Growing Sovereign Capability: Australian University Science issue 6

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Science addressing tomorrow’s virus needs, p3 Graduates skill up for our big global challenges, p5

Issue 6, Sep 2021

GROW ING SOV ER EIGN CA PA BILITY University science that benefits Australia

Developing new industries Training the future workforce | Leading in innovation

Growing agricultural capacity from the ground up, p6

Expediting science expertise The COVID-19 pandemic has shown Australia the risks in relying on global supply chains. There’s a growing awareness that Australia needs to achieve a measure of independence (without sacrificing its global outlook) and this will require advanced technological sciences to create local industries in current and emerging fields. The urgent need to build sovereign capability and competitiveness has accelerated the transition of our manufacturing sector to Industry 4.0. Australian universities have a vital role to play in ensuring that we have sufficient people with the advanced skills needed to run such sophisticated industries. Emerging industries present an even greater imperative for advanced skills. For example, quantum computing will, over the next decades, start to transform many industries, as it will improve machine learning, financial systems and drug discovery among many other possible uses. It will also require a whole new skills base: hardware and software engineers, mathematicians and physicists, instrument and material scientists. The key point is that universities have the capabilities to pioneer new technologies and develop the skills to implement them. Australia is fortunate in that it has a strong research base across all these fields. University research groups, such as that

led by Professor Michelle Simmons at UNSW, have been working to make quantum computing a reality for 20 years or more. To ensure that quantum computing emerges as a successful industry in Australia, the scientists/engineers who develop it will have to look to commercialise their work. This is happening at UNSW through its Silicon Quantum Computing spinoff. Australia’s industrial sector will need to look at ways in which it can capitalise on these advanced developments and absorb the skills coming out of university research groups to create new wealth. There is also a role for government. Increased investment is needed to build on our leadership in these emerging fields. The United States and the United Kingdom have recently agreed to strengthen ties in science and technology to create global leadership in emerging technologies. Their agreement aims to strengthen cooperation in areas such as the resilience and security of critical supply chains, and also realise the full potential of quantum technologies. Australia cannot replicate their financial commitment, but it needs to play its part. Professor Hugh Bradlow President, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering


Exploring the achievements of university science in building Australia’s sovereign capability Australia’s strong science research and training is integral to driving new economies. Universities have a critical role as partners in establishing innovation and technological change in industry. As science delivers new insights and tools, new industries are emerging, and people with science skills will be



essential to these new industries. Australian University Science magazine highlights these stories, showcasing exceptional science teams and Australian science graduates working in industry. To provide feedback or suggestions, subscribe or order additional copies, visit

Cover Image: Soil CRC/DPI. Published 1 Sept 2021 by Refraction Media on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science. Designed by Jon Wolfgang Miller. Printed in Australia by IVE. ISSN: 2652-2403. © 2021 Australian Council of Deans of Science, all rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner or form without written permission. If you would like to reproduce anything from this issue, email


PREPARING FOR THE NEXT PANDEMIC Scientists in universities across Australia, energised by the pitched battle against COVID-19, are developing a suite of home-made solutions to future scourges. Basic science informs and drives advances in knowledge that address social needs. Nowhere was this more obvious than the extraordinary ability of scientific research in rapidly helping society respond to the pandemic. As new variants emerge and we face the need to develop new vaccines and policies that can let us learn to live with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we look at what’s next and the science these advances rely on.


When the next pandemic virus strikes — as it most certainly will — Professor Bernd Rehm’s team in Brisbane will be ready to launch into action. The Director of the Centre for Cell Factories and Biopolymers at Griffith University’s Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) has, with colleagues, developed technology that allows researchers to quickly precision engineer vaccines in response to a novel virus. And it’s the result of years of painstaking science research and development. “The approach is based on hijacking the assembly pathways of microbial cells to assemble vaccine particles that mimic the virus. We basically take genetic information from the virus and incorporate that into microbial production hosts,” he says. This allows them to create candidate vaccines in the lab that are then available to test in animal trials. The platform relies on metabolic and protein engineering to create a range of tiny polymer nanostructures — such as micelles and polymersomes — to assemble stable vaccines, which safely deliver antigens of the new virus into the

University of Queensland’s Dr Kirsty Short uses molecular biochemistry to investigate future potential animal-to-human virus transmission.

body, provoking the immune system to produce antibodies against it. They have already developed two new vaccine candidates to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. As we’ve seen, the battle against SARS-CoV-2 is far from over: while seven vaccines are currently being deployed worldwide, evolution drives the virus to become more infectious. The more people it infects, the more mutations arise, creating new variants — some of which may sidestep existing vaccines, or make them less effective. Scientists around the world are racing to try and stay ahead of the mutating virus, developing an arsenal of new vaccine candidates against it. Importantly, the GRIDD technology platform was developed locally, allowing Australian researchers to not only respond to new variants of SARS-CoV-2, but entirely new pathogens. Along with a domestic ability to rapidly design new vaccines, their manufacturing process can be easily upscaled within months to produce millions of doses per week.


Where will the next pandemic virus come from? Before SARS-CoV-2 came along, based on decades of research, scientists had expected influenza would be the most likely to cause a global pandemic, and that

Griffith’s Prof Bernd Rehm.

“IF THE PANDEMIC TEACHES US ANYTHING, IT’S THAT IT IS IMPORTANT WE KNOW MORE ABOUT POTENTIAL ANIMAL-TO-HUMAN VIRUSES EARLY.” a new devastating strain would likely come from birds. That hasn’t changed. In fact, the threat from a pandemic ‘bird flu’ virus has got worse: the most worrying variant of highly pathogenic avian influenza, HPAI Asian H5N1, is now endemic in poultry in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. It seems only a matter of time before the virus mutates an ability to jump to humans. To prepare for this, scientists at the University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, led by Dr Kirsty Short, have mapped the genome of the black swan, the bird most susceptible to avian influenza, a disease that can cause severe symptoms and kill the birds within 24 hours.

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Prof Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology.

Image:Chantel Labbe/QUT

PhD candidate Zennia Jean Gonzaga and Prof Bernd Rehm with to the bio-reactor that grows cell factories to make functional polymer particles.

Australian scientists led early investigations into airborne transmission.

By understanding why black swans fall victim to the virus so easily and quickly, they hope to understand how the virus attacks, how the bird’s immune system responds, and glean insights into how the pathogen propagates. “Since 2003, this virus has only infected approximately 800 people worldwide — however, more than 50 per cent of infected individuals have not survived the disease,” says Short. “If the current pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that it is important we know more about potential animal-to-human viruses early.” Her team has already identified genes that are differently expressed in black swans. “We’re annotating immune genes in the black swan genome and comparing them to genes in the closely related mute swan genome, along with other avian species. We’re also employing computerdriven, large-scale comparisons of these genomes,” says Short. It’s the kind of research that may help find chinks in H5N1’s armour in preparation for doing battle in the years ahead. 4



One good thing to come out of COVID-19 has been the acceptance in medical circles of how easily viruses transmit through the air — partly thanks to Professor Lidia Morawska, Director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at the Queensland University of Technology. In May 2021, the aerosol physicist led a group of 239 scientists from around the world — including physicians, virologists and epidemiologists — to convince the World Health Organisation that airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2 was not only possible, but actually happening. Mitigating this risk in buildings will require an overhaul of national buildings codes, adding ‘air quality’ as top priority for indoor ventilation. But Morawska argues this is needed not just to fight pandemics; poor indoor air quality is increasingly recognised by scientists as a health issue. Australians spend 90% of their time indoors — in homes, schools, restaurants, offices, public buildings or inside cars.

As buildings become better sealed from the outside, pollutants within are being found at high concentrations. The medical cost of indoor air pollutants alone runs at $140 million a year, while its wider burden to the economy may be as high as $12 billion a year. “We need building engineering controls that take into account the physics knowledge we already have about airborne infection and transmission,” she says. “But we also need a paradigm change in how buildings are designed, equipped and operated, to minimise all airborne risks — not just infection transmission, but airborne particulate matter emitted by industry, transport, bushfires and dust storms.” While indoor air quality is a developing science, it’s an issue that is rising to prominence — partly thanks to COVID-19 and the repeated instances of airborne transmission, which have led to large-scale transmission and lockdowns with devastating economic impacts. While new codes would apply only to new buildings, older buildings should also have ventilation systems retrofitted, Morawska says. This would not only minimise infection transmission in future pandemics, but dramatically reduce the incidence of respiratory disease from indoor air pollutants. “When inhaled, fine particles can damage heart and brain function, circulation, breathing and the immune and endocrine systems,” she says. Her centre is developing scientific and engineering solutions to suppress airborne transmission of respiratory viruses, including intelligent building systems, new quantitative methods for assessing a plethora of indoor air risks and practical tools to improve indoor environments. COVID-19 has forced us to take the existing science more seriously, which will make our workplaces healthier. And that’s a good thing, she says. — Wilson da Silva



Associate Professor Marco Petasecca is securing Australia’s space-faring future by establishing local testing facilities to certify Australian electronic components for space. Exposed to extreme temperatures and spacecraft vibration, space-bound electronics must also withstand collisions with high-energy particles from solar winds and cosmic rays. This can cause catastrophic radiation damage known as a Single Event Effect (SEE). Petasecca is the lead for the new National Space Qualification Network (NSQN) at the University of Wollongong (UOW). There, his team will design a laserbased facility to test components’ ability to endure SEE, as part of a six-partner consortium from Australian universities and industry establishing the first sovereign facilities to test and certify space-bound electronics. “You can approximate the result you get from particles using very intense light,” says Petasecca. This is much cheaper and simpler than using a particle accelerator. Petasecca pioneered this concept in Italy where he founded a startup currently running testing projects for the European Space Agency. He joined UOW as he was more interested in physics than design, and became a theme leader for UOW’s Centre for Medical Radiation Physics. He also enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at UOW to familiarise himself with Australia’s teaching environment. This degree also provided a deep comprehension of modern theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, which will help him understand the processes at play when designing the NQSN facility. Until now, electronic components for space have been tested overseas, however Petasecca stresses the importance of onshore testing facilities for military and space electronics. “It’s very expensive and needs a level of security that you may not want to give to another country,” he says.

As a validation specialist at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) company Seqirus, Helen Tower is helping the Australian pharmaceutical industry cement its ability to locally manufacture life-saving vaccines. “I thought it was cool that our bodies have our own little army fighting against the ‘bad guys’ of infection and disease,” says Helen, an immune system enthusiast since high school. Tower’s passion led her to a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne. For her Honours thesis, she collaborated with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to research cancer immunology. Her supervisor, Dr Kara Britt, was Head of the Centre’s Breast Cancer Risk and Prevention Lab. Britt became one of Towers’ most significant mentors. “Kara’s mentorship provided me with the building blocks to become a competent scientist, and she was a pivotal role model for me as an influential female leader in the science industry,” Tower says. Tower’s background in pharmacology and immunology landed her a place in the CSL Graduate Program, based at Seqirus, CSL’s vaccine-manufacturing business. After completing the program, she moved into her current role as a validation specialist, helping develop, implement and validate analytical testing methodology for the quality control laboratories. Tower works on projects related to the testing of Seqirus’ locally manufactured influenza vaccine, Q Fever vaccine and antivenom products. She was also on the project management team for Seqirus’ contract to locally manufacture the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on the importance of the vaccine manufacturing industry.” Tower’s career in the pharmaceutical industry has allowed her to use the skills she gained at university to directly benefit patients. “Thinking critically, solving problems and interpreting data are all important skills that have stood out to me in the transition from university to the workplace,” she says. — Nadine Cranenburgh




Bachelor of Applied Science, University of Perugia, Italy

Founder, MAPRad, Italy

Bachelor of Science, University of Wollongong

NQSN Project Lead, University of Wollongong

Bachelor of Science (Pharmacology), University of Melbourne

Bachelor of Science (Honours) (Pathology / Immunology), University of Melbourne

Graduate program, CSL

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Validation specialist, CSL



Soil CRC Project Leader, Professor Terry Rose and PhD Student Cameron Copeland, Southern Cross University.

