Nurturing the spirit of human discovery

September 25, 2023

Cradles of innovation, Australian universities nurture the soul of science, driving tomorrow’s breakthroughs.

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Science, at its core, is more than a collection of theories, experiments and discoveries. It’s the human spirit — a dynamic blend of knowledge, individual enquiry and human connections — that powers our understanding of the world and beyond. Nowhere is this more evident than in the labs and lecture halls of our universities.

“To me, the soul of science is about fostering curiosity and empowering communities. It’s about generating knowledge, not adhering to rigid frameworks,” says Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur, a molecular biologist at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and also the Director of DNA Zoo Australia.

Kaur’s background is a powerful illustration of how human experiences and stories form the fabric of science. Her passion for science was sparked as a child in India, when she observed how biotechnology helped her uncle fight agricultural pests and diseases. However, upon graduating from Punjab Agricultural University, she found herself at risk of being ‘boxed into’ her burgeoning specialisation and unable to follow the natural evolution of her curiosity into further research. This led Kaur to Australia’s university ecosystem, where she was able to pursue a PhD in plant pathology at UWA.

“I came here, I was nurtured, I was able to do some amazing work,” she says.

Since then, Kaur’s career journey has been testament to the impact of science that is responsive, collaborative and curiosity driven. Her PhD evolved into postdoc research in plant genetics, including co-authoring the world’s first complete genome sequence of the subterranean clover – a key annual Australian pasture legume. 

A collaboration with genomics experts at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas, which stemmed from that study, then laid the groundwork for DNA Zoo — an ambitious global initiative to create a library of complete DNA maps for threatened plant and animal species. UWA is a leader among the over 120 collaborating partners, across nine countries, that compose the ‘zoo’. “It is one of the most collaborative consortiums I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Kaur says.

Kaur was in Houston, at the founding lab of DNA Zoo, when the pandemic broke out, presenting another opportunity to adapt knowledge across disciplines. Researchers at DNA Zoo redirected their focus and applied their expertise to develop a DNA test for the new virus.

 “This was a new problem that we had the tools to address. We had capacity in the lab, it was just looking at the same thing from a different perspective and asking a different question,” Kaur explains. 

“Collaboration is key,” she adds. “You don’t need to know everything, just the right people, who can support you when tackling big questions.”

The power of diverse connections

Universities nurture science by creating environments conducive to natural enquiry, environments that embrace exploration and the power of learning from mistakes. 

“The great thing about universities is that you are free to explore your imagination and attack things that you find of interest,” says Professor James Whisstock, an ARC Laureate Fellow and Senior Principal Research Fellow at the National Health and Medical Research Council at Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute.

Whisstock celebrates universities as incubators of the human connections – whether serendipitous encounters or strategic partnerships — that so often spark scientific ideas and innovation. “Universities create an environment where people are thrown together, and that’s where ideas grow,” he says.

When Whisstock’s lab discovered that our immune system’s “killing machines” were closely related to bacterial toxins — a finding that bridged two distinct scientific disciplines and informed both fields — it highlighted the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration within a university environment. 

“Suddenly, there’s this wealth of information from another field that became relevant to ours,” he says. “Biology is an enormous network. The problem is, we don’t know most of the connections. When you’re able to make those connections, the multiplier effect is enormous.”

Biology isn’t the only field that benefits from the power of multidisciplinary co-operation. For instance, Professor Maria Forsyth, a renowned energy storage and corrosion science expert at Deakin University, notes the complex field of energy transition as an area where collaboration is vital. 

“We’re only going to make the transition by encouraging change in thinking and community awareness,” she says.

In one project, Forsyth brought together chemistry PhD students and law students to develop ethical and regulatory frameworks for a battery recycling program. “They were teaching law students about battery chemistry, and we were learning from the law students about the legal and social aspects,” she says.

Curiosity and collaboration

It’s clear universities are more than academic institutions; they are vibrant ecosystems that accommodate scientists who come from a range of backgrounds and are often seeking academia’s unique environment. 

“Universities provide a safe space for extraordinary people who change the world in surprising ways,” Whisstock says.

Forsyth embodies this. As a noted mentor in her field, she has supported the careers of hundreds of young scientists — many of whom have gone on to become research partners — and she was recently named a finalist for the 2023 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Early Researchers.

Creating a culture that recognises the importance of failure and exploration on the path to progress is critical, Forsyth says. “Sometimes, what fails leads to the next innovation. It’s about building knowledge and seeing that as success.”

For instance, in her domain of energy storage science, she notes that progress isn’t always about a breakthrough. “Everyone’s waiting for the big breakthrough in battery technology, and of course we want that too, but that’s not what science is about,” she says. “Ultimately, every little piece of science that we do is building on a foundation of knowledge.”

Innovating and clearing obstacles

In the future, Kaur says, we need to acknowledge a shift from a prestige-driven model to a knowledge-driven one. “Universities should be places for following curiosity, not chasing prestige. I never signed up for a race towards H-index,” she says, referring to the popular measure of a scientist’s research output.

Forsyth echoes this sentiment, cautioning that the race for publication in ‘high-impact’ journals can dampen curiosity and innovative thinking. She also champions smaller research groups as more conducive to nurturing scientists, saying, “I would encourage both younger researchers and leaders to work closely with a small, engaged group to find excitement in their work, instead of spreading themselves too thin.”

The heart of scientific progress remains steadfast: the people. They’re the ones whose curiosity leads them down untrodden paths, the collaborators who understand that the most complex problems require diverse minds, and the risk-takers who aren’t afraid of failure because they know it often precedes groundbreaking discovery.

Despite the headwinds Kaur faced from disciplinary silos early in her career, she is living proof of the power of the individual to challenge the status quo, and she is positive about how universities can help nurture this human spirit of science.

“It has been an absolute privilege to be part of the workforce in the university sector, as you get to break new grounds towards knowledge creation and translate existing knowledge into real-world applications working with the best and brightest, while also inspiring the next generation,” she says. 

Written by: Gemma Chilton

First published in Australian University Science. Issue 10 2023

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