ACT News


One of Australia's oldest scientists: 101 year old Max Day gives inaugural award

He has witnessed more than a century of science in his lifetime. And at 101, Max Day still gets a kick out of hearing about new research.

That's exactly what had the Australian Academy of Science's longest serving scientist chatting as he shook hands with the first recipients of an inaugural award established in his honour. 

The 1937 University of Sydney alumni received support to travel to Harvard for his PhD studies and decided the award would be a fitting way to give early-career researchers the same gift. 

Throughout his long career Dr Day championed entomology, conservation and forestry. 

Alongside the late Professor Frank Fenner he was the brains behind controlling Australia's rabbit problem with myxomatosis virus.

Later he established the CSIRO's Division of Forest Research and after retiring, aged 96, he co-authored a paper focused on the scribbles on gum trees.  


Throughout his impressive career in science Dr Day has been a strong advocate for multidisciplinary collaboration.

"It would appear that all the sciences are becoming more and more specialised and that means that there is less opportunity now to see the big picture," Dr Day said. 

"I'd like to think that scientists of the future can also think broadly and put their specialisation into a broader context."

PhD student Nicholas Leseberger and Dr Marta Yebra were the 2017 recipients to each win $20,000 toward their research, out of a field of 110 applicants.

Dr Yebra will use her Max Day Award funding to conduct experiments at the National Arboretum Canberra to determine the moisture content of Australia's native forests.

She aims to integrate her findings in an interactive web tool to assist the emergency service sector to better prepare and direct resources to fight bushfires. 

To do it she will work with forestry, ecology, geography, economy and other experts. 

"It will allow me to do this work I have wanted to do for a long time," she said. "This tool will give information about how wet the vegetation is. Imagine that there are two forests in Australia that are burning, but one is far drier. That one is more likely have a fire that burns quickly." 

University of Queensland's Nicholas Leseberg said the prize would enable him to cover the costs of investigating the elusive endangered Night Parrot - a shy, nocturnal bird living in arid regions of Australia. 

Mr Leseberg was taken aback by Dr Day's inquiring mind and interest in his work using GPS and acoustic recorders to get a clearer picture of the Night Parrot's habits.

"Meeting him was a bit daunting I suppose, but so inspiring," he said. "This is a guy that has spent a lifetime doing amazing science and here I am at the very beginning." 

Dr Day, his son Jon Day and Doug Hooley made generous donations to fund the new award. 

Jon Day said his father was glad to have been well enough to be at the award ceremony to meet both recipients and three highly commended candidates. 

"The whole idea behind the fellowship was to help young researchers the way he was helped," he said.

His father's passion for the natural world, conservation, and appetite for ideas rubbed off and likely led Jon to his work with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. 

"He is a role model for scientists because he has looked at science from so many different perspectives," Jon said.

"He's worked across a range, not just a single discipline, and his role was always to bring other scientists to work together and get good outcomes. He had to do that as a member of the CSIRO executive but continued that passion even after he retired."