Peter Rathjen

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Peter David Rathjen (born February 12, 1964 in Cambridge, England) is an Australian scientist and medical researcher internationally recognised in stem cell science. He is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania.

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 and his new wife Joy 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, aged only 31. 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, but after two years was replaced by Prof. Liz Sonenberg and then Prof. Rob Saint. 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.[1] Rathjen also believes many university students cannot afford or cannot manage a standard bachelor's degree, and briefer and cheaper alternatives should be explored for them, relieving pressures on the standard university system.[2]

Rathjen has been a Board Member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research and the Florey Neurosciences Institute 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.


His 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.[3]

He remains active in research, co-authoring 4 papers in 2010.[4]


  • 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


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ Mass university sector is unsustainable. ''The Australian'', May 4, 2011. (2012-02-17). Retrieved on 2012-04-30.
  3. ^ Australian Academy of Science – Professor Peter Rathjen. (2009-04-07). Retrieved on 2012-04-30.

External links[edit]

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