Dame Bridget Ogilvie’s Life Of Science
By Sarah-Jane CollinsFebruary 10, 2012
Dame Bridget Ogilvie has been pivotal in such modern scientific advances as sequencing the human genome, but she still is cracking the code on advancing women to the top of the field.
It was one of the most ambitious scientific undertakings of the 20th century, and a farmer's daughter from northern NSW was instrumental in its success.
Sequencing the human genome has enabled scientists to study the fundamentals of who we are and how we work, mapping our genes and detecting the human body's patterns and codes. The research that flowed from it has advanced biological and medical science in ways that would have been otherwise impossible.
Unraveling the human genome was a monumental, expensive, competitive task, one facilitated in large part by the funding and support of the United Kingdom charity, the Wellcome Trust. In the 1980s when the project was first proposed, at the helm of the trust was Wellcome's first female director, Australian biologist Bridget Ogilvie, who grew up on a farm in New England in northern New South Wales.
"The British Medical Research Council had funded people to develop the sequence technology [and] the time had come when they knew they were ready to move on the human genome, and the Medical Research Council's top brass came to see me when I had just become director and we had plenty of money," Ogilvie says.
The Wellcome Trust had just sold a large cache of shares in pharmaceutical company Wellcome plc, raising £2.3 billion, which at the time was the largest cheque ever written. So Jim Watson, at the National Institutes of Health in the United States, sought out the trust to provide funding to build a research facility at Cambridge — Ogilvie's alma mater — and keep British scientist John Sulston in charge of the project. Sulston was being headhunted by a private investor in the United States desperate for him to develop the technology across the Atlantic, for private benefit.
Bridget Ogilvie delivered what was asked of the trust, and the Human Genome Project — which involved American and British scientists and funding — began in earnest in 1990.
It was heady stuff. But ask Ogilvie what she deems her greatest achievement and the 73-year-old cites not only her time at Wellcome. She takes more personal pride in her role as an advocate of science and as a mentor to young scientists, particularly women.
"Personally the thing I've always most enjoyed is finding ways to support young people develop their careers and uphold them, and I'm still doing that in various ways," she says. "But lots of scientists do that, so a lot of people don't think that's particularly memorable, but to me that's the thing that most matters."
Born in 1938, Ogilvie grew up in rural New South Wales in a family that greatly valued education and allowed her opportunities other young women of her generation missed out on.
"I had a very unusual family background because I grew up in a family which had a long tradition of education, including their women. Two of my father's sisters, who were born at the end of the 19th century, had university degrees and my father had a university degree, and he just took it as a given that if he had bright children — whether they're male or female — then they'd get to go on to university and work.
"So he treated me and my brother and sister exactly the same, regardless of sex, in that way. But I realised that was very unusual at the time, most unusual, and it still is quite often unfortunately unusual — which often shocks me."
Spry. No word would be more apt to describe Ogilvie, who escapes the northern hemisphere winter each year for a family beach house in Austinmer on the New South Wales south coast. On a quiet corner overlooking a string of Norfolk Island pines that heralds the start of the beach, Ogilvie's study on the second-floor has a view of the ocean, a distant row of container ships dotting the horizon.
Covering the verge below is a wild garden of natives in full flower — blushing pink bottlebrush, orange wattle, a smattering of delicate seaside daisies. The biologist is expecting family the next day, and there will be visitors throughout the summer months. "That's what a summer house is for," Ogilvie says, standing in the colourful garden that is tended by the gardener from across the street, whose own yard boasts a brilliant pink frangipani. "I can't stand the dark. At this time of year it is just too gloomy," she says of her adopted home, the United Kingdom.
Ogilvie completed her undergraduate studies at the University of New England, in Armidale in northern New South Wales, joining the first cohort of students in the newly established rural science course. She transferred from the University of Queensland, where she was not enjoying the more traditional science degree on offer.
It was, she says, a time when science was full of promise.
"Everybody was excited by what science could do, and I think that's because of the advances especially in medicine and veterinary medicine in developing vaccines.
"The last epidemic of polio in this country took place when I was [in] high school… two or three of my colleagues got polio from which they recovered, and then the vaccine came along and polio was no more. The same thing was true for many other diseases, both in medicine and veterinary medicine.
"So I think that was one of the excitements, and then there was the whole business of man landing on the moon and all that in the 1960s. It was an exciting thing to be a scientist and lots of us decided we'd like to be a scientist. So it was a general phenomenon amongst young people of my generation."
Ogilvie won a place at Cambridge for her doctoral studies and, with the support of a Commonwealth scholarship (now sadly defunct), she moved to the United Kingdom, straight to Cambridge. These days, she comes home from December to March each year, and when she's in the UK divides her time between London and a country house near Oxford.
A biomedical researcher for the first 17 years of her career, Ogilvie's work centred around the human and animal immune response to parasites, such as the hookworm. She won the prestigious Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran Prize in 1994, which is awarded for applying science and technology for the benefit of society. And the accolades kept coming.
