Twenty five years ago I received a call in my University College Cork office from Prof. Leon Kane-Maguire, then Head of Department of Chemistry at University of Wollongong. I did not know that call was about to change the course of my professional life – allowing me to embark on an incredibly exciting research journey.
This year I celebrate 25 years “service” to the University of Wollongong. Arriving in Wollongong I found myself in a University keen to establish international research credentials and to be innovative in the approach that was used to do that. I have been privileged to be caught up in and to be allowed to contribute to that exciting venture. A start up research grant of $2,000 (AUD) was proudly negotiated by Prof. Kane-Maguire and the University hierarchy (I guess). Start up research funds at other Universities were significantly greater but I have since learnt that enthusiasm, camaraderie and the working environment (eventually) outweigh any lack of funding available.
I was fortunate that at this point in time some of the best PhD students in Australia were also attracted to this challenging dynamic and rapidly growing research environment. Together we forged viable research activities, faced with the challenge of balancing applied research (the major source of our support at that time) with our desire and need to build a strong fundamental research base. A research theme emerged that could satisfy these twin desires and was “sexy” enough to generate interest at all levels in our community – it was intelligent polymers. Polymers, for example, that could monitor and respond/shut down corrosion or that could detect biological imbalances or imperfections and correct them. The concept was indeed visionary (perhaps more so than we thought at the time) with short term outcomes possible and the longer term continually presenting us with significantly more research challenges. Twenty one years later (2011), the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute has come of age and the science is as intriguing as ever. We are excited by on-going discoveries and enthused by the outcomes we see possible by integrating multifunctional behaviour into devices at the molecular level.
For example, outcomes in energy (solar cells and new water splitting technologies) and medical bionics (e.g. conduits for nerve/muscle repair or implants for epilepsy detection and control) are of direct relevance and interest to the community we work in as well as the international research community.
In attracting funding for more fundamental research, I did try to achieve success independently but failed dismally with the Australian Research Council (ARC) – “way before your time” was the consistent message in my ear from Leon. These failures were to see Leon and my worlds become more intertwined. I think at times he was more determined that we “crack” the ARC than I was. Our first successful application emerged after a forced stopover at Shanghai airport – where the Lord Mayor of Shanghai had to intervene to get us out of the country. In this rather stressed environment – where at one stage we were escorted to a room with two chinese guards – the creative juices seem to flow. The concept of chiral polyanilines emerged – and I learnt an awful lot about that area of chemistry whether I liked it or not. Leon also learnt a lot about conducting polymers and together we built a fundamental research stream that feeds into our more strategic endeavours.
Determined to build an international research network, I was permitted to spend a lot of my time on aeroplanes in the Eighties and Nineties. Up to six months of some of these early years was spent overseas, giving talks on our work, building research alliances, and establishing what would be critical personal relationships.
I was fortunate then to stumble across people that shared our vision of intelligent polymer research. An intelligent materials research movement emerged from Japan, led by Professor Takahashi, and the USA, led by Professor Craig Rogers. We at UOW had identified organic conducting polymers to be prime candidates for use as intelligent polymers. At a conference in Singapore in the late Eighties, I had the opportunity to discuss this with Professors Ray Baughman (then at Allied Signal) and Alan MacDiarmid (University of Pennsylvania). Alan, one of the original discoverers of conducting polymers, went on to win the Nobel Prize in the Year 2000. Alan and Ray continued to provide support and advice and in 1995 Alan accepted our offer to be Chair of our research institute’s International Advisory Board, a position he occupied until his untimely death in 2007. Prof. Baughman still remains a valued member of our International Advisory Board and research collaborator.
We surged through the 90’s – the research funding world had finally caught up and we attracted funding from an incredible variety of sources. These included the Australian Football League, Boston Scientific, Cochlear Pty Ltd, CAP-XX, Allied Signal, Australian Research Council, Bionic Technology Australia, Bluescope Steel, Chemtronics, the CRC Hearing, CRC Polymers, CRC Intelligent Manufacturing, CRC Smart Print, CRC Waste Management & Pollution Control, CSIRO, DARPA (USA), DEST, DSTO, Fauldings, Gamma Biologicals, Geelong Football Club, HW Electrochem, Illawarra Area Health Service, Industrial Research Limited (NZ), MM Cables, Monsanto, MTI, NICOP (USA), NSW Government (DSRD), Polartechnics, Quantum Technologies, Rio Tinto, Santa Fe Science & Technology, Science Foundation Ireland, Tecra Diagnostics, USARO, Victorian Government (STI Initiative) and SMR. Our ability to tackle fundamental research challenges and to effectively transfer that knowledge to those interested in more applied areas of research has taken us down some interesting tracks – such as the development of the Smart Bra concept funded by Marks and Spencer and the Intelligent Knee Sleeve part funded by the Australian Football League. Our applied research remains critically interwoven with our more fundamental studies.
In 1990, we hosted the first Asia Pacific workshop on intelligent materials at the University of Wollongong and have gone on to host numerous workshops in the area since.
In 2004, we hosted 1,000 scientists from around the world at our first international conference on synthetic metals (conducting polymers) and now host two biannual events – the ACES Electromaterials Symposium and the ACES Nanobionics Symposium. All of these events were critically important in establishing key strategic alliances both in Australia and overseas. They remain important in sustaining our vibrant international collaborative research network.
The national alliances forged during this period formed the basis of many successful research ventures. In 2003, strategic research alliances with Prof. Doug MacFarlane and Prof. Maria Forsyth (at Monash) and Prof. Graeme Clark (then Bionic Ear Institute) led to the development of the ARC-funded Centre for Nanostructured Electromaterials. Our collaborative work with Prof. David Officer (then in New Zealand) went from strength to strength during the 90’s and culminated in his move to Wollongong in 2007.
This team went on to form a critical component of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science established in 2005.
A large number of highly talented PhD students, research fellows and visiting scientists have contributed to our endeavours over the past 25 years. Details of their contributions can be found through the IPRI publication list. We have over the past 25 years received tremendous support from the University of Wollongong leadership team. It has been exciting to work with Vice Chancellors and Deputy Vice Chancellors who are widely acknowledged as the best in the business. A special thanks for the tremendous support we have received from staff within the Research Services Office over this time.
Their combined efforts, and those of Leon Kane-Maguire, have culminated in wonderful new state-of-the-art research facilities for us on UoW’s Innovation Campus that will ensure that we surge into the next 21 years in even better style. While Leon sadly did not live to see the fruit of his labour, passing away suddenly early this year, these new facilities will be filled with the enthusiasm, creativity and passion for science he left with us.
Here in 2011 – I am astounded by the opportunities in front of us. We have a research team determined to deliver new findings and knowledge critical to ensure the improvement of our quality of life through advances in Energy and Medical Bionics and we have in place the infrastructure, equipment and most importantly the people needed to make these great things happen.
What a privilege!
Prof. Gordon Wallace is the Executive Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, Intelligent Polymer Research Institute, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong.