13 Jun 2023
Professor David Cohen

Professor David Cohen will be retiring from UNSW Sydney later this month after 33 years on the staff and the completion of his third and final term as President of the Academic Board.

David completed his PhD in geochemistry under the last Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science, Professor Gerry Govett, with support from Western Mining Corporation and Commonwealth Postgraduate and ANSTO scholarships.

David joined the staff of the School of Applied Geology as a research assistant in 1990, and subsequently obtained a lectureship in 1992. After returning from study leave with CSIRO and with BHP in Colorado, he was elected Presiding Member of the Faculty of Science in 2004 and commenced a 20-year stint as a member of the Academic Board. In 2006 he helped design the blueprint for degrees which continued as the foundation for the structure of most undergraduate degrees at UNSW to the present.

In 2008 David was appointed Head of the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES), that had been formed in 2002 through the merger of the schools of Biology, Geology and Geography. “In 2009 we took the fairly radical step of re-organising the School around a set of research centres rather than traditional disciplinary departments, to focus on big research questions in the natural sciences”, David said. “I did have to fight to retain this model as it ran counter to the recommendations of the external Review of the Science Faculty, but the model has worked well.”

“Being head of BEES, a large and growing school, certainly had its challenges but I was surrounded by a fabulous group of academic and professional staff and very talented students. The strength of any university largely rests on the quality of its staff and students.”

David moved to Chancellery in 2017 following his election as President of Academic Board. “After six years as Deputy President, I had a reasonable understanding of the inner workings of the Board, but it was only after my predecessor Prem Ramburuth handed over the office keys and my diary started to rapidly fill with meetings, that I appreciated the magnitude of the task of keeping the Board on track to meet the expectations of the UNSW community and the governance requirements of TEQSA”.

Among the major changes to the Board during David’s time as President was an increase in the number of student members from six to 12 and extending the terms of the elected student members. This improved the engagement of students with the work of Academic Board, and the Board has adopted a number of proposals by its student members.

Outside of Academic Board responsibilities, David is the UNSW lead within the $220M MinEx CRC and is President of the Australian Geoscience Council. He has continued his research in exploration methods for critical minerals, involving projects over the last 30 years in Indonesia, Iran, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Cyprus, the US, and most states in Australia. One area of focus has been the biogeochemical response of vegetation to mineralisation and contamination – in essence using trees as drilling rigs.    

“During my time I have witnessed UNSW continue to flourish and enter the international premier league of universities. The campus is almost unrecognisable from the buildings and grounds that existed back in 1986. Two characteristics that stand out are the collegial ethos of UNSW and its commitment to external engagement”, David reflected. “The University has benefitted from capable and committed leadership at all levels from Council to Heads of Schools.”

“I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to teach and undertake research at UNSW, as well as the many colleagues that I have had the pleasure to work with over the last three and a half decades”. 

Professor Cohen will continue connection with the university in an honorary capacity.