Karina Kelly

Honorary Doctor of Letters

Citation delivered by Professor Gerard Sutton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Karina Kelly to the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) on 21 December 2007.


Deputy Chancellor, I present Karina Kelly.

With a rare capacity to bridge the “two cultures” of arts and science and exceptional gifts as a communicator, Karina Kelly has opened up doorways to the knowledge and the developments that inform and enrich us and could even save our planet. She has played a particular role in introducing the Australian community to the scientific world. This is a place of difficult concepts and powerful laws. It explores the increasingly dangerous liaisons between humans and their natural environment; it has its own language and its strong personalities. With her enquiring mind and engaging personality, Karina has been our guide to this world. She has used the power of language and the media to translate its complex issues. She has, indeed, shown us glimpses of those ultimate goals of scholarship in science and in the arts – truth and beauty.

Born in Reading, England, Karina Kelly was educated in both England and Australia. She studied archaeology, history and literature at Sydney University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in 1980. This interesting combination of subjects led to a thesis on the nineteenth century poet, Christina Rossetti, and two seasons in Jordan excavating an archaeological site. That dual capacity for the creative, conceptual arts and the detailed, logical sciences is a special feature of Karina Kelly’s career. You might say that she is able to engage more fully than most of us both the right and left sides of the brain.

Karina began working as a television journalist in 1981. Five years later she found the ideal showcase for her skills as the presenter of the ABC science program Quantum, a position she held from 1986 to 1996. She went on to present its successor, Catalyst, from 2001 to 2005.

Quantum, and later Catalyst, became institutions in Australian television and Karina Kelly’s warmth and calm authority helped to win and hold their audience. They created interest in a vast array of topics, from the Hale-Bopp comet to the artificial insemination of koalas. Some of the Quantum and Catalyst stories particularly stay in the memory, for instance the “Save Eric” campaign which raised over half a million dollars to purchase a one hundred and ten million year old opalised pliosaur from Coober Pedy for the Australian Museum. Another 2003 Catalyst program told the groundbreaking story about the use of DNA evidence by the judicial system. It was for this program that Karina, and producer Paul Faint, won a world gold medal at the New York Film and Television Festival. No matter what the topic, Karina Kelly communicated the excitement of discovery and helped to raise public understanding of and support for important scientific programs.

Karina Kelly has chaired the broadcasts for Open Learning’s anthropology course and served on the Council of the National Museum of Australia. She was President of the Council of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Australia’s oldest scientific society, between 2003 and 2005. Perhaps, though, the graduates here today will best recall her voice as the narrator of five hundred Bananas in Pyjamas episodes, a children’s program that has screened in more than seventy countries and has over one hundred million viewers.

Deputy Chancellor, Karina Kelly has made outstanding contributions to the diversity and quality of the Australian media. She is a communicator and an educator in the widest sense. She has helped to raise the profile and public understanding of science. She has demonstrated and celebrated the power of those “two cultures” that remain, in ever-varied guises, at the heart of a university education – the arts and the sciences.

It gives me great pleasure to present Karina Kelly for the award of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.