Alan Finkel was born on 17 January 1953. For most of his high school days he was convinced he wanted to study medicine.
It was really only on the day in school in Year 12 when we had to fill in the forms – and I was fairly confident I was going to get into what I wanted to do – that I started to think about what it really meant to have a career in medicine, which would be fascinating in many respects but I was worried, at that moment, that I wouldn't have the consistency of commitment, and the responsibility would be overwhelming, I'd be dealing with sick people, and all sorts of things. I started questioning myself and realised that I really loved physics and electronics, so then I started vacillating if I didn't do medicine maybe I would do science and perhaps engineering. It occurred to me there was probably career opportunity in engineering, and electrical engineering would give me what I wanted in maths and physics in any event, so I decided that I would do that.
The decision about which university to study at – the newer Monash University or the more established University of Melbourne – came down to which was the better institution. ‘At the time the gossip – and I think it was good gossip – was that electrical engineering, or engineering at Monash was the best one to choose.’ And so, Finkel chose Monash.
Finkel studied a Bachelor of Engineering specialising in electrical engineering before going on to do his PhD at Monash, maintaining his focus on electrical engineering. ‘In the course of my PhD I decided that I didn’t want to continue as a researcher for a very good reason; I wasn’t a particularly good researcher.’ When Steve Redman, Finkel’s PhD supervisor moved to the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, he asked Finkel to come with him. Finkel relocated to Canberra where he spent several years designing equipment for Redman’s experiments. ‘That I enjoyed absolutely thoroughly because Steve took the responsibility for making the experiments work, all I had to do was make sure he had equipment that gave him a fighting chance.’
While at ANU, Finkel fortuitously met a visiting researcher from the State University of New York. The researcher, Paul Davis, was immediately intrigued with the equipment Finkel had designed.
I explained to Paul what it does, and he was really quite fixated and as I finished he said ‘Wow! Could I get one of those?’ That sentence changed my life … I realised that other people liked what I had and maybe they would actually buy them, so I could see maybe I could have a career making things.
Indeed after hearing about the equipment and seeing what it could do, Davis asked Finkel if he could make some more. Paul Davis’s request changed Finkel’s career. In 1983 Finkel went to America with his soon-to-be wife who had been offered a postdoctoral position at the University of California. When they arrived, Finkel set up his own company. ‘That was in the beginning of the year, by September we shipped our first product, and it just grew from there.’
In 2004 his company, Axon, was acquired by the US firm Molecular Devices Corporation. In 2005 Finkel was appointed to the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering Clunies Ross Foundation Board of Governors, and in 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the Academy. Also in 2006 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for service to biomedical science, particularly through the design and manufacture of a range of electronic instruments, and to support for medical research and education. Finkel had little contact with Monash until after he sold his company in 2004.
Since selling Axon, Finkel has contributed significantly to the Australian scientific community, co-founding COSMOS and G magazines and establishing the Australian Course in Advanced Neuroscience. Then, in 2006 Finkel received a phone call that would bring him back in touch with Monash University. He reflects:
When I effectively retired, then starting in 2006, I had just the slightest contact [with Monash University], very little. I gave a couple of seminars from time to time, actually in physiology … So, very little until I got a phone call, ‘If you were asked if you wanted to be Chancellor, would you say yes or no?’
Today, in 2011 Alan Finkel is Chancellor at Monash University and Chief Technology Officer of Better Place Australia, the leading provider of electric vehicle infrastructure.
I look back at [my time at Monash University] as an incredible learning experience. … the lecturers were at worst good, at best they were excellent. Very focused on disciplinary teaching, we learned a lot, so I was extremely well prepared. Even though 95% of what I learned wasn’t ever directly applicable to what I was doing, it gave me a framework, and that meant that I could pick up from books from other people for my own investigation everything that I needed, so it was excellent preparation.