This is how Brisbane has suddenly become a major centre for science

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Queensland Chief Scientist Suzanne Miller. Photo: Supplied

Suzanne Miller has a job based in Brisbane — really a combination of three jobs — that would make any science geek’s mouth water with binary streams.

She is the CEO and director of the Queensland Museum Network, the state’s Chief Scientist and the director of the World Science Festival Brisbane.

“It’s incredible,” professor Miller told Business Insider. “It really is fun … I get to meet the most extraordinary people doing the most amazing things.”

Her own science background is marine geology and geo-chemistry. She was born in Edinburgh and studied at the University of St Andrews.

“I can’t really remember when I didn’t want to be a scientist,” she says.

“I always loved the idea of discovery and experiments and amassing facts, and so I thought that that’s just in my DNA, but I had amazing teachers.”

Her parents encouraged she and her sister to do whatever they wanted to do.

“I was the first person in my family to go to university, so it wasn’t like everybody had always done it,” she says.

“So, there was never any question that if that’s what you wanted to do, you couldn’t do it.”

But why would a scientist live in Brisbane?

Bolt out of the blue, Peter Enright, Coolum Beach, Queensland. highly commended submission of the 2014 Australian Museum New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography.

Queensland has been building itself as the smart state. For example, there are more than 2,000 experts in the biomedical industry in Brisbane alone.

“We probably don’t talk about it very much, but it (Brisbane) has an incredibly vibrant and amazingly strong capability,” she says.

“It’s been a bit of a quiet build. I think the universities have really understood where they can come together and work collaboratively.

“Brisbane itself is a city that has a scale where it’s big enough for really interesting stuff to happen, but it’s also small enough where actually true collaboration and support really does take place.”

And Queensland is one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet, with the tropics to the north with the Great Barrier Reef, the drier inland plains and more temperate areas to the south.

“It’s in the top seven (bio-diverse areas) worldwide, so there’s extraordinary stuff here which means that the research is really interesting and exciting, because you’ve got a mass of variety across a whole range of disciplines,” she says.

“You’ve got everything from on the Great Barrier Reef, the amazing animal life, but then that in itself is an incredible natural resource for new drug discovery.”

World Science Festival has brought international attention to Brisbane. It’s licensed from the New York event of the same name, and Brisbane is the only city in the Asia-Pacific region to run it.

Miller wanted the festival be something as big as an AFL grand final (she was previously head of the South Australian Museum), so that everybody is talking about it.

She also gets to meet Nobel laureates, researchers with international reputations, science media personalities and NASA scientists.

“The other day we had a dinner and I was sitting between someone who has flown into space on multiple missions for NASA, and the head of the National Science Foundation in America, France Córdova, and I was opposite Brian Schmidt (from the ANU), a Nobel warrior in astrophysics,” she says.

Image: Supplied

“It’s incredible. You get to interact with some of the world’s most brilliant people, but they’re also great communicators, and they’re incredibly passionate about what they do.

“And today I was with a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, talking about opportunities, about cultures and histories, about new exhibitions, and new ways to repatriate ancestral remains to country.

“From one hour to the next. I’m doing extraordinarily varied activities, but I’m doing it with the leading people in their fields, and that’s an incredible privilege.”

Brisbane’s World Science Festival started last year with 120,000 people attending the five days. This year it went up to 182,000.

“We’re harnessing household names as well as well-known names in science and creating a well-produced, high-end event with appeal to everybody,” she says.

“You can’t turn around here without knowing the World Science Festival was on.

“Every building in the city is coloured red because that’s the colour of the festival.”

She sees one of her key opportunities is harnessing expertise and also talking about it much more publicly.

“One of the challenges we all have, but it’s an opportunity too, is the fact that life is changing,” she says.

“The jobs in the future are going to look very different from the jobs of today.”

And a life in science?

“It’s a fantastic way to live,” she says. “People would do it as a hobby if they didn’t get paid to do it.”

She argues we need to be louder about what’s happening and also about the great opportunities.

“We’re sometimes just a little bit too quiet and polite,” she says.

“I think that being able to engender that kind of optimism and aspiration and ambition is quite critical.

“We need to be constantly saying: ‘We can do this!’ and ‘What an amazing opportunity that’s going to be’.

“And not talk about the barriers all the time, because we do tend to do that quite a bit.”

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