CAREER SPECIAL: The biotech gold rush

By Graeme O'Neill
Tuesday, 17 September, 2002

The biotech gold rush is creating huge demand for people with many strings to their bow, as Graeme O'Neill discovers

In his 1950s novel 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle', science fiction writer AE Van Vogt coined the term "nexialist" for a scientist whose specialisation was connecting specialists from widely divergent fields.

Matt Trau, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Queensland, says the growth of Australia's biotechnology industry has created "huge opportunities" for nexialist-type graduates who can work at the interfaces between biology, the physical sciences, chemistry and engineering.

Trau, director of UQ's Centre for Nanotechnology and Biotechnolgy, says the nano-bio sector provides critical support for biotechnology and biomedical research and development, in the form of new materials, devices and innovative research tools.

"Graduates with these diverse skills are very rare, so there are tremendous opportunities for young people working in the nano-bio field," he says. "The biomedical device sector is thriving in Australia - companies like Cochlear, ResMed, AMBRI, Panbio, Agen and CSL are taking up a large percentage of graduates with skills in the physical sciences, biology and engineering.

"The staffing demands of many start-ups are contributing to this demand. The question is whether we can train enough people to meet it. It's not unlike what happened with bioinformatics -- people with multiple skills in maths, statistics, computer science and biology became extremely valuable, and that continues to be the case."

Trau says the nano-bio sector is a facilitator for what he describes as the biotechnology industry's "gold rush".

"Where a biotech company might work in drug discovery, we're developing gadgets to catalyse drug discovery. We're like the people who made the picks and shovels for the original gold rush."

While Australia has been fortunate in amassing teaching skills in the physical sciences and engineering over the past half century, Trau says students have recently been turning away from physics, chemistry and mathematics, at the very time when graduates in these fields are increasingly in demand.

In consequence, demand outstrips production in Australia - and it's an international phenomenon, says Trau. When Brisbane-based biotech Alchemia advertised for and hired 17 PhD chemists last year, it was probably more than Queensland's universities produce in a year.

Trau says the shortage is most acute in the physical sciences - Queensland's $50 million Australian Institute for BioEngineering and Nanotechnology will seek to remedy the problem.

Focusing on human health

Announced last year by Premier Peter Beattie, the new institute will focus on research at the interface between the physical sciences, engineering and biology. Human health will be one major focus -- Trau says it will develop new materials or devices for implanting into the body to correct health problems, or which will be used for tissue engineering. Other novel materials and devices will be used outside the body, as diagnostics, for rapid DNA sequencing, and rapid screening of potential drugs.

Trau founded Nanomics BioSystems, the first commercial spin-off from the Centre for Nanotechnology and Biotechnology. It is developing innovative nanotech tools for genomics, diagnostics, proteomics and high-throughput drug screening.

He says commercial opportunities in the biomedical device sector are driving nano-bio research. Academic laboratories across the country are increasingly involved in commercialising their research in this thriving sector of the biotechnology industry. "This sector is ideally suited to Australia, because it has fairly low research and development costs and relatively fast time-to-market for products," says Trau.

To encourage more students to develop a mixed and solid background in the physical sciences, engineering, and biology, the University of Queensland is introducing elements of commercialisation into some of its fundamental science and engineering courses.

The university will also offer a new nanotechnology stream for its Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Biotechnology students from 2003, to students of mixed undergraduate experience. Courses will cover the fundamental molecular sciences - chemistry, physics and molecular biology -- as well as in biotechnology, commercialisation, and hands-on research experience in a nanotechnology lab.

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