University of Melbourne Magazine

Q&A: Karen Day, Dean of Science

  • Prominent alumna and international biologist Professor Karen Day commenced her role as the Dean of Science in February this year.

    Previously a Professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Medicine at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, Professor Day was also the Chair of the Department of Medical Parasitology, Director of the Masters Program in Global Public Health and the Director of the Institute of Urban and Global Health. Her research interests include infectious disease and global health, with a particular interest in malaria.

    Professor Day holds a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in microbiology/ biochemistry, and a PhD in Molecular Parasitology from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. After completing her post-doctoral work in Papua New Guinea, Professor Day held positions in biology at Imperial College, London, and in zoology at Hertford College at the University of Oxford. She was also President of the University of Melbourne Alumni Association in the UK.

    She is a Founding Partner of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease (WTCEID) and the interdisciplinary Peter Medawar Pathogen Evolution Research Centre at Oxford, during which she was appointed a Visiting Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.


    What brought you back to Melbourne?

    All Australians abroad talk about coming home, and I’ve always imagined that I would do the same. Having been abroad for 28 years, pursuing opportunities and intellectual challenges in my field of interest – epidemiology of infectious disease – I’ve always dreamed of coming home to family and friends. My dream became a reality when I was offered this amazing opportunity to lead a world-class science faculty, and lets me combine my personal and professional goals.

    How did you get involved in your area of research?

    Sir Gustav Nossal set up a program applying the latest modern molecular methods to study the “great neglected diseases”, including malaria, as a result of his sabbatical at the WHO. I was the first student in the program, and it sparked my lifetime passion in global health.

    Who are the people in Science who inspire you?

    There are a number of scientists and mentors who have inspired me over the years:

    Sir Gustav Nossal He was a great mentor, and really started things off for me in terms of my research and my passion for global health.

    Michael Alpers I worked with Michael at the PNG Institute of Medical Research. He taught me the importance of interdisciplinary research, which has since been the flavour of my career. I hope to keep promoting that as the Dean.

    Robert May (Baron May of Oxford) Robert’s a physicist, and was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and my mentor at Oxford. He inspired me to apply mathematical approaches to understand the complexity of malaria transmission systems.

    Dame Bridget Ogilvie She was the Director of the Wellcome Trust, and taught me a lot about how good leadership in science policy and practice can enable science, and scientists, to change the world.

    How does it feel to be an alumna returning to the University community?

    I actually grew up in the Carlton area – I went to school in Fitzroy with all the restaurant owners’ kids and sold tickets at the Carlton Movie House. Also, as a not-so-confident 18-year-old starting university I never dreamed that I would one day be the Dean of Science! So yes, I definitely felt an immense sense of nostalgia coming back to Carlton and the University campus.

    Coming back, you also realise what is so special about Melbourne as an urban university – it has a real heart of campus that many other urban universities don’t have.

    What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?

    I can’t imagine being anything else! But if I really had to choose, it would probably be a detective, as I like solving puzzles. A Sherlock Holmes in high heels.

    What’s it like working at the Faculty, and what is its future direction?

    I have had two very different experiences of higher education, having spent 10 years in Oxford and another 10 years at NYU, which is a more corporate university environment. I bring that combined breadth of experience here, and am proud to be leading a world-class science faculty that is every bit as good as any top university in the world. We have extraordinary talent here, although we lack the same scale as some of the top-ranked global universities – this is something we’ll be looking at going forward.

    I’m also keen to look at how we can best place our scientific workforce for the future. I see our science graduates playing a great role in shaping the knowledge economy in Australia; we need to create awareness among those interested in science to a broad range of science careers, and attract them to those careers.