Empowering Education: A Q&A with Abigail Elizur
As a scientific advisor and liaison to the University of the Sunshine Coast, Professor Abigail Elizur, PhD, FTSE, FQA brings an academic, research-based perspective to the Provectus Algae team. We asked her some questions about her background, views, and outlook.
Tell us about your background, education, and previous work.
I earned my undergraduate degree in biology in my native Israel, at the Hebrew University, after which I completed an MSc in kangaroo molecular evolution at the Australian National University. I came Australia because my father was the Israeli ambassador to Australia, and my mother, who was also a scientist, encouraged me to get a master’s here.
After my MSc, I worked for a while, before coming back to ANU to do a PhD in molecular biology, studying the sheep blowfly and eradication efforts. After completing a post-doc in Drosophilia developmental genetics, I returned to Israel, where I worked at the National Center for Mariculture, using molecular biology to understand and manipulate fish reproduction.
After 10 years, I returned to Australia, where I worked at the Bribie Island Aquaculture Research Center, combining biotechnology and aquaculture to study not only fish but also crustaceans and other species. After that, I moved to the University of the Sunshine Coast, where I’m a professor of aquaculture and biotechnology and the director and founder of the Centre for Bioinnovation. My research focuses on fish and invertebrate aquaculture species. I’ve been with Provectus Algae since October 2020.
What is your role at Provectus Algae, and how does it ladder up to the company’s mission?
My primary role is to act as a conduit between the University of the Sunshine Coast and Provectus Algae: helping to connect expertise in organic and analytical chemistry, mediate access to critical facilities, and develop and lead collaborative projects. I also participate in meetings with the biodiscovery team, offering the broad experience I hold as a researcher. Less formally, I act as a mentor to younger scientists to guide them with respect to the necessary balance between the industrial and scientific sides of things.
What convinced you to join Provectus Algae?
I have known Nusqe, Provectus Algae’s founder and CEO, for years, since he was my student in his undergraduate studies. Several years ago, he approached me to talk about opportunities with an Innovation Connection Grant, which we applied for and won. I was drawn to Provectus Algae because the work seemed so fresh and exciting.
What do you like most about Provectus Algae and your work?
I love the enormous potential of this platform. The sky is truly the limit. These products are inventive, which I find beautiful. I also love the people and community—my colleagues are dedicated and lovely. I also enjoy the pace. Things happen fast here, and we’re able to pivot quickly when needed.
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What are some of your goals for the company?
II’d like to see Provectus Algae’s first recombinant gene products biomanufactured in algae reach the market, especially with respect to our peptide projects. I think there is great potential to scale out these and other products to other less explored microalgae species. That way, we can trial their unique capacities as chassis with respect to different timelines, project needs, and other factors. And in a broader sense, I would like to see a biotech company succeed on the Sunshine Coast. This area is known for its scenic beauty, but I would like to see it one day as a thriving biotech hub and global center for scientific innovation.
Our success would provide the coast and Australia a much-needed boost in terms of its biotech industry.
Big question, but what would you say inspires or motivates you?
I’m motivated by the fact that as a scientist, your work could really contribute to the progression of humanity. Being a scientist is a real privilege. I can have an interesting idea, and then get grants and funding to follow where it leads. We get to create our own destiny by asking big questions and then conducting research that can help humanity in the long run, whether that’s in food security, environmental restoration, or pharmaceutical development. The fact that my work could mean something for society in the long run is a real motivator for me.
What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Well, over the past three years I helped to spawn an endangered native fish species, the Macquarie perch, Macquaria australasica. These fingerlings were returned to an environment where they hadn’t been seen in 70 years. Now, we are starting a similar crusade to save the sea cucumber. I hope that this will lead to more stocking programs that could help this incredibly important environmental resource that also has high commercial value, particularly in food and nutraceuticals.
From earlier in my career, I am really proud of the work we did in the very early days of gonadotrophin molecular research on luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). We were some of the first researchers to clone these genes in fish, and the first, that I know of, who used PCR to do so.
Here at Provectus Algae, I have been helping to build up a team of molecular biologists to execute critical work like gene bombardments, sequencing, and more. It’s wonderful to see.
Are there any interesting lessons you’ve learned in your career?
There are a few!
First, I learned you always need to build, what I call a “white duck outfit” mentality. In work, it’s important not to let things get to you personally. Just like rain running off feathers, a white duck outfit mentality helps keep you and your work from getting soaked with negative personal feelings.
Secondly, for young leaders, it’s important to learn to delegate and empower others to do a great job. Leaders must accept that there will be mistakes. While delegating, you can set up a system where you can pick up on mistakes and help people learn and grow from them.
And another, you can and should try to collaborate. But remember, you can choose your collaborators. So, choose ones you like, so the partnership can be joyful.
Finally, you can’t be best friends with everyone. But, when there is a job to do you must treat everyone with respect and support them the best you can, regardless of if you like them personally or not.
You serve as a mentor to many of the younger scientists on our staff. Who do you consider to be a role model, mentor, or hero and why?
One was my master’s advisor, Professor Elizabeth Dennis. She was inspiring to me because she was incredibly kind, smart, and hard-working—and always called it like it is. She helped me gain confidence at that point in my career.
Another one was, Professor Zvi Yaron, one of my more senior colleagues, who took me under his wing in terms of fish physiology. I was a molecular biologist, but knew nothing about fish then. It was a very good partnership because at the time molecular biology was just starting to get implemented in aquaculture. We had an incredible track record of success with grants and projects. We spent a lot of time together writing and discussing new ways to cooperate, and it was always with a lot of humor. Our time working together helped me expand my viewpoints as a scientist and taught me fish reproductive physiology.
And last but not least is Professor Yoni Zohar, who is one of the giants in our field and is still an inspiration.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have three dogs, named Jasper, Bear, and Alfie, so I enjoy spending time with them. I’m also an avid reader—mainly fiction, but some nonfiction as well.
Any books you’d recommend?
I read everything, from spy books to 1,000+ page epics. But, my most recent recommendations include The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, A Suitable Boy, and A Man Called Ove.
In your opinion, what are the most exciting things happening in biomanufacturing, biotech, and synthetic biology spaces right now?
I’m inspired by the incorporation of AI with synthetic biology and biotech. It’s a really powerful platform for studying and manipulating the repeatability of plant or animal behavior and phenotypes.
I also think gene editing is incredibly powerful and has potential to revolutionize scientific discovery. We’ve seen a lot of advancements in the realm of nucleic acid delivery that has helped gene editing become a powerful technology for food products, therapeutics, aquaculture, agriculture, and more.