2014-08-10 08.27.37

Getting to know Tim Roberts

A love affair with research and discovery in the laboratory has led to a long career of ‘fulfilled play and happiness’ for Tom Farrell Institute Director, Tim Roberts.

Tim spoke to us this week about his ‘environmental awakening’, his fascination with research and some of the many achievements from his forty years at the University of Newcastle.

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into your area of interest?

I have had a long career in academia. I grew up in country South Australia, and would have been a farmer if Dad had owned the farms he worked on. I attended Adelaide Uni for a BSc Honours from 1963-1967 and then Flinders for a PhD, then overseas for three years in Belgium and Cambridge before starting on the bottom rung of the academic ladder in 1974 teaching immunology and cell biology to Science students. I became fascinated by research and discovery in the laboratory, and this love affair has never stopped. My 40 years at the University of Newcastle has never been work, just fulfilled play and happiness.

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?

The awakening in me of an understanding of the importance of environmental sustainability in the last four years has been the most unexpected twist in my life journey, and I must say a very enjoyable twist. Every waking hour of my day has always been filled with activity and new learnings, but strangely enough I did not pay much attention to environmental concerns in all those years at the bench in my laboratory. To me, basic science and new discoveries were always the goal. Winning the Nobel Prize for finding the bacteria that are the underlying causes of autoimmunity, diabetes, asthma, heart disease and mental illnesses was always my dream, but time is unlikely to be on my side. But now I find myself more and more fascinated with and concerned about how we might make a sustainable future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

I love to build things, to grow up organisations or entities in the student community or in the wider community to add to and enhance the experience for those publics. I have found that once the ball is started rolling then it gains its own momentum. When I saw my first hands-on science centre in Portland, Oregon in 1978 I knew I wanted to build one in Newcastle for my two sons. So I did, and the Supernova Science Centre has been an important learning and entertainment venue since 1985. It became the centre of the Newcastle Regional Museum in 1988, and now features in the new iteration of that institution in Honeysuckle. Similarly student biology and environmental clubs on campus, student Toastmasters clubs on campus and in Singapore and a student cricket club in Singapore are up and running after being initiated by my gentle persuasions.

What are you passionate about? Can others in the community get involved?

I am passionate about people and about helping them to grow and achieve. My students both undergraduates and research students are great to be around and I personally feel great when they do well.

I find that everyone that I am near and work with seems to offer ideas as to what to do better, what needs growing and what needs changing.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date?

In 2006 I set out as Dean and CEO to build the Uni campus in Singapore. From being Robinson Crusoe all alone on a strange island I retired three years later with a viable campus growing each week, with 17 staff and many students. This made me very proud.

Staying research active for so long as well as having found the time to build things for the community.

Raising a family has made me very proud.

In the past four years we have grown the idea of an electric vehicle building competition and EVFestival into a monumental success, and I must say that I am awestruck by how we have done this.

What would be your dream project?

Now with my new green perspectivity I would like to build a fully sustainable campus that could be a testbed for the industrial trialling of the latest in sustainable transport and clean energy generation using wind, solar and waste.

Tim's Goldie


What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?

Without having to give it more than a moment’s thought I say the beach, the walk to the end of the breakwater, the walk to Merewether along the coast.

Can you name a local hero?

Tom Farrell was a truly great hero dedicated to making life better for his fellow man. But he is only one of many such as Brian Gilligan, Max Maddock and Doug Lithgow who have worked to make this city a better city.

What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?

Walking along the beach.

And winter?

The clear skies when you can see Barrington Tops on a clear, cold morning.

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?

So many places have wonderful food. I really loved the pork knuckle at Oma’s in Watt Street.

Best place to getaway to?

Seal Rocks.

Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?

Walk to the end of the Nobbys breakwater at dawn.



Do you know someone in our region making a difference? Let us know! engage@newcastle.edu.au

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4 Responses

Leave a Reply
  1. Belinda mcnab
    Aug 12, 2014 - 01:55 PM

    great article and interview. One of the great minds and action makers at the University of Newcastle!

  2. Cheng Smart
    Aug 12, 2014 - 02:20 PM

    Tim, am so proud of you! You are treasure! You have beautifully sculptured your last 40 years in a most exciting story.

    Aug 12, 2014 - 03:29 PM

    Well done brother! You have done really well and I am very proud of your achievements and your environmental awakening.
    Your achievements inspire me to get off my retired ar..! and do something!

  4. Susanna Smart
    Aug 14, 2014 - 10:54 PM

    Loved the interview! You are one of the most enthusiastic, interested and kind people I know. We are so proud and thankful to have you in our family!


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