David Bourne

David’s fascination with various chemical compounds, with the potential to become explosive, set him off on a significant, and fascinating career in biochemistry.

David Bourne is a U3APP Tutor, currently for the online course ‘Why Insects Matter.” He is a PHD graduate and research scientist.

David joined U3APP about five years ago, after moving from Elwood to St Kilda West. David likes to keep fit, so enjoys the convenient walking distance to the MKC, “no parking permit needed.” David became a tutor subsequent to Jim Pribble, who “was on the ‘look out’ for new tutors, approached me about running a course on Evolution. I thought, “I could do that, it’s been a real pleasure.”

David was born in Brisbane, but following his father’s decision to set up an accountancy business, the family moved to Warwick in south east Queensland. David remembers vividly, “I was five years old, sitting in the back of my dad’s old Ford Prefect, watching the road through the holes in the floor, for 160 kms!” At that time the population in Warwick was 12,000 however following closures of the rail and maintenance yards, it decreased to about 10,000.

David referred to his family life as being, “ordinary, fairly boring so I played up a lot!” How so? “Umm … well, blowing up things.” With some amusement, David supplied the detail. In those days you could easily get hold of fireworks, as in “big bungers.”

Was he motivated by boredom? “No, being naughty was the thrill. In one incident my gang and another local one had organised to have a bit of a punch-up at the local park. Someone let on and we had a police car drive into the back yard in full view of our neighbours, my father was not so happy.”

Aged 13 years, David became avidly interested in chemistry specifically, rather than physics. “I think it was because you could do stuff yourself.” This was not possible with physics unless you had the relevant equipment. “But with chemistry, it was easy to do in the back shed.”

What were you doing in the back shed? (Asked with some trepidation.) “I started off making fireworks, of course.” Cautiously avoiding any specific instructions for making fireworks, “they are made from gunpowder.” David explains, “gunpowder is easy to make, then you wrap the gunpowder in cardboard and stick a wick in it!”

“I remember one ‘experiment’ with my older brother. We found a large balloon one day and were wondering what we’d do with it. Inflate it with air, no not interesting. Inflate it with hydrogen and let it drift upwards. Yep. That’s a bit boring, let’s tie a wick to it, light it and let it go. Excellent idea. The balloon made it to around 300 metres and exploded with a nice bit of flame. A day later there was a small paragraph in the Warwick Daily News about a mysterious explosion in the sky above Warwick.”

Fortunately, David had only one major accident. It was in the back shed, of course. He was engaged in a process whereby he needed to light magnesium powder to initiate a thermite process. It wasn’t going so well and needed some more magnesium powder to get going. It wasn’t a good idea to add more from the bottle. Of course it then caught fire. One thing you cannot do with magnesium fire is put it out with water, it just goes off. “Probably the most dangerous thing I did.” David assures, that his parents were not too concerned about his activities in the back shed but perhaps should have been.

Academic progress at school? “I breezed through chemistry, physics was my downfall.” David proceeded to the University of South Queensland in Toowoomba, partially completing a degree in applied science, essentially training to become an industrial chemist. Whilst still a student, aged 18 years, he was called up for conscription but put it off for as long as possible as was the norm then. However, he was required to complete 12 weeks of basic army training, at Singleton.

How did you find that? “Well, we got so fit, it was unbelievable, lots of route marches and circuit training. A friend and I used to play a round of squash flat out for an hour and usually extend to two because we were so fit we could easily do this.” When Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister, we were able to choose whether we wanted to leave or go into the armed forces. “The good thing about that was if you decided to leave the army you would get a scholarship to finish university. That scholarship was about three times the amount you could get on a commonwealth scholarship, that was fabulous.”

After qualifying as an industrial chemist, “my girlfriend and I hopped into a transit van, we travelled around Australia for about 2 years, getting jobs wherever we could, usually picking fruit, it was really a very good time but there were a few challenging times. Like when we arrived in Melbourne with no food and no money. We parked the van in Footscray and I went off to find a job. Found one at a wool baling place and the manager paid me some cash after the first day. Crisis over! ”

Aged 26 years, David obtained his first position as an industrial chemist with the Abbotts Pharmaceutical company at Kurnell in Sydney. However, this turned out to be “boring, you did the same thing every day. I left that company after two years and got a position as a part time research assistant at the University of NSW (UNSW)”

While doing a biochemistry degree, “I was trying to find a hormone that causes ripening and leaf drop in food plants.” When plants lose their leaves, this triggers reactions that cause hormonal changes, known as senescence. We call this hormone senescence factor.

