All posts by Heather Catchpole

The knowledge custodians: University science supports a living ecosystem of knowledge.

Look up from this article and fasten your eyes on something in the room, or out your window. Undoubtedly, you’ll see something that science contributed to or can explain, such as the health of your body or the technology you’re using. Why the sky is blue, how the vastness of geologic time created the landscape out your window, the chemistry that underpins the molecular makeup of the items in your room — science is behind all the answers.

The vast majority of basic and strategic science is carried out within universities. And it draws on hundreds of years of discovery, shared knowledge, and an atmosphere of learning. This is what underpins university science. In Australia, most basic research is undertaken in universities, says the University of Queensland’s Provost and Senior Vice-President, Professor Aidan Byrne. 

“This is unique globally,” Byrne says. “The poster child for Australian science research at the moment is quantum science. Unlike with optical and radioastronomy, which developed thanks to our Southern Hemisphere location and dark sky, there is no reason for Australia to lead in quantum science. It happened thanks to decades of investment in higher education research.”  

Information exchange

“Science is fundamental to society. What scientists do, firstly, is education of students at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels,” says Frank Larkins, Professor Emeritus in the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. “The scaffold of research, the foundations, are what science and related faculties establish. Medical sciences and engineering build on the fundamental scientific breakthroughs from chemistry, physics and mathematics, supported by the biosciences and computer science.”

Creating a great environment for research — and knowledge sharing — plus mechanisms that ensure good people can draw on that knowledge to the benefit of society is university science’s challenge.

“A successful science faculty at an Australian university has to think about the pathways to different degrees and professions. It doesn’t mean graduates don’t become scientists, they do — but not everyone will do a science PhD,”  says Professor Margaret Sheil AO, Vice-Chancellor and president of QUT. However the skills of science graduates benefit society as a whole, she adds.

The bleeding edge

Universities have a capacity that no other organisation has, adds Larkin.

“A university does applied research but has a much greater breadth. And the fundamental product is quality people.”

Edwina Cornish AO, former Monash Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Provost and Senior Vice-President, says “You recruit good people, and they know what’s needed to keep the best researchers at the bleeding edge.” Then it’s a case of finding ways to “turbo charge” early-career researchers, Cornish adds, particularly in areas where there is an opportunity to be
globally competitive.

Bringing everyone together helps, Larkin says. “You walk across the campus and run into someone from engineering, medical, or another science and ask, ‘What are you working on?’, and sometimes that stimulates an idea for further fundamental research. The rich interactive dynamic that occurs, if it is nurtured properly, is a university’s greatest strength.” 

Written by Heather Catchpole

First published in Australian University Science, Issue 10 2023

Seaweed business roadmap – a new billion dollar industry?

Small business, academia, industry and policy leaders converged on the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to discuss a roapmap moving forward for Australia’s burgeoning algae industry.

The bioeconomy – materials created from organisms rather than traditional manufacturing or fossil-fuel-based products – is a huge new growth industry for Australia, the Algae Business Summit heard.

“Up to 60% of our manufacturing can come from organisms – the bioeconomy,” said Peter Ralph, the director of the Climate Change Cluster at UTS, a centre focussed on new insights into problems facing marine ecosystems by working at the intersection of the physical and life sciences.

“The bioeconomy can remove and wean us off the carbon economy,” he said.

“This will be a game changer. It’s a trillion dollar economy globally and employs around 17.5 million people.”

READ MORE: Australian University Science Innovation Futures

Industries present at the summit included Pacific Bio, an Australian biotech company whose signature product, RegenAqua, cleans wastewater using seaweed filled water tanks that can be placed near wastewater from councils or aquaculture farms. During this cleaning process, it also creates as a subsidiary product PlantJuice, a fertiliser for farmers.

Also present at the summit was Sampano, supply chain specialist who source local ingredients for global nutraceuticals, and whose biggest success story was developing the science and strategy to replace krill oil in Swisse pharmeceuticals with a vegan seaweed alternative.

Colin McGregor, CEO of BioGenesis, which develops nutraceutical, stock feed and fertiliser products from seaweed, says the potential for algae is vast in a green climate ecology, but it needs policy and regulatory input, something the summit aims in developing within a new roadmap for the industry going forward.

“Algae is the fastest growing plant on the planet. It doubles in mass everyday – compare that to corn, which doubles its mass every 60 days,” says McGregor.

READ MORE: Dr Afsaneh Khansari. Developing seaweed-based materials

“We know that algae has to be part of the solution to feed the planet. Half of all of the world’s photosynthesis is already provided by algae. Climate change and food are the two big opportunities for the future.”

