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Peppermint – Dr Laura Dawes

By Callum Florance

Peppermint is a Peppercorn series where we interview and learn more about ANU law students and beyond.

Photograph of Dr Laura Dawes (supplied)

Melding an Oxbridge researcher’s intellect with an eye for storytelling in medical history, our interviewee will shoutout some favourite ANU law lecturers, highlight the first DNA evidence case in Australia, and give recommendations for more self-driven research in ANU law courses...

For this edition of Peppermint, we interview ANU Juris Doctor student Dr Laura Dawes.

What degree are you enrolled in?


What was your background prior to enrolling at ANU?

I’m a historian of medicine and science. I have worked in academia at Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford, and then moved to Canberra where I worked as a producer at the ABC and made TV documentaries with Wildbear Entertainment. I’m now back working in academia at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS), right here at ANU.

Why did you choose to study law at ANU?

Legal issues kept popping up in my history research and writing – patenting drugs during wartime, suing corporations for selling soft drinks in schools, taking Big Tobacco to court, regulating advertising to children, quarantine precautions for the moon landing astronauts (yes, and they make COVID precautions look low-key in comparison)….lots and lots of fascinating medico-legal questions. I was struck and impressed by how legal reasoning functioned and how courts could be part of public health. So I enrolled in a law degree to be able to pursue this research interest even more and better explore the linkages between law, science and medicine. And I really enjoy studying.

What have you enjoyed the most from your degree (e.g., culture, specific courses or lecturers, etc.)?

ANU Law has terrific lecturers. Amazing lecturers. I really appreciate how much thought, expertise and skill lecturers put into structuring and delivering courses. They’re all great, so a special shout-out some of the lecturers I have had so far including Wayne Morgan and Heather Roberts for the fitting-the-elephant-in-a-suitcase trick that is Property, Michelle Worthington who teaches statutory interpretation and HIRAC in Foundations and makes it all super-interesting (and a good welcome to studying law – it was my first course), and Jo Ford and Jelena Gligorijevic for Torts – which, as a really ancient but still evolving area of law is very interesting to me as a historian. Desmond Manderson and Joshua Yeoh have compiled a fantastically insightful course in Legal Theory and deliver it with scholarly panache.

What do you do outside of your ANU law degree for work/hobbies/etc.?

I work as a researcher/lecturer at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU. I’m working on two large projects at the moment – one, a book on the history of skin cancer and control efforts in Australia, and the other, the history of the introduction of DNA evidence in Australian courts. Fun fact – the first case was right here in the ACT, in 1989. But there were no Australian DNA experts at the time, so the prosecution flew experts in from the UK to testify! The defence didn’t have a hope to be able to rebut it. Raises interesting questions about novel scientific evidence.

Outside of that, I love walking my dog in our local nature reserve, reading books, travelling with my husband, writing fiction, and trying to grow orchids (they’re both beautiful and weird, with strange aerial roots.)

What do you think the ANU College of Law could improve on based on your experiences?

I think it’s a terrific program, with both range and depth. I’d like JDs to have more scope for research in courses – longer research essays, devise-your-own topic options…that kind of thing. I’ve really appreciated how skilled and knowledgeable our lecturers are and the chance to learn from them and how they model good scholarship. It’s very stimulating to be part of that.

What piece of advice would you give to students looking to survive and thrive in ANU law?

Try a strange elective. I took Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasion (sadly, the convenor has left ANU so it’s no longer offered) but it was a terrific course and should be the 12th Priestly.

If you could go back in a time machine, what advice would you give yourself before starting law at ANU?

Enrol in 1998. And, if you can, pay your HECS upfront. Or you’ll still be paying it in 2023…

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