Emeritus Professor Des Connell of the Griffith School of Environment has been honoured with the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2012 Queen’s Honours List.
Professor Connell was recognised for his outstanding contribution to environmental chemistry, university education, and environmental risk assessments across Australia and beyond.
He has played a major role during the past 35 years in developing the emerging disciplines of environmental chemistry and toxicology, particularly in the areas of water quality, organic environmental pollutants, and pesticides.
Professor Connell, who is based at Griffith’s Nathan campus, is also an established researcher with a significant body of published work. He is the author of eight books published internationally and about 150 research papers in prestigious journals at home and overseas.
“This honours comes as a complete surprise to me, but I am delighted,” Professor Connell said.
Even while still a student himself, Professor Connell was involved in developing some of the earliest environmental studies of marine coastal systems in Australia.
“When I was a student I became involved as President of the Littoral Society which later became the Australian Marine Conservation Society and I think, because of our efforts, we got to see the Great Barrier Reef Narine Park Authority established.
“It was set up because of our agitation, I believe, and that has been a major achievement in my life.”
It was then that Professor Connell became passionate about applying chemistry to the environment. He joined Griffith University in 1975.
“You must remember that applying the principles of chemistry to things like pollution and pesticides was a new thing 30 or 40 years ago,” he said.
“Then governments started to look for solutions and they began to think in scientific terms, so people all over the world became involved in developing a new type of chemistry.
“It was wonderful to be a part of that wave of new thinking.”
Professor Connell’s research is now focused on the risk of environmental chemicals to humans.
“Chemicals are everywhere, even in our homes, and while we know this, we don’t fully understand the magnitude of the problem.
“It isn’t easy to find a solution. For example, chlorination in our water supplies can cause minor public health problems but not having it there can lead to major public health issues.”
Professor Connell is passionate about evaluating and predicting the risk of certain chemicals over time.
“At the moment we may know the effects of exposure of certain toxins for a week or a month but what is more challenging is being able to predict the effects of steady exposure over 30 years or a lifetime,” he said.
He was awarded the Royal Australian Chemical Institute Environment Medal in 1993 and a Doctor of Science from Griffith University in 1991. He also served as Head and Professor of the School of Public Health, Griffith University from 1995-2003.
He has lived and worked in New York and Hong Kong, and while he says they were very valuable experiences, he likes it best in Queensland.
“Chemistry is a very conservative field with a very traditional focus.
“I could only have had my career in environmental chemistry at Griffith University and not any other university in Australia, or even the world.”