All posts by Karen Taylor-Brown

A Reverse Engineering Journey

Dr Maryam Parviz has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. Her company SDIP Innovations, develops new bone implants for bone repair and replacement. Maryam attributes her lifelong passion for creating medical devices to her childhood experiences.

“My mum used a hearing aid when I was a little girl. I always wanted a small hearing aid of my own – you know, one of those that are preferred for a discreet look. This technology was not available 25 years ago, when my mother was in her 20s,” she said.

Inspired to help her mum, Maryam chose to study Biomedical Engineering. She worked as a Quality Engineer for almost two years, running tests for customers, including startups. After she completed a PhD, Maryam developed her career in an ARC industrial hub at UTS, which allowed her to spend time with startups working on research translation.

“I have always stayed in the same space, although I never got into the hearing industry. The idea of my current company was initially developed by my co-founder to avoid removal surgeries,” she said.

With 33% of planned orthopaedic surgeries involving the removal of bone implants, Maryam and her cofounder developed and tested their commercialisation idea as part of the NSW Health-Medical Device Commercialisation Training Program. They formed a company, and 4 months later, Maryam left her university role.

“Our story is mostly a reverse Engineering journey when I look back now,” she said. “The initial problem was brought to my co-founder’s attention by an orthopaedic surgeon in Westmead hospital, and the research was initiated to solve that issue.”

In scoping out their business, the pair conducted more than 150 interviews with surgeons, patients, and potential partners and market channels to identify the product requirements and customer demand. 

With strong technical knowledge and a scientific background, Maryam also trained herself in all aspects of the commercialisation side of business through participating in courses and gaining relevant workplace experience.

“In addition to completing the MDCTP program, I worked directly with startups during my post-doc,” she said. “I then completed the CICADA Innovation MedLab accelerator program for 4 months and had an opportunity to be incubated in San-Francisco.”

Encouraging scientists into business

To help redress Australia’s shortfall of scientists pursuing business opportunities,  Maryam would like to see younger scientists provided with commercialisation training during their bachelor study.

“This understanding will shape their way of thinking when they are looking for ideas for doing different university projects or defining their thesis subject,” she said.

“During their postgraduate study, they may try to develop an IP, and their learnings from the past will impact their journey significantly. This will even change their way of thinking when they are planning about their career after graduation.” 

Startups have more impact than papers

Dr Maryam Parviz will join Dr Debbie Saunders and Professor Tony Weiss in a Spark Festival discussion at 12 noon on 15 October from 12 pm. Crazy Works – Startups have more impact than papers will consider how academic researchers can be better prepared to create startups. 

This event is part of Spark Festival, Australia’s largest event for startups, innovators and entrepreneurs. Register here to gain access to the full livestream, running daily from Oct 12 – 23, and check out the range of STEM related events here

Image courtesy of Dr Maryam Parviz. Guest post by Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia NSW. https://inspiringnsw.org.au/ 

Using drones to conserve wildlife

Dr Debbie Saunders tracks wildlife using radio technology and drones. A conservation ecologist at the Australian National University, her research has focused on improving conservation of threatened migratory birds. Now she develops technology solutions to solve research problems.

Debbie recently succeeded in translating her long-term research into a $1 million habitat restoration project. She has also been instrumental in the development of the world’s most advanced radio-tracking drone system for rapidly and remotely locating radio-tagged animals. 

This includes establishing start-up company, Wildlife Drones, building up an expert team and translating a research prototype into viable product that can be used by endangered species managers, invasive species controllers and land managers globally. 

As the recipient of multiple business innovation awards for her creative solutions for challenging research problems, Debbie believes that drones are a highly valuable and flexible tool that provide unprecedented opportunities for new insights into the world’s most complex and fascinating natural ecosystems. She came up with the idea for using drones to track wildlife because she had a research problem she needed to solve.

“I needed to address a research obstacle, and it turned out that others were also having the same problem!” Debbie said. “I was soon approached by people from all over the world who were interested in gaining access to the tech we developed.”

Debbie’s customer base is extensive and spans wildlife researchers, government parks and wildlife, conservation NGOs, zoos, environmental consultants, invasive species managers, also search and rescue organisations and agribusinesses who are looking for tech solutions to manage agriculture and cattle.

As a wildlife researcher facing what turned out to be a common problem, Debbie quickly identified a global market for her technology.

“Despite its strong market potential, our initial research project did not yield the support we were seeking from the university, so I developed networks through the innovation community in Canberra,” said Debbie who eventually achieved success for Wildlfe Drones independently from her academic role.

Some of the challenges Debbie initially faced in establishing her startup were educating herself on how to translate technology ideas into commercial products, finding the right combination of team members who were willing to work for free, and securing mentorship from experienced businesswomen. 

In less than two years since she first secured investment funding, she is now scaling up her business and has expanded her team from 3 volunteers to 13 staff, while continuing to work part-time for the university on a $1m wildlife conservation project she secured based on her PhD research.

Startups have more impact than papers

Dr Debbie Saunders will join Dr Maryam Parviz and Professor Tony Weiss in a Spark Festival discussion at 12 noon on 15 October from 12 pm. Crazy Works – Startups have more impact than papers will be a lively discussion about how academic researchers can be better prepared to create startups.

This event is part of Spark Festival, Australia’s largest event for startups, innovators and entrepreneurs. Register here to gain access to the full livestream, running daily from Oct 12 – 23, and check out the range of STEM related events here

Image courtesy of Dr Debbie Saunders. Guest post by Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia NSW. https://inspiringnsw.org.au/ 

Medtech entrepreneur finds success in commercialisation

Inspiring Australia NSW is partnering with Uniseed and Sydney Knowledge Hub to present a Spark Festival discussion on 15 October. Speaking on the panel will be Professor Tony Weiss from the University of Sydney.

While academic studies investigate big questions and can solve global problems when new knowledge is taken to market, Australia still lags in its commercialisation of science and technology research developed in universities. Inspiring Australia NSW is partnering with Uniseed and Sydney Knowledge Hub to present a Spark Festival discussion on 15 October looking at this continuing shortfall and how academic researchers can be better prepared to create startups. 

A successful medtech entrepreneur, biochemist and molecular biotechnologist, Tony commercialised tropoelastin and founded a spinoff biotechnology company, Elastagen, from the University of Sydney. 

From 2008 to 2018, through ongoing research collaboration and further IP development through Tony’s lab at the University of Sydney, Elastagen, through its CEO and Board, raised $19,000,000 venture capital from investors in raised $19M in venture capital from investors in Australia, UK, Japan and South Korea.

The company also secured grant funding from renowned groups such as the Wellcome Trust in the UK and Australian grants totalling $6M, along with Ausindustry R&D tax credit funding. Tony’s inventions have since been recognised with 105 awarded patents in 22 patent families. 

In 2018, Elastagen was acquired by Allergan plc, one of the world’s 20 largest biopharmaceutical companies, in a transaction totalling US$260M, one of the largest completed in the Australian life science sector.

Tony, who is an active mentor of up-and-coming entrepreneurs at the University of Sydney, believes that there are increasingly more academic researchers considering commercial pathways.

“It’s driven by a range of motives, a lot to do with getting lab funding but also because researchers increasingly want to see their discoveries translate into something that helps society “ he said.

Tony advises researchers wishing to commercialise their inventions to interact with like-minded colleagues at technology parks and incubators. And while not critical to starting a business, he believes it helps to have mentors and broad support from a university.

“I found support in having smart colleagues and mentors, accessing strategic networks and the right types of funding,” Tony said. “The university resources that were most helpful to me included having access to a supportive tech transfer office and senior staff, a great lab and people willing to back my strong desire to succeed.”

Startups have more impact than papers

Professor Tony Weiss will join Dr Maryam Parviz and Dr Debbie Saunders in a Spark Festival discussion at 12 noon on 15 October from 12 pm. Crazy Works – Startups have more impact than papers will consider how academic researchers can be better prepared to create startups. 


This event is part of Spark Festival, Australia’s largest event for startups, innovators and entrepreneurs. Register here to gain access to the full livestream, running daily from Oct 12 – 23, and check out the range of STEM related events here

Image courtesy of University of Sydney. Guest post by Jackie Randles, Manager Inspiring Australia NSW. https://inspiringnsw.org.au/ 

How cigarette butts can be recycled into bricks: a step-by-step plan

Lead researcher Associate Professor Abbas Mohajerani with bricks made with cigarette butts.

Researchers have shown how industries could work together to recycle cigarette butts into bricks, in a step-by-step implementation plan for saving energy and solving a global littering problem.

Over 6 trillion cigarettes are produced each year globally, resulting in 1.2 million tonnes of toxic waste dumped into the environment.

RMIT University researchers have previously shown fired-clay bricks with 1% recycled cigarette butt content are as strong as normal bricks and use less energy to produce.

Their analysis showed if just 2.5% of global annual brick production incorporated 1% cigarette butts, this would offset total cigarette production each year.

The research team has now developed a detailed plan for bringing the brickmaking and waste management industries together, to implement cigarette butt recycling into bricks at mass scale.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Abbas Mohajerani said cigarette butts were saturated with toxic chemicals, including over 60 known to cause cancer. 

“Firing butts into bricks is a reliable and practical way to deal with this terrible environmental problem, while at the same time cutting brickmaking production costs,” Mohajerani said.

“We need to do far more to stop cigarette butts from polluting our streets, rivers and oceans, and prevent them leaching harmful toxins into our environment.

“Our ultimate goal is a world free of cigarette butt pollution: our industry implementation plan outlines the practical steps needed to bring this vision to reality.”

The plan, published in a special issue of the journal Materials, shows how cigarette butts can be collected and recycled on an industrial scale.
Different incorporation methods are outlined – using whole butts, pre-shredded butts, or a pre-mix where the butts have already been incorporated into other brickmaking materials.

Requirements for maintaining health and safety are also methodically detailed, with analysis showing how risks can be mitigated for both industrial brickmaking and handmade bricks.