SCIENCE SOLUTIONS FOR OUR SOILS Australian farming is backed by a century of soil science critical to our capability to support food production in a climate challenged future. Dr Michael Crawford gets a strong sense of a soil just by touching it. “When you pick it up, a healthy soil crumbles in your hand; it feels moist; it’s got a certain kind of smell,” he explains. But he says it’s thanks to a long — around 100 year — history of Australian soil science that soils can be assessed not just with senses, but with objective measures too. Crawford is CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils, or the Soil CRC. “Australia typically ranks in the top five globally in soil science output every year — most of the fundamental research comes from universities, but CSIRO and state governments contribute significantly too,” says Crawford. “We’re able to monitor soil chemistry, and markers of physical condition and biology, which viewed together give a measure of soil health.” Funded for a period of 10 years, the $167 million Soil CRC commenced operations in 2017. Eight Australian universities are major partners, along with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), the South Australian 6


Grain Industry Trust and New Zealand’s Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. “The Soil CRC aims to increase agricultural productivity and profitability through connecting the latest in university soil science with industry and farmers,” Crawford says. Soils are estimated to directly contribute around $63 billion each year to Australia’s economy through agricultural production alone. Soils’ value increases to $930 billion a year when biodiversity and carbon storage are factored in as economic assets.


Historically, Australia’s strengths in soil research tended to align with institutions that had agricultural science capabilities. Now the range of universities involved is much broader, incorporating basic soil science, agronomy, data, analytics, engineering as it relates to sensors, and social sciences such as economics, marketing and business. Crawford says the regional location and diverse expertise of university

partners means the very latest in soil knowledge can be efficiently translated into action on the ground. The University of Newcastle’s Dr Liang Wang is a specialist in sensors for environmental monitoring, and leads a project aimed at creating affordable and rapid field-based soil tests. “We’re applying sensing technologies to develop lab-on-a-chip technology for real time analysis of soil,” Wang says. The chips will measure dissolved organic carbon in soil, nutrients such as nitrate, phosphorus and potassium, and bioactivity linked with bacteria and fungi. “We want farmers to be able to prepare a simple solution of their soil mixed with water, put a drop in the chip, and then instantly read the carbon or other nutrient concentration,” explains Wang. “We hope this capability will allow farmers to collect soil data in a cost-effective, simple way, and help them make decisions – things like what crop to plant, or how much fertiliser to apply.”


Dr Lukas Van Zwieten works at the interface of soil science and agricultural practice. A University of Sydney graduate, he is a Soil CRC program leader, a researcher in NSW DPI, and a farmer himself. Van Zwieten says although inorganic carbon does exist in soils in mineral form, it’s organic carbon — found in decaying plant matter, soil organisms and microbes — that is vital for healthy soil. “The more organic carbon in soil, the better the cycling of nutrients,” he says. “This means your plants are more likely to grow better, you’ll be less reliant on continual fertiliser application, and healthier soil microbes will lessen the chance of plant disease.” “Also, you’ll have improved waterholding capacity, better soil structure and more aeration — together all those things improve resilience of the system and drive agricultural productivity,” says Van Zwieten. Murdoch University’s Associate Professor Frances Hoyle has a deep understanding of challenges faced by farmers in managing soil organic carbon. She is the former WA lead for the ​ National Soil Carbon Program, and was a communicator in the federal Carbon Farming Futures program. Recognising the broader drivers of climate and localised environment, Hoyle likens managing soil carbon to running an active working bank account. “You make some withdrawals as you support food production systems, but you should make deposits over time too — things like retaining organic residues on land, optimising biomass production, minimising soil disturbance or keeping crop stubble in the ground all help,” she explains. Hoyle is one of the Directors of SoilsWest, a body that translates fundamental discoveries in soil science and plant nutrition for applied agriculture and growth of farming

Murdoch’s A/Prof Frances Hoyle (left) and Griffith University’s Dr Mehran Rashti.

businesses. SoilsWest started in 2016 as a partnership between the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD). It’s now centred at Murdoch University, and continues to build collaborations and partners across Murdoch, DPIRD, UWA, Curtin University and CSIRO to support growers find ways to better manage soils. “SoilsWest aims to enhance productivity and secure our food futures,” Hoyle says.


