attention-span approach to life. Even moving between universities wasn’t done much at my time, particularly within the same city. We tend to be tribal about such things. When I returned to the Royal Botanic Gardens again, this time for a proper job, I argued that although I trained as a phycologist I was a taxonomist and botanist first and foremost, and I could work on any organisms (although animals would have been a stretch, having done no zoology in any of my schooling). Apparently, I was convincing and ended up editing and writing descriptions of vascular or flowering plants for the Flora of Victoria series.

Given my dislike of authority (as mentioned earlier), I become head of research then headed to Sydney to become Director of Plant Sciences in their Royal Botanic Gardens. I became Executive Director there for eight years, moved to London for two years to be Director of Conservation, Living Collections and Estates (looking after more than half of that organisation and a staff of 400), then came back two years ago to head up Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

I love the role I have now: running one of Melbourne’s oldest and most respected cultural organisations, leading a strong scientific and educational research team, and being able to lead and influence thinking of plants, and their importance to life.

La Trobe University VC Professor John Dewar (left)
and Prof Entwisle
Being head of a public institution like the Royal Botanic Gardens gives you a soapbox (or pulpit, depending on your persuasion), if you want it. I try to take the most of that privilege, using my position and connections to promote the importance of plants to life. So, I talk, write, blog, tweet, whatever it takes, to get the message out.

I remember being amazed when I was employed as a flora writer and editor that I was being paid to learn more and more about plants, then to tell others about it. To some extent, that’s still the case today. I particularly love cramming for a radio interview. Radio would have to be my favourite form of media. Writing is a close second, and I certainly enjoy a quick flourish of 300 words. Once it gets to 1000 words or more, I work up a sweat and, for a book, I definitely struggle. Something about concentration span, I think. Whatever the format, I love tracking down the back-story.

Equally luckily, I enjoy running a complex organisation with scientists, horticulturists, teachers, accountants, and plumbers. Good decision-making is all about collecting data and making logical connections, then selling that decision. These were skills I picked up along the way at various schools, universities, and workplaces. Life-long learning, as they say.

All of which makes me particularly happy to be speaking today at the launch of the Graduate Research School.

I’ve always been a little bothered by the concept of graduation. The Graduation itself is a wonderful and worthwhile opportunity to have family and friends celebrate the achievement (and effort) of receiving a degree at whatever level. But it has a sense of finality, of having got there, rather than being the start of something.

A good education builds and nurtures curiosity, critical thinking, and hopefully confidence (or should that be cockiness?). That’s what I got from La Trobe University, and any program that creates more opportunities to be educated in that way is a good thing.

On that note, I’m delighted today to open the La Trobe University Graduate Research School!


Professor Timothy J Entwisle is Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. He is a highly respected scientist, scientific communicator, and botanic gardens director. Tim is an expert in freshwater algae (a genus, family and order of algae were named after him last year), and has a broad interest in all plants and related life forms. 

He blogs, tweets, and looks for any opportunity to promote science, plants and gardens. Tim has been a regular contributor to ABC radio and its website, and a frequent guest on Australian radio and television – over summer 2014/15 he hosted RN’s first gardening show, Talking Plants. He has written for a variety of science, nature and garden magazines and maintains an active social media profile (including his popular ‘Talkingplants’ blog).