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Roger Summons

Honorary Doctor of Science

Citation delivered by Professor Gerard Sutton, Vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Professor Roger Summons as a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on 22 July 2009.

Chancellor I present Roger Summons.

Professor Roger Summons has explored the natural world in microcosm but his vision and his achievement are immense. He is a worthy disciple of another scientific explorer – the great Baron Alexander von Humboldt. Although Humboldt worked on a much larger scale, Roger Summons has shown the same sort of brilliance, fearlessness and sense of wonder in his pursuit of scientific truth. Humboldt left a legacy to science that led Charles Darwin to describe him as “the greatest travelling scientist who ever lived.” Professor Roger Summons may not have travelled across the same physical terrains but his journeys have revealed the designs and interconnections that are critical for the understanding and thus the preservation of the living world.

We are proud to say that Roger Summons’ travels began on this campus in 1964. He studied chemistry at the then Wollongong University College, with the greatly respected Foundation Professor of Chemistry, Bert Halpern. Roger left Wollongong in 1971 with a PhD and an appointment to Stanford University as a Fellow in Genetics. After completing post doctoral studies at Stanford and the Australian National University, he went on to become a senior research scientist at the Baas Becking Geobiology Laboratory and later Chief Research Scientist at Geoscience Australia.

In his research career, Roger Summons charted the history of this planet and the co-evolution of its life and environment. He explored the deep history entombed in the rocks and soils of the earth. His tools were the resources and the insights of many disciplines - geology, geochemistry, palaeontology, molecular evolution and developmental biology. He was able to employ them to uncover the molecular fossil record of the earth’s early biosphere. This extraordinary feat requires a rare conceptual intellect. It continues to have significant implications for the charting of taxonomy of life on earth and its evolutionary and environmental patterns. The implications are of great import to the big issues of today, including climate change and the rate of plant and animal extinctions.

In his many roles - for he has been a teacher, husband, parent and grandparent - Roger has shown tremendous enthusiasm, wisdom, curiosity and an ability to admit he can be wrong. He has earned many prestigious awards, prizes, commendations and acknowledgments during his career. Two of them stand out as particularly distinctive: his receipt of the 2002 Australian Organic Geochemistry Medal and, of course, the Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize in 2007. In 1850, Humboldt wrote words that so beautifully describe the motive and the joy of Roger Summons’ journey: “The active and inquiring spirit of man may therefore be occasionally permitted to escape from the present into the domain of the past, to conjecture that which cannot yet be clearly determined, and thus to revel amid the ancient and ever-recurring myths of geology”.

Chancellor, it is my honour and pleasure to present Roger Summons for the award Doctor of Science, honoris causa.