The new study also details for the first time the types of harmful bacteria found on cigarette butts, analyses how heavy metals can leach from them into the environment and examines the energy value of butts in the brickmaking process. 

Energy savings
By analysing the butts’ energy value, the team in the School of Engineering at RMIT showed the incorporation of 1% cigarette butt content would reduce the energy required to fire bricks by 10%. “It takes up to 30 hours to heat and fire bricks, so this is a significant financial saving,” Mohajerani said.

It can take many years for cigarette butts to break down, while heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, nickel and cadmium trapped in the filters leach into soil and waterways.

During firing, however, these metals and pollutants are trapped and immobilised in the bricks. 

Bricks made with cigarette butts are also lighter and provide better insulation – meaning reduced household heating and cooling costs.
About 25 to 30 billion filtered cigarettes are smoked in Australia each year, with about 7 billion butts littered.

Mohajerani, who has spent over 15 years researching sustainable methods for cigarette butt recycling, has also developed technology for incorporating butts into asphalt concrete

He said the technical solutions would need to be backed up by more stringent laws and harsher littering penalties. 
“Local authorities would also need to provide more specialised bins for cigarette butts, to both prevent littering and enable smooth collection for the brickmaking process,” he said.

“My dream is a dedicated brickmaking recycling facility in every country, that can recycle butts and solve this pollution problem for good.”
Implementation of Recycling Cigarette Butts in Lightweight Bricks and a Proposal for Ending the Littering of Cigarette Butts in our Cities’, with lead author and PhD researcher Md Tareq Rahman, is published in Materials, in a special issue focused on Novel Sustainable Technologies for Recycling Waste Materials (DOI: 10.3390/ma13184023).

Space technology to boost water quality management

Satellites in space and a network of ground-based sensors could be used to monitor the quality of Australia’s inland waterways, reservoirs and coastal environments.

A 12-month scoping study for the new technology is part of a mission under development called AquaWatch Australia.

The AquaWatch Australia mission, being developed by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency and the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is one of a number of missions – large research initiatives – aimed at solving Australia’s greatest challenges.

They are focused on outcomes that lead to positive impact, new jobs and economic growth.  In this case ensuring we can maintain and manage water quality – our most important and vital resource.

Natural events such as toxic algal blooms, the contamination of drinking water, and excess runoff from irrigation all present a significant influence on the health of our inland and coastal waters.
Having real-time data about these events and our waterways supports water managers in monitoring and managing water quality.

Data gathered from space provides critical insights about water quality, however, currently available Earth observation satellites only provide 60-70 per cent coverage for major Australian water bodies.

And while the quality of some inland waterways is monitored directly by testing, this data isn’t routinely combined with satellite data.

To fill this gap, AquaWatch aims to complement existing systems and build a comprehensive national monitoring system using an extensive network of ground-based sensors placed throughout Australia’s rivers and waterways.

These sensors would work together with purpose-designed Earth observation satellites to deliver real-time updates, predictive analytics and forecast warnings to water managers.

During the initial scoping phase, CSIRO and SmartSat are collaborating with partners from the research sector, government agencies and industry including the University of Queensland, UNSW Canberra, Curtin University, Frontier SI, Water Research Australia and SatDek. Partnerships with international partners will also be explored.

SmartSat CEO Professor Andy Koronios said the AquaWatch scoping phase will include assessing the current range of water quality monitoring programs across Australia, and identifying opportunities to drive efficiencies, advancements and adoption of new space technology to safeguard our water resources.

“As well as monitoring the health of our inland rivers, dams and waterways, the project aims to grow the industry and create new job opportunities across the environmental data services sector, primary industry and agriculture and support drought resilience efforts,” Professor Koronios said.

“We think the project has great potential to deliver two-fold benefits of improving water quality management as well as creating new skills and job opportunities in Australia across a range of industries.

“AquaWatch is a cornerstone of SmartSat’s research portfolio, which focuses on developing technologies to help solve some of Australia’s biggest challenges.”

CSIRO’s Centre for Earth Observation Director Dr Alex Held said this early phase consultation will engage with collaborators from across industry, research and government.

“We want to work directly with water agencies, community leaders and industry to better understand the challenges faced in water health monitoring,” Dr Held said.

“Working with our project partners we will analyse the core elements required to establish an integrated space infrastructure network and create the domestic technical capability to build it.

“This will help inform the development of future local advanced manufacturing opportunities, water modelling and Earth observation data analysis and applications.

“The outcomes could lead to a step-change in Australia’s national water quality information delivery, supporting decision makers in water agencies, local communities, water utilities and commercial water users to provide safe drinking water and manage this precious natural resource.”

AquaWatch also has potential to monitor coastal wetlands, aquaculture farms, riparian vegetation and terrestrial biodiversity, mine sites, mangroves and coral reef environments.

At the conclusion of the initial AquaWatch scoping phase, CSIRO and SmartSat expect to have a framework for future development of the mission.
 For more information
https://www.csiro.au/en/Showcase/Challenges-missions
https://smartsatcrc.com/projects/next-generation-earth-observation-data-services/phase-0-aquawatch-australia/

Building partnerships and networks: September STEM Lighting Lunch

Following the success of Inspiring Australia’s recent Virtual Excursions training program that concluded with live networking sessions in small breakout rooms, Lightning Lunches are keeping the momentum going with regular online networking sessions for the STEM engagement community.

The next catchup at 12 noon on 30 September 2020 will look at building networks.

Our previous Lightning Lunch in August looked at connecting with industry. Featuring three guest speakers, the online networking event attracted around 80 STEM engagement professionals who mingled in two breakout sessions, shared experiences and offered each other tips and connections.

Find the sweet spot

First speaker was Kylie Burrett, the Founder of Design Nuts Pty Ltd, a program that seeks to help make engineering design in the classroom easy and impactful. When exploring potential new partners, Kylie looks for synergy and the opportunity to create a collaborative advantage.

“I’m not just looking for money to achieve my aim or vision. I am exploring opportunities where the outcomes are significantly enhanced for both parties.,” she explained. “I love looking at trends, both intuitively and statistically. The sweet spot for partnership is then a collision of values, timing, resources and outcomes.”

Kylie cautioned those seeking partnerships to avoid knocking on people’s doors, real or virtual, without having first done their research.

“Have a very clear ask or call to action. This doesn’t have to be perfect, as at this stage, you are looking to open a conversation and the other party will often have their own ideas.” she said.

“Understand complementary strengths to build momentum for partnership synergy. Think about any timeline you might be working with. This will help you decide what is an achievable outcome. Do not think too big and under deliver.”

Kylie recommends working out processes for clear communication throughout the life cycle of a partnership and believes it’s critical to have a contract or written agreement signed by both parties.

Include First Nations voices

The next speaker was Melanie Redding, who provided perspectives from an Indigenous-owned business. As COO of Goanna Solutions, Melanie’s mission is to drive greater diversity in the tech sector via innovative education solutions. Her passion for building community and ensuring First Nations people always have a seat at the table shone through as she described how her business partners to deliver educational outcomes.

“When I am approaching a new partnership, I am always prepared to be in it for the long haul. Too many people just want the quick sell/win and aren’t willing to stick it out to build the relationship, connection and partnership, and then nurture it,” said Melanie.

In terms of helping others meet their organisational goals, Melanie recommends genuinely trying to find the problem that the organisation needs solving, and finding the win/win for both parties.

“For my industry, I find these opportunities on LinkedIn and through other industry conversations. I struggle sometimes with articulating this as building community and creating connections and opportunities comes very natural to me,” she said, adding that it is through those connections that the best partnerships have come.

“For example, I met a lady at a conference over a year ago. We hit it off straight away, and when she spoke of providing training for regional/remote areas with in-demand tech skills,  we both knew that an opportunity to work together would arise eventually.”

The pair kept in contact and spoke at least every month since, including about what each of them was working on and about life in general.

“Coincidentally and through this relationship, an opportunity to build training curriculum and work together may be finally coming to fruition.”

Melanie said it is important to research an organisation before approaching them.

“Ask lots of questions, be agile and willing to think outside the square to come up with a solution to their problem. You need to be willing to coerce them into a solution that may be different to what they originally had in mind.”

She recommended finding their motivation and investigating where an ally within their organisation could be and who has the pools of funding/budgets within that organisation.

“Be prepared to sacrifice initial profit margins for the long term relationship. And don’t get so emotionally attached to your own ideas that you can’t then pivot and adapt based on new information.” 

Melanie’s three top tips for successful industry partnerships are:

  1. Establish their reasoning: In this day and age, everyone is so ‘busy’ and already thinking about the next meeting, or the next transaction, rather than actually sitting and listening to what someone else’s needs are. Sometimes those needs are more for self-interest than for the greater good.
  2. Build a genuine connection: Learn about them as a person. Do they have kids? Do they have a partner? What makes them tick? Don’t always be on the quick sell. The more you connect and remember the finer details, the more likely they are to remember you when an opportunity arises. Genuine connections are not a “paint by number” or “program the robot” approach. 
  3. Work out the best way to communicate: Once you’re in the door, whether through a LinkedIn message or an introduction, establish the best way to communicate with them. Is it by email? Is it by text? What video platform do they prefer to use? Can you just pick a date and lock in a meeting and they’ll accept? Or is it just as simple as picking up the phone? 

Melanie said it’s important not to underestimate the power of the genuine connection. The old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is today more powerful than ever,” she said.

Make a long-term commitment

The final presenter was Melina Georgousakis, a research scientist and champion for an inclusive health and medical research sector.

Through her role in founding Franklin Women, a social enterprise that aims to create a science sector where women thrive, and as the current Research and Policy Manager at the Bupa Health Foundation, Melina shared insights both as someone seeking industry partnerships to support advocacy programs and as an industry leader regularly approached by others for sponsorship,

“The most important starting point before you pursue any approach to industry is to have a clear understanding of the outcome you wish to achieve through partnership,” she said.

With Franklin Women, Melina wanted to establish a grass roots community to support women in STEM progress their careers through networking and professional development oppourtunities.

