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Dr. Tom Shannon – Honorary Doctorate of Engineering Ceremony

Dr. Tom Shannon – Honorary Doctorate of Engineering Ceremony – Curtin University, Perth Western Australia

7th February 2020

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Council Members, Senior Executives, Distinguished Guests, Ladies, Gentlemen and Graduates.

I pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Whadjuk Noongar people, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I am hugely grateful to our fine University in honouring me with this wonderful award and to be given the opportunity to speak to you all today as an alumnus. Conscious that I am between you and some serious partying, I hope to follow Will Shakespeare’s wise words that “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  I have been asked over the years to give speeches to new graduates that  have always been in the Northern Hemisphere, so as soon as I open my gob and they hear my twang, I have had to say “you can already guess that I am not from around here, ” but not this time as I am a kid from Dianella !

My Wife, Cindy, knows me only too well by giving me a very readable book on genetics for a good holiday read. It was a book titled “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived” by Dr Adam Rutherford who weaves a compelling tale about our own history as it is does for the 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath. He elegantly describes the science that identified the around 20,000 genes spread across 23 pairs of chromosomes and comprising of 3 billion letters of genetic code containing the instructions that make each of us unique. We are all truly amazing, each born with our own innate talents.

I was recently looking at some old school reports and the yellowing pages gave me a stark reminder that I was not the most academically gifted of students to a degree that my high school guidance officer once recommended that I was much too dim to ever contemplate a tertiary education. I did know that I could understand how machines worked and strangely was reasonably good at calculus, possibly because the equations described to me motion, which I could readily imagine. But, more importantly like everyone here, I could dream, I could aspire and I could apply stubbornness, tenacity and grit to achieve my career goals even in the face of perceived wisdom to the contrary.  Fortunately, this beloved alma mater saw fit to accept me as a student and I arrived in my personal heaven, the engineering lab in the basement of the old Perth Technical School building on St George Terrace and later here.

Having to stand before you today has caused me to re-visit the question of what talent I might actually have to bring me to this place. Within the worlds of the measurement of human locomotion and shape to aid in the understanding of the aetiology of presenting abnormalities, I have had the privilege to ride on the shoulders of giants of science, engineering and medicine who came before me and to continue my ride with amazing colleagues across the world to this day. I think my actual contribution has been to keep hanging on long enough to add to the bodies of knowledge, to help build a collegiate environment and define expectations where innovative minds  could flourish, and of course to not yet to have fallen off!

Thinking about this also reminded me of a seminal moment in my career that I would like to share with you when I was working as a biomedical engineer in a Hospital here in Perth. Have you ever wondered why your heart goes ba-doomp, ba-doomp, it is all due to a most amazing electrical conduction system with inbuilt delays that control the correct timing of the contraction of the upper and the lower chambers to facilitate optimum pumping efficiency. Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome is a disorder with the heart which can be best described as short circuits in the conduction system described clinically as accessory pathways. Symptoms can include:  dizziness and fainting, palpitations, poor endurance and tiring easily during exercise. Periods of increased heart rate can begin rapidly and last for less than a minute, or they can persist for a number of hours. In more severe cases, patients can experience: tightness in the chest, breathing problems, chest pain or sudden death.

In late 1982, Duke University in the United States published an exciting paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. They reported results where they successfully treated patients where pharmacological agents were ineffective or poorly tolerated; pacemakers failed to control the symptoms and surgery was not an option, by delivery of the full energy of a defibrillator directly into the heart via a tiny catheter placed next to the ventricle septum to ablate or destroy the accessory pathways.  Soon after, I was co-opted onto a cardiology team to try and workout how to get the very scary energy pulse (which your physics teacher would have told you was volts x current x time) to safely emerge from the tip of the catheter inside a patient’s heart and to then design a device to do it!

After months of research, a good number of spectacular lab failures and loads of further experimentation, the day finally arrived when the procedure was to be applied to hopefully treat a very brave lady with sadly no other treatment options open to her then. The time seemed to stand still after the Cardiologist shouted “clear” and I still believe I saw a corona emerge from the tip of the catheter on the X-Ray screen, although it might have been in my imagination, and it all happening in a fraction of a second.

The procedure was a complete success giving the patient a much improved quality of life. Variations of the procedure are now very commonly used across the world today.  It was at that moment that I thought to myself :- You are now an engineer  that I believe has led directly to me being together with you in this place today.

I continue to be obsessively passionate about our University, what it stands for what it has achieved and what I know it will achieve in the coming years. To receive an honour such as this from my peers is indeed cream on the cake for the simple geek you see before you.

I leave you with the words of the great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca who wisely advised: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

So Many Thanks.

Dr. Tom Shannon, PhD