Martin Banwell: A career facilitating some big changes

26 September 2017

“I think the School has got a great future. We now have a raft of new academic staff - talented younger people who are really getting on with it.”

Professor Martin Banwell, the previous Director of the Research School of Chemistry, has a long history at the school. Martin finished his PhD in Wellington in New Zealand before taking his first ever job in Australia at the University of Adelaide in 1980. After stints in Auckland and Melbourne he joined the ANU in 1995.

“I came to the ANU, to the RSC, from the University of Melbourne, in 1995 and I've been here pretty much on an uninterrupted basis ever since. So that’s 22 years. Over that time I’ve established and run a research group. I also served as Director of the School for five and a half years.”

“I'm an organic chemist and my game is organic synthesis, and particularly the synthesis of biologically active natural products. So my group and I are molecule makers. There are many motivations for making the molecules we do. They might have therapeutic potential. They might have ecological potential. They might have materials science potential.”

This research can take Martin and his team in unexpected directions. Currently, for example, they’re working on a project seeking new ways to make use of waste newspaper.

“One of the collaborations I have at the moment is with a company in Melbourne called Circa Pty Ltd. What Circa has been able to do is develop an industrial scale process whereby they take sawdust or waste newspaper, for example, soak it in a little bit of acid then subject it to pyrolysis in an inert atmosphere. Under these conditions the cellulose depolymerizes to give a monomeric material called levoglucosenone.

“It's a liquid and can be obtained in very large quantities, by the freight car load in fact. It's a very interesting little molecule that has suddenly become abundantly available and we, along with others, believe it will be a fantastic building block for making all sorts of interesting new materials. It has various useful properties and these combined with its great abundance make it very attractive from our point-of-view.”

Martin and his team think they could turn what is currently waste into some very useful products — perhaps even into a new anti-malarial agent.

In addition to his research, Martin served as Director of the School from the beginning of 2008 through to mid-2013. During his time he oversaw the merger of the former Department of Chemistry and the Research School of Chemistry, as well as the raising of funds for the new RSC buildings. The construction of the new buildings also occurred during this period.

“The Directorship was certainly very challenging, and there were some days when I wished I hadn't come into work but broadly speaking, and not least because I had a terrific group of colleagues, it was good to serve in that role.

“The merger, in 2008, of the then separate Department of Chemistry and the Research School of Chemistry was a very interesting process and I don't mean that in a euphemistic way. Both entities were very passionate about what they were doing. We had, for example, long and detailed discussions about what we should call the combined entity. “The staff of the former Department of Chemistry emphasised, entirely legitimately, that while the Research School of Chemistry has an illustrious history, so does the Department. One of the challenges, then, was to try and make sure that the proud records of these two substantial and quite distinct entities were not lost in creating the new and combined operation. While there will be differing views on whether or not we have succeeded in this regard we have certainly learnt a lot, and achieved a lot, as a combined force.”

Martin also worked on securing the funds needed to build a new home for the School, replacing, in particular the Birch Building, whose fumehood and plumbing systems were showing their age. A campaign was started under the former Director, Professor Denis Evans, and during Martin’s term a ca. 90 million dollar Federal Government grant was secured, most of which went towards the construction of the two new buildings.

“It was a great day when that grant was announced but the real fun came spending the money,” Martin says. “We now have iconic new buildings that stand as a fitting tribute to our history and as a powerful symbol of the pivotal role that chemistry plays in modern science.”

Now re-focused on research, Martin looks at the RSC from a slightly different perspective and likes what he sees.

“One of our guiding principles has been to strive to be the best in whatever we do in chemical research and that we will not, for example, start any new areas of activity unless we can really make our mark. That has always been and remains our objective and I think we’re achieving it.”