Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology and food health and safety expert

Back in 2000, when Professor Enzo Palombo joined Swinburne, it had been a university for just eight years and was, physically, a bit of an ugly duckling.

‘In the time that I have worked here, I have seen the university physically transformed,’ Enzo says. ‘I have been in the same office in the same building and have witnessed the changes happening all around. It’s now a more attractive and inviting space with a lot more integration into the suburb. It’s more than a campus — it’s a real focus and part of the DNA of Hawthorn.’

Professor Enzo Palombo

New beginnings

Enzo, a professor of microbiology, is chair of Swinburne’s Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology. He received his PhD from La Trobe University studying the genetics of bacterial conjugation.

He spent 10 years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Children’s Hospital — ‘one of the most celebrated paediatric hospitals in the world’ — investigating the genetic epidemiology of gastroenteritis viruses, particularly rotavirus and astrovirus. His research interests include food microbiology, identification of bio-active compounds from medicinal plants and fungi, environmental microbiology, bio-polymers and virology.

"My move to Swinburne was a bit of a shock, going from … a world-class biomedical precinct to a small suburban tertiary education institution."

‘After many years in a research position with some exposure to teaching, I was ready for a change. My move to Swinburne was a bit of a shock, going from the famous Parkville strip, a world-class biomedical precinct, to a small suburban tertiary education institution,’ he says. ‘It was a bit scary. You’re coming from a precinct which has all the resources, all the infrastructure, all the networks and you were leaving that to go a bit on your own.’

A small fish in a small pond

Enzo has witnessed more than just a physical transformation. Seventeen years ago Swinburne did not have the reputation it has today.

‘Many of the academic staff from our department came across from other bigger institutions and I will say struggled, because reputation is a lot in this game,’ Enzo says. ‘I went from putting “Royal Children’s Hospital” on my application for funding to “Swinburne”. The responses I received were: “Where? What’s that? Never heard of it.” That makes a difference in the way you’re perceived. But over the years things have changed a lot. Once we were almost embarrassed to say Swinburne. Now we’re proud to say it.’

"Being a small fish in a small pond with the opportunity to become a bigger fish was exciting and challenging."

Swinburne’s youth as a university became an advantage. ‘Being a small fish in a small pond with the opportunity to become a bigger fish was exciting and challenging,’ Enzo says. It provided him with an opportunity to establish himself as an independent researcher/academic with opportunities to work with industry — experiences that would not have been possible in other environments.

Enzo and his research team have helped to establish Swinburne as an important contributor within the disciplines of microbiology and biotechnology. Enzo cites Professor Ian Harding in Swinburne’s chemistry and biotechnology department as a mentor who has ‘helped me learn how to be a better academic, not in a formal mentoring way, but by simply trying to emulate his behaviours and approach’.

Professor Enzo Palombo (centre) investigating the use of bioplastics ingredients from renewable sources and the properties of biopolymers that determine their 'compostability' with two PhD students.

Building relationships with industry

‘Swinburne has a long tradition of being industry engaged,’ Enzo says. ‘Many industry links came as a result of cold calls from external clients. Being a relatively small university brings opportunities for networks to develop between staff such that external enquiries can be efficiently funnelled to the appropriate people. We are encouraged to work with colleagues in different disciplines rather than operate in a silo culture.’

Enzo says that at Swinburne he has been given the freedom and autonomy to explore areas that have involved colleagues from other parts of the university that would not normally be on his radar. ‘This reflects the community spirit of Swinburne, which fosters collaboration and interaction between colleagues from different disciplines.’

"Establishing many industry collaborations has enabled me to meet the changing requirements of government policy and academic expectations."

He says he realised early on at Swinburne that working with industry was going to be an important differentiator from others in his field. ‘Establishing many industry collaborations has enabled me to meet the changing requirements of government policy and academic expectations.’

A growing public profile

These collaborations have helped Enzo to develop as an academic and researcher. They have also given his students the ability to engage with industry during their studies and afterwards, exploring work placements and research opportunities.

Enzo says his public profile has been greatly enhanced by these industry links, particularly in the food industry, where his work exploring food-borne infectious diseases has resulted in a number of media engagements when stories related to his expertise have been in the public interest.

In 2015 the media regularly sought comment from Enzo during a recall of frozen berries after a potential link to Hepatitis A. ‘I think the incident did make the public better understand the complexities of our global food supply and raised awareness of the roles of food producers, handlers and consumers in ensuring safe food,’ he says.

Forging local and international collaborations

Enzo has enjoyed working collaboratively with other international learning centres. One of his most ‘productive and enjoyable’ international collaborations is with the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, located in Kuching, near Swinburne’s Sarawak campus.

It was a project initiated during visits in the mid-2000s to help Swinburne’s campus develop its biotechnology program and it evolved into a close partnership involving PhD students and industry partners. ‘The overall objective is to provide scientific evidence for the traditional knowledge of the Borneo communities who use indigenous plants as medicines,’ he says. ‘The aim is to develop and commercialise new medicines with benefits going back to the local communities.’

"Interacting with students is still a passion and my teaching underpins all of my other activities."

Enzo is also involved in several industry projects that he would like to see developed further, ‘hopefully into outcomes that can be commercialised and provide opportunities for students and researchers to help find solutions to real-world issues’.

One major project is the use of technology to treat agricultural biowaste, particularly biomass waste from the wine industry. ‘Once the grapes are pressed and the juice extracted, 60 per cent of the material is just dumped,’ he says. ‘We’re looking to see if we can recover some useful material from that and thereby minimise the waste stream and give some value back to the wineries.’

Enzo says he has become more involved in leadership, acting as an advocate for the chemists and biotechnologists in his department. He sees this as an area that can allow him to develop as an academic leader and help the university deliver on its missions.

He also wants to continue his role as a mentor and guide to junior colleagues. ‘Of course interacting with students is still a passion and my teaching underpins all of my other activities,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to lose touch with the real reason we exist.’

Words by Peter Wilmoth.

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