Prof Les Field AM on the buzz of working in the university environment

Wednesday 2 August, 2017

How does one end up as the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at UNSW? The man himself, Professor Les Field AM, was Warrane’s guest on Wednesday 2 August 2017. And that was exactly what he told the boys about.

In a time where the university is a small enterprise, Field described his role as absolutely thrilling to be part of. “I love the university environment,” he said. “Firstly you’re surrounded by smart people, which is great. But it’s the students that make the universities - whenever you’re working at a university, there’s always a new cohort of students that comes in every year, every six months, every semester. They keep you alive... You never cease to be stimulated and challenged by the new students that come in. It keeps me refreshed and it keeps me on my toes and I really enjoy this environment.”

The beginning of his story

Professor Les Field was a university student himself in the 1970s. Born and bred in St Marys in the Penrith area, few young people from his locality went to university at that time. He did well in chemistry so “it stuck” as he described it, and he went on to do his honours in it and a PhD in organic chemistry. Following that, the thing to do was to get some experience – this is where he started to understand his ability to contribute to society. He got a position in LA at the University of Southern California (at which he worked alongside a future Nobel Prize winner), and really enjoyed the overseas experience – even while realising just how high the standard of Australian education is.

Next, Field spent 2.5 years at Oxford as a post-doc. Coming from the gun-wielding context of LA, this was a complete culture shock: “It was like going 400 years back in time,” said Field. However he saw that this place was like a magnet for the best academic minds. Sure, he hated the weather (“I couldn’t understand why the English stayed in England,” he told the boys); but apart from that found it a great opportunity to meet talented people. Here, Field worked on synthetic penicillins. This was the early 1980s and there was an emphasis on inventing new forms of penicillin to defend against the bugs which were developing immunity. In hindsight, this was paving the way for developing new forms of antibiotics.

Back in Australia

After these years, Field moved back to Australia and into the position of lecturer at Sydney University. He worked up to senior lecturer, professor, senior professor, and then Head of Chemistry. In this role he developed his own research area, but found it hard to leave teaching and be in the administrative ranks.

In 2005 came the offer of Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research from UNSW, a position in which Field could keep doing his research. He thought this too good to be true and took the job. Even here though, it was hard for Field to enjoy large chunks of time on research: with all the other aspects of the job, he called it “a luxury he has lost”. However he does see the part he played with the university’s research performance going from strength to strength in the last 10 years; due in part to his decision making for what they would and wouldn’t do; and what their resources would go to.

Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor

It was two years ago that Field became Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UNSW. “It means I am responsible for the staff at the university... about 3000 academic staff I guess,” said Field. “I am also responsible for student integrity, so that’s code for students who do bad things... I hope none of you are on my list!”

Field told the boys about how he plans to step down at the end of this year. “It’s not because I don’t love the place or don’t love what I’m doing. It’s just because I’ve been doing it now for 13 years as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor here, and I think we need new blood. We’ve come a long way in the research of the university since I’ve been in post... and you get to the stage of feeling that you just need fresh legs to carry the ball to the next level. So I figure it’s time to hang up the shingle and I’m going back to being a research chemist for a few more years. I’ve still got a research group, we’ve got a lot of unfinished business, and what I said before was I really do have a passion for chemistry... I’d rather get back to the lab and do something that I’m really passionate about.”

With two big research projects on his mind at the moment, we wish Professor Field well as he looks forward to more time in the lab.

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