August 2020 Encouragement Award winners

ATA Scientific would like to thank all those that participated in our August 2020 Encouragement Award promotion.

Funding Research amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Given the COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of life this year, we decided to focus our August competition on the importance of consistent funding for scientific research. Multiple sources can confirm that Australian spending on research (including government and industry) has declined over the last few years. This is only expected to fall further as Governments face huge economic downturns following lockdown.  Most research facilities not involved in vaccine development may not be high on the list of funding priorities, but the COVID-19 pandemic may provide a unique opportunity to fundamentally rethink the priorities of economic policy.

We asked our participants to compose a letter to the Federal Treasurer outlining what they believe are compelling reasons to provide significant ongoing funding for Science education and research.


Three entries were selected to receive our award– first prize at $1500 and 2 runners up at $600 each.

Congratulations to our first prize winner, Dr Tushar Kumeria, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), School of Materials Science and Engineering.

Tushar recently moved from the University of Queensland to take up a position as Scientia Senior Lecturer in the growing field of Biomaterials. His current research and teaching focus is on porous nanomaterials and composites for drug delivery, sensing, and tissue engineering. Tushar is an Early Career Researcher funded by NHMRC and ARC. His projects interface novel materials with biology to create advanced nanomedicine and biosensing tools.

“As an academic with international experience, my long-term career goal is to create new materials and devices for biomedical applications, promote STEM education, and train the future generation of researchers”.

Tushar would like to use his award to purchase small tools for a new lab in progress at UNSW.

“I’ve seen drastic reductions in my startup-funds (more than 50 %) due to COVID-19. The small tools from this award will help me set up two optical sensing rigs that will be useful in the development of smart optical sensors using our porous photonic crystals”.

Congratulations to our runner up, Jasmine Francis, PhD candidate at RMIT University, Department of Biotechnology, working under the supervision of Prof Peter Smooker.

Jasmine’s PhD project is focussed on the development of lipid nanomaterials for DNA vaccine delivery, with a particular emphasis on nanoparticle-based adjuvant strategies. DNA vaccines are a promising vaccine strategy which involves using host cells to express vaccine antigens, which reduces the cost and time required for vaccine development. Jasmines’s PhD has involved the development of a novel adjuvanted lipid nanocarrier for a DNA vaccine against a human gastric pathogen, Helicobacter pylori, which infects approximately 50% of the global population and is the only human pathogen classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Agency.

I am very grateful for this award which I plan to use to purchase a FlowJo software subscription to perform flow cytometry analysis from home during COVID-19 restrictions, which will significantly improve my research capabilities during this lockdown”.

Outside of her research, Jasmine has a strong interest in science and technology policy in Australia, and advocacy around diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Congratulations to our runner up, Daniel Urrutia Cabrera, PhD candidate from the University of Melbourne, Centre for Eye Research Australia working under the supervision of Dr Raymond Wong. The research group is working to unravel the mysteries of the retina and develop treatments for eye disease using cellular reprogramming and stem cell technologies.

Photoreceptors are light sensing neurons within the retina essential for vision. Therefore, the damage to these cells has a severe and irreversible impact in the quality of vision and can even lead to complete blindness. Currently, there are no effective treatments to restore vision once the photoreceptors are lost.

Daniel’s project aims to regenerate the lost photoreceptors to restore the affected vision. In particular, Daniel provokes a supporting type of cells within the retina with stem cell characteristics, called Müller glia, to transform into new photoreceptors. He employs a variation of the CRISPR technology, called CRISPR activation, to switch on specific genes that would enable the reprogramming of an already established “cell identity” into a photoreceptor.

“I hope that my project could someday improve the lives of patients with impaired vision.”

We would like to thank all those that participated. The next Encouragement Award will be posted on our website soon.

For more information or to stay informed of other upcoming promotions please ‘Like us” on Facebook or contact us.


Winning entries are below

Federal Treasurer of Australia,

Re: “Jobs of the Future” Depend on Education and Research Funding Today.

Dear Treasurer,

I want to start this letter with a statement from Prof. Mark Biggs (formerly, Head of School of Chemical  Engineering, University of Adelaide) that has stuck with me since the early days of my PhD “We cannot prosper as a society by digging and exporting our dirt (mineral and ores) for too long. Wealth comes from here (pointing to his brain) and not from the ground”. This statement underpins the importance of education and research for Australia.

Advanced economies like the Israel (4.8 %), Korea (4.2 %), Germany (3.0 %), USA (2.8 %), and others invest heavily (more than the OECD average; 2.34 % of GDP) in education, and research and development. While Australia spends considerably less, only 1.79 % (2017 data) of the GDP. A further reduction in these number would mean flight of talent to other countries and further loss of high-skilled job in addition to the already 7700 research jobs that are under threat at Australian universities due to the loss of revenue because of COVID-19.

In the long-term, rapid developments in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) threaten loss of millions of low-skilled jobs (e.g. driving, data analysis, etc.) in the next decade. Unlike the technologies of the past that created more jobs than they destroyed, AI- and ML-based smart and self-learning technologies will create considerably less jobs. To prepare our economy and society for the changes brought upon by AI and ML, we need to prepare our future generation for the “Jobs of the Future” by investing heavily in the STEM education that will result in new innovations and high-tech jobs. Our ally countries like the USA, Korea, and Japan, through heavy investment in education and research over the last century, have created an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship. More recently, the world has observed China to become a leader in complex high-technologies and manufacturing through continuing investment in education and research, and now challenges countries the USA and Germany in innovation and entrepreneurship. This is also recognized by Australian Parliament with statement “There is a high correlation between the wealth of nations, in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and R&D intensity (R&D/GDP)”.

Being an early career researcher (ECR) who just started a new position (8/06/2020) at UNSW in the middle of this pandemic, I’ve seen drastic reduction in my research funding. Like me, many other researchers rely on funding from the university and government for their cutting-edge research and training the next generation of leaders. It is scary to imagine more cuts in education and research funding by the government, under current times when Industrial funding is a the all-time low. Australian R&D, despite years of funding reductions, returns as high as $7/$1 of investment in some sectors. Therefore, to compete at global stage and create the “Jobs of the Future”, Australia needs increased education and research funds today.


Dr Tushar Kumeria, PhD

School of Materials Science and Engineering

University of New South Wales-Sydney

New South Wales-2052, Australia



Dear Mr Frydenberg,

The economic impacts of COVID-19 on Australia are significant, and we will likely see these impacts extend across the next 3-5 years. Understandably, there are a number of important economic initiatives to support Australia’s economy to bounce back from COVID-19 that require immediate economic support, including infrastructure projects, childcare subsidies and wage support initiatives such as JobKeeper. While these initiatives are critical to the immediate support of Australian’s and to prevent a recession, long-term economic recovery will only be possible if Australia supports its knowledge industries, namely research and development in science, engineering and technology.

Australia has a world-class research and development sector producing high quality, high impact research. This sector provides significant economic returns through the development of life-saving medicines, advanced digital technologies, and novel materials. Not only does this sector provide increasingly strong economic returns, but a thriving R&D sector also puts Australia in a strong position in terms of future epidemic preparedness. Australia’s best immunologists and infectious disease experts are currently at the forefront of the race to develop the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, and are contributing globally to the work to develop suitable treatments and other lifesaving interventions, including high capacity medical equipment and PPE.
Unfortunately, Australia’s research workforce will be severely impacted by COVID-19, and these effects are likely to continue to be felt for several years. Australia’s Universities are already suffering economically from the loss of international student fees, and research centres from limited access to conduct research to meet grant funding and project deadlines. Overall, the economic outlook for the sector is concerning. Industry sectors are likely to experiences reduced capacity to innovate, and this decline in innovation will impact Australia’s economic growth by reducing our capacity to develop new technology, limit the advancement of our skilled workforce, and overall reduced production of valuable products and materials.

There is strong evidence to support the argument that Australia’s research and development sector should be considered crucial to our post-COVID economic recovery, and there is now an important opportunity for the Federal Government to ensure that this sector continues to operate in the face of COVID-19 related challenges. Australia’s path to economic and social recovery must be led by a thriving and innovative knowledge industry, which will not only position us as world leaders in research and development but will also drive a skilled workforce and innovation across all industries. By providing significant and ongoing funding for scientific education and research, Australia will be well-positioned for a strong economic recovery from COVID-19.

Kind regards,
Jasmine Francis
PhD Candidate, Biotech
RMIT University


Dear Treasurer,

I would like to make a plea in favour of Australia’s welfare, progress and international competitiveness. I acknowledge that it has been a devastating year, with an unprecedented bushfire disaster, the lingering drought and the worldwide health crisis of COVID-19. I hereby propose that we make research Australia’s beacon hope, to provide solutions for these daunting challenges and to build the foundations of economic prosperity. A clear proof of the importance of research is how scientists from all around the world, including Australia, work tirelessly to understand COVID-19 and develop treatments for this devastating disease.

Education is an essential driver of progress and sustainability. Universities do not only prepare Australia’s future workforce, but they also provide thousands of jobs, research and an economic contribution estimated to be more than 40 billion dollars (1). Sadly, the unemployment and decrease in GDP caused by this year’s harsh conditions, did not spare our education system. However, it is through teaching, research and innovation how we can rebuild, and even strengthen, Australian economy.

Particularly, research products can be commercialised, which would result in economic growth and the generation of new job opportunities for Australians. Research and development (R&D) have the potential to become a solid foundation of economic development; it is estimated that every $1 invested in R&D returns $5 to our economy (1). According to UNESCO’s published data from 2017, countries like Israel, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland have identified the broad benefits of research, thus having invested 4.6%, 4.6% and 3.4% of their GDP, respectively (2). Conversely, Australia’s investment in R&D was only 1.9% of GDP, therefore it was ranked the 18th country within the OECD in this category. These data suggest that Australia could increase the support for research, and that the productivity of research would help Australia to thrive during these harsh times.

Beyond the social and economic benefits of research, it also creates a sense of pride and nationalism. Australia takes pride in being the country that invented the Wi-Fi, the curative effects of penicillin and polymer bank notes, to mention some; nonetheless, with the proper funding there could be many more developments yet to come. Research interests are also endemic, which means that Australia’s problems and environment largely influence research projects. We cannot just wait and hope for other countries to address our issues. The solutions for skin cancer, the Great Barrier Reef deterioration and the droughts affecting our farmers, lie in the brilliant minds of Australian scientists. However, these and many more valuable projects are at risk, and a greater national commitment is vital for our research to progress.

The welfare and resilience of Australia’s scientists, teachers, students and society in general, can be secured through the support for research and education. Moreover, increasing our investment in research and development would be a sensible strategy towards the recovery and prosperity of this great nation.

Yours faithfully,

Daniel Urrutia Cabrera, PhD Candidate,

Cellular Reprogramming Unit

Center for Eye Research Australia

University of Melbourne, Ophthalmology, Department of Surgery

  1. Home – Universities Australia [Internet]. [cited 2020 Aug 30]. Available from: 2. New UIS Data for SDG 9.5 on Research and Development [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2020 Aug 30]. Available from: