The man who “never really had a career plan” — and is off to Australia to become a vice-chancellor

Duncan Maskell loves variety and thrives under pressure. His dual talents for science and organisation led to his appointment as head of Cambridge’s planning and resources. In October this year he will become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

Duncan Maskell at Cambridge University

I’m fascinated by complexity and I enjoy a challenge. Cambridge is a great place that’s done an awful lot for me. I see my role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor as having had the chance to make a major contribution to its future.

Change has to happen. Cambridge is always changing and we need to adapt to embrace new opportunities. The pace of change here can sometimes be frustratingly slow — but it’s right that there should be checks and balances in the system.

There’s no doubt that music changed my life. From primary school where I started on the recorder, I took all the musical opportunities open to me. I learned the clarinet and later the saxophone. My mum was musical and played piano to grade 8.

When I was 11, I sang a solo part at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. It was a concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of the composer Benjamin Britten. I was incredibly nervous but managed to cut out all the distractions and perform.

Nothing else has ever seemed as daunting. This one experience enabled me never again to be nervous in any situation resembling a performance, including giving speeches and talks at conferences.

Within days of arriving at Cambridge I’d joined a jazz band. We were called the Eight Hot Keys. After taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival one year, we also founded the 78RPM Big Band, which still survives. Apart from the odd tootle at home, I’ve stopped playing now — no time to practise.

I’d loved to have been in one of the Big Bands touring the USA in their heyday. But my real secret alternative career would have been to play in a Two Tone ska band, especially The Specials or The Beat.

I’m a great believer in the state education system. Young people should learn together. I went to Queen Elizabeth’s Boys School in Barnet. Today it’s gone back to being a selective state grammar school but when I went there it was a real comprehensive school with lots of good teachers and a truly mixed intake.

There was an expectation that if you were bright and worked hard, you should aim high. I applied to Cambridge and clearly remember my interview at Gonville & Caius College. My dad told me never to assume that the person the other side of the desk was any better or worse than you because of some notion of status.

I read Natural Sciences. I stayed on to take a PhD in the Department of Pathology, where there was a fantastic atmosphere. We’d all go to the pub after work, students and lecturers together, and the conversation would be a blend of politics, social stuff and science.

My PhD research looked at resistance and immunity to Salmonella — with a view to working on vaccines for typhoid fever. My supervisor was Carlos Hormaeche. He and his wife Raquel had to leave Uruguay when the military junta took over. Carlos, Raquel and I became great friends. Visiting Montevideo with them was a great thrill and a major education in the nasty politics of South America in the 1970s.

I continued to study bacteria concentrating on those that affect humans. I first worked at Wellcome Biotech, then at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford and later at Imperial College, London. Returning to Cambridge, I was made the first Marks & Spencer Professor of Farm Animal Health, Food Science and Food Safety.

Bacteria are endlessly fascinating. People tend to anthropomorphise them and think they have a mission to harm and kill humans. But they’re simply adapting to new environments. They can evolve overnight and they and their viruses are almost certainly the world’s most diverse group of organisms.

My research looks at the entire chain of food production. There’s lots of misinformation and we need to gather rigorous data and communicate clear factual messages to the public. For example, people still talk about growth-promoting antibiotics being used in farming, but they haven’t been used in animal feed in the EU since 2006.

Animals are treated with antibiotics when they’re ill. Quite rightly, there’s a discussion about the use of prophylactics to prevent infections from spreading. But we need to base policies and regulations on proper data not on tendentious arguments unsupported by rigorous science

From 2004 to 2013 I was Head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine. This was despite the fact that I’m not a veterinary surgeon. All vet schools face a big challenge: how to educate students in a demanding ‘hands-on’ clinical degree course, while staff undertake top-class research.

I have little spare time but I love reading. Just now, I’m reading In Parenthesis by David Jones, a unique book dealing with the First World War. I also recently much enjoyed Julian Barnes’ novel The Noise of Time which is based on episodes in the life of one my favourite composers, Shostakovich.

Some books stay with you. My list of favourites includes Naguib Mahfouz’s Wedding Song and his Cairo trilogy, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, as well as Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. I occasionally revisit Dickens’ Great Expectations which we did for O-level.

Perhaps my favourite is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. On my first attempt to read it, I was in the wrong frame of mind and gave up, but I’ve subsequently read it several times and I massively enjoy the inventiveness, wry humour, and frankly insane fun in this great work.

People are often surprised that I’ve never really had a career plan. In October I will officially become become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. The opportunity came as a surprise and it will be a great adventure, leading an excellent university in a wonderful city, though a great wrench to be leaving Cambridge after all these years.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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