“I always pitch potential partnerships with this goal front of mind to ensure our values and aims are aligned. That is important to us and makes the relationship authentic.”

In Melina’s experience, partners can make great co-presenters for events and projects depending on their focus – she suggests having a range of many partners to bring in according to how an activity might align with an organisation’s strategic objectives.

To find appropriate event partners, Melina looks for companies or organisations that have an interest or alignment with the focus of the event which she thinks increases the value for Franklin Women and also for the partner.

“For example, if I am doing an event on career transitions, I might look at recruiting firms in the health and science sector. I would then prepare a tailored proposal specifically for them,” she said, noting that the partnership conversation should be regarded as a long-term collaboration.

“While your initial approach may not lead to tangible outcomes straight away, if you build trust and they know that you are reliable and deliver on what you promise, they may be more willing to partner on an initiative in future, even before it is fully planned.”

Melina believes that as partnerships involve a long-term commitment, people should expect to do a lot of leg work before a partnership proposal comes to fruition.

“Don’t end a possible relationship after a pitch is refused. Keep them in the loop with your activities, touch base now and then and invite them to a future event. You never know when they might reach out to you. Keep the door open!” she said.

Melina stressed that there is more to partnerships than money – in-kind contributions can sometimes be even more valuable than cash.

“When you can show how your project can help an industry partner meet its goals in a particular area, you may be more successful in securing a co-presenter arrangement that can add credibility to your brand and engage a new set of stakeholders,” she said.

Melina warned against generic sponsorship packs, regarding them as ineffective in securing meaningful and lasting collaborations. From her perspective as an industry partner working with the Bupa Health Foundation, they are much more motivated to enter into a partnership discussion when it is clear that the applicant has put effort into looking into relevant priorities and activities and tailoring their partnership proposal accordingly.

“You can tell when it is personal versus high throughput” she said.

She also added that calling upon your own networks once identifying some potential partners can be incredibly helpful.

“When I find an organisation that looks like a great fit for what I want to deliver, I have a think about if I know anyone who has a link with them, or someone I know through another contact who might, in order to ask more questions.”

Attend the next Lightning Lunch

Our next Lightning Lunch event will be at 12 noon on Wednesday 30 September 2020 and will address the topic: How to build your network.

After our guest speakers have provided short, lightening talks, we’ll break into small rooms to discuss experiences and share ideas around:

  • How mentoring can help you to build your network
  • Building connections internationally
  • Networking strategies.

Register to attend.

September speakers 

Stephen Rutter
At 32, Stephen had to manage himself out of a great job – he had built a business unit to $33m in annual gross revenue that managed the logistics of ALL the Hollywood productions that were shot in Australia. But travelling to LA every two months took its toll. So the best thing he thought to do was to complete an MBA. Not having a university degree was perceived as a roadblock to move out of the entertainment industry into a “proper” job. After completing his MBA, Stephen was seconded to Flinders University as an Executive in Residence, establishing the New Venture Institute. His most recent corporate experience was as founding Head of Experience at Sydney School of Entrepreneurship, a $25m initiative of the NSW Government to seed next generation entrepreneurship and connect 12 Institutions, 700,000 students and over 200 campuses NSW-wide. Now, Stephen has built his own innovation consultancy, The Scale Institute, where he and his peers are designing innovative learning strategies and product development opportunities with a varied group of clients across Australia (that all value learning) including universities, large corporates and SMEs.

Arti Agrawal
Dr Arti Agrawal is a thought leader on diversity and a promoter of equality for women and LGBTBIQ+ people. She is the Director of the Women in Engineering and IT program at UTS. In this role she is responsible for policy, strategy and implementation to increase female participation in engineering and IT at UTS. In addition to her work at UTS she is also involved heavily with the IEEE, as Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for IEEE Photonics Society.

Janice Vaz
Janice Vaz is an international PhD student at Western Sydney University and a mentoring recipient of the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM. She has spent the last seven years researching animal welfare and educating the lay audience about the natural world. It was challenging as an international student to start from scratch and build a network in a new place. She has overcome this by interacting with other fellow PhD students at the university who became good friends. Through her mentoring, she approached people and explored blogging as a way of reaching people. In addition to her extensive wildlife experience, Janice enjoys making animal illustrations and uses her social media accounts as a voice for the animals.

Jackie Randles
Described by an ecologist as a ‘creative pollinator’, Jackie is passionate about creating networks that deliver mutually beneficial outcomes for all involved. As manager Inspiring Australia NSW, Jackie’s role is to connect science and technology researchers and STEM engagement professionals with all kinds of organisations that can help extend the reach and impact of research knowledge and public programs. Building trust in relationships, brainstorming creatively and fostering enduring networks is key to this work, as is identifying new opportunities, finding ways to engage untapped audiences and articulating shared goals.

Lightning Lunches are free and open to all STEM engagement practitioners. They are co-presented by Inspiring Australia NSW, Refraction Media and Fizzics Education.

Adding chameleon-like capabilities to defence drones

In conjunction with the Department of Defence, University of South Australia material scientists have developed a range of lightweight panels that can change colour on demand, allowing drones to match their appearance to the background colours of the sky.

Ever since the French had the bright idea of using hydrogen balloons for military surveillance in the late 18th century, aviation capability has played a central role in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

Today unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are a huge asset for ISR. The Australian Army has drones ranging from the tiny Black Hornet – which is about the size of a whiteboard marker – to larger models with wide ranging surveillance capabilities.  

Despite their ubiquity and utility, however, all military UAVs are currently hindered by the same simple problem – the sky changes colour, but they don’t.  

Given the huge importance of remaining undetected during ISR operations, the static colour of drones can be a significant problem, but now, thanks to researchers at The University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute (FII), the solution is at hand.

In a collaboration with the Department of Defence, FII researchers, led by Dr Kamil Zuber, have developed a range of lightweight polymer panels that can change colour on demand. 

The polymers are what are known as electrochromic materials, meaning they change colour in response to an electric field, and the exact colours can be tuned to specific voltages.

“Similar technology has been used in luxury cars, for diming mirrors, and on the windows of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner,” Dr Zuber says.

“But those applications are slow, require high power consumption to switch, and the electric flow must be maintained to sustain the change state.

“Our panels, on the other hand, have switching speeds in the range of seconds and offer colour memory, which means they retain their switched colour without a continuously applied voltage.

“They also operate in the range from -1.5 to +1.5 volts, which means you only need to use an AA battery to activate the change.”

In addition to their chameleon-like characteristics, the panels are inexpensive, lightweight and durable, and can be either rigid or flexible, making them ideal for use on drones of all sizes and specifications. 

“We have built a small-scale frame of a UAV and put our panels on it. We have demonstrated it against all sorts of different sky states and completed a range of validation testing showing how these materials can respond in actual use,” Dr Zuber says.  

“We have five or six different materials, and each of the materials can produce two to three distinct different colours.”

The technology is currently being refined to integrate self-awareness and autonomous adjustment into the system, so drones will be able to automatically change colour in response to changes in the surrounding environment. 

“At this stage, we’ve been working mainly on the panels and the hardware, but during the latest stage of the project we’ve developed prototype electronics for the controller, which is something that could test the state of the sky and then automatically adjust the voltage to the panel to tune it to the right colour.

“So, if the UAV passed in front of a cloud, it would turn pale, then when it moved back into blue sky, it would turn back to blue.”  

Deep tech and its billion dollar opportunity for transformational change

By Sally-Ann Williams, CEO, Cicada Innovations

On Saturday 22 August 2020, Cicada Innovations turned 20 years old. To celebrate the milestone, we released a report titled “Australia’s Deep Tech Opportunity — Insights from the Cicada Innovations Journey”. 

Prepared by AlphaBeta, the report looks at the impact deep tech businesses have in addressing global issues around healthcare, food security, energy, climate and more. It points out that while Australia is falling behind when it comes to producing R&D leaders playing on the global stage, the opportunity is there — and it could be one that both reignites a pandemic-affected economy, and solves major human and planetary needs in the process.

Only 12 of the 2,500 global R&D leaders are Australian companies, compared with countries with similar economies to ours like South Korea and Canada, who have 60 and 28 on the list respectively. For a country with such a rich history of innovation — cochlear implants, the flight recorder or blackbox, Resmed’s CPAP device and WiFi to name a few — this seems counterintuitive. 

Australian companies on the list of global R&D leaders include Cochlear, ResMed, and CSL Limited, which are now valued at $12b, $35b, and $127b respectively. Emulating the success of these companies could lead to a new generation of Australian deep tech corporates — a multi-billion dollar opportunity.

But how do we get there?

The catch lies in the fact that deep tech is both time and capital intensive, so in order for startups in this space to flourish, they need to be supported in the right way and for longer periods of time. Incubators are increasingly demonstrating their efficacy at successfully commercialising deep tech startups, providing these early stage companies with crucial inputs: access to finance, a business network, skilled workers, and specialised equipment and facilities. 

Being Australia’s first and longest running incubator with 20 years worth of learning and experience behind it, Cicada Innovations is uniquely positioned to take on the challenge of improving Australia’s global deep tech presence. However, we are the first to agree that this cannot be done in a silo.

It’s time for corporate leaders and the government to recognise the enormous benefits of investing in deep tech. Looking at just four of Cicada’s portfolio of 103 incubated deep tech companies, we can see $625m+ created via sales or IPOs — so there is a clear and significant medium-term opportunity for financial return from outsourcing R&D through direct investment. 

If the fires, floods, and global pandemic of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that creativity, R&D, and collaboration are more vital than ever before. Australia’s deep tech opportunity is ripe for the taking: what’s our next move?

If you’d like to read Cicada Innovations’ report, you can download it here. If you’d like to discuss the report further with Cicada Innovations, please contact Sally-Ann Williams here: ceo@cicadainnovations.com

New electronic skin can react to pain like human skin

Researchers have developed electronic artificial skin that reacts to pain just like real skin, opening the way to better prosthetics, smarter robotics and non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts.


