Professor Michael McManus BSc (Hons) Well., DPhil Oxf.


Professor Michael McManus Professor Emeritus Michael McManus, who has died aged 57, was a leading plant scientist on the Manawatu Campus of Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Michael Thomas McManus, the son of Irish parents, Desmond and Lillie, was born in Tripoli, Libya in 1957. His father was a radio control officer and held various positions in the Middle East. In 1966 the McManus family moved from Kuwait to Newlands in the northern suburbs of Wellington. Michael was enrolled at the local primary school where he made lasting friendships with class mates who were well represented at his funeral.

Bryce Williamson (now Professor of Chemistry at the University of Canterbury) recalls their childhood playing rugby and cricket, as well as indulging in ‘amateur’ tramping and backyard sporting activities sustained by Mrs McManus’s scones and ‘stewed’ (not to be confused with ‘brewed’) tea.

Intellectual ability

Michael’s intellectual ability was recognised even in his primary school years, when he was selected for advanced schooling, studying material well beyond the standard curriculum of the time.

During his secondary school years at Newlands College, Michael continued to exhibit his academic talent, but also excelled at cricket and rugby, which he played with ‘great physical vigour’ according to his old school friends. Bryce notes that it was during these secondary years that Michael finally became aware of one Bronwyn Wright, a girl who had been a year behind them at primary and secondary school.

Tertiary study

After gaining top marks in his Bursary examinations Michael studied botany at the Victoria University of Wellington. He mastered this subject and his lecturers noted his mature understanding and recognised his capability to pursue research. While he was completing his BSc(Hons) in botany he was encouraged to move to the United Kingdom to undertake a D.Phil at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor Daphne Osborne. By this time he had married Bronwyn and they set off to the United Kingdom together.

A fellow D.Phil student in Prof. Osbourne’s group, Jeremy Roberts, now Professor and Assistant Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Nottingham notes that Michael’s research "focused on the shedding of plant organs and, in particular, understanding how the biochemical changes in the cells that comprise the abscission zone brought about cell wall remodelling." Michael and Daphne hypothesized that the cells at the site of abscission were specific targets for the gaseous plant hormone ethylene and, in 2006, these ideas were developed further in their book entitled ‘Hormones, Signals and Target Cells in Plant Development’. During his PhD Michael discovered that it was possible to manipulate the differentiation of ethylene-responsive target cells in bean plants and this remarkable discovery was published in 'Plant Physiology' in 1998.’

In 1984 Michael completed his D.Phil in plant physiology after which he accepted a three year Demonstratorship in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford. He then moved to the University of London to take up a Lectureship in the Department of Biochemistry at the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. After two years he and Bronwyn moved back to New Zealand so that he could take up a Research Scientist position at the Grasslands Division of DSIR (the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) in Palmerston North. This group became part of AgResearch when that entity formed in 1992.

Massey University

In 1995 Michael ‘moved across the road’ to take up a Senior Lecturer position in the Institute of Molecular BioSciences (IMBS) on the Manawatu Campus of Massey University in Palmerston North. His previous lecturing experiences in the UK in combination with his research experiences at AgResearch were ideal for this position.

Many have remarked on Michael’s wry sense of humour that was present in all aspects of his life. David Fountain, a colleague of Michael’s in IMBS recalls that he and Michael "operated a standing joke in our coffee-time chats about our respective research directions – the idea was to surreptitiously insert a covert look of boredom coupled with a polite-looking discreet yawn when one or other of us began to get enthusiastic about a recent result or idea."

Jeremy Roberts reports that in 1996 "whilst out running, I had the idea of establishing a book review series on plant development. The first person I shared this with was Michael as he was a friend, a research colleague, and I valued his judgement. Michael was enthusiastic about the idea and in joining the editorial board, but not about my working title for the series which was ‘The Plant Annual’. He told me that it sounded too much like the type of book that you might find in your stocking at Christmas! Michael suggested that we call it ‘Annual Plant Reviews’ and now, almost 20 years later, the APR series continues to prove successful and with Michael’s incredible help and support over 60 volumes have been published."

Michael McManus was promoted to Associate Professor in 2003 and then rapidly to Professor of Plant Physiology in 2006 in recognition of his excellent research, teaching and leadership in Plant Sciences at Massey University. He had also served as Director of Massey University’s Centre for Plant Sciences.

Michael McManus with lab and students 20032003 - Michael McManus with students and staff who were part of his lab

Barry Scott, former head of the Institute of Molecular BioSciences notes that "Michael was a member of the IMBS executive team for the period 2008-2012. I really valued his contribution to the team – a good critical thinker with sage advice to offer. He knew how the Institute functioned and when I was away deputised for me. It was always reassuring for me to know I had him there as he would just get on with what had to be done and completed the tasks without any fuss or bother and always in a professional way. He was a highly respected colleague within the Institute."

Recognised nationally and internationally

Prof. McManus was recognised nationally as having made an outstanding contribution to his field. His research in recent years had focused on gaining deep understanding of metabolic pathways in plants. A prime example was his studies of the regulation of ethylene biosynthesis during periods of water and nutrient stress. This excellent research had led to collaborations with researchers at AgResearch and Grasslanz Technology for improving the performance of agriculturally-important plants during periods of drought. A further example of his lab-based work migrating to cropping systems were his studies on sulfur metabolism in onions.

Jeremy Roberts notes "Michael’s interest in ethylene was retained throughout his career and he became increasingly intrigued by the biochemical and molecular events that regulate the biosynthesis of the gas in a range of plant species including white clover. In 2012, he chaired the organising committee of the highly successful IX International Conference on the Plant Hormone Ethylene that was held in Rotorua."

Michael was active in the New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists. A member of the society, Dr Marian McKenzie of Plant and Food Research, notes ‘Michael was an instrumental and highly regarded member of our society, and was Vice President from 1999-2000, and President from 2000-2002. Council had recently decided to bestow life membership on him at our upcoming annual meeting. We have very few life members, and Michael was happy to know he would be receiving this honour. Michael’s death is a huge loss to plant biology in New Zealand, but also to plant biology internationally.’

At the international level he was recognised with the 2003 award of a Royal Society of London Travel Fellowship and Visiting Research Fellowship so that he could conduct a period of research with the Oxford Research Unit, Open University, Oxford, UK.

An outstanding contribution

He made an outstanding contribution to scholarship at Massey University through this work. Plant Sciences at Massey University covers a wide range of activities from horticulture to traditional plant biology, all aimed at understanding the diversity, function, and evolution of native, ornamental, and agricultural plants. This is conducted at the whole plant level through to detailed studies at the molecular level and by researchers across the Institute of Agriculture and Environment and the Institute of Fundamental Sciences. Michael McManus’s scholarship was at the molecular level in understanding metabolic pathways. However, he was an exceptional researcher in that his findings were applied directly to crop systems critical to New Zealand's agricultural economy. He provided a significant part of Massey University’s profile in plant sciences on the national and international stage.

Michael McManus 2010Institute of Molecular BioSciences (since 2013 the Institute of Fundamental Sciences) staff photo 2010. Prof McManus is front, eighth from left

He contributed considerably to the next generation of plant scientists with his training of 25 PhD and 14 MSc students to completion. He also led the plant biology major within the Massey University BSc programme for over 10 years. More recently he provided a substantial leadership role in a bid for a new Centre of Research Excellence. This bid received many favourable reviews on the scientific approach. Although it was not one of the few selected in the final round of awards to centres, the initiative has brought together the plant research community across New Zealand.

Prof. McManus was held in high regard by plant scientists across the College of Sciences in the Institute of Agriculture and Environment and the Institute of Fundamental Sciences. He was actively involved in mentoring and guiding new staff in the area and he extended his wisdom and insight to colleagues at AgResearch, Grasslanz Technology and at Plant and Food Research. His scholarship at Massey University was recognised with the 2011 Massey University Research Medal Award - Supervisor.

His colleague Prof. Pete Lockhart notes "It was not only Mike’s academic achievements that made him so well respected, his level-headed thinking in a crisis, generosity of spirit and unassuming kindness made him a wonderful colleague and mentor for students."

Early in 2015 Michael was diagnosed with a serious illness and decided to retire. Just prior to his death the Massey University’s Honorary Awards Committee, under the delegated authority of Council, conferred the title of Professor Emeritus on Professor Michael McManus. Unfortunately he died before he became aware of this final accolade.

We have received many informal messages from plant science researchers within Massey University and at other institutions regretting that Michael will no longer be with us.

We extend our condolences to his wife, Bronwyn, and their children Catherine and William. We will all miss his wry sense of humour, enthusiasm, camaraderie and vitality.

Professor Emeritus Michael Thomas McManus BSc(Hons) Well., DPhil Oxf., born 3 September 1957, died 16 July 2015.

Michael McManus defining excellence

Receiving a Massey Defining Excellence Award in 2012 (Massey University Research Medal (Supervisor) 2011, from Professor Brigid Heywood

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