Griffith University’s Dr Mehran Rashti is interested in soil resilience. “In Australian conditions, soils are confronted with drought, seasonal changes, compaction, extremes of acidity and alkalinity, and residues from herbicides and pesticides,” Rashti says. “While a soil can be healthy in the sense that it delivers good productivity in a single year, a resilient soil will deliver productivity over a long time frame, and despite exposure to stressors.” Mehran’s research aims to delineate how organic carbon delivers resilience in different types of soils, in various parts of Australia and for a range of crops. “I’m using a range of analytical approaches to distinguish between different forms of organic carbon to better understand their role in regulating soil resilience to stressors,” Rashti says.


Australia’s soil science capacity is set to grow. As part of a new National Soil Strategy, the May 2021 Budget launched the National Soil Science Challenge, making available new funding to address priority gaps in Australian soils science through a competitive grants program of $20.9 million over four years. “Australian soils aren’t easy — they have their challenges and their constraints,” says Crawford. “Being able to understand and manage our soils into the future is fundamentally important.” — Sarah Keenihan

The Soil CRC has eight regional university partners and is led by Dr Michael Crawford.

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Twenty years ago, Nobel-prize winning physicist and chemist Dr Richard Smalley discovered Boron Nitride Nanotubes (BNNT), a material 100 times stronger than steel, heat resistant up to 3000 degrees and harder than diamonds. Now, Deakin University have partnered in an Australian startup company Li-S Energy Ltd and used BNNT to create a quantum sulphur battery that could power mobile phones for over a week and electric cars for more than 1000 km. The research was undertaken at Deakin’s advanced manufacturing precinct in Geelong, leveraging the expertise of Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials and the facilities of Deakin’s ManuFutures scale-up accelerator. “These results are the culmination of 10 years of research into the development of lithium sulphur batteries and how that is influenced by advanced nanomaterials. The belief and investment in the research program



Image: Aleksandr Kakinen

We may be all made of star stuff, according to famous American astrophysicist Carl Sagan, but exactly what we are made of and what that looks like led physicists studying the fundamental state of matter to the weird world of quantum physics. Now, Australian scientists have used quantum technologies to create a microscope that can visualise at small scales with 35% more clarity than existing technology. This will lead to better medical imaging and improved navigation systems. “We’ve shown it’s possible to go beyond the limits of classical physics, to see things you could not see in a regular microscope,” says lead researcher Professor Warwick Bowen from the University of Queensland. The research was published in Nature on 9 June, 2021.

from Li-S Energy have enabled us to bring our research toward a commercial reality,” say Professor Ying Chen and Dr Baozhi Yu, the project’s lead researchers.


To get to zero emissions, or even close, requires a revolution in mining to supply critical minerals for batteries, solar panels and other renewable energy tech. The University of Adelaide’s Australian Critical Minerals Research Centre is a collaborative, crossdisciplinary effort to increase Australia’s sovereign supply of critical minerals. The Centre’s director, Associate Professor Carl Spandler says the list of critical minerals changes as new technologies emerge, and fundamental geology is needed to understand how and where these minerals are concentrated to ore levels in the Earth’s crust. “Zero emissions by 2050 means we need a lot of these metals in a short period of time,” says Spandler. At the same time, students will need to be more multi-skilled, including being trained in cultural awareness, and understanding environmental implications even in the exploration stage, he says. “In the research space that’s a big shift because exploration geology has previously been a fairly siloed operation.”


With colleagues from three Queensland universities (UQ, QUT and James Cook University), Professor Peter Talbot from QUT’s School of Chemistry and Physics developed and patented a process for producing complex nanoscale metal oxides based on decades of fundamental chemistry research. Spinning out two companies, the Very Small Particle Company and ScienceWorks Consultants, the researchers are using this novel process to produce industrial catalysts for the reduction of greenhouse gases in exhaust flues and advanced battery materials for electric vehicles. Talbot now leads a team of QUT researchers that have produced Australia’s first lithium-ion battery after establishing the country’s only facility capable of such manufacturing. — Heather Catchpole

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