David commenced his PhD, studying part time, researching further into the “senescence factor” as part of a collaboration between the University of New South Wales and Cambridge University in the UK. “Essentially, in the long run we found out a lot about the nature and properties of this hormone and we discovered a few novel molecules from bean and tomato plants. David subsequently obtained a post-doctoral position with John McLeod, a prominent mass spectroscopist at the Research School of Chemistry at ANU in Canberra. ”That started my interest in mass spectrometry”

Further discussion with David revealed that he has had a great many other interests. For instance, he was asked by the editor of Two Wheels (through a friend) to road test a motorcycle. “I was trying to do a good job because that would mean more motorcycles. It took two weeks to test and write the article. The editor was happy so I continued road testing motorcycles for about another nine years. It was a great experience with many highlights. One was the day Kawasaki Australia flew a group of journalists up to Bathurst and let us loose on the Mount Panorama race track on several Kawasaki motorcycles. I remember going down the mountain with 280 km/hr on the speedo.’’

What was the most interesting position you have held? “Probably, at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. We were researching the possibilities of developing medicinal drugs from marine life. Divers would collect sea creatures, corals, sponges etc., which were then extracted and tested to see if they had any activity in certain bioassays.” (‘Measurement of potency of a substance by its effect on certain medically important metabolic enzyme systems.’)

David was responsible for a successful submission to obtain an ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer. No mean achievement, “given the cost of around one million dollars.” This provided an “incredibly high resolution,” which is essential when an accurate mass and structural information was needed.

His next position of significance and interest was with the Defence Science Technology Organisation at Fisherman’s Bend. “During the 2000 Sydney Olympics DSTO provided the scientific input to the armed forces security effort and I was part of the scientific team. An important backup system was the new ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer which was commissioned a few months before the Olympics.” Due to David’s experience with mass spectrometry a “this mass spectrometer was purchased, costing about $1.5 million.”

David summarises, “we moved away from chemistry into biochemistry and one particular collaboration with the Swedish Defence Science would not have been possible without the high end mass spectrometer. This was a nice piece of work, we identified some unique marker compounds that would indicate exposure to a castor bean extract containing ricin.”

Liaising with domestic and overseas intelligence agencies was another area David became involved with for a time. “What we were trying to do was to design projects that were useful for Australian, US, UK and Canadian Intelligence Agencies.” Further discussion on this was, of course, out of bounds.

David has not married, he has had two long term partners. He has one daughter and two grandchildren aged 16 and 13 years who live in Queensland.

David and Barbara Coles, also a U3APP member, have travelled quite a bit. “We did quite a bit of Europe and the United Kingdom, the US and Canada, but we were more interested in wilder travels. Highlights were Cambodia, Kalimantan, Cuba (we wanted to visit Cuba while Fidel Castro was still alive) and Belize. Then there was a trip to the Gili Islands (off the northern coast of Lombok) which was “interesting, really wild, no cars.” A fairly big earthquake erupted just off the coast while they were there.

David reads science publications, he has good social connections with work colleagues. Does he think science has the same respect as in his working past? “No, definitely not. It is not as trusted as it used to be. It makes their (scientists’) opinions ‘less punchy’ when trying to negotiate with politicians, you are just not believed as much.” There is a huge amount of knowledge now, about insect sprays for instance, “that we did not have when I was younger.” But “people will continue to do science if they are interested, it’s just so bloody interesting, I don’t think they will be put off.”

David acknowledges that, “being a researcher, industrial chemist, is now in my past life.” He enjoys golf, has a large golf screen in his backyard and is also a member of the Middle Park Bowls Club. He enjoys walking, table tennis, being active but also watching foreign films. His favourite film is a Russian Sci-Fi movie, ‘Solaris’.

As for U3APP, “it is absolutely fantastic. It is a good organisation, with a bunch of really good people.” David enjoys his involvement with the various courses he has run and the interesting discussions the courses evoke.

David’s developing interest in chemistry during his early adolescence, his fascination with various chemical compounds with the potential to become explosive, set him off on a fascinating scientific career, leading to his expertise in obtaining significant data from high end mass spectrometers. He has come a long way from the thrill of “blowing up things.”

Felicity May interviewed David Bourne

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