Starting out big: young alumni

 
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A generation of young Monash alumni are taking their talents and ambitions to the world through start-up businesses, social enterprises and international research projects.

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The Faculty of Science has kept in touch with a handful of students who have helped build an exciting new program to be launched next year – the Bachelor of Science Advanced (Global Challenges) which will help give brilliant young students the tools to have a big impact in the world early in their careers. Here we share stories from our alumni and we will, later in the year, share news on the new offering.

Breaking into Silicon Valley

UCROO forum hosting has taken off from Science

Joseph Valente developed a university social networking site call UCROO (www.ucroo.com.au). It’s a forum hosting content like lecture notes, slides and presentations. It has chat facilities for students to connect with each other and with teachers who in turn answer questions. It kicked off in the Monash Science faculty and now hosts classes right across the country. With around nine staff and has been through two venture capital funding rounds. Read more

Fab Mackojc feels the pull of the tech entrepreneurship that has created Silicon Valley and is setting his course for a career there. At Monash he completed the Bachelor of Science Scholars program with a focus on maths but then chose a vocational studies path to learn software development.

Now he is in San Francisco doing Dev Bootcamp, a nine-week program rapidly training motivated people to become web developers. Following that he hopes to be picked up by a US technology group and work in web related software development.

His work in three start-up companies provided valuable entrepreneurial experience while at university. The start-ups were: Airtasker, linking people who want to outsource everyday tasks with reliable people in their community. Tweaky, a marketplace for people who want small customizations performed on their website, 121cast, which is developing a platform to deliver personalised radio.

Fab was also involved with Students in Free Enterprise, a program for university students to use the positive power of business to create social change. He managed a group that ran a program for disengaged school students to start their own business selling bottled water. “Seeing those students engage by the time you leave was really exciting.”

Driven by climate change

Jeremy Nagel, who graduated from Monash with a Bachelor of Environmental Science last October, had his passion around climate change sparked by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. “I wanted to stop climate change and I figured I’d get the skills at uni.”

He says the course did not entirely meet those initial expectations but “I realise now I benefitted majorly from the scientific grounding I got from the degree; the ability to research and to be able to discern which sources are credible.”

His passion to tackle climate change led him to develop a private project; a website called RidesharingOz.com.au. It facilitates car-pooling with the passenger contributing to petrol costs for the driver. Currently it has 200 Australian members and 33,500 in Lithuania, where one of the co-founders is from and where it took off because petrol is relatively expensive.

Jeremy aims to build a career in carbon emission reduction by commercialising the site through charging a 9 per cent fee on the passenger’s payment.

iGEM experience a boost for young researchers

Ben Porebski has a passion for research and is embarking on a PhD in bio-engineering focused on creating and modifying proteins so their structures do not unravel at high temperatures allowing their use in industrial and medical spheres. He has completed a double major in biochemistry and molecular biology at Monash where he began researching as an undergraduate.

“Last year for my honours project I was able to engineer two proteins to remain stable past 100 degrees Celsius. One is bio medically relevant the other is usefully from an industrial (food industry) point of view,” he says. Ben takes a hybrid approach to protein engineering, mixing large supercomputers with lab work to gain previously unavailable insights in the way proteins behave.

The biomedical path he will pursue in his PhD aims to investigate the use of protein engineering methods for understanding the basis of protein based diseases. In particular he will look at how serine protease inhibitors aggregate within the body, allowing unchecked proteases (proteins that cannibalise other proteins) to cause health damage.

Ben got valuable international experience at Monash when he took a management role running a program sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called iGEM. The Monash group Ben led attempted to engineer E. coli bacteria to produce a gas called ethylene with the potential to produce plastics from non –oil sources.

Ben says the project, which involved six students, wasn’t completed due to time constraints. “But it was a great opportunity with a lot of lab experience and going to overseas to MIT to present the work.”

Researching vaccines for tropical diseases

Robert Shepherd is researching plant based vaccines that provide cheap, effective preventative medicine especially for the developing world. After completing a Bachelor of Science with a major in genetics at Monash he is now completing a PhD in vaccine development for diseases like cholera and the norovirus infection that result in extreme gastroenteritis and loss of life. “We are looking at making vaccines cheaper so we make them in transgenic plants. Eventually you’ll be able to eat the plant (through a tablet or capsule) and be vaccinated against the disease.’’

With support from his department, Robert and his colleagues have hosted and delivered “lots and lots” of public lectures to highlight the need for safe, cheap treatments for tropical diseases. While many major international philanthropic organisations like the Gates Foundation provide support for research, Robert believes it is "important to make sure the local community is involved in understanding the background, risks and rewards of research programs such as ours." He hopes to further his research and development career in Australia and globally.

Student led project in Dili

Esther Johns is in the third year of her Bachelor of Arts and Science, majoring in psychology and physiology. She sees her future in neuroscience or forensic psychology but during her time at Monash she has also developed he own aid project in East Timor which is still recovering from the effects of war and its long occupation by Indonesia.

With the help of a family friend she and sister Michelle began to teach conversational English to staff at Institute of Business, a tertiary institution in the island’s capital Dili. Since her first visit in 2012 Esther has been back three times for two weeks each and plans to expand to project “by targeting the gap year market; people who can spend time there through the semester.” The ultimate aim is to have project members there all year round.

Sustainability is the aim of the project and Esther says this involves giving by both sides. “We give our time free six hours a day and they give us free accommodation and board.”

UCROO forum hosting has taken off from Science

Joseph Valente – who has worked closely with science graduates on projects – is building his life around networks after studying Commerce and Law at Monash. At uni he created new communities after observing the popularity of online lectures meant the traditional uni community “was starting to die”.

With friends he developed a university social networking site call UCROO (www.ucroo.com.au). It’s a forum hosting content like lecture notes, slides and presentations. It has chat facilities for students to connect with each other and with teachers who in turn answer questions. It kicked off in the Monash Science faculty and now hosts classes right across the country. With around nine staff and has been through two venture capital funding rounds.

A second web venture is Ebla (www.ebla.com) which came out of Joseph’s time as research assistant to the Dean of Law when he saw problems with ‘’the legal research eco system.’’. Ebla gets around these by allowing lawyers, publishers and academics to share information such as case notes, academic papers and judgements among themselves.

If there is demand Joseph says Ebla could be commercialised also. Next year he will be working with management consultants Bain & Co where he hopes to use his essentially self-taught web and software skills along with his formal qualifications to help major companies.

Monash’s most valuable gift Joseph feels was networking. “I met a lot of people from Science, Law, Engineering and Commerce. Some became my first employees at UCROO.”