Peter Michael Room

By Helen WolffFebruary 17th, 2011

Early life

Peter Michael Room was born on 3 July 1947 in York (UK).

At age 5, Peter decided to become an herpetologist. He spent his youth studying reptiles, insects and motorcycles. At aged 15, he realised that job prospects for herpetologists in the UK were very poor so decided to become an entomologist.

He hitchhiked across Europe several times aged 16 & 17 and discovered that irrespective of nationality, race, and religion, most people are very helpful to strangers.

Tertiary education and early career

(1965-1968) Imperial College of Science, London B.Sc. (Hons) in Zoology/Entomology (Associate of the Royal College of Science), 1965 to 1968. During this time, Peter circumnavigated the USA by bus, drove an old car from New York to southern Mexico, and went on an expedition to a remote region of Guyana.

(1971) University of London PhD. – Thesis title: “Cocoa, mistletoe and insects in Ghana: an exercise in tropical synecology”.  Based at the University of Ghana 1968 to 1970 and at Imperial College, London, 1971. Peter married his wife Sandra in Accra in 1969 and they returned from Ghana to London across the Sahara Desert by hitchhiking, bus, and, over the desert proper, by sharing the driving of a Morris 1800 which had no windscreen and very limited ground clearance.

(1971-1973) Entomologist II, Department of Agriculture, Stock and Fisheries, Papua New Guinea. Based at Popondetta, where Peter studied ants & pests of cocoa & oil palm, with periodic visits to N’Drova Island near Manus where he studied a grasshopper pest of coconuts. On leaving PNG, Peter and his wife drove an old Holden from Cairns to Perth via Canberra where he was interviewed for a job in Narrabri by Dr Lloyd Evans, then Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry.

(1974) Visiting scientist at Imperial College where he prepared research results from Papua New Guinea for publication.

Time at CSIRO

In May 1974, Peter joined the Cotton Research Unit, CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Narrabri (NSW).

He wrote the first computer software for management of cotton pests in Australia which was used by others to launch the private company SIRATAC (Hearn, A.B.; Bange, M.P. SIRATAC and CottonLOGIC: persevering with DSSs for the Australia cotton industry. Agricultural Systems 74: 27-56. 2002)

He wrote, and took photographs for, the first field guide to “Insects & spiders of Australian cotton fields“, 1979, NSW Dept. of Agriculture.

Peter’s work helped develop the cotton industry in Australia at a time when insect pests posed the greatest threat to the industry.  He has very mixed feelings about the unforeseen consequences of this for water flows in the Murray/Darling river system.

In November 1978, Peter transferred from the Division of Plant Industry to the Division of Entomology.

Based in Brisbane, he led the Biological Control of Salvinia team that achieved successes against that floating weed in Australia and many other countries. ACIAR found that the benefit to Sri Lanka alone was $300 million.

He publicised CSIRO work via more than 100 scientific papers & 60 reports; an ABC Radio Science Show talk; interviews for Radio Australia, BBC World Service, ABC TV (Quantum), TV channels 7, 9 and 10, various newspapers & magazines. His photographs have been included in a number of textbooks e.g. Krebs, C.J. 1994 Ecology.  Harper Collins, Fig.18.6.

Peter initiated, or collaborated in, attracting the following research funds:

2000-2005 UQ funding for the Centre for Plant Architecture Informatics $1 million
1997-1999 DIST:  “Major travel grant for Canadian & French collaboration” $17,000
1998 Rhone-Poulenc: “Bugmatch for cottonv.3, virtual cotton simulations” $10,000
1997-2001 HRDC: “IPM in sweetcorn” $32,000
1994-1997 RIRDC: “Virtual plants: A revolutionary approach to crop experimentation.” $80,000
1994 DIST: “Visit by Prof. Prusinkiewicz, University of Calgary”
1992 CSIRO McMaster Fellowship: “Visit by Prof. Prusinkiewicz, University of Calgary”
1991 CRC Scheme: “CRC for Tropical Pest Management”
1990-1991 ACIAR: “Biological control of salvinia in East Africa” CSIRO/Zambia/Kenya project, $50,000
1990-1993 AMRC:  “Assessment of the pest status of Leucaena psyllid in Queensland” CSIRO/QDPI project, $300,000
1988-1989 ACIAR: “Survey of Leucaena psyllid natural enemies in Queensland” CSIRO project, $50,000
1985-1989 ACIAR: “Biological control of salvinia in Sri Lanka” CSIRO/University of Kelaniya/Sri Lanka, Dept. of Agriculture project, $350,000
1982-1985 UNDP/FAO: “Biological control of salvinia in Papua New Guinea”  CSIRO/UNDP/PNG Dept .Agriculture project, $400,000

In 2002, disillusioned by the lack of respect for scientists by politicians, the mediocre salaries paid to scientists, and the ever-increasing demand for scientists to divert effort from research into acquiring external funding, Peter took early retirement at age 55.  He has maintained an interest in science and friendships with CSIRO and other scientists, but does not miss the bureaucracy one bit!

Career highlights and other organisations

Peter published the first proof that a mistletoe takes products of photosynthesis from its host (1971 Annals of Botany 35, 169-174).

He identified mistletoes as a threat to Ghana’s cocoa industry and identified remedial action.

He made significant contributions to understanding the structure of ant communities in Ghana and Papua New Guinea.

Peter was the first to note the absence of significant pests of oil palm in Papua New Guinea. This helped to open the way for a major new industry in PNG, with unforeseen and regrettable damage to biodiversity.

Peter was a visiting scholar at: BIOTROP, Indonesia, 1984; James Cook University 1985; University of New England 1985.

He also presented lectures at research centres in China, Japan, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, USA, UK and France.

Peter discovered several species of ant new to science, two of which were named after him: From Ghana, Strumigenys roomi Bolton 1972; and from Papua New Guinea, Orectognathus roomi Taylor 1977

He was a Postgraduate Supervisor or Examiner for the Universities of Queensland, Griffith and James Cook.

Honours and awards

1981 Front cover of the journal Nature (1981) 294.
1985 UNESCO Science Prize, Paris (as Leader of CSIRO Biological Control of Salvinia Team)
1985 International Festival of Science Films, Barcelona , Best Didactic Values, (As Leader of Salvinia Team)
1986 Rivett Medal, CSIRO Officers Association (for research into cotton pests and salvinia)
1988 AIDAB Award for Excellence in Overseas Development Assistance (as Leader of Salvinia Team)
1990 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Honourable Mention (as Leader of Salvinia Team)
1990 POL Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, The Australian Museum (as member of Biological Control of Weeds Team)
1991 The inaugural CSIRO Chairman’s Medal for his work on the biological control of the water weed salvinia.
1982-2000 Awarded approximately $4 million for specific research projects from ACIAR, AMRC, CRCTPM, DIST, HRDC, RIRDC and UQ and played a major role in gaining $7.5 million for the CRC for Tropical Pest Management.
1990 Nominated for the ‘Australia Prize’
1992 Nominated for the ‘Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement’
1995 Nominated for the ‘Japan Prize’
1996 Nominated for the Australian Entomological Society Mackerras Medal