The fabulous Hunter brothers

Alumni, Headlines — By on May 26, 2017 4:00 pm

Ian and Peter Hunter talk with Margo White.

Professor Ian Hunter identifies his first invention as a device he called the ‘smell-o-meter’, constructed when he was six from an old meter thrown out by his father.

He opened it up, wrote “nice” at one end and “smelly” at the other. He’d hold the device in front of his classmates and, in a way that wasn’t visible to them, use his finger to move the dial to one end or the other.

The Hatsopoulos Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was in Auckland recently to receive a University of Auckland Distinguished Alumni Award for science, one of five graduates to receive the honour. I caught up with him on the sixth floor of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, in the office of his brother, Distinguished Professor Peter Hunter.

“Everyone was fooled, including the teacher,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, the power of instruments’. I had the whole class under my spell; they were terrified of being smelly. That was an early foray into instrumentation.”

He laughs. His brother laughs. “And deception,” adds Peter.

Let’s begin with a few truncated biographical details. Ian describes himself primarily as an inventor, whose interests include micro-instrumentation, micro-fabrication, micro-robotics and medical devices. As well as being the Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, he’s director of the Institute’s BioInstrumentation Lab. Over the years he and his students have developed a number of innovative instruments, including needle-free drug delivery technologies, confocal laser microscopes, scanning tunneling electron microscopes and a miniature mass spectrometer. The latter is an instrument used for chemical analysis, to characterise smells, detect undesirable chemicals such as lead or pesticides and possibly assess health status by analysing a person’s breath. He has more than 100 patents and has founded or co-founded 25 companies.

Peter Hunter is the Director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), whose pioneering research is based on the premise that the physiological function of the human body can be analysed and modeled in the same way a complex engineering system can be. His research has led to the development of the Physiome Project, an international consortium involving dozens of research institutions around the world, of which he is co-director. The collective aim of the Project is to build a computational model of a virtual human, one that integrates mathematical and physiological information about organs, tissues, cells, proteins and genes, ultimately to guide interventions and treatments in human health.

Both Hunter brothers have received too many accolades and awards to list here. Evidently something runs in the family. Is there something in the genes? “I don’t think so,” says Ian. “But we had a father who, whenever we showed an interest in an area, he’d turn up with the relevant goodies. If we had an interest in optics, lenses would appear. If we had an interest in mechanics, mechanical things would appear, normally with very little explanation.” Both Ian and Peter had electronic workshops in their bedrooms. “And then when I had an interest in chemistry, chemicals and beakers would appear,” adds Ian. “When the passion became even greater, my father set up a chemistry lab in the house.”

Their father, Les, was an electrical engineer and an inventor who, in 1950, constructed New Zealand’s first experimental closed circuit television station in his backyard. This was ten years before television was introduced in New Zealand. There’s archive footage on YouTube, a short film made by the New Zealand National Film Unit capturing their father’s “experiment in television”. Their mother Mary is featured talking to the camera and Peter, a pre-schooler in short pants, comes briefly into view along with his two elder brothers.

Ian hadn’t been born then, and who knows if it was nature or nurture, but he began following in his father’s footsteps when, aged nine, he built a miniaturised transistor radio. He then started building and selling transistor radios to other kids in the neighbourhood. The radio waves were weak back then so he’d rig up an antenna as part of the service. “Usually a wire that I’d run from a kid’s bedroom out to some adjacent tree, and then I’d climb under the house and connect it to the plumbing, to get a good earth connection”.

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