Catriona McCloud, Interim Executive Director, Institute for Antarctic and Marine Studies, said you can replace whole carbon based industries.

“The opportunity is huge,” she said.

Take Asparagopsis, for example, a genus of edible red macroalgae that massively reduces methane emissions from cows.

“We have to come together to share knowledge, understanding and the pathway moving forward. We need to be clear about our purpose and what it means. We need to get people on the journey and be clear about what the benefits are.”

By Heather Catchpole

Refraction Media launch STEM Equity Evaluation for Careers with STEM

Refraction Media, founders of, have today launched the evaluation of, a hub for careers advisors, teachers and students on the Women in STEM Ambassador’s STEM Equity Portal.

Careers with STEM is a multi-platform student-focussed careers hub that aims to inspire more young Australians to pursue courses and careers with science, technology, engineering or maths. It includes a free quarterly magazine, website, videos and quizzes. Since 2014 it has provided students with hundreds of diverse, real-life STEM role models, and challenges stereotypes around what STEM jobs look like and who works in STEM.

Careers with STEM’s secret formula is STEM + X – where ‘X’ is a student’s passion, an interest, another subject, a big opportunity or life-changing goal. On the Careers with STEM website, students can search for role models and stories by STEM, or their ‘X’: such as animals, business, creativity, crime and justice, cyber security, defence, design and construction, economics, education, environment, fashion and beauty, food and agriculture and more.

Since launching the site, Refraction Media have distributed over 2 million free magazines and each year reach over 200,000 unique users, 70.5% of whom are high school students (50.1%), uni students and VET students. 16.7% of website readers are teachers.

Careers with STEM’s evaluation report is available to read here.

The STEM Equity Evaluation Portal (the Portal) is a product of the Office of Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador (the Office). Led by Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, the Office mobilises Australia’s business leaders, educators, parents and carers, and policymakers to remove barriers to the participation of girls, women, non-binary and other marginalised groups in STEM.

The Office developed the Portal in response to recommendations from the Women in STEM Decadal Plan for a standardised national evaluation framework that guides evaluation efforts across all existing and future STEM equity initiatives in Australia.

The program evaluation found students are exposed to Careers with STEM through one-on-one interviews with careers advisors, in-class activities with educators and through live events and webinars held during school hours. The magazines are made available via the careers office and the library, as well as through Digital Technologies classes. Career advisors link to the digital products in careers newsletters to parents.

“Through our analytics, direct engagement, email conversions and user feedback we are able to ascertain we are also reaching our secondary target audience of educators in schools and classrooms,” says co-founder and head of content, Heather Catchpole.

“16.7% of the digital audience are educators. Many print materials have a long life in schools, and while events and webinars are a transitory experience, through weekly emails, daily socials and articles, we have an ongoing and continued reach into schools. This is a critical communication approach where staff numbers can be low, teacher turnover high, and new students are entering the school system,” says Catchpole.

“Educator feedback shows that over 95% agree that Careers with STEM helps showcase diversity in STEM careers, keeps educators up-to-date with STEM careers and employers, is easy to read and is an important part of encouraging young people to pursue courses and careers in STEM,” says co-founder Karen Taylor-Brown.

Catchpole and Taylor-Brown started Careers with STEM in 2014 with founding partner Google in response to low enrollments by women in computer science education in Australia. Australia faces a massive challenge in building the technology workforce needed for the future. 1.3 million tech workers will be required by 2030. Employment in STEM occupations in Australia will grow by 12.9% by 2025. However, only 22% of high school students (and 8% of females) are choosing STEM degrees or courses.

“Careers with STEM has over 200 industry and tertiarty partners and we look forward to continuing to provide tools for under-resourced careers advisors to connect the STEM students study in schools with the careers of tomorrow,” says Taylor-Brown.

Advanced materials supporting green technologies

Wednesday 9 November 2022 12 noon AEDT

As we see demand for renewable energy and clean technologies at an all-time high, Australia’s manufacturing sector is transforming by embracing green technologies.

Australia’s manufacturing capabilities will play a key role in maintaining a high value, sustainable and prosperous economy for the future.

Through ANSTO, Australia already supplies more than 50% of the global demand for irradiated silicon, used in manufacturing high-tech  products for high-speed trains, EVs, wind turbines and more.

