Peter Rathjen

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Peter David Rathjen (born 12 February 1964 in Cambridge, England) is an Australian scientist and medical researcher internationally recognised in stem cell science. In May 2017 it was announced that he will take up the position of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Adelaide as of January 8th, 2018.[1] During his period at the University of Tasmania, he has led a range of projects to position the University as a driver of socio-economic prosperity in Tasmania, including the creation of University precincts and facilities within the CBDs of Hobart, Launceston and Burnie.

His research specialty is embryonic development and particularly the development of stem cell therapies for replacement heart muscle, blood and nerve cells.


Born in the United Kingdom, his father Anthony John Rathjen had previously won a PhD scholarship to Cambridge University. They moved to South Australia in 1965 when he was a child and he was educated at Blackwood High School in Adelaide. He studied Science at the University of Adelaide, majoring in biochemistry and genetics, and completing an honours degree. While at Adelaide, he was awarded the R A Fisher Prize for Genetics and the Morton Prize for Biochemistry, both in 1983. He also reached international standard at orienteering and was the reserve for the Australian team at the 1985 World Orienteering Championships.

He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to New College, Oxford in 1985 where he continued research into certain plant pathogens called viroids and their association with RNA behaviour. He was awarded a DPhil in 1987, and then worked as a postdoctoral researcher on embryonic stem cells from 1988 to 1990.

Rathjen returned to South Australia and the University of Adelaide, where he worked as Lecturer in Biochemistry from 1990 to 1995 and Professor in Biochemistry from 1995 to 2006. He was appointed to the Chair of Biochemistry in 1995. He became Head of the Department of Molecular Biosciences in 2000, and became Foundation Executive Dean of the Faculty of Sciences in 2002, a role he kept until 2005.

He was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in 2006; in 2008, he became Dean of the Graduate School of Science, and from 2008 to 2011 he served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research). He oversaw the foundation of nine interdisciplinary research institutes aimed at creating research synergies and funding in key areas, from broadband technology to sustainability and energy systems. He was also involved in Melbourne's controversial program of 'focussed excellence', that shed some staff positions in order to reduce a growing debt.

In April 2011 he took up the role of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania. Already known for strong support for academic excellence in the sciences, he immediately became embroiled in controversial remarks about the failures of Tasmania's school system.[2] Rathjen also believes many university students cannot afford a standard bachelor's degree, and briefer and cheaper alternatives should be explored for them, relieving pressures on the standard university system.[3] During his vice-chancellorship, he has re-positioned the University as a driver of socio-economic prosperity in Tasmania, including the move of campuses into CBD districts and the launch of new associate degree programs.[4][5]

In 2017, it was announced that Rathjen will return to the University of Adelaide as Vice-Chancellor in 2018.[1]

Rathjen has been a Board Member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health since 2008. He has previously been a board and committee member of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, BresaGen, the Churchill Fellowship Trust and the Rhodes Scholarship Committee.


Rathjen's DPhil work formed the foundations of gene shear technology which was commercialised by CSIRO. Further research involved the molecular genetics of yeast and the mechanism by which certain genes 'jumped out' of the DNA and reinserted themselves into other parts of the chromosome. In his final DPhil year he worked on the same mechanism in mammalian DNA.

At Adelaide, Rathjen headed a research group looking at embryonic stem cells and protein signals which determine the final type of cells to be formed. This led to examination of commercial and therapeutic opportunities of the science.[6]

Board and Patron Positions[edit]

Current positions:

  • Universities Australia Non-Executive Board Member, the lead Vice-Chancellor Academic, (2017 – )
  • Australian Science Media Centre Board (2007 – 2011 and 2017 – )
  • University of Tasmania Foundation Director, (2011 – )
  • LH Martin Institute Council, (2013 – ),
  • Australian Institute for Policy and Science Board, (2009 – )
  • Oxford-Australia Scholarships Committee, (2007 – )
  • Australian Institute of Policy and Science: Patron of the Tall Poppies Campaign, (2005 – )
  • Tasmania University Cricket Club Patron (2016 – )

Previous board and committee positions:

  • Florey Neurosciences Institute Board
  • Florey Prize for Medical Research Committee
  • International Education Association of Australia Board, (2012–2015)
  • The Victorian Institute for Chemical Sciences Limited
  • The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Board
  • Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium of South Australia (2003–2006); Finance committee (2004–2006): Gardens 150 Program to renew infrastructure
  • Botany Foundation, University of Melbourne (2006–2008)
  • Victorian College of Optometry Board ( 2006–2008)
  • Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne (2006–2008)
  • In2Science (2006–2008)
  • Patron of the Science Teachers’ Association of Victoria
  • Meat and Livestock Association Advisory Board
  • External Member, Hanson Centre for Cancer Research

Scientific Advisory Committees:

  • Chairman, Bresatec/BresaGen International Scientific Advisory Board (1992–1999)


  • Recipient, Research Leadership Award, Premier of South Australia's Science Excellence Awards, 2005
  • AIPS Tall Poppy Award, 2000
  • Business/Higher Education Round Table (B-HERT) Award for Collaborative Research
  • Founding Member of the Australian Centre of Excellence for Biotechnology


Scholarly book chapters:

  • Chalmers, D., Rathjen, P., Rathjen, J. and Nicol, D. (In press; 5 January 2017). Ethics and Governance of Stem Cell Banks. Crook, J. M. and Ludwig, T. (eds.), Stem Cell Banking: Concepts and Protocols, Methods in Molecular Biology, vol. 1590, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4939-6921-0_7, (Springer Science+Business Media LLC 2017)
  • Rathjen J. and Rathjen, PD. (2012). ES cells. Maloy, S. and Hughes, K. (eds) Brenner’s Online Encyclopedia of Genetics.
  • Rathjen, J. and Rathjen, P. D. (2004). Embryonic stem cells; isolation and application of pluripotent cells from the pre-gastrulation mammalian embryo. Sell. S. (ed) Stem Cell Handbook, Humana Press, Totowa, New Jersey, 33–44.
  • Morris, M., Rathjen, J., Keough, R. and Rathjen, P. D. (2003). Mouse embryonic stem cells. Odorico, J. (ed). Human Embryonic Stem cells. BIOS Scientific Publishers, Oxon UK, 1–15.
  • Keough, R., Rathjen, J. and Rathjen, P.D. (2003). Properties and therapeutic potential of stem cells. Kenneally, J. and Jones, M (eds). Aust. Anaesthesia. Ed., 201–212.


  1. ^ a b Clark, Nick (30 May 2017). "University of Tasmania vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen takes post at University of Adelaide". The Mercury. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  2. ^ Smith, Linda (2 May 2011). "Anger at uni boss's criticism". The Mercury. Archived from the original on 5 October 2012. Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  3. ^ Mass university sector is unsustainable. The Australian, May 4, 2011. (17 February 2012). Retrieved on 2012-04-30.
  4. ^ Hare, Julie (25 February 2017). "University pushes $400m science unit relocation". The Australian. Retrieved 27 February 2017. 
  5. ^ How to educate underperforming Tasmania. The Australian, August 30, 2016. (25 February 2017). Retrieved on 2017-02-27.
  6. ^ Australian Academy of Science – Professor Peter Rathjen. (7 April 2009). Retrieved on 2012-04-30.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Daryl Le Grew
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania