Our biotech brain gain
Keeping graduates in South Australia is one of the biggest challenges facing the local biotechnology industry - but now a group of students is doing something about it.
South Australia's biotechnology industry employs more than 1000 people, and generates revenue in excess of $100m annually, with the potential for further growth.
This growth could depend on the industry's ability to attract and retain local graduates, who might otherwise head interstate or overseas.
To tackle this issue head-on, a group of five biotechnology PhD students from all three universities and based at CSIRO engaged the support of the nation's peak biotechnology organisation, AusBiotech to establish a representative student body. The five students were Denise Furness, Michelle Zucker, Bianca Benassi (University of Adelaide), Olgatina Bucco (Flinders University) and Sasja Beetstra (University of SA).
The South Australian branch of the national AusBiotech Students' Association (ABSA) was launched recently and aims to bridge the gap between biotechnology students and industry. It already has some 80 members from the three universities at both postgraduate and undergraduate levels.
One of the founding members, Denise Furness, a University of Adelaide PhD student based at CSIRO, said local students were much more likely to stay in South Australia if they learnt of the opportunities available here while still at university.
"The biotech courses available here are all of high quality, but we wanted to give students the opportunity to gain even more skills and contacts while they are still at university," she said.
"These are things that they might not be able to get just from their university studies. They'll be able to network with people from all aspects of industry, and attend important industry events and workshops.
"One of the best things about an organisation like this is that it will benefit all biotech students, regardless of whether they're in the final year of a PhD or just starting as an undergraduate.
"It will give postgrads a great chance to get a foot in the door and make themselves known to potential employers. For first-year undergraduate students, it will expose them to what's out there and help them think about the direction they want their career to head in."
Denise's personal experience in the field of biotechnology is proof South Australia does have a lot to offer.
"Adelaide has an excellent reputation for its biotechnology - I'm from Victoria and did my undergraduate studies and worked in a few different labs there for a while, before I became bored with science and left the field altogether," she said.
"Then I heard about what was going on here, and that rekindled my passion enough that I moved here to do my PhD through the University of Adelaide and CSIRO. I'm really keen to stay here after I finish."
For Flinders University PhD student, and fellow ABSA founding member Olgatina Bucco, developing even these preliminary relationships with industry is proving beneficial.
"I wanted to be involved in the local ABSA committee because networking in South Australia with the right people has helped me to define my career path. It also presented me with many more opportunities that I would have not received otherwise, including work prospects here in SA," Olgatina said.
"There are lots of opportunities in SA for young `biotechers', however a lot of students are so busy supporting themselves financially and being preoccupied with studying and exams, thinking about their future is not an immediate necessity.
"ABSA aims to make seeking out these opportunities easier by bringing them directly to the students."
Story by Ben Osborne