A thriving advanced manufacturing sector will see Australia meet its sustainability targets and lead the world. Discover what the future holds in advancing Australia’s manufacturing capabilities in green technologies and how to work with the organisations and businesses at the cutting edge of this sector.

Wednesday 9 November 2022 12 noon AEST

This webinar is FREE to attend and registration is essential. Secure your spot by clicking the button above.

The Panel

Dr Alex Han, Silicon Irradiations Engineer, ANSTO

Dr. Alex Han is an Silicon Irradiations Engineer at ANSTO. Before joining ANSTO Silicon Alex had about 10 years of experience in advanced silicon solar cell research & manufacturing at the School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy, UNSW. His current work at ANSTO focuses on production planning, process optimisation and advanced calibration for silicon irradiations services.

Dr Jitendra Mata, Instrument Scientist, ANSTO

Dr Jitendra Mata is a senior instrument scientist for the Kookaburra an Ultra Small Angle Neutron
Scattering (USANS) instrument (since March 2017) and an instrument associate for the Quokka a
Small Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS) instrument (since July 2018) at Australian Centre for Neutron
Scattering (ACNS), Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Oranisation (ANSTO), Australia. Dr
Mata has been at ANSTO for > 13 years; working as an instrument scientist for the Quokka for 4
years, a research leader at ANSTO Minerals for 3 years, and as a postdoctoral research fellow at the
ACNS for 2 years. He also worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at The Australian National
University with Prof. John White for 3 years.

Dr Mata’s research concerns complex soft materials and has had industrial relevance since his PhD.
He has investigated several areas of soft condensed matter science, such as surfactant and block
copolymer solutions, emulsions, food proteins, hydrogels, and minerals. Dr Mata has co-authored
more than 100 peer reviewed articles including 2 book chapters: all in high impact international
journals. He has also published several scientific reports.

Emma Jenkin, Investment Director, Kilara Capital 

Emma has over 20 years’ experience in finance across portfolio management, fixed income and impact investing. She is considered a climate pioneer and has led a number of domestic and global innovations across the clean energy transition, ESG investing, carbon finance and emissions trading. Initially working in investment banking, she also has entrepreneurial experience working directly in and with start-ups and early-stage ventures and has successfully established partnerships to accelerate innovation and product development. Emma completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Mathematics and a Bachelor of Commerce and is a passionate STEM advocate.

 Dr Nadia Court, inaugural director of the Semiconductor Sector Service Bureau (S3B).

Dr Nadia Court is the inaugural Director of the Semiconductor Sector Service Bureau (S3B). Until recently, Nadia was the Technical Director of the Research and Prototype Foundry, the University of Sydney’s micro- and nano-fabrication facility and the Sydney Hub of the NSW Node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF). Nadia has worked in various roles with ANFF since 2012, both at UNSW and the University of Sydney. Prior to this Nadia spent several years working in the UK on printed electronics and optical communication technologies for the defence industry.

The ANSTO Innovation Series

The ANSTO Innovation Series is a virtual and hybrid meet-up that focuses on the key capacities of ANSTO’s people, partners and facilities and how they are meeting global challenges in sustainable industries, medicine, advanced manufacturing and in accelerating small business.

Delivered as a quarterly webinar, the ANSTO Innovation Series features an expert panel exploring the latest science, industry and start-up opportunities, including innovations in food, energy storage, nuclear medicine and health, engineering new materials and accelerating deep tech business.

The ANSTO Innovation Series is produced in partnership with STEM-specialist publishers, Refraction Media, publishers of Science Meets Business, and hosted by leading science journalist, Lee Constable.


The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) is the home of Australia’s most significant national infrastructure for research. Thousands of scientists from industry and academia benefit from gaining access to state-of-the-art instruments every year.

ANSTO researchers work on global science and technology challenges, and operate landmark research infrastructure including one of the world’s most modern nuclear research reactors, OPAL; as well as a comprehensive suite of neutron beam instruments at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering; the Australian Synchrotron; the National Imaging Facility Research Cyclotron; and the Centre for Accelerator Science. ANSTO also hosts the nandin innovation centre, one of Australia’s few deep technology hubs facilitating industry engagement and research translation.

Subscribe to our regular innovation and research news updates to get notification of the webinars.

Digital skills gap at all-time high

Seventy five per cent of IT decision-makers report a gap in digital skills, 145% over the previous year, say a panel of major employers at this year’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) summit in Canberra today.

To reskill at scale is a massive challenge facing businesses. The federal government says 87 per cent of today’s jobs across every sector and industry in Australia now require digital literacy.

