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Words & Ideas: Sex, Science & Singing

Robyn Williams & Jenny Graves

Evolutionary geneticist and singer Professor Jenny Graves will be interviewed by ABC Science Show personality Robyn Williams on her career sorting out the genes and chromosomes that determine sex, and her recent conception, writing and performing of a new oratorio that tells the creation story from science. Together they will explore the journey from discovering the gene that makes you male and predicting the extinction of the human Y chromosome, to writing Origins – of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity, and the feelings that lead to a compulsion to “express beautiful science in beautiful music”.

Science journalist and broadcaster Robyn Williams has hosted The Science Show on ABC Radio National (RN) since 1975.

Although he graduated with a Bachelor of Science (honours) in England, Robyn admits to spending as much time acting as studying. Early in his career he made guest appearances in The GoodiesMonty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who, and stood in for Tom Jones for four months in his TV series.

He has conducted countless interviews with scientists on ABC TV on programs such as Quantum and Catalyst, narrated the Nature of Australia series and appeared in World Safari with David Attenborough.

Robyn has served in various capacities, including president of the Australian Museum Trust, chairman of the Commission for the Future, and president of the Australian Science Communicators. In 1987, he was proclaimed a National Living Treasure.

In 1993, Robyn was the first journalist elected as a Fellow Member of the Australian Academy of Science. He was appointed AM in the 1988 Australian Bicentenary Honours list and in the same year received honorary doctorates in science from the University of Sydney and Macquarie and Deakin Universities. The ANU awarded him a doctorate of law, and he is a visiting professor at the University of NSW and an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland.

A Reuters fellowship at Oxford University allowed him time to write his autobiography, And Now for Something Completely Different. He was a visiting fellow at Balliol College Oxford in 1995-96.

Robyn has written more than 10 books, the latest being a novel, 2007: a true story waiting to happen.

Professor Jenny Graves AC (Marshall, ’58), studied at PGC between 1954 and 1958 and has become one of Australia’s most prolific scientific figures.

After completing her Bachelor and Master degrees at the University of Adelaide, a Fullbright Travel Grant took Jenny to the University of California Berkeley, where she would complete a PhD in molecular biology. Joining La Trobe University in 1971, Jenny established a group working on the genes and chromosomes of Australian animals, which has delivered major new theories about animal sex and sex chromosomes. Moving to Australian National University in 2001, Jenny founded the Comparative Genomics department, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Kangaroo Genomics. Returning to La Trobe in 2011 as Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, Jenny is also a Professor Emeritus at ANU, Thinker-in-Residence at Canberra University and Professional Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Jenny has produced more than 400 research articles and several books. She has received many honours and awards including the MacFarlane Burnet medal in 2006, an AO in 2010 and AC in 2022, as well at the 2006 L’Oreal-UNESCO Prize for women in science and the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. She was elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1999, and served on the Executive for eight years as Foreign Secretary, then Secretary for Education. She was recently elected to the US National Academy of Science.

Jenny combines her love of science with a love of music. She is a choral singer and sometimes a songwriter, and wrote the libretto for a major choral work called “Origins” that showcases the beauty of scientific understanding of the Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, and of Man.

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