Building Australian Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Claudia Vickers (Part 1)

How do you build the ecosystem to have world class synthetic biology?
Building Australian Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Claudia Vickers (Part 1)

[note: this is taken from a in person discussion, some parts have been edited for flow and clarity]


Ross: As part of my wander around Australia, I am now with Claudia Vickers.  And because everyone mentions you when I talk about synthetic biology in Australia, would you mind saying who you actually are when it comes to synthetic biology in Australia?


Claudia: That’s a good question! Who am I?  I guess it is probably fair to say I am a bit of an architect when it comes to synthetic biology in Australia.  I’ve been working for maybe ten years now, a little bit less really in outreach and education and talking to people about synthetic biology as a field.  And lobbying at government, state and federal level.  I spent some time with the Royal Institute of Australia doing Science in the Pub around synthetic biology quite a few years ago now.  And I spent a bit of time in Canberra talking to politicians including our prime minister and the prime minister’s science council for various different things to really build synthetic biology as a field.  So my dad is an electrical engineer and my mum is a molecular biologist so…


Ross: So this is a natural thing for you to do


Claudia: (*laughs*) so I had to be a synthetic biologist.  I’m a plant molecular biologist by training and about ten years ago I came back to Australia and I was looking around for what the next thing I was going to be doing was and I came back to do metabolic engineering.  So I started learning about microbial metabolic engineering and synthesis pathways and I realised that the tools that we had… that the tool box needed to be expanded.  That’s when synthetic biology came on my radar.  Clearly this is what we need but we don’t have it in Australia, so we’d better get cracking.  A lot of work like I said is outreach and education training and building the profile, getting other people interested, travelling to other universities and talking about what we did and why it was an interesting field to be involved with.  I was fortunate enough to secure about ten thousand dollars of funding from a couple of sources to run a workshop in 2014 and that workshop was called something like… “From talk to action, building a synthetic biology discipline in Australia.”  I had about forty or sixty people from across Australia and New Zealand as well, research scientists , a couple of deputy vice-chancellors, a vice chancellor, to talk about what we needed to do within this research space to build a synthetic biology community in Australia.  Out of that came a number of things, a bit of policy came out from that.  Most importantly came the foundations of Synthetic Biology Australasia.  This is a professional society that encompasses Australia, New Zealand – New Zealand is an area ramping up very rapidly in synthetic biology as well – and is looking to partnering within the Asia, Asia-Pacific region.   We also , though that society, we also had signed memorandums of understanding with various national aligned societies. It’s really about bringing communities together, sharing information, we run a conference every two years.  The inaugural one was hosted by CSIRO.

So CSIRO had quite a strong interest in synthetic biology….

Ross: So I’ve heard that acronym a lot.  What does it stand for?

Claudia: Ah!   So CSIRO is the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation.  It’s our federal research organisation, we’ve kind of had just the one nature one, there are a few other federal research organisations of course.  We are about 5,500 people spread across 50 sites across the country.  So we’re known of being able to pull together really indisiciplinary teams to solve problems.  It’s an incredibly collaborative organisation and very industry facing.  It’s been around for a while now and was really established as Australia’s science capability to delivery to industry needs.

So that’s CSIRO.  So fast forward a bit now.  We’ve had the Synthetic Biology Australiasia develop which is now a healthy society running conferences every couple of years.  2016 was our first conference as I mentioned with CSIRO and then we had another conference in 2017, in Sydney hosted by Macquarie University.  The 2019 conference will be hosted by me up here as part of my dual role.  A couple of years ago was advised by CSIRO to apply for this position they were advertising to apply as the Director of the Future Sciences Platform for Synthetic Biology .  So this was a new initiative, at that time a thirteen million dollar investment from CSIRO to really grow Australia’s capability in synthetic biology which was of course an ideal job for me (*laughs*) and was really an opportunity I could not say no to.  I wasn’t willing to give up my research group so now I have a joint appointment between here, University of Queensland, and CSIRO.  I so have my research in this building where we are sitting right now and I also sit across the river at one of our CSIRO office where I am the Director of the Future Science Platform.

So the Future Science Platform is CSIRO’s investment into future proofing science and technology capability in Australia.  They are awarded in areas where there is a recognised strategic need to develop capability.  The idea is that they will re-invent and create new industries in Australia, some of them are shorter term some are longer term.  There are all different sizes. Ours is very large, very diverse of course.  We have five visible sites, the social sciences as well and importantly they are very interdisciplinary.  They are iterative, circular programs that talk to each other.  The biophysical sciences provide case studies for the social sciences work on and the social sciences  does their research and feeds back to the biophysical sciences program and we might alter what we do in response to the social sciences.


Ross: So there is very much a lot of feedback from public perception and engagement.


Claudia: Well, that’s part of it.  It’s broader than that.  It’s social, ethical, legal, regulatory and policy based and institutional consideration around getting disruptive technology into society and getting impact from it.  Impact is not just getting publications and citations but actual impact.


Ross: Like going down to your corner shop and there’s a synthetic biology product there.

Claudia: On the shelf yeah that’s right.  Making people’s lives better, cleaning up in the environment, whatever it is.  So the social sciences is really important and part of that is a lot of education, for both the social sciences and the biophysical sciences, of the cultural barriers that need to be broken down and the respect that needs to be built and trust that needs to be built.  Cause of course if you’re asking people to change what they’re doing and the response to a complete different type of science’s recommendations there needs to be trust and there needs to be very good collaborations then there needs to be very good collaboration and working between those research programs.

That’s a big part of what we do.  I can talk to you in detail about what we’re doing in regards to that… it depends on how long you want my answer to be!


Ross: So from what we’ve discussed so far, I think there’s one side about what is happening in synthetic biology at a sort of synthetic biology at an institute and industry level in Australia and what is happening with synthetic biology at a cultural, legal, ethical level in Australia.  So let’s tackle the first one.


Claudia: so I’m going to take it broader and take it at policy level as well.  There have been federal government policy initiatives around supporting and growing synthetic biology in Australia.  In 2016, I think it was, I went down to Canberra and sat in on  the Prime Minister’s science council and spoke with the Prime Minister, senior officials and the science adviser council about synthetic biology, what is, what it can do and why it is important for Australia to engage in it.  That was part of a process about getting   ministerial approval for Australia’s roadmap for synthetic biology and (*looks around room*) I can’t believe I’ve fun out of copies.


Ross: I do have the 2030 roadmap downloaded for my flight home!


Claudia: Alright! So we wrote that as the result of the process of securing of having that report written.  It was commissioned of the office of the chief scientist, Alan Finkle, who is quite interested in synthetic biology.  He was an electrical engineer as well so go it straight away!  That was commissioned by our chief scientist and the Australian councils, the academies, provided the secretariat services to organise the development of the roadmap.  That includes our Academy of Sciences, our technical and engineering sciences academy, humanities and social sciences, health and medical sciences.  So they come in under this umbrella organisation called ACOLA.

So we had the full length, the breadth and depth of social and biophysical sciences that could contribute to the development of this report.  So it is quite comprehensive in that space.  The findings that come out of that really are meant to inform policy at the federal level.  In 2017, might even be in 2016, there was a call for special input to the national infrastructure taskforce regarding synthetic biology.  Currently I’m on the scoping committee for developing an investment plan for synthetic biology infrastructure in Australia.  We don’t know if we’ll get funded!  But is a fairly major step forward – what is it that we need to build and what capabilities do we need to access or develop infrastructure.  It’s very broad so it includes what people want to run that infrastructure.  So part of that is what are Australia’s foundry capabilities?

We have established a foundry here, it’s a collaborative program. It’ spart of a broader collaborative alliance between CSIRO and this institute at UQ, the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN)  in synthetic biology.  So I’m the relationship lead on that and have brokered that arrangement at the moment.  As part of our alliance program that we have in place or are developing with several universities including University of Queensland, Macquarie University, ANU and QUT and it’s really about building centres of critical mass that can quickly move the technology forward and leverage off of the capabilities at those institutes.  So that’s really exciting and part of our approach at CSIRO is to build a collaborative community of practice that supports growth and development, of a professional society but more importantly links up all the scientists and provides platforms, financial platforms, for them to collaborate on.  So the alliance program is part of that.  We also have co-funded fellowships and PhD student top-ups .  For both of those programs they need both a university or research institute and CSIRO supervisors or mentors and they have to demonstrate there is genuine collaboration there.  There is intellectual flows and cooperation in the research being done.  There are very varied relationships, I think we’ve got 30+ fellows and PhD students and twice as many mentors contributing to that. CSIRO and the universities co-fund those positions with the universities leveraging and making available strategic funds in many cases.

Not an unintended but a wonderful outcome of that is that a lot of the universities have realised this is an important area and have worked to improve their capabilities to strategically fund synthetic biology fellowships.  We have this amazing network of fellows who are going to be our next generation of research leaders in the synthetic biology space.   Part of that program is about developing human resources.  We have infrastructure capabilities, human resources development, of course things like developing intellectual properties portfolios. And as we go forward commercialising, encouraging industry development.  Supporting and growing spinouts.   One of the work practices we’re looking at in the new year is how do we minimise the valley of death between tech development and tech spinout.  One of the things we’re looking at is can we develop a bioincubator space?  A fully sped up synthetic biology lab including high-throughput capabilities where people, once they need to move out of the university, can set up their own environment.  Which commonly happens due to conflict of interests.  Most research groups are commonly funded through public purse, though state funding and taxes here are being contributed to a spinout company and that’s a problem unless the funding is part of a package for that.  So to resolve conflicts of interest they need to get out before they are fledged enough to be out and they barriers to be out are just too high, they do it and they fail or they don’ t do it and we don’t have the spinouts.


Ross: so the infrastructure you’re developing here, how does that compare to the synthetic biology landscape that exists in say the US or the UK?


Claudia: So we’re doing work packages at the moment, both as part of developing our capabilities and as part of a national scoping structure, looking at what is going on in the rest of the world.  We are very well connected with the key leaders in synthetic biology across the world making sure what we do is competitive internationally. We also look at their foundry capabilities and their operation models, how they work and how they function and what they can deliver.  A series of questions we’re going through when interviewing the managers of those foundries see what works for them and use it to develop a model for what works in the Australian context.

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