The prototype device developed by a team at RMIT University can electronically replicate the way human skin senses pain.
The device mimics the body’s near-instant feedback response and can react to painful sensations with the same lighting speed that nerve signals travel to the brain.


Lead researcher Professor Madhu Bhaskaran said the pain-sensing prototype was a significant advance towards next-generation biomedical technologies and intelligent robotics.


“Skin is our body’s largest sensory organ, with complex features designed to send rapid-fire warning signals when anything hurts,” Bhaskaran said.
“We’re sensing things all the time through the skin but our pain response only kicks in at a certain point, like when we touch something too hot or too sharp.


“No electronic technologies have been able to realistically mimic that very human feeling of pain – until now.
“Our artificial skin reacts instantly when pressure, heat or cold reach a painful threshold.
“It’s a critical step forward in the future development of the sophisticated feedback systems that we need to deliver truly smart prosthetics and intelligent robotics.”


Functional sensing prototypes
As well as the pain-sensing prototype, the research team has also developed devices made with stretchable electronics that can sense and respond to changes in temperature and pressure.
Bhaskaran, co-leader of the Functional Materials and Microsystems group at RMIT, said the three functional prototypes were designed to deliver key features of the skin’s sensing capability in electronic form.
With further development, the stretchable artificial skin could also be a future option for non-invasive skin grafts, where the traditional approach is not viable or not working.
“We need further development to integrate this technology into biomedical applications but the fundamentals – biocompatibility, skin-like stretchability – are already there,” Bhaskaran said.


How to make electronic skin 
The new research, published in Advanced Intelligent Systems and filed as a provisional patent, combines three technologies previously pioneered and patented by the team:
• Stretchable electronics: combining oxide materials with biocompatible silicon to deliver transparent, unbreakable and wearable electronics as thin as a sticker. 
• Temperature-reactive coatings: self-modifying coatings 1,000 times thinner than a human hair based on a material that transforms in response to heat.
• Brain-mimicking memory: electronic memory cells that imitate the way the brain uses long-term memory to recall and retain previous information.
The pressure sensor prototype combines stretchable electronics and long-term memory cells, the heat sensor brings together temperature-reactive coatings and memory, while the pain sensor integrates all three technologies.


PhD researcher Md Ataur Rahman said the memory cells in each prototype were responsible for triggering a response when the pressure, heat or pain reached a set threshold.

“We’ve essentially created the first electronic somatosensors – replicating the key features of the body’s complex system of neurons, neural pathways and receptors that drive our perception of sensory stimuli,” he said.


“While some existing technologies have used electrical signals to mimic different levels of pain, these new devices can react to real mechanical pressure, temperature and pain, and deliver the right electronic response.
“It means our artificial skin knows the difference between gently touching a pin with your finger or accidentally stabbing yourself with it – a critical distinction that has never been achieved before electronically.”


The research was supported by the Australian Research Council and undertaken at RMIT’s state-of-the-art Micro Nano Research Facility for micro/nano-fabrication and device prototyping.
‘Artificial Somatosensors: Feedback receptors for electronic skins’, in collaboration with the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (Bangladesh), is published in Advanced Intelligent Systems

Microsoft’s AI for Health supports COVID-19 vaccine development

 Vaxine Research Director, Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky.

Given the global urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, Microsoft’s AI for Health program has stepped in to support the development and potential deployment of Vaxine’s COVAX-19™ vaccine with a philanthropic grant.

Vaxine Pty Ltd, a biotechnology company based in South Australia, uses computational and artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies to accelerate pandemic vaccine and drug development with the aim to reduce drug development processes that normally take decades down to just weeks.

The Microsoft AI and Azure cloud capabilities will help the company accelerate clinical testing of its COVAX-19™ vaccine.

“Large international Phase 3 vaccine trials are extraordinarily complex and generate vast amounts of data that needs to be efficiently processed”, says Vaxine Research Director, Flinders University Professor Nikolai Petrovsky.

“Supported by Microsoft technology, we aim to collect and analyse the COVAX-19™ trial data in real time, rather than waiting until the end of the trial before seeing if the vaccine is working, which is the traditional process.”

At the beginning of July, Vaxine launched a Phase 1 trial of its COVAX-19™ vaccine, with all vaccinations in the 40 volunteers now completed. The focus is now to advance COVAX-19™ into pivotal Phase 2 and 3 trials to enable applications for marketing approval before the end of the year.

“We are proud to support the pandemic research being done at Vaxine,” says John Kahan, Chief Data Analytics Officer and global lead of the AI for Health program. “Microsoft’s AI and Azure technology supports organizations accelerate the work being done to better understand and develop solutions to fight COVID-19 and make them globally accessible.”

“This new partnership with Microsoft’s AI for Health – together with our existing partnerships with leading universities, manufacturers and government funding agencies – are vital to Vaxine’s ability to make its Covax-19™ vaccine globally available in the shortest possible time”, adds Vaxine Business Manager Sharen Pringle.

This project will also seek to use this live-fire pandemic vaccine development program, to see whether it is possible to re-design the way in which future pandemic trials are designed and managed.  The goal will be to reduce the time needed to access valuable results, allowing faster transfer of positive results to clinicians working at the frontline.

Covax-19™ was the first Australian-developed COVID-19 vaccine to commence human clinical trials and is based on a recombinant spike protein manufactured in insect cells combined with Vaxine’s unique non-inflammatory Advax adjuvant. This is expected to provide a safe and well tolerated vaccine that is able to induce potent T cell responses and antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Professor Petrovsky’s most recent online presentation was at the ‘Integrated Strategies to Combat the Pandemic COVID-19’ forum on 20-21 August 2020, run by the Department of Biochemistry, School of Life Sciences, Central University of Rajasthan, India. 

ANSTO’s partnership with the National Robotics & Automation Group

The National Robotics and Automation Group (NRAG) has been established as a collaboration of leading Southern Sydney based industrial automation, robotics and technology companies.

The NRAG will partner with ANSTO to develop robotic and automated systems for the use in nuclear and other complex industry environments.

The NRAG will become a valued partner to ANSTO’s growing innovation activities in the Sutherland Shire. 

It will provide innovative solutions for ANSTO which could have global market appeal within the nuclear industry, enabling Australian industries to evolve from robotics and automotive capabilities. 

It seeks to combine the significant industry knowledge of its member companies with ANSTO’s globally recognised nuclear science and technology expertise and significant research and engineering capabilities.

Part of the Southern Strength Agile Manufacturing Network, the NRAG is a not-for-profit promoting the capabilities of the Manufacturing Sector and established jointly with ShireBiz.

The NRAG includes Australis Engineering, Britton Maritime, Chess Industries, Breseight Engineering, Jar-aerospace, University of Wollongong, and Yokogawa.

ANSTO’s Chief Engineer, Con Lyras said, “this is an exciting new partnership that will bring together the expertise of some of Sydney’s leading industrial robotics and automotive technology companies.”

“Shire Biz, Southern Strength and ANSTO will collaborate to develop new solutions and systems for use in a wide range of industry sectors, including the global nuclear industry.

“The sky really is the limit, this type of collaboration could also lead to advancements in systems for space exploration, for example, as we have a nandin member currently working in this area.”

NRAG members have already begun meeting and are working with ANSTO to identify projects to assist in automating present and future facilities.

Careers with STEM: Engineering + Resources

Let’s celebrate the E in STEM! 

A recent youth survey by the Australian Government found that of all the STEM disciplines, students were most confused about what engineering is. And yet 95% of engineering grads find work in their area within three months! 

In the latest edition of Careers with STEM, published by STEM-specialists communications agency Refraction Media, we explain what engineering is all about and showcase a diverse mix of real-life engineers – problem solvers building the cities of the future, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and making the world a better, more inclusive and liveable place.

Supported by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the issue reveals how to take an engineering degree directly to a bank.

“Software engineering is exciting and rewarding, with problem-solving , creativity and diversity,” according to Ramon Buckland, Consultant Software Engineer at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

Flip the magazine over for a special, 8-page future-focussed Resources edition, exploring emerging careers in the mining and resources industry, including space mining, sustainability, AI and tech and non-uni pathways.

Two copies of Careers with STEM: Engineering 2020 are delivered to every secondary school and university in Australia.

How to use Careers with STEM magazine

Careers with STEM provides educators, students and parents with news and insights about future jobs, career pathways and inspiring and diverse people who share their career journey. 

1. Share with a school’s careers advisor:

It’s predicted that 75% of the careers of the future will require STEM skills – STEM jobs are growing at a faster rate than non-STEM jobs and people with STEM qualifications face lower rates of unemployment than the rest of the population. Don’t let your students miss out on these opportunities, inform and inspire them about the STEM careers of the future.

2. Take STEM into the classroom via teachers:

There are more ways to incorporate STEM careers into the classroom than you might at first think! We’ve listed 6 suggestions to get you started. They include everything from unpacking STEM jargon as a literacy activity, to exploring how STEM skills can be applied in the arts. You can also download a free supplementary classroom worksheet for this magazine here.

3. Promote on your school/organisation/personal social media, or in your school’s newsletter or app 

Parents are the biggest influencers on students’ careers. Inspire your school community to get involved with STEM and engage with your school’s STEM strategy by sharing our posts, profiles and the free digital edition at careerswithstem.com/read-it-here

More free Careers with STEM resources:

Help us spread the word!

Find out below how you can help us spread the word about this great free resource for students, teachers and parents:

  • Register for our free webinar introducing the new magazine and meet real-life engineers to answer your career questions here
  • High-res shareable cover JPG downloads here
  • Connect, tag and like Careers with STEM on social media: 

Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn | Facebook | TikTok | YouTube

Deep insights into virus proteins

As a beamline scientist at the Australian Synchrotron, Dr Eleanor Campbell is helping researchers unlock the structure of SARS-CoV-2. When Australia’s pandemic lockdown started in March 2020, Campbell had only been in her role at ANSTO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, for a few months.

