Profile: Professor Peter Doherty

 

Profile: Professor Peter Doherty

For a man who describes himself as “very, very skeptical”, Nobel award winning doctor Professor Peter Doherty has determined for himself that climate change is for real. “We’re building whole economic systems on the premise that we can continue to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels both inexpensively and indefinitely. It makes no sense and the situation is potentially very dangerous. We have to change, and the time to start changing is now.” An article entitled “The Science of Scepticism”, which we draw on here, appeared in the University of Melbourne’s Research Review

When Ken Hickson asked Professor Peter Doherty if he would add anything to the Research Review article about him and his book “The Light History of Hot Air”, especially on the subject of scepticism, he came up with this:

 “My perception is that the climate change denial position is being eroded very rapidly, despite the enormous support it is receiving from some of the Australian print media. Particularly over the past 40 years, we’ve been doing a massive, uncontrolled, greenhouse gas experiment that involves 6.8 billion human beings and every complex life form on this planet.

“That experiment is unacceptable, especially as the cause (burning fossil fuels) is leading to the rapid depletion of major, non-renewable resources that have many other uses apart from combustion. Compounding the insanity, we’re building whole economic systems on the premise that we can continue to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels both inexpensively and indefinitely.

“It makes no sense and the situation is potentially very dangerous. We have to change, and the time to start changing is now.”

Professor Doherty is also the author of “The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: A Life In Science” ( Melbourne University Publishing, September, 2005).

Here’s the complete article from the Research review:

The Science of Scepticism,

by Silvia Dropulich

Climate change is not the professional speciality of world-renowned immunologist Professor Peter Doherty. That he has written about it in “A Light History of Hot Air” (Melbourne University Press 2007) provides a great insight into how this innovative thinker operates, and unveils a key element behind his scientific success.

“The reason I wrote the little book on hot air, which is only partly about climate change, was that I wanted to find out for myself, Professor Doherty said.

“I don’t take things at face value, I always have to find out for myself.

“So, I read into it [climate change] quite a lot.

“Some of the science is very hard to read because its way outside my area of expertise, but I came away from it really convinced that this is a very substantial and serious issue.”

Peter Doherty originally trained in veterinary medicine. He is the first veterinarian or veterinary scientist to win a Nobel Prize. He started out hoping to save the world by helping to produce more food by being an agricultural scientist, but by the time he qualified as a vet, he realised that food production was more about agricultural economics and politics than cows and sheep.

He then became interested in virology and immunology after reading books by Sir Macfarlane Burnet (another Australian Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology) and decided to do a PhD at Edinburgh University on the viral infection of sheep brains.

After returning to Australia he accepted a postdoctoral position with the John Curtin School of Medical Research because there was interesting work there on immunity to viral infections.

Professor Doherty is driven by intellectual curiosity.

“I’m very, very sceptical,” he said.

“I look at the science. I’m an experimental scientist. I spend a lot of time looking at the actual data, the actual results, rather than worrying too much whether it fits somebody else’s ideas or conceptual framework.

“I want to think it through for myself. Doing that has caused me to come up with some conclusions that are at times different and that’s what winning the Nobel Prize means.”

Professor Doherty is passionate about trying to understand complex systems. Immunity is a very complex system.

“If we can dissect that complexity better we would do better with making, for example, vaccines,” he said.

Professor Doherty and Dr Rolf Zinkernagel from Switzerland won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for work they did together in Canberra in the 1970s. The prize-winning discovery was made in 1973 at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University.

Their work explained how the body’s immune cells protect against viruses. They discovered how T cells recognised their target antigens in combination with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins.

Viruses infected host cells and reproduced inside them. Killer T cells destroyed those infected cells so that the viruses could not reproduce. The pair discovered that, in order for killer T cells to recognise infected cells, they had to recognise two molecules on the surface of the cell �€“ not only the virus antigen, but also a molecule of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC).

Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

Late last year the Federal Government awarded the University $90 million under the Higher Education Endowment Fund for the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

Subject to securing additional financial assistance, the $210 million Institute will co-locate the University’s Department of Microbiology with a number of Victorian Government and World Health Organization laboratories.

This critical mass will create a new world-class national capability in infectious diseases in a broad-based partnership providing:

•           shared vision, historical links, complementary skills, cohesive organisational structure and joint infrastructure

•           broadened undergraduate and postgraduate education

•           coordination of interdisciplinary research programs reflecting community and policy needs

•           new high-throughput DNA sequencing and peak computing facilities

•           enhanced national and international links attracting outstanding researchers, students and collaborations.

The Institute will pursue a number of integrated research programs in strategic areas, including emerging infections; respiratory infections (e.g. influenza); mycobacteria (e.g. TB); food-borne and enteric infections; blood-borne infections (e.g. HIV, hepatitis); and vaccine-preventable infections.

Academic virology, historically a strength in Australia, is now in decline, according to Professor Doherty.

With their expertise in virus detection and surveillance, VIDRL and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Influenza will work with University of Melbourne researchers, creating enhanced national capability in this area. The Institute will provide outstanding advice to help protect us against diseases caused by micro-organisms.

It will help to eliminate many traditional pathogens that challenge us, and create a level of preparedness for the inevitable influenza pandemic, so that when it comes we are ready, Professor Doherty explains.

Professor Doherty describes his concern for environmental issues as a personal interest, not a professional activity. He has been watching it with some interest for some years now.

“The climate change issue has been sort of sneaking up on us,” he said.

“My perception is that the climate change denial position is being eroded very rapidly, despite the enormous support it is receiving from some of the Australian print media. Particularly over the past 40 years, we’ve been doing a massive, uncontrolled, greenhouse gas experiment that involves 6.8 billion human beings and every complex life form on this planet.

“That experiment is unacceptable, especially as the cause (burning fossil fuels) is leading to the rapid depletion of major, non-renewable resources that have many other uses apart from combustion.

“Compounding the insanity, we’re building whole economic systems on the premise that we can continue to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels both inexpensively and indefinitely. It makes no sense and the situation is potentially very dangerous. We have to change, and the time to start changing is now.

Professor Doherty has also been very interested in literature and history. In fact, at one stage he thought about going into journalism, but he decided to do something practical and useful.

“That’s why I went to the veterinary school,” he said.

“I didn’t want to talk about things. I wanted to do something.

“I’m a doer, not a watcher.  A player, not a fan.”

By Silvia Dropulich, Editor, Research Review

Source: www.voice.unimelb.edu.au

One Response to “Profile: Professor Peter Doherty”

  1. The United States Political field has went to hell over the past few elections due to lack of compromise. We need to stand up against that and take back our society from Big Pharma, Big Tobbacco, Big Insurance and really just big companies. It is time for our elections to cease being stolen.

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