Expert Breakfast Report for 18 April 2018: Prof Lyall Hanton, Dept of Chemistry - with a Challenge!

With a preponderance of women studying medicine at Otago, why are there so few in senior positions? This is the challenge Prof Hanton presented.

Prof. Hanton, who recently stepped down as Head of Department after eight years in that role, is an enthusiastic and accomplished teacher of undergraduates, actively and ably supports three PhD students, is a member of the Otago region’s hazardous substance technical liaison committee, and a co-founder of a company making an innovative healing gel for use in nasal surgery ‘Chitogel’.

Born and raised in the Southland town of Mataura, near Gore, he told us that “I have tried very hard over the years to modify my rolling ‘r’s’ . . . . but when I am slightly drunk or tired you can still hear my Southland accent come through.” He went to Gore High School, and wanted to be a nuclear physicist when he was younger - but decided he was better at chemistry, ‘falling in love’ with the subject under the influence of a chemistry teacher, Mr. Matthews, who constantly connected chemistry lessons to the ‘real’ world.”

As a self-confessed science geek, when the teacher asked who would like to dissect a rabbit, he quickly volunteered, then fainted once he had begun cutting into the skull. “I realised then that soft biological squishy stuff wasn’t for me.” In fact, he totally abandoned the study of Biology, doing Additional Maths instead.

Lyall illustrated the surroundings in which he was raised with one of his favourite stories involving
an old school friend who he met up with again during his second university year while working at the paper mill in Mataura. This friend was nicknamed ‘Spiegel’, and they worked alongside each other at the mill. Lyall asked him what he did at the weekend for a bit of fun, and Spiegel enthusiastically replied, “Oh, Lyall, there’s lot’s to do in Mataura at the weekend. My girlfriend and I, we go to the dump where we shoot rats by torchlight with a slug-gun!” - The killer statement to end this was , “It’s very romantic!” - Spiegel was murdered in Invercargill about 10 years later.

He carried out his undergraduate studies at Otago University, being a resident of Unicol: “It was a great time to be in Dunedin with the rocket wars - we used to fire rockets back and forth at Unicol and do terrible things - it was a lot of fun!” Having completed his first degree, “I was fortunate enough to win something called the Rutherford Scholarship” and went on to study for a PhD in chemistry at Cambridge University. He was at Wolfson College, Isaac Wolfson the Jewish shoe magnate being one of only two people with colleges named after them at both Cambridge and Oxford. The other was Jesus Christ.

“I had a wonderful time there, it’s the most amazing place in the world. Every year I was there somebody won the Nobel prize, Sanger won his second Nobel prize. I met my wife there on a blind date, thanks to my sister.” His sister was a Nurse in Cambridge at the time, and he was in need of a partner for the famous May Ball - held, of course, in the month of June. At Cambridge University there was “only one woman to every seven guys.” Even including the whole town, the ratio was 1 in 4. (Which lead to the old Cambridge joke that, for a woman, ‘the odds are good, but the goods are odd’). At his request, his sister put forward a fellow nurse, who was an Australian (still is, in fact) hence the blind date with the woman who later became his wife.

Karl Popper, the great and influential philosopher of science, gave a seminar while Lyall was there. Popper escaped from Germany in the Nazi days, and spent some time at Otago, went on to a lectureship at the University of Canterbury, and from there to the London School of Economics.

A great fan of C.S. Lewis, Lyall was delighted to be able to discuss this famous Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English with Muriel Bradbrook, then Professor of English and a contemporary of Lewis’s. Many other famous people in many disciplines were there or visited while he was there, listening to the choir at King’s College Chapel, all helping to make the Cambridge experience quite extraordinary.

Currently, with Head of Department duties no longer an issue, Prof Hanton has more time to devote to other aspects of academic life. He has a very active research lab with eight students, as well as the developing business, enjoys travelling to and attending conferences in various parts of the world, such as the European Chemistry Conference in Liverpool later this year, and is also looking at spending some months in the UK next year at Nottingham University, working with other scientists there.

Discussing the fact that he enjoys teaching undergraduates, he commented that:”I like teaching large classes. It’s a bit of a performance in some respects. You’ve got to be really on your game, and you can’t go in tired or bored - no matter what’s going on - that hour is yours, and I’m trying to do the best possible job that I can. And I really enjoy it. I don’t know whether this is relevant, but my nephew is Chris Parker, and he’s a New Zealand comedian, and my niece went to Toi Whakaari (Wellington’s drama school), so I don’t know whether there is some kind of exhibitionist characteristic in my family.”

He closed by noting that the majority of medical students at Otago over the last 32 years had been female, and that medicine is very hierarchical ad and male-dominated. “I fail to see . . why there aren’t more women in the higher echelons of medicine. Why aren’t there more women surgeons? Why aren’t there more women administrators? So, I leave that as a challenge for you, because I think the feminisation of medicine would be a very good thing. I have a female doctor, for example, and I’m very happy with that. I probably get better care, I think. So, there’s a challenge for you, and I leave you with that challenge!”

Posted: Wednesday May 2, 2018