“It was not a boring start!” 

COVID-19 researchers were quickly given priority access to the Australian Synchrotron’s macromolecular X-ray crystallography. This allows them to investigate drug treatments by generating high-quality 3D models of the proteins that attach to the virus, as well as proteins the virus interacts with or builds inside the human body.

Campbell did a Bachelor of Chemistry and then a PhD at the Australian National University, accessing the Australian Synchrotron remotely for her research on proteins and enzymes. She took up an exciting research post at Cambridge University in the UK before landing a role at ANSTO as a beamline scientist. Campbell says her university science training is “absolutely fundamental” to her work at the Australian Synchrotron as it built up her problem solving and critical thinking abilities.

“I couldn’t do my current role without it.”

— Nadine Cranenburgh

Diagnosing with large-scale data

A globe-trotting career has taken Dr Cathy Yuen Yi Lee from Wollongong in New South Wales to the US and Europe.


A data scientist at Google Switzerland, Lee spent a large chunk of her career as a biostatistician tackling public health challenges. “In simple terms, it’s applying statistics to medical and health problems, and can really make a diff erence to public health policy,” she says.

After studying maths at the University of Wollongong, Lee took up a three-year biostatistics training program with the NSW Department of Health, which included a Masters of Biostatistics at the University of Sydney.


She followed up with a PhD at University of Technology, Sydney. This led her to an internship at Google Switzerland, several public health roles in Australia, a research fellowship at Harvard, and, fi nally, her current position at Google.


One of Lee’s projects involved studying risk factors for small and premature babies. Her analysis helped pinpoint priority areas for activities to prevent these babies becoming sick or dying – and fed into the NSW State Health Plan.


While she has landed some spectacular jobs, Lee says
she didn’t start out with a detailed set of goals.


“My university training helped me discover what I wanted my career to be like,” she says.

DR CATHY YUEN YI LEE – Career Pathway

  • Bachelor of Mathematics (Adv Hons), University of Wollongong
  • Master of Biostatistics, University of Sydney
  • PhD (Mathematics), University of Technology, Sydney
  • Data Scientist, Google, Zurich, Switzerland

We can’t let STEM skills become a casualty of COVID-19

Cathy Foley, CSIRO

Universities and other research organisations in Australia have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May, a group led by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel forecasted severe impacts for our research workforce. These included the loss of the equivalent of up to 21,000 full-time jobs in universities this year, including around 7,000 related to research.


Read more: Universities are cutting hundreds of jobs – they, and the government, can do better


These effects are now becoming very real. Universities and other research institutions are losing income as international students disappear. Several universities have announced they will cut jobs, and plenty more are expected.

Recovering these jobs won’t be quick or easy. There will be lasting impacts on our research sector.

At the same time, however, science and technology are essential to the recovery from this crisis, and to the long-term future of our economy.

In 2019 CSIRO released our Australian National Outlook report, which identified the key areas to drive innovation to secure our future prosperity. It said we need to reinvent our industries to make us more unique and more profitable, or risk falling into slow decline. Little did we know we would already be in recession in 2020.

Future economic growth will depend on the creation of future industries such as advanced manufacturing, hydrogen, space and quantum technologies. Science, including social sciences, will also underpin the delivery of many public sector services, including water management, land management and defence.

Invest now to prepare for the future

Expertise doesn’t grow overnight. Australia’s response to COVID-19 has been led by scientists we invested in decades ago. To face the challenges of the future, we need to invest today in the people who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

Both men and women will be the leaders of the future. Evidence suggests women in STEM, who are already underrepresented, are being hit hard by COVID-19 impacts.


Read more: Chief Scientist: women in STEM are still far short of workplace equity. COVID-19 risks undoing even these modest gains


Supporting these women is a key to future success: research shows increasing the number of women in leadership positions by just 10% boosts a company’s market value by 6.6%, or an average of A$105 million. Extrapolate that across entire industries and you are going to get some big numbers.

One way forward

The best response to this crisis will vary for different organisations. CSIRO’s approach is to continue working with universities and business to run programs that grow Australia’s future STEM workforce.

Each year, CSIRO recruits around 100 graduates from STEM higher degrees as postdoctoral fellows. In the past 24 months we have recruited 155 of these, of whom just over a third are women.

This year we are making as many positions available as possible, as quickly as we can. We are currently recruiting 50 postdoctoral positions and we plan to advertise another 20 later in the year.

The challenge

Without a thriving science and technology sector, Australia will not generate the innovation that spurs economic growth.

There are many other postgraduate students looking for placements and jobs, as well as the university staff and academics who will potentially be retrenched.

These are highly skilled people and we need them in our workforce. Our challenge is to support them to be taken up in other sectors by organisations looking to boost research and development, or help them create new businesses of their own.

Continued investment in R&D during economic downturn can give industries and businesses a competitive edge.

Research by McKinsey following the 2008 downturn found organisations were reluctant to cut R&D activities, seeing them as a competitive advantage for future growth. Organisations that gained the greatest benefit from R&D expanded their programs.

With all these skilled researchers coming into the market, there is an opportunity for industry to take them on and increase business investment in R&D, which has fallen in recent years and left Australia well below the OECD average.


Read more: Can government actually predict the jobs of the future?


Either way, instead of letting this amazing workforce disappear, we have an opportunity to help them find a different pathway to impact, one that may also help Australian businesses boost the sophistication of their products at the same time. Lemons to lemonade, as they say.

We need our scientists now more than ever to help us develop the high-value industries that will secure our future jobs and prosperity.

We can’t let our future STEM skills become a casualty of COVID-19, or we will pay for it in decades to come.

Cathy Foley, Chief Scientist, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s cybersecurity strategy

Cash for cyberpolice and training, but the cyberdevil is in the cyberdetail

Damien Manuel, Deakin University

Australia’s long-awaited cybersecurity strategy, released yesterday, pledges to spend A$1.67 billion over the next ten years to improve online protection for businesses, individuals and the country as a whole.

The lion’s share of the cash will go towards policing and intelligence, with smaller amounts set aside for a grab bag of programs from cybersecurity training to digital ID. Much detail remains to be revealed, and whether the strategy succeeds in improving in the safety of all Australians will depend on how well it is executed over the coming decade.


Read more: Our cybersecurity isn’t just under attack from foreign states. There are holes in the government’s approach


The winners

As already announced on June 30, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) (which is based within the ASD) are big winners. They will jointly receive A$1.35 billion over the next ten years.

The funding will be used to:

  • fight cybercrime
  • build a new system to share information with industry about the tactics and operations of hackers, criminal syndicates and hostile foreign governments
  • implement technology and processes to block malicious websites and viruses before they reach millions of Australians
  • expand data science and intelligence capabilities (in other words, more cyber spies)
  • establish new research laboratories
  • transform the Joint Cyber Security Centres managed by the ACSC, including the placement of outreach officers to help support small and medium-sized businesses.

These businesses will be able to contact the ACSC for online cyber training to upskill staff and access a round-the-clock helpdesk for advice and assistance. It’s unclear how the government plans to assess this service, but high-quality advice and rapid response will be the keys for success.

The government will also implement an awareness campaign targeting small business, older Australians and Australian families to help improve community cyber safety. This is a long overdue measure, but it will need to be sustained and to resonate with the target audience to change the security culture and behaviour of Australians.

The losers

The remaining A$320 million, or A$32 million per year over ten years, will be spread over many programs largely aimed at businesses and the education sector.

Large businesses and service providers will be “encouraged” by the federal government to create tools and bundles of secure services to offer to small businesses. The cost of these secure services is unclear.

How the promised “encouragement” will occur is also open to interpretation. It may be the stick approach, with legislation, or the carrot, via tax incentives or grants.

This strategy has its dangers. The federal government may appear to be picking winners and losers in a complex ecosystem of service providers.

Wait and see

Cyber security professionals will be regulated to ensure clear professional standards, like plumbers and electricians. This is a good thing, but again, the details will be extremely important, such as who performs the accreditation, what framework they use, and how the program is overseen.

Businesses and academia will also receive yet more “encouragement”, this time to partner together to find innovative new ways to improve cyber security skills. This means an injection of A$26.5m into the Cyber Skill Partnership Innovation Fund, as part of the Cyber Security National Workforce Growth Program.

The fund will help support scholarships, apprenticeships, retraining initiatives, internships and other activities that meet the need of businesses. It sounds exciting, but again it is light on details and metrics.


Read more: Australia’s National Digital ID is here, but the government’s not talking about it


The strategy also discusses using digital identities such as myGovID to “make accessing online services easier and safer”. While this will help prevent identity theft and may be more convenient, it does raise the spectre of the return of the Australia Card concept. This national central identity register was proposed by the Hawke government in 1985.

We can also expect to see additional legislation introduced later this year, forcing critical infrastructure and systems of national significance to improve their cyber security. This is no bad thing, but it is unclear whether consumers or government will end up paying for it.

Execution of the strategy will be key

An Industry Advisory Committee will be established to guide and oversee the implementation of the strategy. Members of this extremely important committee are yet to be announced.

To be effective, the committee needs to include people from a variety of sectors such as healthcare, retail, manufacturing, finance, agriculture and education. As the government’s strategy makes clear, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for cyber security. The members of the committee must reflect a wide range of needs and diversity.

It is too early to tell whether the proposed strategy will deliver the right outcomes for Australian organisations, families and individuals. Until the strategy is executed, we won’t know whether and how it will deliver the promised safety improvements for all Australians.

Damien Manuel, Director, Centre for Cyber Security Research & Innovation (CSRI), Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Perseverance: the Mars rover searching for ancient life, and the Aussie scientists who helped build it

The Perseverance Rover (Mars 2020) installed within the upper stage of the United Launch Alliance rocket that will send it to Mars from Florida this week.

David Flannery, Queensland University of Technology

Every two years or so, when Mars passes close to Earth in its orbit around the Sun, conditions are right to launch a spacecraft to the red planet. Launches during this period can complete the seven-month voyage using a minimum of energy.

