Nancy Millis Mentoring Program

The Nancy Millis mentoring program was developed to ensure that a bequest to the society by Professor Millis  was used in a way that would have met  with her approval. In the early part of her career, before her time was taken up with numerous consultations and committees,  Professor Millis devoted a lot of her time to students, both  in the lecture theatre and in the practical laboratory. She  always showed intense interest in their work and encouraged them to keep asking questions, both of themselves and others. She was both honest and direct in her manner and greatly respected by all who worked with her. 

The mentoring program, which is now an integral part of our annual scientific meeting,  has three components. The first is an informal breakfast with both overseas and local plenary speakers. The second is a lunchtime session which can take different  forms and  is intended to give students the opportunity to meet each other and learn something that will be useful to them  in their career. The third component is a relaxed social function at night, providing  a time for conversations and discussions about life, the lab and anything else of mutual interest. 

Participation in the program is free and open to all students attending the meeting. It is supported by the Millis bequest, the society and the branch organising the conference.

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Professor Emeritus Nancy Millis AC.MBE.FAA.FTSE, died in Melbourne on the 29th of September, 2012 at the age of ninety. Her long life had been lived with great zest and energy, filled with exemplary service over a broad range of activities affecting her discipline Microbiology, Higher Education and the wider community.Her passing was cause for both sadness and fond remembrance by numerous  people from many different walks of life.

Nancy graduated Bachelor of Agricultural Science from Melbourne University in 1945. Her father’s illness meant she had been obliged to leave school early and  complete Matriculation  at night school over a period of two years. In those days the Faculty of Science would not accept applicants who had taken more than one year to complete their Matriculation,butthe Faculty of Agricultural Science were not as rigid in their requirements hence Nancy’s enrolment in Agricultural Science. This turned out to be a godsend not only for Nancy but also for generations of Agricultural Science students who were taught by Nancy in subsequent years. Nancy thoroughly enjoyed her Agricultural Science course including her time at Dookie. She once said that she always felt at home in her gum boots.  After her undergraduate course she enrolled for a Degree of Master of Ag. Science with Professor Vic Skerman, studying a strain of Pseudomonas able to reduce nitrate. This was the beginning of extensive research carried out by Nancy on the microorganisms involved in the nitrogen cycle. After completing her Master’s degree, she accepted a position with the Department of Foreign Affairs to work in New Guinea studying the agricultural practices of the local women. She had only been there for a short time when  she contracted  a massive intestinal infection, which almost killed her.  She was transported via Darwin to Melbourne and with the initial help of the recently developed antibiotic Streptomycin and much careful nursing she slowly regained her health ( see Sally Morrison     ). Lighting upon an advertisement in the local paper for a PhD scholarship offered by Boots for study at Bristol University in the UK, Nancy sent off an application and, with a small dowry that she had received from her aunt , sailed to the UK in the hope of a successful outcome. Her optimism paid off as  she was granted the scholarship and completed a PhD on the micro-organisms causing spoilage of cider fermentations. Returning to Melbourne some time later she applied unsuccessfully for jobs at Carlton and United Breweries and at Kraft. No doubt her gender and assumed lack of drinking capacity were obstacles for obtaining the first position and her higher degree may have led to her being considered overqualified for the second.  Once again however a potential adverse event had a positive outcome Professor  Syd Rubbo who was Head of the then Bacteriology Department at the University of Melbourne was quick to appreciate her qualities and her skills, and appointed Nancy as a Senior Demonstrator in 1952.  She was promoted to Lecturer one year later, to a Reader in 1968 and to a Personal Chair in 1982. These career moves were underpinned by two strategic sabbaticals. The first, in 1954, was organized by Syd Rubbo. Supported by a Fulbright fellowship and a scholarship offered by the American Society of University Women in Madison Wisconsin, Nancy joined the laboratory of Marvin J Johnson where she studied the latest developments in the fermentation involved in the production of Penicillin. Onher return to Melbourne after  study leave Nancy started her own research using strains of Aspergillus Niger to produce citric acid. At the same time she was involved in lecturing to both the science students and the Ag.Science students as she held a traditionally demanding  teaching and research position.

Her next Sabbatical was taken in 1963 when she attended C.B.Van Niel’s famous course in General Microbiology given at Hopkins Marine Station. This was followed by a nine month period at The Institute of Applied Microbiology at Tokyo University working with Professor Suichi Aiba on methods of continuous culture of micro-organisms.

