From a Diploma at Swinburne Tech, John Hopwood has gone on to become a world leader in the research, diagnosis and treatment of lysosomal diseases helping to save children’s lives. John is an Emeritus Professor at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

"I left school at 15 and my first boss, at the impressive age of 21, enormously influenced my career. He said, ‘John you’ve made a mistake’. He enrolled me at Swinburne Tech night school. His hair was beginning to grey – he’d just finished a bachelor degree at Melbourne University and drove an Austin 7 car – so I listened to him.

Professor John Hopwood, Swinburne alumnus and world leader in the research, diagnosis and treatment of lysosomal diseases

He enrolled me in an applied chemistry and chemical engineering diploma in 1955. I completed it over 10 years while working as a lab assistant at BALM Paints, then a subsidiary of ICI Australia.

In those days we did practical classes in organic chemistry that would take 12 hours every week to complete. I would do three lots of four hours just to finish the practical work. I travelled to Swinburne from Fishermen’s Bend, and one of my friends would often find me asleep at the back of the class.

Following my Swinburne diploma I went to Monash University and studied biochemistry and genetics. Here I first met Professor Joe Bornstein, who helped me to win a PhD scholarship”.

My wife and I had three boys. She was very supportive and took most of the child-rearing load while I was writing my PhD and furthering my career. I would not have achieved what I have in my career without her.

I managed the PhD in record time, and it led me to the University of Chicago, where I met medical geneticist Albert Dorfman. Dorfman said, ‘Hopwood come with me and I’ll take you to the real world’. The real world was a family in a Hospital clinic, with a child dying of a lysosomal disease.

  • "One father said, after we began to treat his son, ‘Before we could get him into therapeutic trials we were looking for carers for our son, but now we are looking for careers for our son’."

    John Hopwood , Emeritus Professor at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

I worked on a project that created the first elastic fibre out of polyethylene. It was not known to be elastic, but we had the technology to make it elastic. The benefit was it was chlorine resistant. I co-led the team that developed the material science and products.

Later, I was offered the opportunity to set up the global supply chain, negotiate manufacturing contracts, and oversee process engineering. Skills across business functions are totally transferrable. You don't need to be an expert to manage; you just need good people, leadership skills and ask good questions.

The most significant skill in my career progression has been relationship management. Developing deep, meaningful, credible relationships that survive decades in some cases has been invaluable. Even if you want to spend your life in the lab and be a pure scientist, you need communication, relationship and negotiation skills.

As the lead scientist for the Victorian Government my role is to be a voice of industry in government. I sit on a range of advisory committees in education, government and industry.

As a female working in the manufacturing sector and working for a multinational, I never felt discriminated against. When you have good leadership and transparency of systems it is much harder for discrimination to occur.

Since coming into the lead scientist role and seeing women in the broader area of sciences, especially in life sciences, they have it very tough. Even if there is no discrimination, there are barriers in place that limit women reaching their full potential. The research backs this up. Gender balances in the starting salaries for graduates leaving university across every single discipline shows men are getting a starting salary higher than women. It dumbfounds me. My advice: ensure that you follow up on the HR policies of a company to see what their gender equity statements are. And search online to see what their values are.

There are huge opportunities in digital careers that overlap with science. Expect opportunities in areas driven by societal challenges and industry needs such as personalised medicine, food security, new energy and digital technologies."

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