Impact Blog

A research journey on the road less travelled

April 2021
Dr Paul Wynne
Centre Manager, Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre and IMNIS Mentor.


Did the title draw your attention? If so, I apologise for the deception as my career has in fact followed a quite well-trodden path and perhaps I should have written ‘the road less well sign-posted’. In an Australian context, we tend to associate research excellence with our public institutions such as universities and CSIRO while looking askance at anyone that suggests that industry also undertakes high quality research work. This is unfortunate because it is in industry that many higher degree qualified Australians will be employed.

I am now about eight years from retirement and privileged to be leading an Innovation Centre with strong ties to the Victorian State Government, a leading University and many industry partners. The Centre is focused on building businesses and succeeds because each partner brings something to the table and respects the goals of the others. It has also granted me insider knowledge of just how important the relationship between Government and business is to success.

So, without wishing to eulogise my life just yet (I am hoping there are a few more years left), what lessons have the past 40 years in scientific research taught me about the journey post-research training? The first is that your journey doesn’t start at the end of your study, it is already well underway. Perhaps, like me, it began when you walked into the Year 7 science laboratory and fell victim to the hypnotic reflections of your future self in shelves of glassware. Perhaps it started when you didn’t choose a career and simply fell into one.

Either way, the second lesson I would encourage is to spend time to understand yourself and the influences that continue to shape you.

From research training to industry innovation expert

Anyone who meets me professionally, particularly in a University environment, will find themselves asking, “Why is he in that role?” For me, that befuddlement is an affirmation of the part research trained professionals play in the machinery of our industries and it is important to understand for those that find themselves drawn to the truly applied sciences. I should also add that it is reassuring when the initial confusion of a mentee or young scientist changes and they adjust their language and behaviours to tell me that they are now thinking, “I know why he is in that role and perhaps I could be too.”

To understand my role now, managing the MMIC provision of technical advice, scientific and formulation services and training opportunities for the local pharmaceutical and allied manufacturing sector, is to understand my history. Indulge me with a time machine to return to 1980 and the decisions that shaped my career in research.

I am a graduate of what was then the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (now RMIT University) in Applied Chemistry. Others may (and quite a few still do through today’s prism) question my seventeen-year-old self’s choice of this course when I had met the entry requirements for any of the science courses on offer in Victoria. To me, there was no question of where I would study as I was captured by the intimacy and practicality of RMIT, the equipment that was in hands-on use by the undergraduate students and the application of knowledge to the world in which I lived. It was a course into which I absorbed myself and which allowed me a deep understanding of my discipline that I may not have been motivated to find elsewhere.

In subsequent years, I have come to understand how important the mentorship of the teaching and technical staff was and how much I benefited from their years of collective experience. I have also had the opportunity to reflect and see that my choice of course was right for me but may not have been the best option for all aspiring scientists. There is not one size that fits all but there are undoubtedly consequences to one’s choices.

I continued on at RMIT as one of the department’s first two Master of Applied Science students to be selected directly from the undergraduate course. Prior to this time, Masters was open to industry experienced applicants but times were changing. With an Australian Wool Corporation Scholarship, I joined a CSIRO-led project and had the opportunity to make my first scientific ‘discovery’. It did not substantially change the course of industry nor does it bare my name or win any awards. Instead it sits in the obscurity of 1980s scientific literature – a photochemical transformation of an aromatic ring previously considered to be the least reactive portion of an equally obscure molecule. But that discovery represents more than this to me because it opened the world of the unexplored and my interest in working on things that were new. My Master’s work also introduced me to my first professional mentors, to the idea that research was conducted to fill gaps in our understanding of the world and that what we worked on should have purpose beyond our own interests. This was before everyone talked about impact and instead seemed to simply contribute what was needed for the project at hand.

The two words, impact and needed, are really two sides of the one coin. The impact your research has on our planet, communities or understanding of the world will always be important to why the country would want to fund you to do the research in the first place.

It is not surprising that this clarity of purpose was instilled in me by my supervisors, Drs Gary Amiet and Neil Evans but also by the Department Head, Dr Howard Haines. All were exceptional scientists, communicators and educators, extraordinarily humble and, to my mind, largely unrecognised for their contribution.