In 1996 she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and in 2003 became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2007 Ogilvie was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia for her "service to science in the field of biomedical research, particularly related to veterinary and medical parasitology, and through support for research funding to improve global health."
As director of the Wellcome Trust, Ogilvie steered the organisation through a period of significant growth in investment - and just at a time when public funding for scientific research was receding, following harsh cuts to higher education funding under Margaret Thatcher.
Ogilvie clearly has relished her opportunities but in a strikingly humble way, she's also mindful that she's among a small club of women who've achieved such success. And this only struck her when she became director of the Wellcome Trust.
"I'm almost embarrassed to tell you it was only when I was about 50 that I realised there was a problem for women [in science], because I was a biologist and if you go into a biological lab — through my life and now — it's full of women. So the moment of revelation came when I was already working for the Wellcome Trust. I was invited to go to a gathering of the professors of biology in Glasgow in the UK and I remember it vividly, there were about 60 people there. I was sole woman. And I thought 'Uh-oh, problem here, definitely a problem,' so that's when I realised that action was needed," she says.
"That's when I really began to get engaged in the whole problem and the whole difficulty for women in science."
Ogilvie, who is single and has no children, says women scientists who are mothers face pretty much the same set of problems in other competitive fields. "The fact is that women carry the major family responsibilities, so when you have an incredibly competitive life which a research scientist has, then it's really tough."
But Ogilvie says not having children was not a conscious choice: "It was not something I really thought about quite frankly. I didn't make the choice, I just got on with my career, which I have loved."
She believes that one of the reasons so many of the top jobs in science are filled by men is because women are less likely to step forward for a promotion or a grant.
"Even some of the most spectacularly successful women I know fail to ask for a promotion in their jobs. It's extraordinary how persistent this characteristic is, so there are these sort of strange behavioural things which really differentiate men and women's success," she says.
"We women are not good at applying for new jobs, nor are we good at asking for promotion and that's why women need mentors to say to them 'Come on girls, up and at it, time to apply.'"
That's the role Ogilvie embraced and relished during her time at the Wellcome Trust, and she continues to mentor young scientists at the University of Wollongong and in Britain. "We discovered that if women actually applied for grants at the Wellcome Trust, then they did just as well as men but it was getting them to apply — and that is a deeply intrinsic characteristic," she says.
What drives her to continue to speak up for science, even from retirement, is a deep passion for reason and scientific advancement. She despairs at what she describes as "the end of the age of enlightenment," as alternative medicines and a general scepticism around scientific endeavour gain favour in the broader community.
"When I go and visit laboratories here at the University of Wollongong or around the world, I see young people turned on by what they're doing and loving every moment and working very hard simply because they enjoy doing what they're doing.
"The practitioners have not lost enthusiasm for science, but the population has, and that's because for several hundred years we've lived in what we call the Age of Enlightenment, when reason prevails, but now reason no longer prevails. About half the population, in most countries, think any notion is just as valid and any other notion, whether or not there's reason behind it," she says.
Ogilvie argues the ease with which society can access the benefits of rapidly advancing technology has led people to expect rapid advances in every field, and to become disillusioned when results are not forthcoming.
"Science has exploded and made life so interesting and so pleasant, but everybody takes it for granted.... Medicine has had so much success with infectious diseases, but it's having a lot of trouble dealing with chronic diseases such as arthritis, many of the mental diseases, cancer; it's not as easy to deal with those. And so I think people think science isn't doing much for us.
"[That's] a complete nonsense. Science is doing a great deal and the fruits of science, whether it's in engineering or medicine or agriculture, people just take it for granted and assume that it will happen."
Ogilvie is harsh in her assessment of the Australian government's investment in science. She says private funding will never be able to sustain the big, expensive but not commercially valuable research that is necessary to continue to grow scientific knowledge.
"You can't run an organisation unless you have an income, and so you can't expect [the private sector] to do much of the fundamental science — it doesn't work. It's got to come from the taxpayer, I'm afraid. Australia is actually very bad at supporting science, considering how rich [the country] is, whatever people in governments say, or the opposition says. It's a relatively extremely rich country, and it puts an extraordinarily low percentage of its GDP into supporting scientific research, at which Australians are very good," she says.
That lack of investment is pushing science into the background, and the achievements and progress made by Australian scientists, who Ogilvie believes are among the very best in the world, are not given the credit they deserve.
Ogilvie cites the example of Elizabeth Blackburn, who in 2009 was the first Australian woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine, an achievement that failed to make the front page of some Australian newspapers.
"It's a great pity that the government is always so reluctant to back this aspect of Australian society, and when Australian scientists get a Nobel Prize it turns up on page three not on the front page. It's really odd, but then the national religion is sport," she says.
It is lunchtime, and driving into the center of town with Ogilvie, the beach flies past. "I swim every day," she says, and points out the rock pool. The water is wild, blue-grey and foamy as it beats against the headland. It is making space where there was none before. It is breaking new ground.