Strange Times in Munich And More

I shared an office with a student and, it being a veterinary institute, and like most students and staff, she had a dog which she also brought to the institute. It was ridiculous having that many dogs – and I do mean many – inside a veterinary research institute. Especially in summer the dogs would be left around the cooler central staircase (because of the open space with better airflow and cool concrete and stone surfaces) and I almost tripped over dogs often, sometimes carrying equipment or research samples – it was actually beyond ridiculous, and very unprofessional.

I shared my office not just with this student but with her dog, an emotionally insecure thing that wept when the student was out of the room and it would growl and bare her teeth at me at the end of her leash whenever I entered or left the room. The dog bit me once early in the year prompting me to ask the student whether it had received it’s shots for rabies. The next day, quite shockingly to me, the student asked me again if it is OK for her dog to still be left in the room to which I, with a thoroughly bemused expression on my face, said “I guess so if you really think it will be OK”.

Everything went pear-shaped a few months later when the dog bailed me up again when I was with a colleague from Finland, and I told the student that I felt uncomfortable with the dog being left in our office. The next day my work went missing from the lab, and I then found out that this student had acted as the secretary to the head of institute, Rudolf Hoffmann, at some earlier stage. I had no idea of their close relationship, but I still would never have thought that simply asking her to make other arrangements – better for the dog as well as me – would have caused so much upset for the student.

I have to admit that in the subsequent meeting with Hoffmann he was clear that he had taken a disliking to me, saying words to the effect that I had come into His house acting like I was God’s gift to science.

I knew to what he was referring. Even though I had written a full research program which he had signed off on for me to apply for the fellowship, when I arrived at the institute he tried to tell me that instead I should conduct research on establishing a crustacean cell line. Knowing that it had consumed many years of fruitless research by others previously, I politely said that I would be judged by the foundation for how well I did at the research program to which we had agreed and I had zero experience at developing cell lines. I also think that there was some professional jealousy as researchers at his institute had worked on freshwater crayfish for years and never found viruses, and I usually found them whenever I looked (and I did find a virus in populations that they have worked with extensively – I was in the process of writing the paper when I retired, so it was never published, but I mentioned it along with photographs at the head of an article I published in recent months here.)

No doubt Rudy Hoffmann was showing me he was the boss, and that is what the Humboldt Foundation said to me; that very strict, dictatorial hierarchy is a problem in German academia and that they were trying hard to reform the sector. In hindsight, with better political skills, I could have tried to fob him off by suggesting I would supervise a student or even just pretended to do the work while I was there (but these would still have been problematic as I tried to prioritise the research I was always meant to do).

Besides getting my research materials back, when he told me that he would be keeping them, as a parting gift I did detonate a bomb for old Rudy by informing the only world-class scientist he had working there that he was being strung along by Rudy pretending he was inline to takeover when in reality a younger and far less accomplished German-born veterinarian colleague had already been promised the role (which was entirely accurate and was incredibly unfair and prejudicial to the world-class scientist who had been in Germany for almost 30 years!)

Since I have started to dish some dirt, this is as good a place as any for me to dig up the skeletons. As I indicated on my upcoming posts page, I always intended to set the record straight on what happened during my career.

On this recent post I gave some indication on the reasons why I could not turn an obvious natural talent and passion for scientific research into a career in Australia – my lack of political aptitude and an over-representation of sociopaths within my field in Australia.

This sums up the situation well – when I announced my retirement in an emotional email, I received many emails expressing shock and disappointment from other Australian early career scientists in my field (scattered around the world), and international colleagues, but I received only one email from a “senior” Australia colleague (aka “peers”, from which pool reviewers of my grant applications were chosen.) That was Dr. Dick Callinan, a very nice guy who I had worked with closely during the prawn risk analysis. He said that I was a talent and a huge loss to the field in Australia. Mind you, this was also said in reports by the Agriculture Department and in submissions by the Prawn farmers association just a couple of years earlier when discussing the hot button topic of the period, “The Brain Drain”, when I was in Europe.