The AWS released research today showing that, despite representing just 29% of the tech workforce, according to the Australian Computer Society, women are more motivated to gain digital skills: 8 in 10 women say they have realised the importance of digital skills training due to the pandemic. 

The research also found:

  • While there is a gap between female (67%) and male workers (74%) in Australia who have undergone digital skills training since the pandemic, female workers are more motivated to do so.
  • More than half (55%) of female workers who have not undergone any training indicate that they want to do so within the next year; 14 percentage points higher than the share of men looking to start.
  • 88% of Australian workers surveyed in non-tech roles who have upgraded their digital skills are benefitting from greater efficiency: 60% reported increased promotion opportunities, and 81% reported improved employability.
  • 81% of non-tech workers and 66% of tech workers are not confident of their ability to meet future digital skill needs.

Government services look to upskill at scale

Helen Robson, Program Manager Major Projects, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says within the ABS it’s important to train business people in tech as well as upskilling internal tech staff to use digital processes at work.

“This is our platform for innovation and new delivery, so if people want to work in there they have to learn and understand the environment – and that includes our business people.

“Its not just about our architects and development staff – our business people need to write code, and to understand Python and R as well.”

Robson says it’s important for people to understand the value of digital skills to incentive staff to develop digital skills at scale.

“People can see the difference they are making for the country where they are helping to share data securely across government, like in the census. They want to be involved, they want to do cool stuff, they want to move forward with their careers.”

Lifelong learning is essental to digital skills

Jo Cantle, Strategy and Digital Workforce Policy Lead, Australian Public Service Commission says the 2019 review of the APS meant professional streams were set up to train people in essential skills like digital data.

“To support digital enabled and data driven services, our key focus is to look at the whole life cycle of employees in the APS. We’ve established a range of actitivies including ensuring we have the leadership we need for transformation, supporting for women into leadership roles, and our cloud education program, which we partner with AWS and QUT on, to ensure our leaders have the digital skills they need to transform government.

“COVID has given us the platform to rapidly move forward. It has forced that advancement we wouldn’t have necessarily had before in driving the need for digital skills.

“We’re developing digital literacty training across the whole of the APS workforce, it’s a requirement for all APS employees, regardless of their role.”

Digital literacy driving innovation

Farhoud Salimi, Executive Director, Service Delivery eHealth NSW, says the organisation has delivered digital training to over 2600 staff through their digital academy. “Probably about half of that training is the cloud. We surveyed staff and 78% say they managed to apply that learning to a piece of work they were doing at the time – and it improved the speed and efficiency also.”

“Digital literacy is critical. For us, our role in IT is to produce the tools we can give to the faculties to expose staff and students to AI and machine learning, skills that will be critical to future leaders so they come out with a high digital literacy.”

“For us it’s about the speed of innovation,” says Jason Cowie, CIO of Curtin University. “As the team ramp up their skills we hope to see that innovation increase and to quantify the impact across the university.

To help address the digital skills gapin Australia, AWS has launched AWS Skill Builder Individual and Team subscriptions in Australia and New Zealand. It builds upon AWS’s existing Skill Builder digital learning experience with 500+ free, self-paced, digital courses, complementing the ongoing upskilling efforts in Australia.

Science entrepreneur to speak at deep tech acceleration event

The push towards deep tech commercialisation is in the news following the announcement of the $2 billion Research Commercialisation Action Plan from the Federal Government pre-May 2022 budget and election push.

But for an Australia’s science entrepreneur, the business of science and innovation can start at the very beginning of a career – at least that’s the case for ShanShan Wang, an industrial designer who took her university project into a stellar science and innovation career.

ShanShan Wang is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at Roam Technologies, an Australian medical device company focused on portable oxygen, and making oxygen accessible and measurable to everyone.

She has since has won over five international design and innovation awards with her the most recent win of COVID19 NASA International Space Apps Challenge. She has also been named as one of Australia’s youngest innovators and the next generation of disruptive business leaders including Business Insider, AMP Amplify, Sydney Morning Herald and Australia’s Women’s Weekly– AWW Women of the Future. 

Catch ShanShan in conversation at ANSTO’s Accelerating Deep Tech Businesses, the fourth installment in the ANSTO x Science Meets Business Innovation Series. Register here.

From study to business

So many innovations start with a problem. For then UNSW industrial design student Wang, that problem was “what on earth am I going to write my thesis on?”

The answer came in surprising form – she spotted a mother and young child, tugging around a large cylinder, which she later learned was for the supply of pure oxygen. After some research, she realised there hadn’t been much improvement to this method of delivery for a long time, despite many people needing to use oxygen tanks daily. 

