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A star is born

Cite Magazine
Issue 29 - Winter 2017

The latest edition of Nature Index Rising Stars points to Curtin as the top Australian mover in the national tertiary sector. Why? Here we review Curtin’s research ascendency.

Researcher using lab equipment

When the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) was still a small ensemble of grey concrete buildings pitched in the sandy tracts of a Bentley pine plantation, the seeds of what is now a proud research university were being quietly sown.

WAIT’s pioneers of science included two fresh new PhDs, Drs Mervyn Lynch and John de Laeter. Lynch, who is the Professor of Remote Sensing and Satellite Research, recalls that when he joined WAIT ‘research’ was a touchy subject.

“There was tension between the established universities and colleges of education when I was appointed, and a sense that new entities should ‘know their place’,” he explains. “But many of the academic staff saw teaching enrichment through research experience as two sides of the same coin, so we pressed on.”

The key to the two physicists’ early success was technology. They acquired some of the most advanced instrumentation of the time – including a mass spectrometer, linear accelerator and electron microscope – which led to the renowned John de Laeter Centre for isotope research. From there we can step through many more scientific milestones at Bentley – marine science and remote sensing, atomic and molecular scattering theory, anti-matter and matter studies – and arrive at one of the world’s most ambitious astronomy projects: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

It was Lynch who project-managed the construction of the SKA prototype, the Murchison Widefield Array, which has grown to become a $50 million facility with more than 100 international collaborators.

“It’s no coincidence the SKA is on our doorstep,” he says. “We saw the opportunities early on at WAIT – we were making fundamental discoveries in atomic weights and building satellite technologies.”

“Then, Curtin staff were exploiting opportunities in the geosciences and geochemistry; we were gathering large amounts of data about the Earth and the oceans, and computing capabilities were evolving rapidly.

“The University began building significant research links with high-calibre international universities through joint research programs and student exchange.”

If the sciences were firing up in the 1970s, it was the arrival of the dynamic Don Watts, Vice-Chancellor from 1980 to 1987, that saw research really lift off across WAIT. Watts’ vision was bold – he wanted the institute competing on the national and international stage, and research was the key.

At the time, the Health Sciences division, led by Professor Mark Liveris, was driving allied health research in Western Australia. Liveris secured the largest grant to date from the US Kellogg Foundation to an Australian university, for a Centre for Advanced Studies. Today, the Biosciences Research Precinct at Curtin shines across biomedicine, pharmacy and public health.

Humanities also forged new academic territory, with teaching areas in film and television, interior design, theatre arts and creative writing – which is now associated with the likes of Elizabeth Jolley, Tim Winton and Kim Scott. More recently, the faculty has transformed the digital age for the University, through Curtin HIVE, the Hub for Immersive Visualisation and eResearch.

At the other end of campus, Curtin Business School has high-impact research hubs, such as the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, informing key issues such as labour markets and housing affordability. But it is at Curtin’s core, with the Office of Research and Development, where Curtin’s research strategy is being continually honed.

“In 1992, when the Office of R&D was established, our research income was $5.2 million. Our 2017 target is $100 million,” says Professor Chris Moran, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research.

“At the heart of that growth is collaboration. Most universities have capable research staff, but it’s only through forming national and international collaborations that you can be among the best in the world.”

Moran credits Professors Lance Twomey and Jeanette Hacket, vice-chancellors from 1997 to 2006 and 2006 to 2013 respectively, for building Curtin’s strong research foundations, and says that the current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deborah Terry, has introduced strategies to rapidly build on that foundation.

“None of what we’ve achieved was possible without the leadership at the top – Lance, Jeanette and Deborah are the architects of where we are today as a research-intensive university,” he explains.

Curtin’s long-term research strategy began to pay off in 2008, when its position in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) leapt by 100 places. Between 2013 and 2016, Curtin jumped again by more than 150 places.

“That put us in the top two per cent of universities worldwide – an astounding rise,” he says.

Reinforcing this, the latest national Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) analysis reported that 86 per cent of Curtin University’s research fields ranked as world standard or above – a rise of 15 per cent from the previous ERA report in 2012.

Commercialisation opportunities are a key part of the University’s support for its research community, with Curtin’s innovation program nurturing their ideas from laboratory, to prototype, to spin-off company.

Video analytics company iCetana, for example, invested in Curtin research on pattern recognition technologies, and is producing unique surveillance software for complex environments. More recently, the renewable energies company Renergi was established to commercialise research by a Curtin team of chemical engineers, and has received a multi-million-dollar grant for a biofuels program in collaboration with laboratories in China.

The annual Curtinnovation Awards is also a prime networking event for researchers, businesses and investors, and has been hailed as a standout event in the Perth innovation calendar.

“The national innovation agenda is a massive opportunity for Curtin. Technology and the application of technology to solve tomorrow’s problems is in Curtin’s DNA,” says Moran.

“As a key player in the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre and the Square Kilometre Array project, Curtin has been pushing technology to the limit to help deliver leading international research in supercomputing and radio-astronomy.”

From WAIT to Curtin University, the former sand tracts of Bentley now host almost 60 dedicated research centres and institutes – ranging from the Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living, to the Australian Research Council Centre for All-sky Physics. As Merv Lynch says, “The evolution of research at Curtin has been a period of great optimism and opportunity”.

And on the horizon is the ‘Greater Curtin’ city of innovation. Identified by the WA Government as a ‘knowledge hub’ for the next 50 years and beyond, Greater Curtin will ensure that Curtin’s star keeps rising. But that’s another story …

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