Bright Sparks: The Young People Shaping Australia’s Future

Meet 8 of Westpac's Bicentennial Foundation Scholars set to change our future.

Words by Sonia Taylor

By Sonia Taylor, 9/6/2016

Anyone can have a bright idea. We’ve all had one at some point in our lives, whether we were in a structured brainstorm, turning something over in our minds or just singing in the shower. But there’s a difference between having a great idea and watching a great idea come to life. That difference is opportunity.

Westpac decided it wanted to throw a different kind of party for its 200th anniversary in 2017; one that would ensure the ongoing development of bright ideas and help shape Australia’s future. So for the upcoming event they launched the single largest privately funded education scholarship program in Australia’s history through the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation.

The Westpac Scholarship Program will fund 100 scholarships and fellowships, every year – forever.

Why do this? Well, Westpac know a thing or two about sound investments. They believe “one of the best ways to advance Australia over the next century is to invest in the next generation of leaders: the gifted visionaries, the bold reformers and ambitious innovators.” Supporting these brilliant ideas when they first spark is the key to an ambitious and exciting future.

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Scholarships are centred around five categories: Young Technologists, Social Change Fellowships, Asian Exchange, Future Leaders and Research Fellowships. These specialised groups are seen as fundamental to Australia’s future growth and prosperity, and each scholar is chosen for their potential to help shape the future of our country.

The Future Leaders Scholarship and Social Change Fellowship applications for 2017 open this month. Here are just a few of the promising young Australians who received one of the 100 scholarships or fellowships for 2016 – so you can get a preview of what’s in store – for you and Australia– in the years to come.

Zoe Black

Co-founder of Happy Paws Happy Hearts

Social Change Fellowship

University of Queensland graduate Zoe Black started her career working on multi-billion dollar projects in the commercial sector, before redirecting her energy towards community organisations. Today, Zoe is a jack of all trades, using her diverse experience in strategic planning and community management to oversee Happy Paws Happy Hearts (HPPH), which delivers animal-assisted therapy “with a twist.”

HPHH connects people in need with animals in need, essentially creating mutually beneficial outcomes for both parties. The program works with RSPCA Queensland to help home rescue animals (like puppies, kittens, dogs, cats and even reptiles) to those with disabilities, in aged care, ex-defence personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and women at risk. Having worked with rescue animals and witnessed the incredible benefits of animal therapy, Zoe knew joining these two groups would foster their wellbeing and give back to a these parts of society in need.

Westpac’s Bicentennial scholarship has opened up a dozen doors Zoe never thought imaginable: “[It] has provided me with access to social enterprise training programs, new mentors and international opportunities to network with incredible programs which have a similar philosophy to ours.”

Highly entrepreneurial and innovative, Zoe has created not just a program, but a movement. With the scholarship under her belt, she plans to keep growing HPHH to new locations and promote innovation in the social and disability sector. “In the social and disability space, there are opportunities to be an innovative and high quality provider which disrupts the status quo. For me, it’s important that we make the very most of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and give people both choice and independence in every aspect of their lives.

As for the future, Zoe is pretty optimistic: “I want to measure my life and career by the number of smiles I can bring to other people’s faces and today, I couldn’t be happier with how that’s going.”

Celia Vandestadt

PhD student; Zebrafish aficionado

Future Leader Scholarship

Studying the brain is no easy feat – there’s over 15 to 33 billion neurons in there, all communicating and firing to help us think, see and do. PhD student Celia Vandestadt is a smart-as-a-whip scientist who is “immensely curious” about the brain; specifically, how the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) works.

“The technology available today in biomedicine is phenomenal and is really only limited by the way in which you can imagine how to use it.”

Celia also has a particular affinity with zebrafish – but don’t worry, it’s not as weird as you think. Zebrafish are a unique model to study because these tropical fish have something we don’t have – the phenomenal ability to regenerate their own central nervous system. An accident that damages a human’s central nervous system can often result in lifelong disabilities, while “zebrafish can recover from a complete severing of their spinal cord within 6 weeks!” Celia looks specifically at very young zebrafish who are capable of recovering their cells and function after only a few days.

Realising the incredible potential here, this first-year PhD student is undertaking her research within the Kaslin Laboratory at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute. Celia believes zebrafish hold new insights into whether regeneration is possible in humans, and if the immune system plays a role in this process.

For Celia, her endless curiosity acts as motivation: “There are so many layers to the work of research and almost every day you are doing something new. The technology available today in biomedicine is phenomenal and is really only limited by the way in which you can imagine how to use it.”

Outside of the lab, Celia is passionate about early education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine (STEMM) and, in particular, women’s progress in those fields. “I’m also very aware of the changes the future will demand of us as a society,” she says, “not only environmental but also the composition of our workforce.”

A recipient of the Future Leaders scholarship within the Bicentennial Foundation program, Celia will be able to travel and present her work at international conferences (just like the one that inspired her on this path), and hopefully influence a new generation of scientific exploration.

