The coffee shop was cosy, inviting and after exchanging pleasantries and ordering our drinks I chanced a question that had been troubling me. “If a car travels at the speed of light and the driver switches-on the headlights,” I asked, “what happens?” My coffee companion considered the question, stared through the window into the distance then turned back to me. “I’ll think about that,” he said.
Professor Tim Roberts, the driving force behind what quickly became one of Australia’s biggest alternative vehicle expositions, the Hunter Valley Electric Vehicle Festival (HVEVF), likes a curly question and enjoys a challenge. Truth be told, ‘Professor Tim’ as he is widely known, has enjoyed challenges for almost every one of his 75 years and the first real one he remembers came from no less a person than his mother. “Mum said I had to go to university (and) not be a farm labourer like my father.” Tim was born in Adelaide in 1945. His father was a temporary farm manager, moving from town to town to look after rural properties for absent owners. The job guaranteed the Roberts children grew-up knowing South Australia, having spent their time living in most of it. “Dad worked from farm to farm so we moved around a lot.
I remember I never seemed to have the right school uniform!” Finishing high school in 1962 and entered Adelaide University a year later at the ripe old age of 18, Tim set his sights on a teaching career. That faltered when he fell in love with biology and microbiology and went totally west when he discovered the then-new field of immunology. Studying for an immunology PhD aimed at developing a contraceptive vaccine, Tim switched to Adelaide’s Flinders University in 1968, staying there until 1971 when he took-up a full-time research post at Belgium’s University of Louvain, where he studied protein chemistry.
“I’ve always been interested in a thousand things so it was so exciting to play around in this field that nobody really knew anything about. We followed our noses, did our experiments. I learned to collect semen from possums, pigs and chickens,” he laughed. Tim even knows the amount of semen a boar ejaculates and how long it takes to do so. (Spoiler alert: ‘lots’ and ‘slowly’.) He remembers to this day the beautiful girl who taught him how to collect pig semen (her memorable good looks possibly served as a worthy distraction from the umm ……. task in hand) and he also knows – and can explain in great detail – the best method of extracting blood samples from fish without dispatching the donors.
Wiser and more worldly, he returned to Australia after a short stint in the UK and in early 1974 accepted a position at the University of Newcastle (“one of the new universities”), working in the Biology department. Such was the lure of the Hunter Valley that the man who had spent much of his life as a rolling stone actually started gathering moss. “Newcastle turned-out to be the most wonderful place to be,” he said of the city that has held onto him for almost his entire adult life.
His research work meant travelling extensively throughout Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, along the way meeting “some wonderful people who were doing science”, people with whom he still maintains contact. His curiosity over the years led him to publish more than 100 scientific papers on a wide range of subjects and even now his research work from decades ago is being put to use in his own business venture. In 2006 he was appointed inaugural Dean of University of Newcastle’s Singapore campus and chief executive of UoN Singapore Pty Ltd, the company established to run the campus. He retired from those positions in 2008 and returned to Newcastle, later accepting an invitation from James Cook University to become Dean of Research at its Singapore campus, working by ‘remote control’ from Newcastle and travelling to Singapore only when necessary. In 2010 Tim was appointed director of the University of Newcastle’s Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment (TFI) and his plan was a simple one: to plot a course that would help reinvigorate Newcastle and the Greater Hunter Valley once its thriving coal industry was gone. At the time of his appointment Tim told The Newcastle Herald newspaper: “My dreams are to enable those things in the community that are sustainable.
