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Strategy seeks top student talent for marine bioproducts careers

Practical skills training: participants in the MBCRC's first good laboratory practices workshop, from left, Cheng Yang, Adele Mastroyannis, Dr Kirsten Heimann, Abu MD Zafar, Micah Landon-Lane, and Vijayraghavan Seshadri. Photo: MBCRC

Financial incentives and training for practical, in-demand workplace skills are critical elements of a strategy to draw the best young talent to Australia’s emerging marine bioproducts sector.

Driving the development of this sector will require a smart, committed and entrepreneurial workforce, using marine resources in new ways to solve complex global challenges including the future of food, fuel and healthcare.

The help make this happen, the Marine Bioproducts Cooperative Research Centre (MBCRC) is stepping forward with a plan that includes financial support to draw the best students to the sector, aiming to support 40 PhD and 40 Honours/Master degree candidates over its 10-year lifespan.

Dr Kirsten Heimann is the MBCRC’s education and training manager and says the spread of skills needed to develop Australia’s marine bioproducts industry is broad.

The remit of the MBCRC includes the growing and harvesting of seaweeds, microalgae, and marine animals, through to processing and product development. Dr Heimann says the MBCRC’s partners are looking for a wide range of expertise, from marine science and chemistry to engineering, information technology and economics.

Skill development is a major focus of the MBCRC, which will provide financial support for research students working on industry-driven projects. Part of Dr Heimann’s role is to help broker projects between students and the CRC’s industry partners.

“All of the students we support work on industry projects, and that enables any new knowledge to be incorporated into industry practices immediately. The translation of that knowledge and the uptake of that intellectual property (IP) needs to be guaranteed,” she says. Working on solutions that have immediate application will also help students dramatically improve their employability, she adds.

The MBCRC also helps students and industry partners tap into the federally-supported industry internships. However, Dr Heimann says these internships are only for three months, which is often not long enough to address questions from industry partners.

Support for research degrees

Financial support for student research projects is provided jointly by an interested industry partner, the university hosting the research project, and MBCRC.

For Honours and Masters students working on approved projects, a $10,000 stipend; $5000 for living expenses and $5000 to support research-related activities.

For PhD candidates, who must already have a full scholarship, the MBCRC offers an additional $20,000; $10,000 for cost-of-living expenses and $10,000 for research-related activities.

These research-related activities can include national and international travel to expand learning and to share the results of their work; research communication is an important focus for the MBCRC.

There are 10 university partners involved in the MBCRC, and they provide the initial talent pool of Honour and Masters students and PhD candidates eligible for financial support. These include:

· Charles Sturt University

· Deakin University

· Flinders University

· Griffith University

· The University of Queensland

· University of South Australia

· University of the Sunshine Coast

· University of Tasmania

· University of Technology Sydney

· University of Wollongong Australia

It also has 40 industry partners, all with potential questions that research students can help to answer.

“We ask students who are interested in working in our sector to send a short proposal – an abstract – that relates to one of our industry partners, who are listed on our website. I can then provide some feedback and help the student to match their proposal to industry research questions,” Dr Heimann says.

There is currently one open opportunity for a PhD project, mapping the chemical diversity in Australian marine microbes. This is being funded by the MBCRC in collaboration with industry partner Agilent Technologies Australia, to be undertaken at the University of Queensland. Applications close on 15 May 2023.

Practical skills

The MBCRC also provides additional training to enhance immediately relevant workplace skills. These include good laboratory practice and data preservation and record keeping; communication skills suited to different audiences such as a business pitch or a grant application; entrepreneurial and business skills; and understanding different forms of IP.

“We have a large number of start-ups in the MBCRC and IP is big currency for these businesses, which students need to understand,” says Dr Heimann.

Industry partners are keen to see hands-on skills, she explains, which the MBCRC is working to develop through practical training that will be available to part-time Honours students, and to early career researchers.

This will include learning laboratory techniques, how to service and calibrate equipment, as well as marine navigation skills.

“The casualisation of the workforce is a deterrent to research careers. We hope that through our Early Career Researcher program, we can give young people essential skills that will allow them to enter this growing industry.

Indigenous careers

“We are also very keen to help Indigenous people get involved in the industry, and this is very important for many of our partners. We are finalising a syllabus for Indigenous secondary students to help them transition into higher degrees and leadership roles,” she adds.

The initial program, developed in consultation with the Narungga Nation in South Australia, is based on Certificate III in agriculture and fisheries, building on Indigenous connections to land and sea. Dr Heimann says this TAFE-style program is expected to be available initially in South Australia, with the potential to be offered nationally.

For more information about research, training and career opportunities in the marine bioproducts sector visit the MBCRC website, or email Dr Kirsten Heimann .

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