CAREERS SPECIAL: Keeping the pace

By Graeme O'Neill
Tuesday, 17 September, 2002


Australia's biotech industry is flourishing and the jobs are definitely out there, reports Graeme O'Neill

"We have a realistic goal that in 10 years' time we will know what every molecule does in a plant cell. That's fantastic."

Dr Jim Peacock, Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra, is optimistic about the future of Australia's biotechnology industry.

Over the past quarter of a century, he has built CSIRO's largest research division, one with 11 research centres across Australia, and which employs some 80 postdoctoral researchers, around half of the total in the nation's largest research agency.

"Of the phenomenal rate of progress in understanding and manipulating the genetic machinery of plants," Peacock says, "There's nothing more exciting."

CSIRO Plant Industry, like Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Sydney's Garvan Medical Research Institute, and the Queensland Institute for Medical Research in Brisbane, is big, its research is diverse, cutting-edge, and world class.

They're exciting, prestigious places to work, and they attract some of the best and brightest young postdoctoral researchers from around the world.

But they're also atypical, and their very success throws into sharp relief the challenges confronting the crop of new biotechnology research centres and companies mushrooming in the Australian landscape.

Whole new sciences are being born: genomics, proteomics, and something that Peacock terms "metabolinomics" - an integrated view of the metabolic activity arising from the complex, coordinated activity of genes.

The biotechnology industry is evolving so rapidly, and in so many directions, that are no traditional academic paths leading towards careers in biotechnology and biomedical research, or in biobusiness.

The biotechnology business is like white-water rafting: the currents run fast, shift constantly, and the rocks are rarely far away. You learn as you go, and fast, and use your wits to stay up with the play.

A new breed of researcher is emerging, with multiple skills that bridge and integrate traditional disciplines, and alloy them with the new - many have an entrepreneurial spirit, and are motivated to commercalise their own research. They're rare, globally mobile, and competition for their expertise - especially in the commercial arena - is intense.

Prof John Mattick, co-director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, says, "We've reached the end of reductionist biology. We're entering a new phase, with new approaches, new structures, new training, and it's very messy."

The pressure is showing, and traditional mechanisms for funding science have been slow to adapt, according to Mattick.

"One of the problems is that when researchers approach granting agencies, they don't get applauded for their interdisciplinarity or the newness of their ideas," he complains.

"The usual outcome is that they get pilloried by both sides, and dismissed for hand-waving ideas. And to some extent, it is, but if we are to build our research capacity rapidly, we have to try new approaches.

"We've always taken that approach. Our prime responsibility is to discover new and great things, but equally seriously, we try to translate our research into practical outcomes, as part of our responsibility to the community.

"It provides a range of career options for the people coming through, who want plurality, and want to attack the unknown. It creates a quality foundation of research and development for building new businesses."

Mattick, who is also director of the Australian Genomics Research Facility (AGRF), says Australia has been slow to fund genomics research, although the NHMRC and ARC have begun to fund "modest" projects that will create demand for people with expertise in genome sequence assembly and annotation.

"In terms of training, the difficulty is that we need people who can understand the computation environment, write software, as well as understand the biological context in which they're working.

"The way we're solving it is by putting people with these individual skills together in teams so they can learn from each other."

Mattick says his institute is making a "huge" commitment to what he terms "computational biology" - a science that goes beyond bioinformatics.

"Most people see bioinformatics as an extension of molecular biology, which is an extension of biochemistry. It's used to mine data about gene families, gene structures, and motifs - it's very important, but I'm talking about a new science.

"Computational biology is about integrating and analysing very large data sets with a view to developing a picture of how things work in cells -- how biological information transforms into differences in cell activity."

Mattick says the challenge is to develop computer-based models to represent the way in which genetic information is translated into RNA molecules and protein and enzymes, the molecules that mediate all basic cellular activity, how proteins build cellular structures and networks, and how that activity translates, in turn, into cellular biology and physiology.

"It's about representing biology in silico with increasing accuracy, and in four dimensions -- how cellular activity changes with time."

These "virtual cells" will allow researchers to rapidly investigate the consequences of adding new genes or manipulating existing genes, the way in which cells respond to changes in the environment, or to candidate drug compounds.

"The intellectual, computational and experimental challenges involved will occupy us at least for the next generation," says Mattick.

For young postdoctoral researchers and their families, the game is fraught with risk and uncertainty -- establishing a career, and a reputation that may lead ultimately to the stability of a tenured position, requires boldness, resolve, and considerable emotional and financial stress.

Prof Jonathan Izant, director of business development at the Garvan Institute, says some staff are on their second, third or even fourth postdoctoral appointments.

"It doesn't constitute a career track, and that's a global challenge", says Izant.

"Australia is small, and it can be difficult to recruit people with the potential to become independently creative. We try to get absolutely superb postdocs, from anywhere we can - the US, Japan, Europe and Britain.

"We look for expatriates who have gained research experience overseas, and we may seek out people who have worked here before, and bring them back. But we've also picked up some excellent people who had just finished postgraduate degrees in places like Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide."

Izant says the risk and uncertainties of postdoctoral life are counterbalanced by the intellectual challenge involved in working in a first-class institution with leading scientists, earning peer respect, and the prospect of making major discoveries and commercialising them.

Izant says most skills are learned on the job. Two forms of training are involved. One simply involves learning the tools and techniques required to do good research. The second, and most important, is learning how to design experiments that will produce clear and informative outcomes - Izant says it's a skill some researchers never learn, because it's largely inborn.

The hours can be long, and tough on families. "But that's not limited to research, or to the life sciences," says Izant. "Many professionals in the world have terrible dilemmas putting in the hours required for success.

"But at the end of the day, most of our researchers are in the enviable position of having someone else pay them to do what interests them. That's not usually the case in a commercial environment."

Generating revenue

Izant says that, for its size, the Garvan Institute generates more commercial revenue than any other research institution in Australia, almost 15 per cent higher than the average for similar biomedical institutes in the US and Canadian.

The revenue comes from commercial partnerships, licensing agreements, and spin-off companies. "We're very proactive in identifying, capturing and marketing our intellectual property," says Izant.

"And we're very cautious about taking the correct path to commercialisation. Some of the great licensing opportunities in the world have been terrible investments, and if you sell them, you can poison investors' appetites. That makes it difficult to grow the biotechnology industry in Australia."

But it's as easy to lose a reputation as it is difficult to build one, says Izant. "A good name is fragile thing, and graduate students are very smart and perceptive -- they take nothing for granted, and they're not necessarily interested in the big, traditional names."

Careers and commercialisation

"We're sensitive to the fact that there is great inexperience across the market, from researchers to investors, in operating and growing biotechnology companies," says Izant.

"Where we identify a piece of IP, or a package of synergistic properties, our criterion is whether we would be prepared to invest in them ourselves."

Izant says the Garvan's researchers are encouraged to commercialise their own research, but first-time scientific entrepreneurs rarely have money to invest. "Typically, we engage our scientists by issuing them options, which involves minimal personal risk.

"We also have an active program of sharing revenue, whether it be cash or shares in the companies, with the inventors of the IP. It provides a very powerful incentive for excellence."

Peacock agrees that the pressures on young postdoctoral researchers can be intense, but says it is an essential part of any modern scientists' career.

"It's important, apart from their own efforts to do first-class research, to work in the best laboratories, because it enhances one's career opportunities."

Peacock says CSIRO, apart from training in research, also recognises the importance of training young researchers to express themselves clearly to their scientific peers. They are equipped with first-class visual aids that allow them to make maximum impression at national and international conferences, or to speak to lay or business audiences about their work.

Peacock says there are "enormous" opportunities for young researchers in biotechnology.

"Apart from research and teaching jobs, there is an increasing number of private company start-ups, and opportunities for long-term employment in other fields, like biotech patenting, marketing or regulation.

"The job numbers are not huge, and many of them are in other countries around the world - but you can't just live in Canberra, you have to think globally."

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