During this visit, Nancy , Professor Aiba and a visiting scientist Professor Arthur Humphrey together delivered a course in an emerging area at the time Biochemical Engineering. As Nancy later remarked this was the first integrated course in Biotechnology to be given in Japan. On her return to Melbourne Nancy collated these lectures into a textbook that was titled “Biochemical Engineering” . This was one of the first textbooks in the brave new world of Biotechnology and is still being recommended in some courses in Chemical Engineering today some fifty years after its first publication.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of  Nancy’s academic career was her breadth of knowledge about all aspects of Microbiology and its application. Unlike the still current practice of most researchers to learn more about an ever narrowing area, her research interests ranged from bacteriophage and bacteriocins of rumen bacteria, to micro-organisms involved in the nitrogen cycle in marine sludges, to bacteria able to break down phenols and various hydrocarbons. She also investigated the possibility of using hydrocarbons as a food for growing yeasts and she was constantly being asked to solve problems caused by the growth of micro-organisms in unexpected places and on unexpected substrates. One of these involved the disastrous deterioration of a major Highway between Melbourne and Sydney.  Another was to do with the blockage of drainage pipes in the new Art Centre in Melbourne. Her breadth of understanding and knowledge, coupled with a healthy scepticism for any unsubstantiated claims, made her a very popular and very successful teacher. She was able to engage with students whether in field work, in the lab or in the lecture theatre. Her complete lack of pretension, genuine friendliness and willingness to explain areas of difficulty to the genuinely interested endeared her to all who had the good fortune to be in her classes. She is fondly remembered by generations of Ag.Science and other  students at Melbourne University. In addition to her beloved "Aggies", Nancy introduced and taught one of the first courses to be offered in Australia on Industrial Microbiology. She was also involved  for many years giving lectures on this topic to the Chemical Engineering students.

Her deep understanding of Industrial and Agricultural Microbiology combined with a no nonsense approach to solving important problems meant that she was ideally placed to help steer the new developments in molecular genetics into a safe and acceptable framework for application in both Industry and Agriculture. In 1978 Nancy was a member of the Fenner committee reviewing Recombinant DNA in Australia for the Academy of Science. The ensuing report  resulted in  the government setting up a new committee,  the Recombinant DNA Monitoring  Committee (RDMC) with Nancy as the Chair. During its eight year tenure this committee, under Nancy’s guidance, produced and oversaw the implementation of important guidelines for work in Laboratories, in Industry and for the planned release of genetically modified organisms. This committee became the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) and Nancy continued as Chair until it was replaced by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR). The relatively untroubled and careful introduction of this Technology in Australia owes much to the dedication and skills of Nancy Millis in her interactions with government, scientists and the general public.

Nancy also had an abiding interest in water quality and water management.

She was Chair of the Board for the CRC for Water Quality and Treatment, a member of the Board of the CRC for Fresh Water Ecology, Chair of the Research Advisory Committee Murray –Darling Freshwater Research Centre and member of the Board of MMBW. At the same time her own research interests extended to the microbial ecology of wetlands and estuaries and involved pollution studies in Western Port and Port Phillip Bays.

From its very foundation Nancy was an enthusiastic and prominent supporter of the Australian Society for Microbiology. She was National Secretary from 1964-67, President 1978-80, Rubbo Orator 1982 and made an Honorary life Member of the Society in 1987. She was very much involved in the Annual Scientific Meetings where her wit and wisdom were greatly appreciated. At meetings she was often surrounded by her ex students keen to tell her about their work. Nancy’s very effective contributions as a committee member meant that during her lifetime she served with distinction on many other committees too numerous to list in this tribute. She was invariably generous with her time and always conscientious in her preparation. Her consistent contributions have been recognised with a number of  accolades. In 1977 she was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE), and in 1990 was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). She was elected to the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (FTSE) in 1977 and to the Academy of Sciences (FAA) in 2004 by special election recognising her conspicuous service to the cause of science with her outstanding career in Microbiology. In 2002 she was one of five scientists immortalised on stamps by the Australia Post as living legends. In 1982 she was appointed to a Personal Chair at the University of Melbourne, being amongst the first women to receive thia appointment.  In 1987, after her retirement,  she was appointed Professor Emeritus. She received an Honorary DSc and an Honorary LLD from the University of Melbourne and an Honorary DSc from La Trobe University. Between 1992 and 2006 she was Chancellor at La Trobe University.

Nancy  has a number of lectures and scholarships named after her. These include  the Nancy Millis lecture established by La Trobe University, the Millis Oration by AusBiotech, the Nancy Millis award for postgraduates in Agriculture, and the Millis-Colwell postgraduate student award  of the combined Australian and American societies for Microbiology. In future years the top undergraduate students in the Microbiology and Immunology dept at the University of Melbourne will be awardedNancy Millis scholarships. There is the Nancy Millis building at the  Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre, on the Albury/Wodonga campus of La Trobe University, and the Nancy Millis laboratory at the University of Melbourne.

Above all, there are the recollections  of all those who had the pleasure and the privilege of working with Nancy over her lifetime, friends who appreciated her quick wit and love of a good conversation,  and grateful students whom she both inspired and challenged. These collected memories will ensure that her life and her many, many contributions to the profession and to society will not be forgotten.