NSW Scientist of the Year

Professor Gordon Wallace, Australian Laureate Fellow and Executive Director at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, was awarded NSW Scientist of the Year at the 2017 Premier’s Prizes for Science & Engineering at Government House on Monday 23 October 2017. In his acceptance address, Professor Wallace spoke of many advances in science and technology including the application of manufacturing techniques and 3D bioprinting to cutting edge medical research.

Professor Wallace was one of ten leading researchers, innovators and educators who was honoured at the 2017 Premier’s Prize for Science and Engineering. His groundbreaking work could pave the way for implantable 3D-printed structures containing living cells to regenerate damaged cartilage, bone and even organs.

NSW Scientist of the Year 2017 acceptance speech

Your Excellency, Mrs Hurley, Premier, Professor Mary O’Kane and distinguished guests, it is an honour and a privilege to receive this award on behalf of the many colleagues who have made important contributions to our research and innovation program over a the past three decades.

To those colleagues and collaborators from around Australia – indeed around the world – thank you.

My thirty years at the University of Wollongong have been very special. I have been fortunate to be a part of an amazing transformation. When I arrived in Wollongong thirty years ago the steelworks employed some 30,000 people and a few thousand students attended the university.

Now the tables have turned and those numbers have been flipped. At UOW we now have a world class research and innovation infrastructure that is taking fundamental discoveries into existing industry, creating new opportunities for emerging industry and indeed creating new manufacturing industries.

I think most people would agree that thirty years ago many research projects were not fully developed to deliver the maximum impact for the communities we work for.

That was not entirely due to the researchers involved. The truth is the infrastructure and non-technical skills needed to deliver that impact were not always in place.

But even thirty years ago some individuals were determined to change that.

Professor Graeme Clark was developing and refining the Cochlear implant. He was delivering a technical master piece while building a team with diverse skills to deliver the output – a team comprising scientists, engineers, clinicians and commercially savvy people.

He was beating a path through the jungle of traditional University research structures to build an interdisciplinary collaborative research team to realise an amazing research vision.

All of this while avoiding the innovation quicksand too often encountered in university bureaucracies charged with “commercialisation”.

Graeme inspired us to believe the seemingly impossible can be achieved. Not just technically but non-technically. It is possible to take fundamental science into real applications that impact on many many people.

Over that period things have changed.

In Australia we find ourselves well placed to build interdisciplinary teams to tackle big challenges. At the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science we are taking fundamental discoveries in materials science into devices and structures to solve real challenges in energy and in medical bionics.

Translating these fundamental discoveries into application is being facilitated by changing the way we think about making things.

By moving from traditional manufacturing into additive fabrication techniques such as 3D printing we have seen rapid progress. The dots between science, engineering and manufacturing have been reconnected.

New catalysts have been integrated into new devices to generate prototypes for water splitting to generate H2 – an important chemical fuel. A new commercial venture – Aquahydrex – has been established in Wollongong to commercialise findings in this area.

On the medical front we have developed ‘bioinks’ based on naturally occurring materials such as polysaccharides from seaweed for wound healing. These developments are providing new opportunities for the emerging company Venus Shell Systems.

We have developed bioinks that are capable of protecting stem cells during printing – stem cells that can facilitate cartilage regeneration.

In parallel we have developed unique hardware- ‘the Biopen’ – a hand held 3D printer to enable the surgeon to sculpt the 3D structure directly into the defect wherein cartilage will be regenerated .This is providing a new manufacturing opportunity for a company that was primarily involved in manufacturing components for the automotive industry.

We have developed other bioinks and customised printing hardware for:

  • Islet cell transplantation to treat diabetes – with Prof Toby Coates (Royal Adelaide Hospital)
  • Treating ulcers in the eye and eventually corneal regeneration – with Prof Gerard Sutton (Sydney Eye Bank)
  • Printing ears to treat children with microtia – with Dr Payal Mukherjee (Royal Prince Alfred Hospital)

… And many other applications.

Advances in 3D bioprinting are also enabling unprecedented fundamental explorations. Our ‘Brain on the Bench’ project aims to create 3D printed neural networks from a patient’s own stem cells.

Using cells from patients with epilepsy or schizophrenia we aim to develop insights into the development of these debilitating diseases and test possible interventions – on the bench.

In this environment today’s researchers are being trained differently.

They are trained to be at the forefront of their craft from a technical perspective, but also highly trained communicators capable of communicating across the traditional boundaries found in science and engineering. Beyond that they are trained to be commercially aware, to recognise ethical and regulatory issues that might need to be addressed to ensure the real impact of fundamental discoveries is delivered to those that can use them.

This new generation of researchers deserves our confidence and our support. The research journey is long and sometimes tortious but these individuals are committed to delivering for Australia and they are well equipped to do so.

The ability to create is back in the hands of the creative.

I have no doubt they will deliver more in the next 5 years than we did in the last 30.