Header image with fluorescence microscopy image showing cells with supernumerary centrosomes

Geoffrey A. Charters MSc (Hons) PhD (Pathology)

Molecular oncopathologist


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Auckland - 1978

Early life and education had established that Geoffrey had an aptitude for sciences, and upon completion of his secondary education he enrolled in a Bachelor of Science course at The University of Auckland. His particular strengths lay in mathematics and biology, and he was keen to pursue an interest in genetics. He selected a paper in Algebra, and with an interest in computers, two introductory papers in that subject. At that time, the genetics being taught at undergraduate level was essentially of the classical type, and a single paper, Fungal Genetics, was offered at Stage II level. Entry to this required the prior completion of a foundation paper in Botany, which itself had as corequisite a General Biology paper. The BSc course structure required a component of either chemistry or physics, and of these he elected to take two chemistry papers. Those seven papers constituted his first year of study, and all were satisfactorily completed.

There were a number of surprising consequences of this selection. First, he demonstrated a very strong aptitude in his computer studies papers, finding the content easily assimilable, and satisfying in its precision. Botany, taken only as a matter of necessity, opened his eyes to the order imposed by taxonomy, and the remarkable contrasts of diversity and uniformity that exist in nature. He developed a keen interest in the New Zealand native flora, particularly the rare, unusual, and overlooked, and most especially, the small number of native orchid species. He found organic chemistry to be a fascinating subject, in which, as with biology, the use of a systematic nomenclature offered a firm foundation on which to build his knowledge. This was in contrast to inorganic chemistry, which he thought to be less unified and more empirical.

Stage II

His selection of papers for Stage II was made accordingly: all of the computer studies papers on offer, organic chemistry, biochemistry, and botany. Notably, and disappointingly absent was the Fungal Genetics paper he had wished to take as this was not offered that year.

There was a degree of bureaucratic humour resulting from this however. The Fungal Genetics paper had had as corequisite a Stage I Zoology paper, but the Botany paper superseding it had the Zoology as a prerequisite, thus Geoffrey did not formally have the necessary credits to take the Botany. A dispensation was given however, and he was allowed to enrol in the Botany as long as he also took the Zoology. The humour was that the Botany paper was taught and examined in the first half of the year, and he passed it, but the Zoology paper was taught in the second half, and he came as close to failing it as was possible, achieving only a "Restricted D" grade. Moreover, such a grade, while it gave credit towards his degree, precluded its use as a prerequisite for any paper, including the Botany he had already taken and passed!

Geoffrey had no aptitude for Zoology, and given a timetable clash with computer studies, often missed lectures. His chief memories are the amazing chalk drawings executed in class by Prof. John Morton, and the formidable personality of his laboratory instructor, Catherine Tizard, later to be Mayor of Auckland, and eventually Governor-General of New Zealand.

As he had the previous year, he excelled in his computing papers. Under the guidance of Dr Paul Lyons, he learned several high-level programming languages and discovered the power of the structured languages, such as Pascal and Algol, the recursive joys and pitfalls, and the bizarre but powerful intermixing of data and instructions offered by LISP, the aging workhorse of technical programming, Fortran, and the horrifically inelegant nature of the beast that gripped the commercial programming world, COBOL.

Stage III

Zoology aside, Geoffrey had enjoyed his second year subjects, but could not pursue them all. Organic chemistry had been a very hard, but very satisfying study, but it could be laid aside in favour of continued study of biochemistry. Botany, though interesting, had never been a priority, having been taken as a gateway to the study of genetics. However, by this time the Department of Cell Biology was teaching Molecular Genetics at Stage III level, with a corequisite companion paper. In addition, there was still the further study of computing to be considered. The choice of degree major therefore appeared to be among Computer Science, Biochemistry, and Cell Biology. Characteristically, Geoffrey elected to pursue all three, enrolling in seven papers and thus attempting a rare triple major degree.

He again excelled in his computing, finding great satisfaction in the studies of computer architecture under Dr Richard Lobb, Advanced Data Structures under Dr Nevil Brownlee, and in a Special Topics paper that among other things, contained a delightful foray into the history of computing guided by Gary Tee. In Cell Biology, he had the privilege of being taught by Prof. Ray Ralph, Prof. Peter Bergquist, the late Prof. Stan Bullivant, and also Dr Graeme Finlay, a person to figure prominently in Geoffrey's later studies. In Biochemistry, the dry wit of the late Dr Roy Geddes, who commenced his first lecture by writing "Πρωτεϊ'νη" on the blackboard, did much to ease the study of a complex and difficult subject.

Ultimately, Geoffrey passed six of these papers, failing one of the two in biochemistry, a failure that he attributed to the pressure of a triple work-load. Nevertheless it was a creditable result, and Geoffrey qualified to graduate with his BSc, albeit only a double major.