We are in the middle of one such period right now, and three separate missions are taking advantage of it. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope mission and China’s Tianwen-1 have already launched. NASA’s Perseverance mission is set to take flight tonight (on July 30, at 9:50pm AEST).

Between them, the missions will study the atmosphere and surface of Mars in unprecedented detail, collect samples that may one day come back to Earth, and tell scientists more about whether our neighbouring planet ever held life.

Instruments carried aboard NASA’s Perseverance Rover. NASA JPL/Caltech

Read more: Our long fascination with the journey to Mars


What do the Mars missions aim to achieve?

The UAE’s Hope orbiter will study the atmosphere of Mars using infrared and ultraviolet light.

In a truly international effort, Hope’s instruments were developed by scientists at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, working with the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Arizona State University in the United States. Hope was carried from Dubai to Japan by a Russian-operated Antonov aircraft, and launched from Tanegashima Island on July 19.

Hope has no doubt already achieved its primary goal of inspiring the youth of the Arab world. Like most deep space missions, Hope’s goals are a combination of cutting-edge science, technology demonstration, and stimulating the local knowledge economy.

Although accompanied by less fanfare, China’s Tianwen-1 mission is also an extraordinarily ambitious effort driven by clear scientific goals. Building on the success of China’s lunar exploration program, Tianwen is the country’s first attempt at a Mars rover. If Tianwen succeeds, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) will become the second space agency after NASA to operate a rover on Mars.

Tianwen-1 undergoing testing in China.

Both the rover and accompanying orbiter will bring instruments that address key questions of the global scientific community.

Tianwen will carry a ground-penetrating radar that will let geologists peer beneath the dusty surface to examine the rock beneath the landing site. It will also carry the first mobile instrument that can sense variations in the magnetic field, which may tell scientists a lot about how fit for life Mars was in the past.

Tianwen-1 launched on July 23 from Hainan Island. Unfortunately, mission scientists were forbidden from talking to media beforehand, and live videos of the launch were banned (though some snuck out online).

The launch of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission on the 23rd of July, 2020.

China has now demonstrated a super heavy launch system to deep space, and if it succeeds with a soft landing on Mars and deep space operations, it will be close on NASA’s heels in Mars sample return. The idea of a Chinese Mars mission getting the first answers to big questions in planetary science, which would have seemed unlikely only a few years ago, may well become reality in the coming months. Both the Chinese and American programs have plans to return Martian samples to Earth in the 2030s.

Perseverance and the search for ancient life

For now, NASA is still the player with the most experience and the best resources. The Perseverance rover, scheduled for launch from Florida on July 30 at 9:50pm AEST, will be the most complex object ever sent to Mars. The new rover will search for evidence of ancient microbial life in Jezero Crater.


Read more: Ancient life in Greenland and the search for life on Mars


Perseverance is the first in a series of missions that NASA hopes will culminate in bringing samples of the Martian surface back to Earth. A novel system will collect samples selected by a globally distributed team of experts and cache them for future collection. These rocks will likely be studied for decades, like the samples of Moon rock brought home by the Apollo missions.

Italy, Norway and Denmark are among the smaller nations contributing hardware to Perseverance. The scientists and engineers who participate gain experience with deep space systems, share in discoveries and increase the overall scientific gains of the project.

How Australians are involved

Artists impression of the Planetary Instrument of X-ray Lithochemistry aboard the Perserverance Rover, led by Australian scientists, analysing rocks on Mars.
Microbial fossil stromatolite in Western Australia (left) sampled by prototype rover drill hardware in a collaboration with NASA JPL. The stable carbon isotope composition of microfossils captured in the drill core was measured using secondary ion mass spectrometry (right).

Several Australians are also involved in the Perseverance mission.

Brisbane-born geologist Abigail Allwood, based at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, leads the team who developed an instrument on the rover’s arm capable of detecting signs of past life. Australian planetary scientist Adrian Brown is also working on the mission, bringing his experience using remote sensing to study Australian rocks that resemble those on Mars.

I worked on this mission at NASA JPL for several years and, although I have returned to Australia, I continue to serve as a long-term planner leading the mission’s science team and as an instrument co-investigator. The Queensland University of Technology is contributing software that will analyse data returned from the rover, with opportunities for Australian students and academics to contribute to the science investigation.

The geology of Jezero Crater mapped by the Perseverance mission science team including Australians bringing expertise studying similar rocks in Western Australia. NASA JPL/Caltech

The future

Australia is well placed to make important contributions to the future of Mars exploration. But to do so we must collaborate across national borders and find our place in the international scientific framework.

The planning of the nascent Australian Space Agency has largely focused on creating jobs and nurturing industry, but it needs a list of scientific priorities to guide investment in space missions. Otherwise, we risk building a car that is missing the driver’s seat.

At successful space agencies overseas, engineers and private industry work with scientists who conceive and operate spacecraft in pursuit of truth. Employment and innovation come from scientific projects, not the other way around. By following this model, Australia too may join the exploration of the universe, spurring technological innovation and inspiring the next generation of humans in the process.


Read more: Why isn’t Australia in deep space?


David Flannery, Planetary Scientist, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

CSIRO launches Australia’s first accredited face mask testing facility

The new facility, accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA), has the capacity to provide a rapid turnaround on surgical face mask testing, helping manufacturers fast-track the supply of masks for frontline healthcare workers.

It is also a boost for Australian companies who will not need to send masks and materials overseas for testing, saving time and money.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall welcomed the announcement.

“It’s inspiring to see Australian science enabling Australian businesses to supply life-saving surgical face masks to protect our frontline health care workers – yet another way science is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr Marshall said.

“This new facility will give Aussie businesses another solution from science to stop the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

“Science is guiding us through COVID-19, and science will help us grow on the other side. There’s not much Aussie innovation can’t solve, whether it’s finding the right vaccine or creating Australia’s first NATA-accredited face mask testing facility.”

Manufacturers can use test results obtained at the CSIRO facility to demonstrate that the performance of their medical masks is suitable for supplying Australian hospitals, as well as contributing to the global pandemic response. 

Queensland manufacturer, Evolve Group, has recently pivoted to mask manufacturing to help meet Australia’s COVID-19 PPE demands. Evolve’s Managing Director, Ty Hermans, said the new testing facility will support the company getting its masks to where they’re needed faster.

“Using CSIRO’s Australian testing facility means we don’t have to ship our masks overseas, which saves us time and money,” Mr Hermans said.

“It has been our mission to reshore manufacturing ever since we started in 2006. 

“Testing our face masks at CSIRO’s facility aligns with our goal to bolster Australia’s sovereign manufacturing capability and not have to rely on overseas facilities. 

“Evolve Group is confident in the product we have designed and we’re now looking forward to CSIRO testing our masks to ensure they meet stringent Australian standards and can provide critical protection to frontline workers.”

To gain NATA’s accreditation, the CSIRO facility underwent rigorous on-site assessments to ensure it could provide tests that show single-use surgical masks adequately filter biological particles, resist against blood penetration and enable the wearer to breathe comfortably. Manufacturers that pass all three tests will meet both Australian and international standards and can be registered on the Australian Register for Therapeutic Goods.

The face mask testing facility builds on CSIRO’s response to COVID-19, which has included testing and scaling up potential vaccines, using data to model and predict virus spread, and testing wastewater for traces of the virus.

First published by CSIRO.

$20m of vital space sector R&D investment by SmartSat CRC

In a $20m investment, nine professorial Chairs have been established by SmartSat and its partner universities in artificial intelligence, optical communications and cybersecurity for the development of next generation space technologies to stimulate Australia’s economic growth in space.

Adelaide University, Swinburne University and University of South Australia are the first universities to announce three professorial chairs today.These experts will drive new frontier research in artificial intelligence for satellite systems and new space cyber security technologies.


The trio, Professors Tat-Jun Chin, Christopher Fluke and Jill Slay, will form a Research and Development advisory group to refine the SmartSat research program in priority areas for space systems research and development, and boost the translation of research for industry application.


A further six professorial chairs will boost this first-of-its-kind space R&D initiative, with the Australian National University, Sydney University, and the University of NSW also taking part in this nation-building space capability development along with future appointments from University of South Australia.


SmartSat CEO, Professor Andy Koronios, says the appointment of the Professorial Chairs is a significant step towards growing Australia’s space capabilities and expertise and to strengthening international collaboration.


“We are thrilled to announce the appointment of these outstanding Professorial Chairs who will grow SmartSat’s national knowledge network and extend important existing international connections to our research programs,” Prof Koronios says.
 

“SmartSat is committed to attracting high calibre researchers who have strong track records in leading translational research and proven experience in contributing to Australia’s space research performance. We’re confident these Professorial Chairs will accelerate the progress of our research portfolios in vital areas for our space industry and for national security.”

Professor Anton Middelberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research) of the University of Adelaide confirmed that Assoc Prof Tat-Jun Chin is an international leader in AI and machine learning for space applications.
 

“As a global leader, it is very appropriate Tat-Jun Chin brings his extensive knowledge of advanced space system autonomy, intelligence and decision making, on-board machine learning and AI technology to SmartSat CRC,” Professor Middelberg says.

“The mandate of CRCs is to develop sustainable new industries. This requires the right people to fill future jobs and in addition to his global leadership, TJ brings the inspiration and mentorship to build a dedicated CRC activity to deliver next-generation space technologies.”
 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at Swinburne, Professor Bronwyn Fox, says the appointment of the professorial chairs will enhance the impactful research of the SmartSat CRC and drive the growth of the emerging Australian space sector.
 

“Astrophysicist Professor Fluke is a highly respected interdisciplinary researcher and his collaborative approach coupled with his advanced visualisation and data expertise will be important for tackling the unique industry problems that the SmartSat CRC will address,” she says.


“Swinburne’s world-leading expertise in astronomical data processing and visualisation, machine learning and AI techniques, and our internationally recognised Industry 4.0 capabilities will help to develop space technologies that will transform our industries and society.”


Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of South Australia, Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington says global demand for secure systems of communication can be met through smart investment in people.
 

“As a proud partner of SmartSat, UniSA is delighted to be working with the CRC to make a significant investment in capability,” she says.
 

“Jill Slay’s expertise is internationally respected and she will make a significant contribution through her knowledge, networks and her leadership in teaching and research.”
 

An industry-focused doctoral program through SmartSat will further build Australia’s space high-tech knowledge. Five PhD scholarships have already been approved and a further six are under consideration with a total goal of more than 70 PHDs over seven years.
 

BIOGRAPHIES: PROFESSIORIAL CHAIRS

Professorial Chair of Sentient Spacecraft, the University of Adelaide’s Assoc Prof Tat-Jun Chin will build Australia’s largest research group dedicated to AI and machine learning for space and actively seek to partner with industry to ensure timely transfer of the research outputs to industry. Recently, Tat-Jun led the team that won the global POSE challenge organised by the European Space Agency and Stanford University last year, beating many international teams. Winning the challenge, which was to use machine learning to estimate the relative position and attitude of a known spacecraft from individual grayscale images, cemented his position as a global leader in his field.

A leading international researcher in data-driven astronomy visualisation from Swinburneas Professorial Chair of Space System Data Fusion and Cognition, Prof Christopher Fluke will further develop capabilities in real-time, data-driven discovery and decision-making, and form collaborations with experts in artificial intelligence and machine learning, skilled performance, human factors research, cognitive assessment, and user-centred design.

University of South Australia’s Prof Jill Slay is the new Professorial Chair of Cyber Security. Prof Slay is currently Theme Leader of SmartSat’s Cyber Security & Resilience program. Her expertise in cyber security and critical infrastructure protection teaching and research will strengthen links to leading international research centres and build capability this critical area.

ABOUT THE SMARTSAT CRC

The SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre brings together over 100 national and international partners who have invested over $190 million, along with $55 million in Federal Government funding under its Cooperative Research Centres Program, in a $245 million research effort over seven years. Working closely with the Australian Space Agency, SmartSat will make a strong contribution to the Australian Government’s goal of tripling the size of the space sector to $12 billion and creating up to 20,000 jobs by 2030. Priority industry sectors for SmartSat include telecommunications, agriculture and natural resources, transport and logistics, mining, and defence and national security.

Science innovation around COVID-19 beyond the virus

Image: UniSA / Flinders

Testing protective equipment

 Testing will take place at Flinders Tonsley site, and at the University of South Australia Future Industries Institute at Mawson Lakes. 

“This both improves our capacity to respond to immediate demands due to COVID-19, and also provides new opportunities that will support the long-term viability of manufacturing businesses in South Australia,” says Professor Emily Hilder, who is Director of the UniSA Future Industries Institute. 

Adelaide packing company Detmold is manufacturing more than 20 million respirator and surgical masks per month for local and national markets. “In order to protect our vital hospital staff, face masks have to meet rigorous standards – they need to filter out bacteria, resist blood, withstand wear and tear, and yet still be easy to breathe through,” says Professor Karen Reynolds, Dean (Research) College of Science and Engineering, Flinders University.

University of South Australia’s A/Prof Colin Hall and Senior Research Fellow
Dr Christiane Schulz.

Surveying mental health

Professor Susan Rossell from Swinburne University is conducting a monthly survey of the mental health and wellbeing of Australians in the face of COVID-19, which will tell researchers what is causing most stress – finances, family or friends.

Dr Stan Steindl from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology is co-lead on an international consortium looking at the psychological effects of COVID-19 in 18 countries, and how compassion can help reduce pandemic-related stress.

Responding in regional areas 

Charles Sturt University established an internal fund for research projects that could achieve fast outcomes and improve our understanding of the impacts of COVID-19 on regional communities. Funded projects include research into the effects of chronic exercise on mitigating viral infection, and how culturally and linguistically diverse people in rural areas were impacted by racism related to COVID-19. Research led by Prof Jade Forwood investigating the structural binding relationships of virus proteins to novel therapeutic targets was also fast-tracked.

Making masks 

The University of Western Australia teamed up with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to manufacture 10,000 face shields for WA health workers. At the Australian National University, quantum physicist Dr John Debs mobilised the university’s Maker Space community to produce 17,000 plastic face shields, along with utility masks for general practitioners and other medical workers in the ACT and NSW.

Helping home education thrive 

The Science Faculty at the University of Western Australia created a website with online learning resources to support teachers, students and parents. Griffith University teaching staff set up weekly STEM challenges for students in Years 5–12 designed to be completed with materials and resources students had at home.

Protecting us in the future

Macquarie University’s Honorary Associate Professor Denis Bauer and colleagues at CSIRO used complex algorithms to compare genomes of more than 180 separate genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from around the world. The data shows how the virus is mutating, and how different the individual isolates are from each other. The team has identified the most common virus strains, and therefore the best candidates to choose for testing vaccines. The team is now working with international collaborators to capture clinical data in a secure interoperable way to monitor emerging strains that might cause more severe disease.

From sewage tracing to the DNA Zoo: Research responses to COVID-19

Image: UWA’s Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur.

“We have something that turned out to be my worst nightmare,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist in the US, told biotechnology executives at a virtual conference in June. “In a period of four months, it has devastated the world.”

At the time, it was six months after the world learned that a new virus — SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) — had jumped to humans in Wuhan, China. More than 7.2 million people were known to be infected globally, and 411,000 had died of the disease it causes, COVID-19.

The numbers have since climbed astronomically, and it could easily have been a calamity for Australia. When the first four travellers from China tested positive on Jan 25 – one in Victoria and three in NSW – Australia ranked 4th in the world, just behind the US. Yet, when Fauci spoke, Australia ranked 67th with 7267 infected and more than 100 deaths, while the US led the world in number of infections and deaths. 

Australia’s position remains fragile and it could not have been achieved without an army of highly skilled university researchers, who dropped everything to join the battle.

One such lightning collaboration was a proof-of-concept study to track COVID-19 in raw sewage as a potential early warning system.

In late March, University of Queensland’s (UQ) environmental health scientists Professors Kevin Thomas and Jochen Mueller approached CSIRO Land and Water’s environmental microbiology group to help accelerate the detection of specific gene fragments from complex sewage samples.

Thomas says the open collaboration of the international scientific response to COVID-19 was immediate and immense. “It is a sign that academic collaboration has changed for the better.”

“It’s been just remarkable,” agrees Dr Paul Bertsch, Science Director at CSIRO Land & Water in Brisbane.

“I’ve never seen collaboration at this scale and at this speed. Most collaborations become strong over time, but building relationships is usually done over many years, not weeks.”

Within three weeks, the team — expanded to include Japan’s Hokkaido University, the University of Notre Dame in the US and CSIRO Agriculture & Food — confirmed SARS-CoV-2 could be detected in sewage, finding virus gene fragments in untreated sewage from two wastewater treatment plants in Brisbane that service 600,000 residents.

Changing lanes

The UQ researchers had been prompted by a Chinese study, published in Nature Medicine in late March, that found SARS-CoV-2 in rectal swabs of asymptomatic children who had nevertheless tested negative to nasal swabs.

Thomas’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences group was already monitoring wastewater to determine consumption and exposure to illicit drugs and pharmaceuticals for the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission. Could they adapt their wastewater epidemiology to find SARS-CoV-2, they wondered?

They could, and the trial has shown that wastewater can be used to estimate how broadly the virus is circulating in the community, especially in those showing mild or no symptoms. “This is a major development that enables surveillance of the spread of the virus through Australian communities,” says Thomas.

Appearing in the journal Science of the Total Environment, it was the first published study of coronavirus surveillance in wastewater in the world. “UQ and that group at CSIRO had never worked together, yet three weeks later they had a peer-reviewed paper,” says Bertsch. “That level of collaboration — not only across Australia, but globally — is really quite amazing around this crisis.”

Protecting healthcare workers

Just as the Brisbane collaboration began, Nigel Curtis, a Professor of Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Melbourne, began a trial of 2,500 healthcare workers to evaluate the immune-boosting properties of an old tuberculosis vaccine, BCG, to protect against COVID-19 or reduce its
severity.

Within a month, he landed a $10 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand his group’s randomised controlled study to 10,000 healthcare staff across Australia, Spain and The Netherlands.

The trial builds on previous research showing that the century-old Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine – still given to over 130 million babies worldwide each year – can boost immunity to a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2. The study will “help our researchers show whether BCG vaccination improves ‘innate’ immunity in frontline healthcare workers to buy crucial time to develop and importantly, validate, a specific anti-COVID-19 vaccine,” Curtis says.

The Australian Government, too, has turned to the university sector, creating the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) to provide ministers with an overview of the best scientific thinking on any topic. Led by Australia’s Chief Scientist and facilitated by the academies, it swiftly assembles research experts at universities and research institutes across Australia and New Zealand and delivers a 1,500-word brief within 10 days.

Its partners now hope the RRIF will become a permanent mechanism to provide scientific input into government.

Heeding the call

In January, just as the news of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 broke, genome scientist Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur, from the University of Western Australia (UWA), was in Houston, Texas at the founding lab of the DNA Zoo. Kaur is the lead Australian partner of DNA Zoo, a global initiative with more than 60 collaborators in eight countries working to create reference genomes for threatened species across the tree of life.

Genomes are assembled using high-resolution 3D models showing the spatial distribution of DNA sequences relative to one another, a technology known as Hi-C that was originally designed to study how genomes fold inside the nucleus.

Importantly, it also allows a very detailed analysis of gene regulation.

As transmission of the virus accelerated, the DNA Zoo team decided to pivot into the effort, decoding the reservoir species of bats and pangolins.

“The team also repurposed the workflow to assemble the whole genome of SARS-CoV-2, as the need of the hour was to understand the epidemiology of the disease,” she adds.

Such a high-resolution model of the genome would not only help understand the virus, but track its mutations. While the Houston lab, led by Dr Aviva Presser Aiden, worked up virus samples, Kaur — now back in Perth — beta tested the data analysis scripts through the nearby Pawsey Supercomputing Centre to build reference genomes.