Gemma Clayton

Solar mathematician

Future Leader Scholarship

‘Passionate’ and ‘driven’ are two words we’d use to describe solar mathematician Gemma Clayton. Currently working on a project in solar forecasting, Gemma uses mathematics to model how the sun with transmit through the clouds and what kind of shadow we can expect to see on the ground. This in turn allows forecasters to anticipate power drops in commercial-size solar panels.

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A fighter for sustainable and renewable energy, Gemma is on a mission to change the way we use power. “Our current dependence on fossil fuels is doing irreparable damage,” she says, “and if we don’t make a change soon, it’s going to be too late.” As she puts it, improvements in solar technologies will increase its accessibility, making it a viable solution for Australia’s indigenous communities and Aussie farmers. Solar energy would provide increased utility, feasibility, opportunities and independence for small remote communities, and improve the profitability of sustainable farming practices.

Gemma was praised by Westpac’s Bicentennial Scholarship Fund panel for her resilience and determination to instigate change in our environment, our health and our future. She has a strong desire to dispel the ugly stereotypes of mathematics; instead she’d like to shed light on the various ways maths can be used to tackle big issues like sustainability, poverty, health and education.

Jack Howarth-Green

Student; co-creator of I-Nspire

Young Technologist Scholarship

Jack Howarth-Green isn’t your regular university student. On the one hand, he’s completing a double degree: Bachelor of Computer Science and a Bachelor of Arts (Games and Interactivity) at Swinburne University of Technology. But in his spare time, Jack is so passionate about philanthropy that he’s helped create a not-for-profit which aims to provide the tools necessary for individuals to unite to solve social, economic and health related issues across the world. You know, regular student extracurricular activities.

Jack’s creation is I-Nspire, an Incorporated Association that bridges the gap between donors and beneficiaries. The program uses online crowd funding, public interaction and educative media to empower others to take an active involvement in the philanthropic movement. Jack and his co-founder George Wilson believe donating to charity shouldn’t be some faceless interaction, instead I-Nspire will provide you with an exact account of where your money is being spent.

A self-starter with skills in animation and video editing, Jack is a young technologist changing the way we see the world. Remembering the best advice he’s been given, it’s clear Jack is going to make his mark: “The world can be a volatile place and it doesn’t care about you unless you put in the effort to make something of it for yourself.”

Nishan David

Social entrepreneur; Co-founder of Bloodless and Adappt

Future Leader Scholarship

Nishan David wears many hats: he’s the managing director of Bloodless, a social enterprise streetwear label that uses fashion to raise funds and awareness for causes; and he previously co-founded Adappt, Australia’s first social change app accelerator exclusively for young people, empowering them to change the status quo and “leverage the almighty power of tech to reshape their world.” Adappt also ensured women and issues uniquely facing women were represented.

Nishan’s MO is about changing the perception of technology as something that can simply make our lives easier or comfier (bigger screens, faster Wi-Fi) to using it as a means to make human life better. “The power to radically transform society lies in our hands,” Nishan explains.

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“It’s so bloody great to order takeout from your couch while stalking people that you have a crush on, but I believe that technology can be about more. It can bring light to dark places, restore relationships and empower people to affect change. I believe that all tech is just a means to an end – and the end is people.”

“We face some of the biggest challenges of any generation — rising inequality, refugees crises, climate change… the list goes on. This is a cultural and ethical moment, not just a technical one. How will we rise to the challenge?”

With the help of Westpac’s Future Leaders Scholarship, Nishan is currently completing an Executive Master of Arts in Human Rights and Human-Centred Design at the University of Sydney. Through his research, Nishan is working on programs to help young refugees in Western Sydney gain employability skills in tech and design. In particular, Nishan is “finding new ways to connect creative uni students to little legends in Lakemba who want to work on creative projects,” whether that be in designing, filmmaking, photography, writing or just general entrepreneurship.

Overall, Nishan wants to incite creativity-fuelled change: “I want to preach to the unconverted and inspire a generation of misfit kids to unleash their creativity for good,” he says.

“As a generation… we face some of the biggest challenges of any generation — rising inequality, refugees crises, climate change… the list goes on,” Nishan says. “This is a cultural and ethical moment, not just a technical one. How will we rise to the challenge? What do we think technology is for? How do we define progress? These are questions which I find incredibly compelling, and I believe that technology will be a significant part of the answer.” No doubt Nishan’s involvement will play a significant part, too.

Aviva Beecher Kelk and Jenna Moffat

Social entrepreneurs; founders of Clickability

Social Change Fellowship

Aviva and Jenna are social workers finding solutions to the many issues faced by the disability sector. They’ve created Clickability, which is “a bit like TripAdvisor, but for disability support,” says Jenna. The website is aimed at helping people with disability (pwd) and their carers find information about relevant disability services.

Fuelled by the possibility they could make a difference in their work, Clickability was born after the duo built on an idea Aviva had looked into for her Masters of Social Work. The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was great in theory but bound to leave gaps after its implementation, and researching the potential gaps led Aviva to the conclusion that an Australian disability service directory featuring ratings and reviews from the people who actually use the services was exactly the website needed to create informed choice.

The current services are only reviewed for Victoria, and the Westpac Scholarship Program will enable Aviva and Jenna to expand across Australia by 2020, supporting pwd and service providers to make the transition to the NDIS.

They also intend to use the fund to build their networks, consult with consumers and service providers and research how other countries have responded to similar changes. They’ll be travelling to the UK to speak with websites doing similar things to Clickability, “to see what they do, what’s made them successful, what their impact has been and how they’ve positively changed the lives of people with disability.”

The duo want to make a difference, and they’re well on their way. “Starting Clickability has been the most exciting and rewarding thing we’ve done. We’re so proud of the impact its already making.”

Harrison Pace

Student; Engineering and tech wunderkind

Young Technologist Scholarship

“In my final years of high school, I became tired of dedicating all my time to study and I wanted to work on a real-world project that would extend my capabilities in technology. As a result, I contacted the Bureau of Meteorology and asked them if I could send a sensor to Antarctica as a part of a school project, and to my surprise they said ‘Yes’.” How’s that for an after-school project? And such is the life of now 19-year-old Harrison Pace.

A thinker and tinkerer from a young age, Harrison would ponder the world around him, never accepting that things just were, but wanting to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’. “I used to pester my parents with questions such as ‘why does the car move?’ or ‘what makes the microwave work?'” says a now 19-year-old Harrison. “It was only fitting then, that I would end up in a degree which answers these questions and offers insight to the properties of world we live in.” He always knew he wanted to become an engineer and work with technology.

Besides Antarctica-bound sensors, he’s also built Arcade Machines for fun, disability access devices and a bunch of electronics (because he can). He’s completing a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical and Electronic) (Honours) and a Bachelor of Computer Science at Swinburne University of Technology, with the ultimate goal of establishing a career in emerging fields of technology. “I believe when executed correctly, real change can be made in fields like the Internet of Things and embedded devices,” he says.

Westpac’s Young Technologist’s scholarship enables Harrison to finish his degree, work with similarly ambitious people and realise his dreams of a career in technology and engineering. “Now is a very exciting time in technology; electronics are becoming more portable and the field is becoming much more accessible to new ideas. The advent of crowd-sourcing, Internet of Things and Big Data offers huge possibilities to those bold enough to capitalise on them.”

It’s been a couple of years since Harrison spent his after-school hours building a sensor for under $100 that would survive the -60C temperatures of Antarctica with information he learnt from the Internet, but something tells us he’s bold enough.

Tessa Henwood-Mitchell

Social entrepreneur; founder and director, TIA

Future Leader Scholarship

A trip to Africa at 18 would change the course of Tessa’s life. “I was immediately struck by the unfairness of the world – that I had been born into such material privilege, when people my age on the other side of the world had so little and so few opportunities to achieve their dreams as I had.” This stark contrast would lead Tessa into the social impact space to ultimately found TIA, an Australian non-profit organisation that works in Bolivia to empower teenagers and young people exiting state care and transitioning into independence at 18.

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Tessa first found herself in Bolivia as part of a volunteer experience program during university, where she spent four months volunteering in a state-run orphanage. “Bolivia stood out to me as an amazing country, full of rich tradition, culture, resilient people and beautiful landscapes. [It also] is known to have the highes rate of poverty in South America.”

“Don’t wait around for things to happen. If you think something needs to be done – do it. Act now. If you’re waiting to be ready, you’ll be waiting your whole life.”

Meaning Aunty in Spanish, TIA runs three main programs under the ValenTIA (‘courage’ in Spanish) Transition Project, covering the three stages associated with transitioning out of state care: fundamental skills workshops for those still within the system; a support program including workshops on job searching, managing a budget and creating a weekly menu for those just about to exit state care; and a residential program for six young people who work, study and pay rent and utilities and receive one-on-one support to achieve their goals along with a weekly food and transport allowance.

The Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship has meant Tessa is studying Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development at ANU online from Bolivia and is able to “visit India, Nepal and Indonesia in July this year to research what the situation is for young people exiting state care centres there, to see if there might be a possibility for us to expand our work in the future.” Tessa’s ultimate goal is to see TIA’s programs expand into Asia and Australia, as well.

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Tessa’s is fuelled by a desire to change people’s lives for the better. “Knowing that the life of even one person is better because of the work that i’m involved in, is the greatest satisfaction that I could imagine. I feel it is my responsibility to use my time and my privilege for something bigger than me.” It hasn’t always been an easy road, one with “a huge amount of challenges and failures,” says Tessa. But her resilient nature is further motivated by the young people she works with, who inspire her “to keep going, to keep fighting for what I believe in.”

Tessa shares the sagest advice she’s been given, which she’s clearly applied in her own life: “Don’t wait around for things to happen. If you think something needs to be done – do it. Act now. If you’re waiting to be ready, you’ll be waiting your whole life.”


Westpac is looking for the next 100 bright sparks – applications open in June for the Future Leaders Scholarship and Social Change Fellowship.

Future Leaders Scholarship applications open 8 June – 31 August

Social Change Fellowship applications open 27 June – 19 August

To see the full list of game-changing scholars and read more about the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation, click here.