Director of the Monash Institute for Nanosciences, Materials and Manufacture (MINMM) Dr Abid Khan is a busy man. This is to understate the importance of the work he does. He inhabits rarefied nether regions of cutting edge technology and scientific innovation. He works in that gap area where brilliant and innovative ideas can get converted into products that the general consumer can use. He spoke to Tanu about his work and about how he got to Australia.
Tell us a bit about the current position you hold and your new work with the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN)?
I am currently in two main roles. Firstly I am the Director of the Monash Institute for Nanosciences, Materials and Manufacture (MINMM) at Monash University to which I was appointed about seven years ago. I worked with others from academia, CSIRO, industry and State Government to propose the creation of a new facility/organisation (the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, MCN) geared towards the prototyping of advanced technologies for the healthcare, energy and environmental areas (e.g. rapid low cost medical diagnostics, solar cells, environmental sensors). I was subsequently asked to take charge of its delivery as the skills base to do this was in short supply in Australia.
In layman’s terms what work is done at this facility and how would it benefit the general public?
Benefits to the public are multiple. The facility will allow healthcare and environmental researchers to develop their ideas beyond lab-bench experiments into manufacturable prototypes using technology that isn’t readily available here. Examples that are currently being worked on in our partner labs include devices for inhaleable insulin for diabetes, new types of solar and battery technology, etc. This may lead to new business creation in various areas. The facility will also help industry to access competitive new technologies. Furthermore, the facility will allow Australia to connect with those developing this technology overseas. The facility will allow us to actually make things at the nanoscale – i.e. by controlling small numbers of atoms.
How did you find yourself being involved in such cutting edge scientific work? And how did you reach Australia?
I’ve always wanted to do impactful things. I was good at sciences but I did not want to just be someone sitting in a lab measuring things over and over. I wanted to make an impact with my work and that is probably why I chose physics as it gives a very broad understanding.
I have always had an interest in all sciences and this has grown over time into an interest in innovation generally. I was a researcher in the early 90’s at Oxford University and realised that good technology and, indeed, good ideas don’t always make it into the real world. I therefore left research to work in the USA as a strategy consultant for the Fortune 500, emphasising innovative ideas and technologies. I was in the US for about 10 years. After this I was asked to contribute to the creation of a new research centre in London called the London Centre for Nanotechnology or the LCN (a 30 million UK pounds investment with almost 200 people) which we wanted to establish as much like a business as a research centre. During this I proposed the creation of a new business called the Bio-Nanotechnology Centre (BNC) to help link industry to research to provide new medical products for which I raised 5 million UK pounds. I was asked to be CEO of this during its early development and delivery also. At this point I decided to move to Australia as my wife is from here and was asked to oversee Monash’s nanosciences. I also contribute to the State Governments innovation programmes and various boards where I can push an innovation theme.
I first came here about 15 years ago after my niece died in the UK at a young age and I wanted to ‘get away’ from things. While here I, by chance, met the lady I would later marry. When we finally got married about 5 years ago we made the decision to come at some stage to Australia. The opportunity came when Monash University offered me this position.
In London you were Deputy Director of the London Centre for Nanotechnology. Does the work with LCN shape your current vision for the centre?
The LCN is a research centre aimed at being amongst the best in the world, a very ‘London’ based model that is hard to duplicate elsewhere. It combines two of the world’s best universities (Imperial College and University College London) and operates under a very novel organisational structure. We established an academic organisation that resembles a business and is very focussed on major impact. The MCN is different as it is more focussed on external users rather than lots of internal researchers. MCN’s goal is to help people achieve what they need to and to fix gaps in Australia’s development capabilities. Both share the theme that they house the latest technologies.
Do you find that Australia is technologically in step with the rest of the world?
I feel that Australia needs to become more outward facing. Technologically, Australia could really advance the areas of medical and environmental technology and create new businesses along the way but it has not yet emphasised such an innovative approach – it tends to be a follower of overseas trends. There are good researchers and some good infrastructure here but I would hope for more flexibility and risk taking (particularly by the publicly funded organisations) so that larger outcomes and opportunities can be achieved.
What would be the reason you’ve been so successful?
I would not say that this is the last job I’ll ever do. I have moved between industry and the academics for a while now. However, having said that, I’ve been able to do as much as I have because I’ve been in very good institutions. Imperial College London, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge (where I’ve studied and done research in) are among the top in the world. I wanted to learn the right kind of things, I wanted to lead myself rather than fall into things. That shows you can get far by ticking the right boxes at the right time.
Do you find that people are losing interest in it today?
There is actually statistical evidence to prove that. I suppose it may change with the recession as people try to recession proof themselves by going into the education sector for a couple of years. The past few years being boom years, people tend choose what they call the more “creative” option and go for the non-scientific fields. I feel that this is a misconception because science is incredibly creative. It is true we follow a logical process but it starts with a very creative assumption. Another thing they don’t tell you is how well a scientific background would help in a business or real world scenario. I find that I have been able to do much better than my counterparts who were in similar positions but were from an MBA background.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in the sciences in Australia? What would be the next best step for them?
Australians haven’t really bought into this whole idea of career planning. They don’t really work to build a skill set that will make them more attractive to the employers. They need to plan their short-term education goals keeping in mind a long-term strategy.
Tell us a bit about your cultural background?
I was born in the UK but I have brothers and sisters who were born in Pakistan. I grew up in and around the London suburbs so I’m used to being in a very dynamic environment.