Five minutes with … Victoria’s Lead Scientist, Dr Amanda Caples

Dr Amanda Caples, Victoria's Lead Scientist

Dr Amanda Caples, appointed as Victoria’s Lead Scientist in mid-2016, walks us through her career and shares her love for all things science.

Were you always passionate about science, even as a child?

Yes, I enjoyed reading biology books at Box Hill library when I was in primary school. Also, my father, a representative in the pharmaceutical industry, was given a book for achieving sales targets in the 1960s and it was about scientists discovering next-generation antibiotics. I read it and thought it was just so exciting – it was a real trigger that prompted me to study pharmacology and enter the pharmaceutical industry.

What was your first job?

It was with a French pharmaceutical company in a race to bring a new hypertensive high blood pressure medicine to market. As a freshly-minted science graduate, my role was to develop and run a national ‘phase three’ clinical trial and the medicine we were testing was subsequently approved. It became Australia’s number one anti-hypertensive product because we were able to demonstrate a differentiating benefit for patients with diabetes and kidney disease.

You were appointed as Victoria’s Lead Scientist in mid-2016. What’s the purpose of your role?

To find ways in which science can add real value to our economic development agenda through partnerships with business, universities and the community – it’s all about building long-term bridges between the business and academic communities, and trying to create change within a ‘system’ context.

The Office of the Lead Scientist is part of the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources).

How do you navigate the complex world of business, government and academic interests?

I often say I speak three different languages. I understand where businesses are coming from because I’ve spent 15 years in business communities; I’m fluent in the government ‘policy dialect’; and then I’ve spent several years in universities and research institutes so I know how they look at the world and the language they use.

Current projects?

Currently, I’m overseeing onshore conventional gas studies under the Victorian Gas Program with the Geological Survey of Victoria (GSV). I’m also working with vice chancellors, deputy vice chancellors and deans at all Victorian universities to shift the relationship away from government as a source of grants and encourage universities to become our strategic partners by aligning our respective investment and trade activities. And I’m looking at ways to increase connections between university researchers and the business community.

And you’re working with schools?

Yes, with the Department of Education and Training, I’m involved in developing thinking about what a new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) policy framework could look like. This is at a very early stage but it’s important to raise participation in science and maths, starting from kindergarten through to year 12.

What about business collaborations?

I’m promoting science awareness state-wide with the Royal Society of Victoria and championing the priorities of the Goulburn Regional Partnership across Victorian Government to boost economic activity, tourism and service delivery in what’s often referred to as ‘the food bowl of Australia’. Also, with investment managers, I’m visiting Victorian businesses to stay in touch with their issues and identify opportunities for them to engage with our policy agenda. For example, I’ve recently connected a major scientific equipment manufacturer interested in primary and secondary skills development with our government’s TechSchools centres – a $128 million initiative to build 10 tech schools across the state to help equip year 7-8 students with 21st century skills to flourish in a rapidly-changing global economy.

How has your career helped shape your current role?

My career has been a series of experiences built on each other: we’re all journeymen on the path to mastery. I’ve worked in the private sector (pharmaceutical and biotech); in the public research sector (shaping global research collaborations and working at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in tech transfer); and for 15 years, I’ve worked in this department in science and industry development leadership roles.

Three career highlights to date?

First highlight: about a decade ago, spending eight weeks working around the clock to help put together a package of initiatives for the health and medical research sector in Victoria called ‘Healthy Futures: The Victorian Life Sciences Statement, a $230 million investment in $1 billion worth of mostly infrastructure projects.

Second highlight: supporting the Victorian Parliament’s conscience vote on stem cell legislation, which led to the bill passing in 2007 to assist research into degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cystic fibrosis using stem cells sourced from human tissue.

Third highlight: in 2011, negotiating with the Commonwealth Government and Australian and New Zealand universities to create a funding package to support ongoing operations of the Australian Synchrotron, securing its future. The Australian Synchrotron, a $157 million cutting-edge laboratory research facility opened in 2007 in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton, is a national landmark. It’s one of the most significant pieces of scientific infrastructure built in Australia in recent times and access to this facility has enabled our science community to make important breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer, malaria and HIV/AIDS research, to name a few.

In what way is the Victoria Government opening up opportunities for girls to pursue careers in science?

Via TechSchools (secondary level) and via the Victorian Endowment for Science Knowledge and Innovation (Veski) ‘Inspiring Women’ fellowships, open to female researchers and scientists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The fellowships enable early career women to balance home commitments with work to collaborate with industry, academia and the community and be valued for their contribution.

Best career advice you’ve ever been given?

Continually ask yourself: how do I add value to the organisation?

In which areas is the Victorian scientific community set to shine on the world stage in 2018?

In research into malaria (Melbourne will host the 1st Malaria World Congress in July), stem cells, cancer and neuroscience.

CV snapshot

Dr Amanda Caples BSc Hons PhD GAICD

A graduate of the University of Melbourne with a PhD in pharmacology, Amanda joined the Victorian public service in 2002 as the inaugural Director of Biotechnology. She was later appointed Executive Director Science and Technology to drive the state’s science agenda, developing industry strategies, research health initiatives, regulatory and legislative scientific reforms and cementing international alliances.

Amanda has worked with Commonwealth agencies on national science and innovation policies and programs, notably the Australian Synchrotron.

She also has had a significant role in major research capital initiatives, such as the $1 billion Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, and has been responsible for regulatory reforms including stem cell legislative reform and the establishment of a single ethical review process for multi-site clinical trials in Victoria.