Cheap, rapid, effective testing 

With that data, they were able to develop a diagnostic test,  which not only gives a yes/no answer to a patient swab saliva sample, but also the entire virus genome sequence.

In a bioRxiv pre-print paper, Kaur and her DNA Zoo colleagues report that the test accurately detects SARS-CoV-2 in 100 per cent of known samples, and is more than 95 per cent accurate in even small concentrations of virus (84 genome equivalents per millilitre) — better than the limits of detection for almost all diagnostic methods so far approved.

“It is highly sensitive — it detects very low amounts of the virus. And it’s really fast and very cheap,” she says. Using this method, one technician can process 192 samples at a cost of US$30 per patient, including data analysis time.

The partners have applied for emergency use authorisation with both the US Food and Drug Administration and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. But they’re not done. “We’ve started using this to gather as much epidemiological information as we can, which can be shared with researchers on the front foot of vaccine development,” says Kaur.

“Right now, nobody’s waiting, it’s just an amazing pace. I mean, it’s in none of our KPIs to do this work, and I never thought I would work on a virus genome. But it’s the virus pushing us to do it really, really fast.”

— Wilson da Silva @WilsondaSilva

The vaccine vanguard

Image: Dr Daniel Watterson, Mrs Christina Henderson, Professor Paul Young, Associate Professor Keith Chappell, Professor Trent Munro.

Australia’s long history of vaccine development earned us a position at the frontline in the race against COVID-19.

The expertise embedded in Australian university science ranges from complex modelling to trailblazing in genomic mapping, protein chemistry, bioinformatics and epidemiology. So when COVID-19 spread across the globe, Australian scientists were equipped to better understand not just this virus, but also how we can protect ourselves in the future. 

By June 2, 2020, the World Health Organization had identified 10 COVID-19 vaccines in clinical evaluation and a further 123 vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation. 

At the request of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), University of Queensland (UQ) scientists were some of the early responders, developing a rapid-response vaccine pipeline to reduce vaccine development from multiple years to a number of weeks. 

Their vaccine shortcut uses ‘molecular clamp’ technology to trigger an immune response, research patented by UniQuest, UQ’s technology transfer company, and quickly pivoted to target COVID-19. The team is supported by University of Melbourne scientists who are running independent tests on the impact of the antibody response on the virus in cell culture. 

UQ’s molecular clamp

UQ has since partnered with global biotech company CSL to manufacture the vaccine, with Phase 1 safety trials being conducted in Brisbane from early July. If successful, vaccine production will be scaled up to an extraordinary 100 million doses towards the end of 2021.

“The partnership will enable the rapid development of the vaccine candidate through clinical trials, and by investing in large-scale manufacturing capacity now, we can reduce the time needed to deliver millions of doses of the UQ vaccine to those who need them most if it proves to be safe and effective,” says CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett.

A deep repository of knowledge

A deep repository of knowledge Australia’s long history in vaccine research and the size of our research workforce are key parts of our arsenal, says microbiologist Professor James Paton, Director of the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases at University of Adelaide, and whose grandfather, Sir John Burton Cleland, was Principal Bacteriologist at the NSW Department of Health during the 1918–19 pandemic. 

“Think of the human papillomavirus vaccine, Gardasil, for example, and medical technology such as Cochlear and Resmed — that’s a record of which Australian science can be justifiably proud,” he says.

With colleague Dr Mohammed Alsharifi, Paton is working on a new combination vaccine designed to simultaneously combat two deadly respiratory diseases — influenza, caused by a virus, and pneumococcal disease, caused by a common bacterium. The combination formula would overcome the limitations of the existing vaccines used for both, and the pair hopes to be conducting human trials of the pneumococcal component within 12 months.

Paton points out that in both seasonal and pandemic respiratory disease contexts, people become far more vulnerable to additional infections. Pneumococcus often ‘hangs around’ in our nose and throat without a problem – when our immune system is hammered by another illness, it can cause life-threatening bacterial pneumonia and sepsis. 

Paton says the advantage of doing science research in the university sector is the cross-fertilisation of ideas. “We have access to a wider range of facilities and a critical mass of people with expertise in different areas from our own,” he says. 

Shotgun approach leads to rapid research outcome 

As the vaccine race kicked off, university scientists were already working to understand the evolution of the new threat. University of Sydney’s Professor Edward Holmes is an evolutionary biologist and virologist who co-authored one of the earliest descriptions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, published in February 2020 in Nature and The Lancet.

His colleague, Dr John-Sebastian Eden, says their team researches “all aspects of viral evolution in animals and humans, even in insects”. They scan pathology samples from animals using total RNA sequencing to reveal the full spectrum of microbes present, a technique called Metatranscriptomic Shotgun Sequencing. 

“Sequencing doesn’t just target specific microbes; we can recover any virus or organism that’s present in the sample,” says Eden. “These powerful sequencing techniques were done on lung wash samples from some of the earliest COVID-19 patients in China.” 

In this shotgun approach, all RNA sequences present in a sample are extracted and the fragments are reconstructed using powerful computers. The team then identifies the microbial life present by comparing these fragments to huge databases of known RNA, working with scientists at universities around the world to share their research via global genetic databases. 

These hold billions of records of genetic sequences for organisms ranging from humans to bacteria, archaea and viruses – including more than 35,000 viral genomic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The unique facilities let scientists at Australian universities rapidly process data and keep tabs on the virus through molecular epidemiology, where samples of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA from different patients are analysed and compared with others. That lets us track the virus’ spread in the community, and work out the country of origin for various instances of COVID-19 in Australia. 

“These techniques are powerful,” says Eden. “We are also developing rapid turnaround for RNA sequencing so if an outbreak of a new disease of any kind happens, sometimes within hours, we can identify a novel organism.”

Modelling the spread of the virus

Mathematical biologist Professor James ​McCaw, from the University of Melbourne, is working with colleagues at the Doherty Institute on the modelling that guided the national cabinet to a solid public health response.

“We’ve been working for 15 years in this space to be ready for an event like this,” he says. “We provided advice to the government in mid-January, preparing scenarios of what could eventuate based on our epidemiological understanding at the time, before there were more than one or two cases in Australia and only a few hundred recorded in China.”

This modelling prompted early and decisive government action. “We’ve been prepared and the government took it seriously from the start,” he says.

Western Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken, says Australia was in a strong position to respond through a robust public health system and an excellent scientific community.

“Our public health experts have been really astute, and our politicians are listening to them,” he says. Klinken says that crisis situations can be plagued by groupthink — where no-one queries ideas — but this has been avoided by using innovative panels with a cross-section of expertise.

“They have reached out to the university sector and brought in epidemiologists, alongside experts in the mathematical modelling of diseases, engineers and virologists, all advising on how to plan – and that’s been invaluable.”

McCaw says that unmanaged, the virus has a reproduction number (R0) around 2.5. Unchecked, it would have killed tens of thousands of Australians. “Through our public health response and the commitment of the Australian community, we avoided that disaster situation.” 

– Fran Molloy @franmolloy

University science mobilises in a pandemic: Opinion

Image: Professor John Shine AC FRS PresAA

Science research at universities has a proud history in helping us to understand, protect against, and prevent many infectious diseases, from influenza to the viruses that cause some cancers. But university science goes far beyond medical innovation. In the 2020 pandemic, university science has quickly mobilised to model, trace and track the virus behind COVID-19. It has also focused research on cheaply manufacturing safety equipment, better directing our response to the pandemic through social distancing, improving our mental health research, assisting in the schools’ education transformation and rapidly sharing data.

Across the country, university science was able to draw on its teams and collaborations in the rush for a vaccine, with some strong candidates under development in Australia. Moreover, working with organisations such as the Australian Synchrotron, national supercomputing facilities, Australian industry and the CSIRO, potential vaccines are being scaled up and tested at a great level of detail.

Knowledge-sharing capacity

As a repository of knowledge, networks, infrastructure and smart, agile people, university science has the capacity to address global challenges.

University scientists work in a knowledge-sharing capacity that relies on scientists’ deep networks of collaboration and scholarship. Scientists share their data and knowledge nationally with each other and with industry, and also with international researchers, stakeholders in state and federal governments, schools and the wider public.

People trained by university science and working within the research sector are the people whose expertise will deliver on this global challenge because this is what they do. It’s the capacity to innovate in our university science that will bring us through this crisis. 

Professor John Shine AC FRS PresAA

President, Australian Academy of Science

Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Opinion: Universities must build better funding models

Universities can avert a funding crisis and save many research projects from closing by adopting more sustainable and profitable alternative revenue structures, two leading wealth managers say.

Executive Chairman Atlas Advisors Australia, Guy Hedley said universities should be among ailing industries given priority under a revamp of complying investment criteria under the Business Innovation and Investment Program.

A review of the BIIP by the Australian Government is expected to be finalised in the next few months.

“Universities, jobs and research projects are unnecessarily being cut because of a failure to investigate alternative income sources,” Mr Hedley said.

“Wealthy migrant investors could provide high levels of funding on a longer term to support the commercialisation of university research projects.”

Mr Hedley said a slowdown in Investor Visa (IV) and Significant Investor Visa (SIV) applications and processing times was frustrating the supply of venture capital that supports the commercialisation of university research.

“Applications under the BIIP should be immediately reopened to provide millions of dollars in available funds to support university projects and startups throughout the post-COVID-10 recession,” he said.

Stoic Venture Capital Managing Partner – Investments Geoff Waring said many internationally competitive Australian companies such as Resmed and Cochlear first emerged from university research.

“Australian universities are leading the way with innovations in areas including medicine, science, biotechnology and agritech,” Dr Waring said

“These companies have a generational impact on the Australian economy, innovation and jobs.”

Dr Waring said the slowdown in BIIP applications was contributing to a shortage of early stage venture capital that was restricting universities and their start-ups from bringing inventions to life.