College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

15 May 2019

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Scientist, lawyer, lecturer and birder

A chance encounter began a life-long passion for scientist turned JCU Law lecturer Jim Hackett.

When Jim was in his early 20s standing bubbles up to his elbows at the kitchen sink, he spotted something life changing.

“I was washing dishes one day and there was a washing machine outside. This beautiful little bird came and sat on it”. The bird was a New Holland Honeyeater, and it sparked the curiosity that would lead to decades of global birding adventures.

A curiosity that has underpinned Jim’s other endeavours as a scientist, lawyer, and now JCU Law lecturer.

A New Holland Honeyeater

Lateral thinking

Born in Ireland, Jim had a successful career as a molecular biologist. He was a Professor of Biochemistry at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology working on typhoid fever.

Jim’s work as a scientist answered part of the question of why typhoid fever (being a type of salmonella bacterium Salmonella typhi) affects humans so badly.

Previous scientists had discovered that the bacteria bind to a protein in the intestine. Jim and his team extended upon this and discovered the mechanism (PilS) that allows the bacteria to bind with the protein.

Jim returned to Australia and decided to try something different by studying law at JCU. “I decided to take a bit of a break from science and do something different and law turned out to be interesting.”

The switch to law wasn’t completely unfamiliar. “As a scientist you’re trained to be logical and careful, but the critical thing really is that you have to able to think laterally," Jim says.

This lateral thinking can translate across any field, and is a skill that Jim upholds as vital to success.

“I say this to my students. If you don’t think laterally in science then you’re not going to discover anything, really, because the obvious things have all been done, and it is very important as a lawyer that you think laterally too."

“In other words, you’re presented with a problem, like a person who’s not a lawyer being unhappy; they’ll come to you with a set of circumstances seeking a resolution. There are usually several ways to go, and you have to think as far ahead a possible and try to see any walls that might become obvious across your path," he explains.

“If you don’t think laterally in science then you’re not going to discover anything really because the obvious things have all been done, and it is very important as a lawyer that you think laterally.”
Jim Hackett, JCU Lecturer

Binoculars and birdwatching guides
Microbiology equipment
Scales of justice statue and gavel

After graduating from his JCU Law degree Jim enjoyed three years working in native title law, but found he wanted more time to pursue birding. Jim returned to JCU as a sessional lecturer, which he relishes.

“I like meeting students face-to-face…I enjoy talking to them, and I enjoy discussing things with them.”

Jim’s favourite teaching moments, however, are when students demonstrate their lateral thinking. “I particularly like it when they effectively say ‘Jim that’s not right, or ‘Jim there’s another way of looking at this’, then we have a professional, academic conversation. Sometimes they bring out a point that should be considered and that point had not occurred to me.”

Jim’s role as a JCU Law sessional lecturer gives him plenty of time between semesters to go birding. He has currently clocked over one million nautical miles of flights on birding adventures in Rio Negro, Argentina, and Macquarie Island just to name a few. Once the 2018 teaching year is finished, Jim is flying off to Zambia and Zimbabwe to add more birds to the 8,100 of the total 10,000 species of birds that he has already spotted.

Further adventures in Irian Jaya and Mexico are slated for next year, in between teaching Australia’s next generation of lateral-thinking lawyers.

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