Dr Milton Kiefel knew he wanted to be an astrophysicist when in 1969, with 200 other children and teachers crammed into a small school hall, he watched Neil Armstrong become the first human to step on the moon. However, during his first year at University, Dr Kiefel realised that maths was not for him and changed from astrophysics to chemistry. He is now a Senior Lecturer and Research Leader at the Institute for Glycomics specialising in the synthesis of complex carbohydrates associated with infectious diseases.
In our Q&A with Dr Kiefel, discover why you should love chemistry, how change can bring great opportunity and how a PhD gives you something very special—unique knowledge.
Q & A:
What path led you to the Institute for Glycomics?
After completing my PhD in Natural Products Chemistry in Melbourne, I travelled to the UK for a two-year Post Doctorate with Professor Gerald Pattenden at the University of Nottingham. Returning to Melbourne, I touched base with Professor Mark von Itzstein at the Victorian College of Pharmacy (now the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences) and for the next seven years worked with him at the Pharmacy College.
When Mark was head-hunted to establish the Institute for Glycomics, I was one of two other research scientists that came with Mark from Melbourne to the Gold Coast. Jeffrey Dyson and I, along with Mark, are the original members of the Institute, starting on 11 March 2000.
In those early days, the Institute started out as a couple of offices in G05. We then moved to a demountable at the back of the Gold Coast Library and Griffith helped us set up a lab in G12 for doing chemistry. In 2001, the Institute went through a massive expansion with its first purpose-built buildings, followed in 2009 with its most recent multi-storey facility.
The growth of the Institute and the changes in studying glycomics has been a fabulous experience. It has been an interesting journey and I have loved every minute of it.
“Dr Milton Kiefel taught me the significance of chemistry in medicine where we can literally treat malaria with eucalypt flowers. This made me realise that a chemist is a science superhero!”
Griffith student, Evan Holm Hansen
Did you always think you would be a lecturer?
I was a relatively shy kid growing up in rural NSW and back then if someone had told me that I would be standing in front of 140 people giving a lecture—and be good at it—I would have laughed. For the first 15 or 20 years of my research life, from the mid-1980s to mid-2000s, doing chemistry research in a lab was my passion and being hands on with research was the thing that gave me the greatest amount of satisfaction. In the mid-2000s, I started getting involved in teaching and I discovered something I could do better than lab work. Evan’s quote is a reflection on how I approach my teaching. I put a lot of effort into making my lectures engaging and it is very rewarding to teach students, like Evan, who are enthusiastic, interested and engaged.
When people discover I am a chemist I receive one of two responses—’I hated chemistry at school’ or ‘I loved chemistry at school’; there is never any ambivalence. I teach medicinal chemistry to third year pharmacy students and I have found that many of them don’t enjoy chemistry. My aim is to make them appreciate how understanding chemistry can help them be better pharmacists, so that by the end of Week 12 maybe a few more of them may actually enjoy chemistry.
It is really important to ensure that young kids who are interested in science get the opportunity to experience science firsthand and open their eyes to the possibilities. I like to go to high schools and talk to Year 11 and 12 students who are interested in science, and I think this current generation is more interested than the last. The impact of global warming is starting to bite, and is attacking fundamental problems like what we wear, what we eat, etc., so this generation is more passionate about the environment. Also, they are approaching issues from a very methodical scientific viewpoint—‘what can we do that makes a difference?’.
What advice do you have for PhD researchers?
A PhD is a great thing if you are interested in expanding your knowledge in a scientific discipline as it gives you the opportunity to explore a topic in detail. There is nothing superficial about a PhD. You get stuck right into it and at the other end you will be one of the only people in the world who thoroughly understands that topic. It is a very special thing to have knowledge of a particular aspect of science that is probably superior to anyone else and you will have it for life.
A PhD also gives you the ability and confidence to follow through with an idea without the need for someone to hold your hand and tell you the right thing to do. I instil in all my students that I am not the person with all the answers; they need to show me the way as well.
But ultimately you need passion. Whilst a PhD gives you scope to take onboard something that is different and interesting, and to follow it through to the end, there is no point doing it just because someone tells you to. A PhD, and even university, is not for everyone and just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Who has inspired you?
I have met the two people who inspire me: Professor Barry Sharpless, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001, and Professor Gerald Pattenden, my Post Doctorate supervisor at the University of Nottingham.
About ten years ago, Professor Sharpless came to the Institute and honestly, he is just on a different level. He is eccentric, but he has an amazing mind. We sat and chatted in my office and after half an hour he started drawing options on my whiteboard, having absorbed everything I had done in my entire scientific career.
During my Post Doctorate, Gerry’s incredible ability to take on information and to distil it was inspiring. As a chemist in a lab, you face all sorts of challenges and he taught me how to think things through. I really admired his knowledge of chemistry and the way he could think outside the box, take on challenges and approach problems from different perspectives. At that time, all literature was read as hard copy—there was no online, no laptops; we just sat and read journals. Gerry had an amazing recall, an eidetic memory.