ONTARIO ALUMNI DINNER - September 18, 2009

The National Club was again the host for our annual dinner, the seventh in recent years since the millennium. Approximately 40 alumni, guests and friends of Trinity attended to hear news of the college and, in particular the success of the genetic department, given by our guest speaker Dr. David McConnell, Professor of Genetics, who flew in specially for the occasion.

The evening began with birthday wishes to Daisy White, 85 this year, and as is customary, continued with John Payne providing a round up of the year's activities, which witnessed an increasing number of joint university events with both Oxbridge and US universities. These were:

  • The LSE, Oxford, Cambridge Christmas Party at the Duke of York in November;
  • A distinguished panel of speakers at University of Toronto in April discussing "Worlds Beyond Our Own: How Will the Economic Crisis Affect Global Politics";
  • A Business Networking Social in May;
  • An International all-GRADs Summer Social in August;
  • And, coming up in October a Joint Universities Pub Night Trivia evening.

Thanks go to Bruce Buttimore who has taken the lead in coordinating our efforts with these events as well as managing our website. With all these activities going on, we failed to organize our Pub Night at P.J. O'Brien for the second year in a row with no valid excuse, such as the huge snowstorm of the previous year.

To conclude his remarks, John read a document handed out around college in the late 1960s, or maybe early 1970s, entitled "Historic Announcement by The Progressive Students League, Famine Relief Committee (FRC) to hold Degenerate Masked Ball at Castletown House". This berated students in classic revolutionary language for attending a formal dinner and ball, calling them "neo-colonialists" and "petty bourgeoisie" and referencing the "oppression of the heroic working classes". They added that the “orgiastic revelry (sic)” included “a 4 course banquet of gargantuan proportions on which their so called guests can gorge themselves into stupefaction.

On that thought the 2009 dinner commenced with the toast to Canada proposed by John Payne. The toast to Ireland followed and was given by Heather Colhoun who represented Ireland for golf on many occasions. Peter Hearn as a scholar performed his yearly duty by saying the two Latin graces, between which the attendees were served roasted Cornish hens. Les Colhoun, the only scholar to have received an Honorary Degree from TCD, then fittingly proposed the toast to Trinity. Les, it should be noted, began these Ontario dinners in the 1950s and commented later that they were more raucous affairs then.

This year's guest speaker was Dr. David McConnell, Professor of Genetics, whose visit was kindly organized by Hugh and Ann O'Neill and supported by Trinity Trust.

David McConnell has a long history at Trinity, graduating in 1966, being a member of faculty since 1970 and is now Professor of Genetics at the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, where he planned and led the development of the Institute as a leading centre for research and teaching of genetics. The faculty celebrated 50 years in 2008.

He was formerly Vice Provost between 1999 and 2001, preceding Jane Grimson who spoke to us a few years ago. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1971, and held an Eleanor Roosevelt Research Fellowship at Harvard University in 1976-77.

As a molecular geneticist and author of more than 100 scientific papers, he pioneered the development of molecular genetics and genetic engineering in Ireland, participating in several EC biotechnology programmes, and collaborating with industry in various biotechnology projects. He also advised UNIDO on many projects, and was Chairman of the Selected Committee that reported on the location of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. In addition he is a member of the Executive Board of The European Federation of Biotechnology.

He is also a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the Royal Irish Academy. He was a member of The Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation. He is Chairman of The Irish Times Trust and a member of an intriguing group called the Irish Skeptics.

In an interesting segue from last year's guest, Dr. Janet Browne, who spoke about Darwin, this year David presented the Darwin Day lecture in Ireland on "Darwin, genetics, and the nature of humankind". It is also noteworthy that Janet Browne received an Honorary Degree from Trinity this year she was proposed for this honour by David.

David, after commenting on how nice it was to hear the Latin graces, passed on Provost Hegarty's best wishes and continued that though Trinity is now a different place, it still mesmerizes students. He listed some impressive statistics over 16,000 students, 11,000 being undergraduates, 2,100 staff, 80,000 alumni and 5,000 graduates per year. The Times ranking is 49th in the world (for comparison McGill is 12th and U. of T. is 45th) and 13th in Europe, and 8th or 9th in the UK. The Department of Genetics was recently 7th in the world in average citations per publication. There has been a huge building program begun under Provost Mitchell including the construction of 1000 new rooms at Trinity Hall and many new buildings on campus. The total amount of money raised for this building programme was £250,000,000, mostly from private donations. The major current project is a 300,000 square foot bioscience building. The medical school will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2011. There are 90 student societies, 50 sports clubs, and The Hist has won the Irish Times competition 3 years in a row. There is a move to become more cosmopolitan as the current demographic includes 84% Irish, 3% Northern Irish, 7% EU and 3% North American. The goal is to be 10% non-EU. Finally, the news on R.B. McDowell is that he is alive and well and has produced his autobiography "McDowell on McDowell", which reveals him to be more radical than people think.

Turning to genetics, David stated that the department was founded by George Dawson, who retired in 1987, and was originally recruited by David Webb from botany at Cambridge. The 1970s were a period of molecular genetics genes as chemicals. There was a big grant from Guinness to genetically engineer yeast, which although successful scientifically, was never used to brew Guinness. There are now 50 research students and about 10% of TCD's research money is earned by the Genetics Department. The students are outstanding many go abroad and fortunately several have been attracted back to Ireland, to Trinity and to other universities. Dr Michael Smurfit generously provided £½ million for a chair in medical genetics at the time of the quarter-centenary.

Research has included the genetics of the eye and the evolution of HIV/AIDS. Paul Sharp discovered that HIV originated by transmission from chimpanzee to man in an area north of the Congo River. Studies on yeasts have traced the origin of brewing and baking yeast to a single cell which existed several million years ago. Genetic anthropology has produced some interesting DNA relationships. For example, David mentioned Niall of the Nine Hostages, an UiNeill whose Y-chromosome is found in about 25% of men in Northern Ireland. Genghis Khan did better with 0.5% of the Y-chromosomes on the planet. Other work concerns neurogenetics and the nervous system, considering the brain as an electrochemical machine, memory, gene mutation and effects on the brain, schizophrenia genetics, and how the brain works. There is a new building, the Smurfit Institute, thanks to gifts from Chuck Feeney and the Atlantic Philanthropies, Dr Martin Naughton, Dr Michael Smurfit and the Wellcome Trust.

Other science departments have made great strides in the last 20 years, notably the Physics Department with three Fellows of The Royal Society. It is noted for nanoscience.

He concluded by saying that between 1922 and 1962 Ireland was a different place for research with poor facilities. There is still weak core funding, government interference and micro management. The case must be made for universities. Trinity is an extraordinary and special place and, like a machine if well oiled, will keep going on forever.

The evening concluded with Dr. Hilary Whyte, a contemporary of David's, thanking him on behalf of the Ontario Alumni.

Thanks are due to Bruce Buttimore and John Cary for taking care of the detailed arrangements with the National Club, and also to Bill McConnell for assisting with the organization and communicating with alumni. Also, special thanks to Katharine Payne and Ryan Kaden for taking care of the registrations on the night.