Betty Siegman – “A lifetime and a half with CSIRO”

September 29th, 2020

Betty Siegman, a former CSIRO employee, recently wrote to the Sphere editorial team. Together with her family, Betty has clocked up over 106 years with CSIRO, forming a large part of her life, and that of her family.

Reading through CSIROpedia the other day brought back many memories for me, and I wondered if anyone could be interested in my story. My position in CSIRO was quite low on the totem pole, but as one of the last surviving staff members of my generation at the age of 83, perhaps it may be of some value.

I left Sydney University in October 1951 – part way through a science degree. Although I was coping quite well with the lectures, the university in those days was very intimidating for a shy scholarship girl from the Western Suburbs of Sydney. Luckily I soon gained a position as a Technical Assistant with the Mathematical Statistics Section at the McMaster Laboratory, adjacent to the Veterinary School, and began work in November of that same year.

My ‘Boss’ was Miss Helen Newton Turner. She was very demanding, and intolerant of poor work, but also a marvellous lady who mothered us all. We numbered about six girls, all pounding away on Marchant calculators, performing various statistical analyses of the results of sheep breeding experiments – a field in which Miss Turner was to become a world authority.

I remember Sir Ian Clunies Ross and Dr Hugh Gordon quite well. Sometime in 1953, we were visited by Sir Ronald Fisher, called by Anders Hald ‘a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science’. Miss Turner was to collect him from the plane, and in typical absent-minded professor mode, he left his coat behind – all of course sorted out by our competent boss. He was a modest, kindly man who shook hands with us all, and we were most impressed with him.

I spent five and a half years with Mathematical Statistics (by now a Division), first at the McMaster Laboratory and then at the Sheep Biology Laboratory, Prospect, NSW, where I was assistant to the Statistician on the site.

In July 1957 I left to have my first child. One day when my little girl was a few months old, I visited Miss Turner, to her great delight.

I remained out of the workforce until my three children were settled at school. Then, an opportunity arose that was too good to pass up. In 1969 I applied for, and gained a position as a Technical Assistant with CSIRO Division of Radiophysics, based at Epping NSW. I was to remain there for 30 years, until I retired as a Technical Officer, Grade 4, in 1999.

The Division was responsible for the operation of the Parkes Radio Telescope and the analysis and interpretation of the results. Several of us were later siphoned off and became attached to the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF).

During those 30 years, chiefs I remember are Edward “Taffy” Bowen, Paul Wild, Bob Frater, Dennis Cooper, and Ron Ekers. It was a wonderful place to work, with all staff now being on a first name basis – unlike my days of yore, when a first name would never have dared pass my lips.

I was privileged to assist in making observations at the Parkes Telescope many times, and to meet astronomers from all around the world. Several scientists I worked with were John Bolton, the first Director of the Parkes Telescope, and also Dr Bruce Slee and Dr Richard Manchester, who were both kind enough to include me as a co-author on several scientific papers.

For several years I was Secretary to the ATNF Time Assignment Committee, chaired by Professor Ekers. We met every few months to evaluate the requests for observing time at the Parkes Telescope and Narrabri Synthesis Array, and it was extremely interesting to listen in to the sometimes very technical conversation. I was also able, during that time, to design and set up the first database to keep track of all the observing proposals.

I have made lifelong friends at CSIRO, and since my retirement in 1999, about eight of us have met up for lunch every single year to catch up with our lives.

That little baby who visited Miss Turner grew up to gain her Bachelor of Science and joined CSIRO at the Molecular Biology Division at North Ryde, where Miss Turner, having retired, was in residence as an Honorary Fellow. She couldn’t believe that this was the little girl she had met all those years ago.

My daughter has just retired after she too spent 30 years as an Experimental Officer with CSIRO. Her husband, my son-in-law, is a Molecular Biologist, and, up until recently, was with CSIRO as a Senior Research Scientist since 1982. [He was a member of the Colvera team awarded the 2017 Eureka Prize for Innovation in Medical Research – Ed.]

Their two children – my grandchildren, spent the first 5 years of their lives with the CSIRO Childcare Centre.

Between us we have clocked up over 106 years with CSIRO, a large part of my life, and that of my family, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Betty C Siegman

September, 2017