The first notable mention is a fellow by the name of Peter W, a CSIRO scientist and political animal. Now if Rudy wanted to meet somebody who genuinely acted like they were God’s gift to science then he should have met Peter. I noted he bore a striking resemblance to a very well known medic and former AMA president bearing the same family name, perhaps the cause of the major inferiority complex Peter carries. He certainly did act like he was God’s gift to Australian science and aquaculture, and overseas colleagues would be only half joking when asking me whether I have “Peter W’s permission to work in this field” which gave a good indication of how he acted based on how he saw himself.

When I told Peter that I had applied for a fellowship to work in JR Bonami’s lab he made a very, very unsavory comment about JR and then questioned whether he was any longer relevant in the field. I think that the answer to that question has been answered many times over, but I believe the fact that at the moment that Peter posed that question, Dr Shi Zhengli was learning her craft under JR in Montpellier shows that he was, and always will be, far more relevant than Walker.

While I am mentioning JR and France, there is no doubt that living in France was extremely challenging and it must be said that even though JR in a personal setting was an incredibly gracious and fun host, the culture that existed in his lab was alienating for non-French speakers. But my observation was that was typical of very many labs run by French academics. Nonetheless, I learnt a great deal in that year and I would have backed myself ahead of any other Australian in my field to be able to isolate the next major viral disease of aquatic invertebrates to emerge. And the social side with JR was so good – on his boat and in his home – that he literally changed my life (he opened my eyes to good food and wine, and genuine quality of life). My wife and I spent many days with him on his boat and towards the end of my stay he confided that the reason that he invited me so often was because I was the only one he had confidence would be able to get him back on the boat if he had a heart attack while swimming!

There were many days that my wife cried in France, and there were many days when I felt like crying, and that Christmas is the most depressing one we ever experienced – all of the locals heading off to family without even one person asking whether we were OK. Us together scrubbing out fish tanks on Christmas day in a mad rush to get my project exposing Australian freshwater crayfish to white spot virus completed before I left Montpellier to go to Munich at the end of January. However, I will never regret choosing to go to France, rather than taking up the job I was offered at CEFAS in Bournemouth, and JR will always be one of my favourite people.

Louis E, on the other hand, is not. Now this person is the ultimate proof that political aptitude is more important than scientific ability to have an academic career. I knew many from her lab and I will not betray their trust by repeating those stories, only to say that many of them rung true to my experiences with my own PhD supervisor. Louis is the senior author on one of my proudest accomplishments – the disease chapter in David Holdich’s renewed bible of crayfish biology published circa 2001. David put out the word that he would be publishing a new bible to replace the outdated one, and I volunteered to do the disease chapter. David immediately agreed. Several weeks later David wrote to say that Louis had expressed an interest in co-authoring, but the decision to accept her as a co-author was mine. This is a difficult situation for an early career researcher (remember this is more like a game of Survivor with alliances, rather than about scientific talent – just imagine an infamous Survivor villain – like Russell Hantz saying “if you’re not with me then you’re against me!”) Cautiously I agreed, but all of a sudden she was the first author. When I raised it with her I asked why she felt she should be first author, and she responded “because I want to be a Professor”! We had a second review that we were seeking publication of, and I suggested we toss a coin, and she won the right to be first author on the book chapter. Reading through her sections of the chapter prior to submission to David I came across bracketed text saying “Need to get the reference from Lou” which I quietly deleted without comment. When it came time to read the proofs, Louis again was unavailable so I did it. For those reasons, I was the only second/tertiary author to whom David Holdich gave a free copy of the book.

Finally to my supervisor, whom I shall just refer to as “he” as I cannot be bothered to waste my energy in typing the extra 3 digits. So much happened here that I will just limit myself to the lowlights.

The truth is, being young (at 21) and like a lot of postgrad students, I placed him on a pedestal but in retrospect there were early glimpses of his flaws. I was one of his first postgrad students and the first to be awarded a PhD, and I struggled to find something positive to say about him in my thesis acknowledgments and did not invite him to my graduation for reasons which will become clear.