I want to have a sustainable environment; I want to have jobs for our grandchildren.” Tom Farrell Institute was initially established to both help the environment and create a sustainable future for everyone and everything but Tim took it up a notch. “We got involved in mine rehabilitation and ended-up running – for nine years – an annual conference dealing with it,” he recalled. The Hunter Valley Electric Vehicle Festival emerged from a brainstorming meeting at TFI. Formulated as a “multi-purpose exercise” in 2010, it became reality in 2011. It was devised as a multi-layered event, an expo to showcase mobility after the likely demise of internal combustion-engined vehicles while charting a way forward for Australia as a manufacturer of sustainable electric vehicles. Tim also wanted the festival to encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning, helping develop the youngsters who will one day be our engineers, scientists, designers, technical developers and program managers. The festival also had to showcase current EV technology, from hybrid cars all the way through to full electrics and, finally, it had to serve as an academic think tank. But the kids mattered most. “We thought that to have a competition of some sort would be good,” Tim recalled. “And it just got bigger and bigger.” He came up with the idea of tying the festival to National Science Week and getting schools involved at an individual level with races for cheap, scale-model electric cars built by students. Older students were encouraged to form teams to design, engineer, build and race electrically-powered bicycles, the races held at a go-kart track not far from the University of Newcastle’s Callaghan campus, the same track, coincidentally, at which the festival itself was held. Oddly, it was Tim’s exasperation that fuelled the festival’s later success, his belief in our future sustainability eroded as Australia’s manufacturing industries fell away. “I became angry and very frustrated that the Australian car industry died in 2016 and ’17. We had people building fridges and washing machines here, electric motors, all those sorts of things and we’ve lost all of that. “I just cannot believe that governments simply let that happen.” By his own admission Tim has rarely taken a day off and it has been suggested by his colleagues and students that he believes sleep wastes good working time. “That’s sort of true,” he admits. “I don’t sleep much because I’ve found I don’t need much. My brain works best early so I’m normally up at about 4am to go for a walk. “Walking has been shown to be one of the most powerful medicines available and if I start at five my son can come with me before he starts work.” They start in darkness and are often rewarded with sunrise over the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes the walk is shrouded in fog and other times it is just plain wet but, winter or summer, rain or shine, the immediate effect of the exercise is felt in the heart, legs and lungs. Tim and his wife, Dr Cheng Smart, live in a comfortable inner-city apartment in the heart of Newcastle’s East End. His office is next door, in the heritage-listed T&G Building that has been part of the Newcastle cityscape since 1923. Professor Tim is no stranger to physical exertion, evidenced by a distinct lack of body fat on his tall, thin frame. “I’ve always liked sport, particularly tennis. I always wanted to win Wimbledon,” he laughed. “When we were kids my brother and I cleared-off a tennis court on a farm my dad managed and we played tennis non-stop.” Australian Rules Football also beckoned. “I played competitively at Newcastle Uni and we got through to the grand final in (my) first year. I played centre. I recall I was decked before the whistle even blew though and missed the match!” He celebrated his 70th birthday in 2015 by competing in – and completing – Sydney’s tortuous City to Surf run, a 14 kilometre event incorporating the aptly named, two kilometre-long, ‘Heartbreak Hill’ some six kilometres into the event. “In Singapore I took up golf. I was so busy up there I just had lessons but since then I’ve played all over Southeast Asia.” For a long while now Tim has taken a weekly annual holiday somewhere in Southeast Asia and always takes his golf clubs with him. This year has been different though, COVID-19 keeping him and his clubs locked tightly in Australia. In 2018 he was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus by the University of Newcastle, recognised for his outstanding academic achievements and service to the university. The conferral noted his teaching and research achievements in the areas of immunology and the study of chronic disease as well as his leadership both as the inaugural Dean of the Singapore campus and Director of the Tom Farrell Institute. At 75 Professor Tim is not slacking off. He might have retired from the hallowed halls of academia but is working harder than ever. He has an office, maintains a strong work regimen and, he says, is still learning. For the last 30 years he and long-time friend and colleague Hugh Dunstan have been studying chronic fatigue syndrome and other debilitating conditions. They have a new biotech business, InnovAAte, and have patented and started manufacturing and selling amino acid products that can markedly assist with fatigue, energy, concentration and exercise recovery. He is also learning the intricacies of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn which, he opines, is much harder than doing experiments. When he does relax with a glass of wine his main lament is he can never find the time to start on all those books he’s been wanting to read. Not one to do things conventionally, Tim and a close circle of friends beat the COVID-19 lockdown earlier this year by replacing their weekly snooker competition at a favourite pub with an online version.
Using Zoom and a miniature billiard table, they played-on by nominating one of the group members – the table’s owner – to take their nominated shot as directed via camera from the safety of their lounges, dens, studies and offices. Where there’s a will . . . . . . . . . . And that driver who switches-on his headlights while his car is travelling at the speed of light? “That’s physics,” came Tim’s grinning reply. “And those bloody physics blokes are crazy.”