Post-graduate study also gave me the opportunity to teach and here my mentor Dr Haines’ passion for sharing knowledge, gaining hands-on experience and for education rubbed off on me. That knowledge gained is to be shared rather than hoarded or used for its power over others is lesson three. Where confidentiality allows, one should not be afraid to teach others. True growth is found in advancing the many rather than in advancing the one. Even today, I still volunteer my time to teach and consider it an important part of my professional duty but also part of my humanity.

Sliding doors, ‘real’ jobs, and the importance of disciplinary foundations

On graduating with a Master’s degree at 23 years of age, it was time to find work and after a respectable time searching, I received two offers within days of each other. Like my decision to enrol in Applied Chemistry at RMIT, another sliding door moment presented and I can only encourage all new scientists to see these moments for the opportunities that they are and not to look back with regret for what might have been. On offer was a position with a large company, based in regional Victoria running laboratory operations and chances of promotion, company cars and a life in heavy industry. The second offer was from the fledgling Institute of Drug Technology based at the Victorian College of Pharmacy. After seeking the counsel of Gary, my mentor and supervisor, I accepted the job that, in his words, had my name written all over it.

My role with IDT was one that was career defining. It was my first ‘real’ job and something that I thoroughly enjoyed. I can still recall my interview with the Managing Director, Professor Graeme Blackman, in which he looked at me intently for a moment then leapt up part way through our conversation and said, “Wait here, you might be better suited to something else.” That is not necessarily what a nervous interviewee wants to happen in their first job interview but on the basis of five minutes’ worth of conversation and body language, Graeme had made a leap of faith that created a position for me in the synthetic chemistry team of IDT under the mentorship and guidance of Dr Ross Woods. If the expression ‘to hit the jackpot’ has any meaning, it was to spend my early professional years with such skilled scientists.

Graeme called on me from time to time to work on his projects and showed me a world of industry-based challenges where solving problems, progressing new compounds and designing new formulations was building businesses, creating livelihoods and employment. With that came the excitement of science that was intuitive, often incomplete, sometimes imperfect but always pragmatic. It was in this space that I have come to feel comfortable. It is the prototyping environment where ingenuity is applied in equal measures to common sense and duct tape and only a portion of the work will ever work properly.

What I learnt from my time with IDT, but did not realise until years later, was not just the value of the customer but the importance of working for collective success of the business. I was star-struck to be introduced to and work with Dr Struan Sutherland, a legend of CSL’s antivenin research. Later, with a micro-surgeon in Sydney, I created my first patentable invention in a non-residual drug binding system that promoted the vascularisation of implanted polymers. I was very pleased with myself for creating something that was so simple, cheap and effective but built on intuition and understanding materials in dynamic environments in an era before easy access to computer modelling. Learning to understand the behaviour of materials in different environments has remained a core skill that I have refined through my career and it has underpinned numerous other projects that also built upon knowledge gained at RMIT. When you next think you will never use most of the ‘theory’ you learnt during your undergraduate course, I will disagree with you. I have dragged obscure facts and equations from my memory many times but am also aware that my project design work is all predicated on the foundations of my discipline.

Building on opportunities with a drive for outcomes

In spite of these opportunities, it took me many years to realise that Graeme and Ross saw in me skills that I did not know I possessed. They demonstrated to me the importance of uniting the people and the science of a project as the inseparable parts that they are. We rarely thank our first employer for the chance that they have taken with their business by trusting that we will rise to the challenge and I would suggest that remembering to do so is a lesson in both life and decency that I can pass to the next generation. That can be lesson four.

It is only in retrospect that we realise how quickly we out-grow our first job. What is at the time thought to be dissatisfaction or ‘itchy feet’ or being under-appreciated is actually our own growth in skill and confidence out-pacing the capacity of the role into which we were employed to change with us. Graduating from your first job may be a right of passage but it is a passage that should be passed through with grace.

IDT unlocked a path for me to join Racing Analytical Services Limited (RASL) when it was founded in 1989. At the age of 26, I was appointed Senior Research Chemist in a role that later evolved to Principal Scientist and the completion of my PhD. I was ambitious for the company’s success and within a year of starting had set a ten-year target for us to become one of the top 5 forensic racing chemistry laboratories in the world. The output of the laboratory grew to be greater per staff member and per dollar spent than any other of its kind in the world. That productivity was because of the hard work and dedication of an exceptional team of scientists that were all pulling in the same direction and working for the success of the organisation. The research goals of the laboratory were tuned to the core business of extracting drug residues from biological specimens and understanding the manipulation of endogenous compounds. It is an area that is now called metabolomics but then was just another part of forensic toxicology. All the work was completed on a very modest budget but the output was prodigious to the point that by 2000, our laboratory presented over 10 percent of all the Internationally published research in the sector. We had succeeded in reaching my ten-year goal. Note well the importance of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to success.

Under the Directorship of one of the original 1989 team and my good friend David Batty, RASL continues to innovate in forensic drug testing to a world standard while also remaining true to its original mission. RASL’s success is also my success and I have enormous satisfaction in knowing that I was a part of this Australian success story.

When I reflect on this, I see that the true purpose of my research has been outcome driven rather than personal accolades. Perhaps others might reflect the same way on medical research and wonder if the true reward is the number of citations for a paper, a glass shard inscribed with your latest award or an unknown patient that leads a better life because of your ideas.

It was at RASL in 2001 that I made a relatively small finding that remains my personal favourite. I uncovered an exquisite metabolite of dextromoramide that not only accounted for the missing 80 % of the excreted dose but also explained the major equine routes of metabolism for the drug while also improving the sensitivity of the detection method by more than an order of magnitude. I am not certain why I am so fond of this work but can only conclude that there is something in its elegant chemistry that showcased the specialist skills that I could bring to the table. Every intending researcher will hopefully have a career shaping moment such as this. Write the paper but quietly enjoy the satisfaction in your own time.

Transitioning from early to mid-career and a new domain influencing business

After a shade over 15 years with RASL, I found that something was telling me to try my hand at something new. The metamorphosis from mid-career to senior roles and the reward of coaching is an important transition that is worthy of its own article and best saved for another time. It is worth my saying that even with a role for which we have a passion, eventually there comes a time to move aside and to let someone else and their new ideas shine.

My career changed to embrace advanced manufacturing with SGE Analytical Science and specialty instrumentation with Shimadzu Scientific Instruments. I will not spend much time talking about these later career moves or the many wonderful individuals that I have met and worked with along the way. Both positions involved a CEO taking a leap of faith in employing me and to them I remain grateful and am pleased to say both remain friends. In both cases, I looked to change the way their businesses faced the world through the development and deep understanding of new technologies in separation science. Critical to both roles was shifting the relationship with consumers from supplier of convenience to valued partner. Both roles were at the nexus between science and people and required the ability to walk in the customers shoes.

My past 16 years have been surrounded by talented colleagues and clients and it is easy in retrospect to see that my successes were the product of the combined effort of many people.

People not projects have enabled my career and my impacts

What does this career in retrospective tell you? I have spoken about the people that shaped the work I contributed to rather than of scientific breakthroughs. Very intentionally, I have named some of my early mentors to belatedly acknowledge their influence on me. The love of science has always been there but the gains were small increments rather than a single career defining event. During my career, I did not split the atom, single-handedly cure cancer or develop macroeconomic reforms that changed the world. But I have made (and hopefully continue to make) many small differences. And therein is the wisdom that I can offer intending students and young researchers.

The things that have mattered in shaping my career have been influenced by people rather than projects. My uniqueness of view, shaped by my parents and mentors has made me a contributor to a much greater body of work. With their wisdom and guidance, ethics always remained within easy reach and so too the ability to understand why each task has been important.

I am still fascinated by the thought that I might one day become proficient in French but I have never had the confidence to speak it anywhere other than alone in my car. Nonetheless, three French verbs have come to describe how I see research. They are voir, avoir and savoir. To see; to hold; to know. These words differ from each other only by the addition of a single letter to the one before, but to me this incremental creep towards knowledge seems an elegant summary of the research process. To see. To hold. To know.

The businesses I have helped to build provide solutions to problems, employment for others and, hopefully, a better world. I still return to most of the businesses I have been involved with during my career, as a colleague, a visiting lecturer, to offer an opinion or analysis, or as a mentor to those now at the coalface. But I also return to them as a friend.

I will not have made an impact on any of the hundreds of projects that have crossed my desk because my name is on a scientific paper but because my approach to the world of science has been to share information and to remember why I am doing what I am doing.

That same philosophy continues to underpin my work with the MMIC as we strive to be a dynamic training ground for innovative thinkers and doers, and to collaborate with Australian pharmaceutical and allied manufacturers to optimise current products or processes and to develop new products that will sustain the sector into the future.

Photo by Bree Evans on Unsplash

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