In the very early days we got on well. He did not have tenure so to get himself established he took on a lot of honours students just as I converted from a MSc (qualifying) into an MSc program. A lot of very young people putting him on a pedastal – it was an ego boost for him – and it was fun in the early days. We were all in a separate building at what was still a postgrad vet school, and he created an us against them culture (common where vets and scientists come together, and a constant feature – and problem – in my career including at QDPI, Biosecurity Australia and in Munich). Often we would have a couple of beers on Friday afternoon – which we later grew into a whole of school weekly event – and he would always say that his hope is that by half way through our programs we should know more and be better than him (but by that time he preferred to say that his students were “arms and legs for his research”, even though nothing could have been further from the truth in my case).

Things were difficult for me financially. Because I intended to go back to the family farm after completing my undergraduate degree I had put little effort into studying. Usually I attended only one week worth of lectures in the semester and would rely on a one-nighter of studying (reading a text book or photocopied notes from friends). In my final semester my marks on 5 of 7 exams was a distinction level. But I often did not complete all assessment pieces, such as practicals or assignments, so I had mostly “passes” and I had failed subjects in earlier years so a postgraduate scholarship was never on the cards. In that final semester of my undergrad degree I fell in love with the love of my life and, as a consequence did not want to move back to the farm, so I decided to turn my aptitude at science into my future. I worked part-time initially as a cleaner at a college and then at loading and unloading meat trucks. It was tough times for my future wife and I, but my research was progressing well and I was developing a second love, for scientific research. My supervisor had promised me a scholarship once his grant application was successful, but two knockbacks for him proved that it was far from inevitable for me to receive a scholarship. Still we had a good relationship built on mutual respect – I always knew that he knew I was bright because I aced his final exam as an undergraduate even though I rarely turned up at lectures or practicals.

I can pinpoint the change in our relationship to one night in particular. One Friday evening while having a few beers he was feeling lonely with his partner out of town, and he asked if anyone wanted to go out to dinner. Just my wife and I had dinner with him at a restaurant, and we were all enjoying the night so much that we joined him at his home for a night cap. It was a truly personal night and he asked us what we wanted from life, and I passionately spoke about getting married as soon as we could afford to and about spending a life devoted to scientific research with the respect within my field that he had attained. I was on a real high after that night – it was a watershed, I thought.

It was indeed a turning point, but in the opposite direction. Till this day I still believe he got a glimpse forward of me and my life, and when it reflected against his own, he did not like what he saw. That visceral reaction manifested in bitterness, nastiness and pettiness towards me.

That year he had managed to gain tenure and at the start of the year when academics are busy writing proposals for the major Government funding sources, especially the Australian Research Council (ARC), he was busy writing lecture materials. He informed me that he would not be applying for an ARC meaning that I would have no chance at a scholarship for another year further delaying our plans of getting married and so on. I then asked if he would support me to write an ARC proposal, which of course would go in as his because I did not have a track record for assessment, but I was mentioned in the proposal as the student conducting the work and the strong early research that I had done was heavily emphasised. I wrote the proposal, but he also did an equal amount of work given my inexperience in proposal preparation.

Through the year he always referred to it as “our proposal” but the day that he was notified of our success, he was walking around saying “I got an ARC” and he did not at all acknowledge that we co-wrote the proposal. I put it down to his excitement but early next year when he initiated my fellowship he decided to put me on a mid-rate pay of $16K (for the entire 3 years) even though the full rate (of nearly $19K) was paid by the ARC, he knew that I had worked for 2 years without any scholarship or remuneration for my hard work, that I co-wrote the proposal (which is really quite rare), and most of all, even though he knew full well that I was saving to get married. Worst still, not having the courage to be open that it was his decision, he told me that the head of the school had forced him to pay me less than the full rate.

The truth is that we had to inflate the budget to meet the minimum first year limit to apply for an ARC Large grant (as it was called then), so the grant was flush with money, but this was not the only way in which he was petty. He told me that the head of the school – Prof Summers, a very nice guy – had said that all students had to pay for their own photocopying and stationery consumables, and had also said that the grant was not able to fund (or part fund) my trip to Adelaide to present my first paper at an international conference – the International Association of Astacology (IAA).

He was overseas for a month or two early in that year and while he was away a notice come out from Prof Summers spelling out his stance on the photocopying issue, which was that it was up to the grant holder as to whether students working on that grant could have their costs covered. I then met with Prof Summers and said that I understood that he did not want my costs for attending the conference be covered by the grant, but I am saving to get married and am struggling to be able to afford the costs of attendance. It is at that point that I found out that all of what my supervisor had been saying was lies, and Prof Summers paid for part of my costs because I was presenting at the conference.

That was the beginning of the first year of my true PhD, after I converted from an MSc, and things continued to go from bad to worse. I had yet to publish the first of my 8 PhD peer-reviewed papers. There were other issues about how my work was being discussed with others and whether I was receiving appropriate credit, and I presented some evidence around this to the Dean of Science. In that meeting together with the Dean I decided not to go ahead with an official complaint of misconduct, but the Dean advised me to keep as much of my work and results to myself for as long as possible (though I had to draft the milestone reports for the ARC grant) and to finish my PhD as soon as possible (I submitted my PhD after 2 years 10 months) and to keep a diary of events and other materials. I moved out of the office that I had been occupying next to his and moved into demountables where most honours students worked. I basically could not handle being near him, and I am certain the feeling was very much reciprocated.

At the end of that year, on another a Friday evening at the end of a week where he made his displeasure at me clear because I had begun to use some space in the virology lab, where one of his honours student had just finished up and with the approval of the lab manager, our relationship hit a low point. After a few beers he cornered me and another PhD student, who had done the same thing, and explained to us that what he thought and said about us was very important to our career, and then asked whether we now understood that we had done the wrong thing. The other student acquiesced and agreed. I stayed silent so he said it again, and as my silence grew the other student pleaded to me to succumb to the demand. I simply replied that I was not going to say that he was right because he threatened me. That night there is likely the night that I lost my career, or at least a key ingredient for it was set in place, and it is certainly the point at which the eggshells that I had been walking on turned to burning hot coals. Anxiety and fear was my ever-present companion from then on, even if I never acknowledged it.

At that point things were so bad that I entertained regular thoughts of throwing in my PhD. What saved me was the fact that following on from my presentation at that conference I was invited to apply for a fellowship to spend 3 months in Finland. That following year, immediately after my wedding and after a one-week honeymoon in Singapore, I spent 3 months in Finland. He then had a 6 month sabbatical overseas. So for 9 whole months we just saw each other once, in passing at the Singapore airport as I was on my way home and he was just heading off. By the time I saw him again early in the following year I had 7 peer-reviewed papers published or accepted for publication and an 8th in review. His final bit of power over me as a student was his say so on whether I could submit my PhD thesis, but it was always going to be difficult to say no to that record (and fear that he would prevent me from submitting was what drove me to publish all of my work before I submitted).

I finished my career with 25 peer-reviewed papers and was widely recognised internationally as an emerging leader in my field of crustacean disease/virology due especially to my work on freshwater crayfish and biosecurity. That was recognised by the fact that I was an invited keynote speaker at the Craynet meeting in Norway in 2003 and having been nominated to the executive of the International Association of Astacology (which I narrowly missed out on, and which would have led to me ultimately being the President of the IAA).

In my career I literally had a 100% success rate when I applied for research positions or fellowships outside of Australia – think about that for a moment – every single thing I applied for I was successful. That includes 3 prestigious fellowships (Centre for International Mobility in Finland, Centre National de la Recherch Scientifique in France, and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany), and 2 research positions (with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences in England, and the Fisheries Department of Canada, both of which I declined to go to France).

That track record of research success was built from a PhD, a research position for 1.5 years which yielded no publishable results (so I conducted my own research in my own time to publish several more papers), 2.5 years outside of research in Government biosecurity policy development, and one year each in France and Germany with all of the professional and personal challenges that I discussed above which needed to be overcome or managed to be able to quickly set up and conduct publishable work within the year.

