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Steve’s legacy continues beyond ChemCentre retirement

Steve’s legacy continues beyond ChemCentre retirement

Date Published: 30-Jan-17

ChemCentre has farewelled a significant contributor to its history with the retirement of Dr Steve Wilkinson in January.

Steve was most recently Manager of the Emergency Response team at ChemCentre and retired after 23 years, leaving a chemistry legacy that has ongoing international implications, especially in the area of managing the threat of chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) weapons.
His career exemplifies the dedication, talent and reward of a true public servant, having worked in the health sector after graduation at the UWA Medical School and King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEMH) for almost 20 years, before joining ChemCentre in 1994.
The basis of his career was a BSc with a double major in organic and inorganic chemistry at The University of Western Australia (UWA), followed by First Class Honours in organic chemistry. This led to a PhD (also at UWA) in organic chemistry, with a thesis on synthetic organic chemistry which he felt provided a good background for his position at ChemCentre. In the photo above, Steve is front and centre (in the white pants) with his UWA colleagues.
After graduation he worked at the UWA Medical School doing clinical chemistry research with a heavy emphasis on mass spectrometry.
“I was fortunate during that time to work with a multidisciplinary team including biochemists, endocrinologist and a sprinkling of obstetricians, gynaecologists and neonatal medical personnel.  I worked at KEMHl for almost 20 years and in that time was able to publish many papers in the area of breast cancer and heritable disorders of amino acid and steroid metabolism. I also felt that this time was great preparation for my later career at ChemCentre, having given me a solid background in the health sector,” Steve said.
Within six months of joining ChemCentre, Steve was managing the Environmental and Occupational Health Section which included all of the health chemistry, organic environmental and pesticide work. A position as Science Business Manager of Emergency Response and Occupational Health followed, at a time when the counter-terrorism effort was kicking off after 9/11.
“We were fortunate to obtain a number of research grants in the area thanks in part to Prime Minister Howard’s interest in ‘Keeping Australia Safe’.  From that time onwards my work life was balanced between earning fee-for-service dollars and providing scientific advice to Environment, Health, Police and Fire in the hazardous materials (hazmat)/CBR area. Soon after an internal review, we split the commercial and hazmat/CBR areas and I was fortunate to end up with hazmat/CBR.”
Steve’s involvement with the funded R&D saw ChemCentre begin to operate both nationally and internationally, with a number of projects putting it on the national and international stage. In particular, the work involving shelter in place or evacuate saw a ChemCentre team travel all over Australia measuring air exchange in typical Australian dwellings. The result of this work changed the way authorities look at shelter in place, because we now know that Australian homes are more leaky than their counterparts in the US, which is where the data previously used to make the shelter/evacuate decision originated.
As a result of this project and others where Steve and ChemCentre teams looked at using tracer materials to map the movement of toxic gases and particulates in infrastructure such as underground transport systems, Steve was invited to travel with a group from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to Washington to meet with the newly formed US Department of Homeland Security.
“The department had shown an interest in conducting tracer trials in subways, and after presenting our work to the group from the US, I was invited by the Head of Science and Technology at DHS to meet with their program manager in this area. The result of that meeting was an invitation to lead an Australian team to participate in the Boston Subway trials. The rest, as they say, is history and we ended up completing collaborative work with both US and UK researchers in Boston, Perth, Melbourne and London.”
In addition, Steve was fortunate to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to deliver lectures and assist in directing regional training courses in South East Asia with the US State Department (Manila), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, and Responsible Care in Surabaya. DFAT also sent Steve to Idaho Falls along with a Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner to be Australian Observers for a major CBR exercise.  Steve’s expertise doesn’t stop there, however. He has also been a member of Australia’s National Training Advisory group in CBR operations, and worked with the Attorney General’s Department and colleagues from all Australian jurisdictions delivering courses in Perth and Melbourne.
Following a meeting in Stockholm as Australia’s delegate from the Chemical Warfare Agent Laboratory Network (CWALN), Steve returned to take up the position of CWALN Chair, a title held until last December when he announced his retirement.  The CWALN has been a particular passion for Steve, and there were two tasks he set himself before being happy to retire.
“The first task I wanted to achieve was securing a future for the CWALN after the initial funding through the Attorney General and Australian Federal Police ceased.  Following a critical meeting in Melbourne with the Australian Defence Laboratories, everything fell into place and the CWALN now has a funded home within the National Institute of Forensic Science.”
The other task Steve set himself was to work with the New Zealand Government to allow the NZ CWALN laboratory to receive and hold reference standards of chemical agents so they could validate their laboratory methods. 
“Soon after NZ became a full member of CWALN, an Executive meeting was held in Wellington and a group from NIFS, AFP, Defence and I met with the NZ CWALN lab, the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet to thrash out the issues precluding NZ allowing chemical weapons on their soil. The main discussion centred on highlighting New Zealand’s responsibilities as a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the responsibility they had to other member states to provide assistance if required, including the ability to analyse for residues of chemical agents. As a result of our discussions, the New Zealand laboratory is now permitted to receive reference standards from the CWALN, and I’m particularly proud of being part of this outcome.”
As he walks away from these considerable career achievements, Steve is content.
“All of this – the R&D, international projects and collaborations leading to enhanced public safety – would not have been possible without the support of my managers and the commitment and collegiality of my colleagues, and I would like to sincerely thank them for being part of a very interesting journey.”
On behalf of ChemCentre, our thanks to Steve for his service, and best wishes as he begins the next stage of his journey in retirement.

Steve at his retirement morning tea with former colleague Erin James (now at Department of Mines and Petroleum) who travelled with Steve for the Boston Subway trials mentioned above.


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