New PhD unravelling evolution in his eighth decade

September 30, 2013

With his PhD now firmly in hand, 79-year-old Dr Keith Oliver continues to push hard for a more thorough theory of evolution.

Dr Oliver has been associated with Murdoch since the 1980s, first as an Honorary Research Associate, then as an undergraduate earning a Biological Science degree with 1st Class Honours and a Philosophy degree and finally as a PhD student in Biological Science.

While the holder of four degrees says he studies because he is a ‘lifetime learner’, this was not always the case. He left high school after two years and spent 10 years as a carpenter, before going to Melbourne to study photography.

This experience convinced him of the need to seek higher education.

“I returned to Perth and did my leaving certificate which included studying physics, chemistry, mathematics, English and geology before doing a diploma in Applied Chemistry and a degree in Multidisciplinary Science,” Dr Oliver said.

“I then worked in film processing, as a shift chemist in Bunbury and as a technician with the State Electricity Commission and a Senior Technician at W.A.I.T./Curtin before taking early retirement to become a sole trader breeding hybrid kangaroo paws in the 1980s.

“This is where my obsession with evolutionary theory started, through my reading on plant genetics. At first, I was opposed to evolutionary theory, but I slowly realised that the current explanations simply weren’t complete.”

This propelled Dr Oliver to undertake studies that eventually led to his TE-Thrust Hypothesis, which is focussed on the ‘transposable’ elements of DNA, which had previously been termed ‘junk DNA’ by most scientists.

Dr Oliver and his collaborators found that these elements were pivotal to the evolutionary process, as they have the ability to cut themselves from one location and move to another location, or make an RNA self-copy which results in the insertion of another DNA copy elsewhere. Thus, these processes could facilitate evolution.

The research has so far resulted in four publications, the first of which has been cited 85 times and is generally well received by the evolutionary science community.

“I plan to keep doing research as an Adjunct at Murdoch. My current obsession is with retroviruses and the part they play in evolution,” Dr Oliver said.

“I have enjoyed my time at Murdoch University and hope it will support my work for years to come.”

Dr Oliver’s supervisors were Associate Professor Wayne Greene, Emeritus Professor Jennifer McComb, Professor Stuart Bradley and Dr Alan Tapper.

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