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Belfast genetics boffin Bittles given top Australian honour

By Claire McNeilly

Alan Bittles is a trailblazer in genetics and rare diseases. He is currently employed as an adjunct professor and research leader in the Centre for Comparative Genomics at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

He's also an honorary professor of community genetics at the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University, which is in the same city.

As if that wasn't enough, the respected academic is the author of a variety of specialist research papers and a widely-acclaimed textbook that was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.

And, somehow, he also finds time to chair an advisory committee on rare generic diseases (The Scientific Medical Advisory Committee of Rare Voices Australia), which is his "major current research interest".

That would be a punishing schedule for someone in their 30s or 40s, but Professor Bittles, who is Belfast born and bred, is gearing up to celebrate his 74th birthday next month.

And now he's going to have those incredible, age-defying endeavours recognised at the highest echelons of his adoptive country in the coming weeks by being awarded the equivalent of an OBE.

Indeed, Prof Bittles is one of a select few who have been chosen to become a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) when this year's Australian Honours list is formally announced later today.

The Northern Ireland native, who studied at Trinity College in Dublin and Queen's University in Belfast, is among just 340 people out of a population of 24 million to receive the impressive accolade.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from his Western Australian home, Prof Bittles, who is married to 68-year-old musician Marilyn, said the honour was completely unexpected.

"It came as a total surprise to me," he said.

"I hadn't a clue this was in the offing.

"I received an official letter on behalf of the Governor General in October saying I had been nominated for this award because of my work in genomics. I was flabbergasted.

"I had to look up what was happening and it seems to be associated with university work and medicine, and that's of course what I've been doing all these years."

Although the accomplished scholar says he officially retired a decade ago, he admits that he still works every day - and has done since he got his first job as a medical laboratory technician aged 17.

He's now a long way from that role at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, but it's been a fulfilling journey for the man who left his Troubles-scarred home city in 1974 to pursue a career in England.

"Belfast wasn't really all that great in 1973 and after a year working as a principal scientific officer in bacteriology in the Royal I took a lectureship at London University and stayed there for about 20 years," he recalled.

"I gradually became a senior lecturer and reader, and concentrated on medical genetics. I was offered a chair in Perth so I came out here in 1993 and I've been here ever since."

Prof Bittles, whose Welsh wife was formerly head of music for West Australian Opera and then chorus director for West Australian Symphony Orchestra, added that it was heartwarming to have recognition for his labours.

According to the citation, he is to be recognised 'For significant service to medical education in the field of genomics, as an academic and researcher, and to professional groups'.

"It's obviously very flattering that somebody bothered to talk about me and say why don't we organise this," he said.

"It's humbling at the same time because I work pretty hard and I've been quite successful but what differentiates me from somebody else?

"The other thing is that if you're working in science or medicine you're not working on your own - you're working with a crowd of other people.

"It's in some ways at least a credit to my lecturers when I was a student, to the people I've worked with, to the students I've supervised, to the colleagues I work with.

"So, although it's given to one person, I really do think it's important to recognise that you're not the sole recipient, that's it's actually a wider pool of recipients who are being honoured in this way."

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