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Research and research culture

Building a research culture

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Early research culture (audio)

When Hunt arrived at Monash part way through 1960 he was plunged into a hive of activity. These were busy times. The entire university, as well as the courses it offered, was in the process of being built. There were buildings to design, plan and construct, courses to write and staff to hire. Gradually the Faculty of Engineering began to take shape – staff were employed, the first students arrived and the first Engineering buildings began to rise out of the ground. Somehow, in the midst of all of this activity, the small, core group of foundation staff drawn together by Ken Hunt were also laying the foundations for the strong research culture that rapidly became an integral part of the Faculty.

By July 1961 research projects were already underway within the Faculty. That year Peter Uhlherr and Charles Sinclair were listed in the Interim Council’s yearly report as being involved in research into fluid-particle dynamics. Hunt had even published a paper titled ‘a design study in mechanism geometry’. By the end of 1961 there had been three additional research papers published by staff of the Faculty: one by Hunt and two by then Senior Lecturer Noel Murray. Murray had also lodged a patent application for a ‘skirt seal’ in the United Kingdom.

As these early research achievements show, Hunt was committed to meeting the research related duties that had been outlined in his conditions of appointment. In 1962 he reported:

Inevitably, much attention has been devoted to planning for the future, which has made great demands on the time of staff. Nevertheless research has been undertaken. The Faculty was able to attract research students and to obtain support from the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and the Australian Institute for Nuclear Science and Engineering for two of the projects in hand.

By the following year, academic staff numbers in the Faculty had tripled and the research output increased markedly as a result. Hunt described the research activity of his staff as ‘vigorous’ in his report to the Monash University Council, proudly citing a list of eleven publications as proof. 

Many academic staff of the Faculty in these foundation years recall a clear emphasis on research from the time they arrived. Bill Brown, from the Department of Electrical Engineering, recalls that ‘when I arrived Doug Lampard was supervising ten PhD candidates …There was an emphasis on research, and it posed a strong contrast with Melbourne University … Clearly Doug Lampard came to Monash to continue his great work in research.’ The foundation dean and professors prioritised research and looked to research activity as a way of establishing the reputation of the new Faculty.

In the early days, research occurred within departmental boundaries, and various individual academics rapidly became renowned for research into particular areas and processes. Former Dean of the Faculty Peter Darvall reflected that in these early days there was less collaboration on research, both within departments and between departments.

It was interesting, then … that individuals could go off on a particular research line, and succeed, and they didn't have to actually co-operate, or collaborate, with their colleagues; that was fine. Noel Murray became a world renowned expert in thin walled steel structures, then there was somebody else in Optimisation, and then somebody else in Reliability, and somebody else in Shake Down and Fatigue, and myself in Concrete Structures; we all headed off in different directions.

Gradually, informal research groups did begin to emerge in some departments. For example, Robert Gani from the Department of Mechanical Engineering was a member of a small, three-person research group that was concerned with energy systems in thermodynamics. Each did their own research, but ‘came together to share teaching duties and occasionally a research job’. However, Gani recalls that despite the existence of the group, in terms of research, ‘essentially we were on our own’. It would be several decades before formalised research groups or centres became synonymous with research in the Faculty of Engineering.

By the time Ken Hunt stepped down from the Deanship, handing over the leadership of the Faculty to Lance Endersbee in 1976, it was clear that he had fulfilled his duty to ‘carry out research and to organise research work amongst the staff and post graduate students’. Each of the five initial departments was dedicated to building a research profile and establishing a strong reputation for both itself, and the Faculty. 

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