A gift to advance science - Karen Coulston talks science, wine and helping scientific advancement
Molecular chemist turned winemaker Karen Coulston has long shared her knowledge in labs, lecture halls and cellar doors. Now, with a donation to Monash, she’s helping a new generation of researchers advance scientific discovery.
Karen Coulston’s ties to Monash University run deep.
As a trailblazing young woman she studied science in the 1970s, and later her Monash lecturers would become colleagues – and friends – when she joined their ranks in the School of Chemistry.
A research scientist for 18 years with the school’s pyrolysis group, Karen’s work synthesising novel compounds is critical foundational research, underpinning advances in fields as diverse as drug discovery, engineering … and winemaking.
During her years in the laboratory she also oversaw the work of hundreds of postgraduate students. One of them was Andrea Robinson, now a professor in the School of Chemistry, and a close friend, who Karen has nominated to oversee her recent donation to the University.
Drawing on her passion for scientific discovery, she intends for her gift to be administered each year for the next 10 years to help further research in chemistry, particularly by women.
“I want to support more pure research to broaden the scope of chemistry,” Karen says. “People are working hard and dreaming up wonderful new projects, and if I can help bring them to fruition, that would be my idea of making the world a better place.
Karen’s generosity of spirit is evidenced through the varied facets of her life involving paid – and now voluntary – roles in research, teaching and wine.
Her foray into the latter occurred quite by chance after she and her husband Laurie moved to a property on the outskirts of Melbourne with a small, rundown vineyard.
“We had both always loved wine but didn’t know much about it,” Karen says. “So to make something worthwhile from our little plot, I did more and more short courses and ended up with another degree – in wine science from Charles Sturt University.”
With new qualifications and chemistry expertise, Karen brought a particular insight to winemaking and ended up with a successful second career, producing wine under her Hills of Plenty label.
“It was fun. My once-a-month cellar door sales and local festivals were great to be part of,” she says.
She eventually left her role at Monash to work in the industry full time – teaching wine chemistry to tertiary students and consulting in winemaking with other small producers. Around Victoria, her mobile grape-pressing service was also in high demand.
Today, in ‘retirement’, her teaching career continues in a voluntary capacity at the University of the Third Age, where she takes three wildly popular wine-related classes. Involving wine tours and long lunches, it’s not hard to imagine why there is a waiting list.
But participants, while imbibing, also learn a lot about the science of wine, and in the end, says Karen, a lot of it comes back to chemistry.
Did you know that the same molecule that gives sauvignon blanc its tropical nose is also found in passionfruit? Or that the spicy notes in Heathcote region shiraz can be put down to a common molecule found in the Victorian red and black pepper?
“The aromas are organic molecules and they’re only a very small part of the wine. But they are very important,” Karen says. “And the balance in flavour is as important as the balance of alcohol, acid and sugar.”
Karen lights up when she talks about wine on this level. It is knowledge, drawn from her grounding in scientific research, that she enthusiastically shares with her students.
As a retired person, you can share expertise from your previous life,” she says. “People get knowledge and pleasure from the experience, and I can make new friends, which is rather good."
While winemaking is a science, it is also an art, Karen says. “Getting the balance right is in all the small decisions: when to pick the fruit, choosing the acid level and the type of barrel.”
Science and art have been intertwining passions through Karen’s life.
Recalling her early career in synthetic organic chemistry with the pyrolysis group, she still marvels at the transient molecules her research produced.
“We made some beautiful small molecules, but it was the method, too. Like a beautiful chair, there was artistry in the design,” she says of the research led by Dr Frank Eastwood and Professor Roger Brown (her former lecturers).
But more than just aesthetically pleasing, her work building new molecules and identifying how they are broken down and rearranged under certain conditions was an important building block of scientific discovery.
“Our work was in making novel compounds – things that have never before been in existence,” she says.
Karen was drawn to science from an early age, back when she went by Karen Bird The talented dux of Blackburn South High School, she was awarded a Commonwealth Government scholarship to continue her education at Monash University in 1969.
A young university “making its mark”, the Monash campus, less than a decade old, was new and exciting. She met people from wide-ranging backgrounds, the political fervor was intoxicating (“Gough Whitlam was our hero”), and the architecture was, at the time, “experimental and innovative”.
And she could explore her artistic side with any number of clubs – weaving, ballroom dancing and life drawing were her favourites.
After graduating, Karen took herself to Europe and the UK for a self-guided arts education, exploring history and literature and “experiencing the world of Shakespeare”.
She also found time for a master’s from Imperial College London, based on her work for the Royal School of Mines developing organic molecules to help in the liquid extraction of nickel.
It was an experience that prepared her well for her return to Australia – and Monash – after five years in England with Laurie, a clinical biochemist.
Laurie, who passed away in 2015, called himself Karen’s ‘vineyard labourer’ as her interest in winemaking flourished. “He drank wine, but he didn’t really want to know why he liked it, whereas I always wanted to know why,” she says.