Chemists of the Month - May 2022

Emeritus Professor Paul Wormell


Paul Wormell is Chemist of the Month for May 2022. As a semi-retired academic, Paul still spends time in the lab, mentoring, developing academic policies and giving guest lectures. He is a key figure in the growth of Western Sydney University (WSU), where he worked from the time it was founded. He was heavily involved in academic governance as the Chair of the Academic Senate and in project work for the Vice-Chancellor. Outside of academia, he is a Lay Reader at a local church.

Interview conducted by William Li.

WL: Pleasure to meet you tonight, Paul. Firstly, how long have you been a RACI Member for?

PW: Since 1978. I joined up just when I started my Honours year. Being a RACI Member, and subsequently a Chartered Chemist and RACI Fellow, has been an important part of my professional identity.

WL: Almost 45 years! Next stop, 50 years of membership!

PW: That’s right but I‘ve had colleagues who’ve been members for longer than that!

WL: Fabulous! Surely you’ve contributed much to the scientific community.

PW: I thoroughly enjoyed being a chemistry student and then my 40-plus years as a chemistry academic, starting as a first-year demonstrator, then tutoring, then lecturing across a wide range of chemical sub-disciplines and also researching, with a gap in the middle of the career doing work in academic governance. I’m now back in the lab!

WL: It seems you spent much of your entire career in academia. You seem to be a key person in growing Western Sydney University to what it is today.

PW: One of many. With over 3000 staff and about 49000 students, you can see how large the institution is these days. I was fortunate to be there at the start with some other chemical colleagues. It’s a collaborative and collegial environment and I had a lot to do with connecting science from different parts of the university when we became a unitary institution around the year 2000. I’ve also been involved in helping develop academic standards, policies and culture, as well as working in the governance body and on project work for two Vice-Chancellors. It’s always been exciting times!

WL: Rightly so, working at a growing university and being at the forefront of its development along with shaping the curricula and academic programs and raising its profile as a centre for chemistry research.

PW: As we’ve grown as an institution, part of my role has been to saying “remember we’re a university!” We must never lose sight of teaching, research and scholarship. As a PhD student I had an interest in “student politics”. A number of our other chemistry PhDs got involved in the student union, as well as the Council of Postgraduate Associations. I followed the path that they set and spent a lot of time during my PhD on the academic board, university senate and university union. All of that became useful when I was Chair of the Academic Senate later on – it felt like I was well prepared to understand what a university is, what its societal role is and how to make sure students have an excellent education across the board.

WL: It’s interesting that your campus life experiences during your PhD time sets up your career much later on. Quite an interesting journey, not just in the lab, but also in student politics in general.

PW: I’m always aware that even when involved in student politics or helping to run a university, I’m an academic educator and researcher first and foremost. It’s so easy to lose track of what an academic institution is about given all the corporate and government pressures they feel.

WL: What do you do now that you’ve stepped back from academic duties?

PW: I’ve resigned as a salaried academic and the Board of Trustees kindly made me an Emeritus Professor, which still carries some responsibilities in keeping with the mission of the university. I’m also an Honorary Professor at Macquarie University. I’m still full-on with academic work, such as guest lecturing, mentoring, helping develop academic policies, working in the laboratory and some external consulting. So still fairly busy with academic work, but it’s all work that I want to be doing.

WL: What about outside of academia?

PW: For many years, I’ve been a Lay Reader (Lay Assistant) at a local Anglican Church. I continue teaching through sermons, and often bring up references from science and university. It’s a role that also has a musical dimension – music is also important in my life. It’s normally a face-to-face delivery but COVID-19 forced everything onto Zoom to keep people engaged. My family is academic-focused: my wife Mary is a Professor at The University of Sydney; our elder daughter is a mathematics postdoctoral fellow in Paris; my father-in-law is still active as a researcher also at The University of Sydney, and my younger daughter is a musician currently based at a location 8km south of the Arctic Circle – something different! We’re fortunate we got together last Christmas.

WL: Sounds like the COVID-19 situation didn’t affect you much.

PW: Well, it did at university and church. Like most other academics, we switched from predominantly face-to-face in delivery to having everything exclusively online, including tutorials and practical demonstrations. My household certainly used quite a lot of bandwidth! Only now we’re moving back to face-to-face, but more like ‘hybrid’ delivery. It’s really important to get our undergraduate and research students back in the lab. They need the skills and want the contact with us and other students.

WL: That’s ideal – online lectures, but tutorials and laboratory classes in-person. Those in-person classes enable students to have closer interactions with academics or tutors, and one learns a lot more by doing hands-on work.

PW: Chemistry is a practical discipline, including the theory.

WL: Additionally, those in-person classes are where you can make lasting friendships. I’ve certainly made more friends in labs than in lectures.

PW: I found 1st-year university to be rather lonely, though in my first chemistry lecture, I sat next to someone who I’m still in regular contact with to this day! He’s a leading forensic scientist in drug analysis. Also, some of the students that I taught during a laboratory class in 1979 still recall me as a tutor 40 years later! Those human relationships, collegiality and fun as students are all crucial, especially as a PhD student – you spend lots of time talking to other students and build networks that still matter decades later.

WL: It’s quite surprising and wonderful that quite a few people who you meet along the way and here and there are still around today in your network!

PW: Oh yes! Indeed, I still keep in contact with my PhD supervisor - happily still with us! A lot of chemists live to a ripe old age and are still active in some way, if not in the chemical discipline. It’s a good example to follow.

WL: What was your PhD about by the way?

PW: It was electronic spectroscopy of some nitrogen heterocycles. I loved being able to synthesise them and then studying them using mixed-crystal spectroscopy. Our samples were immersed in liquid helium, so we had to work with serious cryogens. This gave quite detailed spectra which we then had to explain and analyse.

WL: That’s an interesting project! Nice and simple - prepare sample, put it in the instrument and voila!

PW: Mixed-crystal spectroscopy wasn’t for the faint-hearted, and most samples were failures, but eventually we got some lovely spectra. Sadly, we didn’t have the computational power we now have for modelling them. The more complex calculations that involved excited electronic states were only just emerging. Fortunately, the 1960s-vintage semi-empirical calculations still worked remarkably well.

WL: Second-last question. What has surprised you about retirement?

PW: I haven’t been retired for very long is the best I can put it! Paradoxically, I’m surprised that I’m not surprised. There’s a strong sense of continuity in the path that got me to where I am today. I only formally retired a year ago, but I’m still quite busy. The biggest recent change in my life has been the COVID-19 situation. I don’t know how things will play out in, say, 5 years’ time, but I have role-models who were working in chemistry well up to their nineties.

WL: Most important question! If there’s one piece of advice for people who want to be like you, what would it be?

PW: Always keep an eye open for opportunities. Be bold and take them as they present themselves, both professionally and more widely in life. Take the challenges as they appear.