A forty year journey with science and research

Dr Mike Staines joins a rare breed when he retires this month from his position as Senior Scientist, Robinson Research Institute, two weeks short of a forty year career.

Two men in jumpsuits in Antarctica with penguins in foreground.
Bill Robinson (left), Mike Staines (right) in Antarctica.

Mike started his career with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1979. The way he narrates it, this was serendipitous by itself. “It’s an interesting story,” he says. “I was just finishing up my honours degree in physics at Vic and was all set to sign up for a postgraduate diploma in economics. I distinctly recall making my way through the Hunter building when I ran into Professor David Beaglehole of the Physics Department. He asked me whether I was interested in being a research assistant over the summer. The rest, well, is history.”

That marked the beginning of a forty year relationship with research for Mike. “Honestly, the summer project completely derailed my original idea of pursuing a diploma in economics. I went on to finish my PhD in physics at Vic and there were many postdoc opportunities while I was finishing up. But David (Beaglehole) was working with Dr Bill Robinson at the time who was heading up the material sciences section at DSIR. When Bill asked me whether I wanted to join the team, it was a no-brainer. That’s how I started off here in Gracefield, Lower Hutt in October 1979.”

Mike fondly recalls starting out with a small team, which evolved and grew with time. “Bill (Robinson) loomed large early in my career. Though he was busy building up the team here, he was also pursuing some very unique research - like testing lead rubber bearings for seismic protections, which he’s best known for.” Dr Robinson also initiated work on the properties of sea ice in Antarctica, which is of importance to the Southern Ocean ecosystem. Mike contributed to measurements of electrical conductivity of the ice.

“Bob Buckley was another person I looked up to, in the early times. There was a lot to admire about the way he attacked research problems and the breadth of science he took on, ranging from blue-sky thinking through to applied research” he adds.

Well-known as the inaugural winner of the Prime Minister’s Science Prize, Professor Bob Buckley recalls his experiences of working with Mike. “We spent a lot of time together in the early years – we did our physics honours together, our PhDs together, our families spent a lot of time together when our children were young and we even did industrial research together when we worked at DSIR. Over the years, I’ve been involved in a lot of projects with Mike – one of the earliest ones was when we were studying the electrical properties of sea ice. Mike is technically very strong and makes a real contribution to any team that he’s part of. And I’m sure that’s going to be missed” he says.

Bill tasked the materials team at DSIR with looking into the newly discovered High Temperature Superconductors, and subsequently the science and engineering of these materials became the dominant interest in Mike’s career. He spent two years as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, studying the optical properties of the materials. Mike was later part of the team that developed the superconductor Roebel cable; they were awarded the 2008 Royal Society Cooper Medal. The Roebel cable was a key component of a project building a world first 1 MVA superconducting transformer, which Mike led. The project was the first to demonstrate that superconductor transformers could be more energy efficient than conventional transformers.

In 2014, the team transferred to Victoria University of Wellington as the Robinson Research Institute. Mike has continued to work on the electromagnetic properties of superconductors, but has also led a programme in micro structured piezoceramics for application as ultrasonic transducers.

Surely such a long career must have been peppered with loads of learnings along the way. “They’re all probably negative ones,” Mike laughs. “I was a bit of a daydreamer then. I think it took me about five years of working here to realise that this was my career. It’s very different today – from the time students start their PhDs, they’re very focussed on accumulating publications and building their CVs. To be fair, the self-discovery in my life is only peripherally related to my career in science. I may have started with the grand idea that what I was going to do would change the world. But along the way, you realise that there are so many others who’ve done much more. Part of the coming to terms with the end of your career is having a realistic view about what it actually meant. On one level, it keeps you busy and brings in money. On another level, it’s just fun!”

Mike enjoys reading and watching movies—documentaries and film festivals in particular; he recalls spending most of his money on LP records when he was a student. Ask him what people typically don’t know about him, and Mike retorts “Most people don’t know anything about me, and I’m quite happy with that!” It takes a little digging to get him to mention that at one point, he could “happily spend six hours every day tinkling on the piano” – never mind that this was to avoid weeding the garden and other chores.

How does he feel, looking back on such a career? “Well, I guess I think I could’ve done more - published more papers, pushed a few more things to conclusion. But mostly I leave behind a very poorly documented system! There might be something to do about that after I leave. But you know, it’s like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt – the guy who retires after a long time and makes sure that his successor has all the tools he accumulated. He goes to the workplace after a few days because he’s at a loose end – and sees that all the stuff he left behind for the guy after him is sitting out there on the landing bay, waiting to be disposed. Fair enough, I guess.”

Dr Nick Strickland, Senior Scientist, Robinson Research Institute, admires Mike’s ability to quickly get to the core of any problem and analyse it from different perspective. “He can just walk into a lab and get things going.  I’ve always been impressed by his can-do attitude. But most of all, his sense of humour is really going to be missed around here.”

With plans to move up north, Mike and his wife look forward to warmer weather, beautiful beaches, more fishing and time with their three children and two grandchildren - and then there’s the border collie who’s already keeping Mike busy. “I think I’m pretty good at accepting things for what they are. Retirement is unknown territory right now, but I’m not worried about waking up that first morning and not having to go to work. I’ll probably be wandering around and thinking about that second cup of coffee.”