Any objective reviewer would surely consider that record remarkable. International reviewers clearly did. And within a few days of me applying for an ARC fellowship while still in Germany I was made an “ARC Assessor of International Standing”, so at a high level the ARC panel did also.

But when I applied for fellowships in Australia my track record was usually described as moderate or even modest by “peer” reviewers. I never received even one good referee review on fellowship applications in my own country.

That had wider implications as I was informed that on reading my reviewers comments my backup application of a UQ postdoc fellowship was dropped by the selection panel from being the highest placed candidate (i.e. my ARC reviews made it clear to the UQ selection panel that I was unlikely to immediately be a “grant winner” within Australia).

The sad thing for Australian science, and to be considered when you hear elites pushing for greater enrolments in STEM courses, is that my experiences – while unique in specific events – are not uncommon. After I had retired and ceased applying to the ARC I would still get requests for me to review grant applications which I kept declining. Finally I had enough of it and wrote an emotional email asking that they cease reminding me of my past life by sending these grants to review. My email prompted a response by the head of the ARC assuring me that he knew what I was saying to be true and that he had taken time from his own research career to try to reform their processes. All should hope that he made progress and that others have attempted to continue that long and difficult process.

To these established “peers” I was the worst kind of competition because not only was I bright, but it was clear that the main driver of my success was a very pure love for science.

A lot of mud also had stuck to me due to my refusal to compromise my scientific opinion and ethics during my time as a Biosecurity Policy Analyst in Canberra, especially from industry-aligned veterinarians working within State Government fisheries departments (and this article shows similar pressures that many scientists face), and I further annoyed these same veterinarians by openly criticising their anti-competitive practices when recruiting fish pathologists (preventing scientists from applying for these positions).

Unfortunately, the field in Australia in which I was active is very small and I knew that I would never get away from them, and being a vulnerable early career scientist, without the protection of a mentor, I had very little power and no control over my future.

It is very much like in Survivor when somebody outside of the powerful alliance attempts to prolong their stay in the game by being meek and powerless, and throwing themselves at the mercy of the powerful. The meekness that I adopted with both my supervisor and Peter W in those last few years of my career are probably my only actions that I regretted when I retired because of the ego boost it gave them.

The truth is, however, that I know them. I know that their extreme antisocial behaviours did not come from confidence but from extreme insecurities, and I know where it resides in them. That is the place within me from where I have gained my satisfaction and contentment with my life.

If I were asked if I forgive these people my answer would be that I don’t care enough to give it that effort. The pain is long gone, and the truth is that I am grateful that I no longer have to deal with these personality types. As Dr. David Banks’ comments were clear on my departure from Biosecurity Australia, many have found it difficult to have a career in Australian research science and academia without running into a whole heap of “petty, bitchy” (some of the words I remember David using) sociopaths.

If I am completely honest, the main reason why I took the time to write this account is because of something David Alderman said to me when I visited CEFAS, shortly after I first visited JR in France, hoping to arrange work in either lab. David spoke about a guy who had worked in the field and he said that, essentially, he “went a bit strange” in the end and left the field. It was always in my mind that the people who are left behind write your history. This is my version and I am sure that it is far more accurate than any other that has been told. (There are still some around who can confirm these events.)

Ultimately I released this information in conjunction with a post on R U OK Day essentially saying that after a rough time I am recovered as well as anybody can be who has a predisposition to anxiety, so it was necessary to address my past where some may say that I “went a bit strange”. I also suspect that a major aspect of my full recovery is being able to say publicly – if discreetly – what took place in my career; in some regards standing up to the bullies or aggressors without feeling anxious (or those eggshells or hot coals) as many of the “MeToo” movement have felt the need to do. Goodness knows I have written of these events many times over – it has been an important part of my process of coming to terms with the most painful events and/or periods of my life.

If I saw these former antagonists today I would just walk past without acknowledging them and without my pulse jumping a fraction. My life is rich and full, and deficient in no way. And there was never any doubt over who was the more decent and honourable human being amongst us.

%d bloggers like this: