Creating more Australian scientists – insights from a NASA engineer

The Singularity University Summit, an event exploring the exponential technologies shaping our future, will be taking place in Sydney from 19 – 21 February. With the event almost upon us, now is a great time to continue the conversation around how we can grow our STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) capabilities in Australia and not be left behind as the world changes rapidly.

I recently got in touch with Seamus Thomson, an engineer at NASA and a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Sydney, to find out what has been happening in the world of NASA, STEM, and Australia’s burgeoning space program.

Seamus works in NASA’s Ames laboratory in California, where he assists with the search for life on one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, and his PhD body of work, focuses on identifying problems and solutions for osseointegration – the structural connection of living bone with a foreign implant.

Over the past year, he has been focusing on introducing and testing newly developed life-detecting instruments into existing space flight hardware. This is an important validation step to understand how the new technology compares and/or integrates into the old, and it may give some indication as to how it may perform when in space or on some distant world. Ultimately this is geared towards the moons of Europa and/or Enceladus.

Seamus sees promise in a growing Australian space industry to help develop and retain our best and brightest STEM talent. This is particularly pertinent as we face a shortage of STEM graduates in the country.

“A lot has happened in the last year”, he says. “The most notable of such has been the Australian government announcing the establishment of an Australian Space Agency. This sets an exciting tone for current and future STEM professionals that Australia has the vision to grow its own space industries. This will hopefully be a key incentive to keep STEM talent in Australia by enabling them to work here. The government has made it clear that it would commit to growing the space industry so that it can participate in the global market. It would be interesting to see how the government set out to achieve this goal, and I think the key to long-term retainment and growth of STEM talent in this industry hinges on venture capital investment to match or sustain the government initiatives.

Australia should be proud of how we grew and expanded our medical device industry to the global market – CSL, ResMed, & Cochlear being great examples – and created an attractive environment for STEM talent in the medical sphere. I feel that it is possible to do the same with the space industry. “

Emerging technologies could also play a key role in attracting and developing more STEM students in Australia. Singularity University recently published an article on the potential for VR technology to be used to train millions of scientists worldwide who may not have access to laboratories and the technology to develop their work.

Weighing up on VR and the virtual laboratory, Seamus says, “I feel that technologies like this do have an attractive element for people to become involved in STEM degrees, especially to many of those who do not have direct access to educational settings and facilities such as a lab. STEM students will hopefully view these new technologies as a powerful tool and for the use of pursuing their own endeavours, rather than becoming dependent on them.”

Singularity University has listed one of its Global Grand Challenges (GGC) as ‘space’, specifically the ‘safe and equitable use, and stewardship of, space resources and technologies for the benefit of humanity and our future as a multi-planetary species.’

The idea of humans visiting and one day inhabiting Mars is one that excites Seamus. He also doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being existing life on the planet.

“Regarding a human mission to Mars, it’s essential to clock up significant flight heritage through unmanned craft to demonstrate the potential of a safe human return. Exciting times are ahead!

There still may be life – or evidence of previous life – on Mars. The best chance would be that it’s beneath the surface where it is shielded from cosmic and ultraviolet radiation”, he says.


Deloitte is the Professional Services Sponsor of the SingularityU Australia Summit, which is coming to Sydney on 19 – 21 February. The summit is bringing together a diverse group of experts and leading global speakers who will be sharing their insights on exponential technologies.

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