Pam Pennycuik was enrolled at St Aidan’s during the Great Depression and World War II. School was very different then; the Sisters of the Society of the Sacred Advent were under financial pressures and resources like laboratories didn’t exist. In fact, at one stage the teachers were asked to take a cut in pay to ensure the future of the School.
“In spite of these limitations, the women who taught us succeeded in making the subjects we were studying interesting and enjoyable. To this day, I remember them all with both affection and gratitude,” Pam said.
After graduating St Aidan’s, Pam obtained a Bachelor of Science from the University of Queensland before enrolling in a Masters degree in Zoology.
She worked for a short period of time in the university’s Zoology Department before spending 18 months in the United Kingdom. She returned to Brisbane and a position in the university’s Physiology Department where she studied for her PhD. During World War II this department carried out studies on the “effects of exposure to high environmental temperatures on man” (Australia had troops fighting in the tropics at the time). But by 1954 the emphasis of the experiments had shifted from “man” to “mammals”. Pam was allotted the rat and for the next few years, she investigated the effects of continuous exposure to 34°C on the wellbeing of these little beasts – on their food intake, growth rate and their ability to reproduce successfully.
In 1961, Pam moved to Sydney and to the CSIRO’s Division of Animal Genetics, where her model animal was the mouse. The study objective was to gain an understanding of why mouse populations in the wheat-growing belt of eastern Australia reached plague proportions in some years but not others.
Pam married Alex, a molecular biologist, in 1986. She published 51 papers (in collaboration with other scientists) in a variety of publications during her extensive career.
Her advice to St Aidan’s students is to aspire to be the best they can be but be prepared to sometimes be practical. She also encourages all of the girls to venture out into the world at large and “experience and experiment”.