“I saw a problem, and I wanted to solve it,” she says.

Wang launched Roam Technologies – and a plan to convert air to oxygen on demand, in a small, easy-to-transport device – in 2014, the year after she graduated from university. Backed by clinical expertise in the field, engineering competancy, regulatory and quality supoort, their product, nicknamed Juno, is a small portable device that can produce oxygen out of ambient air and can regulate oxygen to user activity levels.

Juno leverages gas separation techniques with artificial intelligence to improve health. 

“It’s impactful health,” says Wang. “As COVID-19 has exacerbated a lot of problems that we’re trying to solve, it’s more important than ever.” 

The technology has since been featured in Popular Science, BBC News, Fox News, Business Insider, Huffington Post and more. 

She and her team are accelerating development of the device for regulation approval, before it is released to the wider market.

Accelerating Deep Tech Businesses is the fourth instalment in the ANSTO x Science Meets Business Innovation Series. Bringing together science leaders, deep tech entrepreneurs, academic partners and national organisations, this in-person and online event will be an opportunity to hear from, and connect with, those who embrace challenge-based innovation and collaboration. 

Pandemic leaves scientists exposed says science and innovation leader

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe AO is one of Australia’s most influential people in innovation, and the Chair of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Association, recently renamed Cooperative Research Australia.

Woodthorpe spoke at the Ralph Slatyer Address on Science & Society at the National Press Club, Oct 20, marking the 30th anniversary of the CRC Program, a hugely successful university and industry partnership program that was begun by Ralph Slatyer, Australia’s inaugural Chief Scientist.

Woodthorpe emphasised the value of the long-running CRC program before going on to warn of the threats misinformation and conspiracy pose to science today.

CRCs deliver high value from collaborative research

“Whether the CRCs have been very commercially focussed or totally researching issues in the public good, they have all had to demonstrate how they will deliver impact in their sector. The combination of user driven research programs and embedded translation programs have led to substantial benefits to Australia, its people and indeed the world,” she said.

These benefits include improvements in the Cochlear Implant for profoundly deaf children, bushfire and natural hazards research and climate students in the Antarctic, to name just a few. Current CRCs in operation include the Future Battery Industries CRC and Digital Health CRC.

“Other great outcomes from CRCs include the 30 day long-wear contact lenses developed in the Vision CRC and sold worldwide; the protective toothpaste sold as “tooth mousse” that you’ve probably seen at your dentist, developed by Oral Health CRC,” she said.

Scientist facing threats from cyber bullies, misinformation and conspiracy

Woodthorpe used the speech to warn of an increase in derision and suspicion towards science.  

“For example, a recent survey showed one in five Australian scientists who have spoken to the media on COVID-19, has subsequently experienced death threats and threats of violence,” she said.

“When the internet became accessible to all, it opened a floodgate of armchair self-defined “researchers” who thought that random anonymous postings on Facebook and Reddit had more credibility than a scientist with years of training and peer-reviewed research; and a loud set of voices started to question the validity of science outcomes.

“Coupled with that, the rise of the lobbyist, often under cover of being an independent research organisation, deliberately set out to undermine the credibility of science and scientists, producing spurious “facts” and figures,” Woodthorpe continued.

“Most scientists eschew the spotlight and really just want to get on with their research, but the world has changed and all of those who know that a better understanding of science can only help and not hinder us need to step up and communicate the value of what we are doing,” she said.

Her message to reporters was: “Don’t amplify the denigrators and conspiracy theorists.

“Balance is not one climate denier vs one climate scientist. It’s 2000 scientists before the denier gets their chance,” she added.

“The angry mob’s loudest voices have a huge pull and even seemingly sensible people have been sucked down their conspiracy black holes. And the effort it takes to refute any one of their articles, tweets or other postings takes an order of magnitude more that it took the conspiracy theorists and their trolls and bots to invent it and disseminate it.”

Free science the key to research translation, says Chief Scientist

Speaking at the national conference of the Cooperative Research Centres Association, recently renamed Cooperative Research Australia, Chief Scientist Cathy Foley called for open access to science and a push for the end to paid access to peer reviewed journals.

“Researchers must come out from behind paywalls of scientific papers.

“Open access of research from all publishers and open access to all journals would allow everyone in Australia to access academic information: industry, government and researchers could access all Australian research,” she said.

Dr Foley said while $12B had been poured into public research, people were paying $400-$600M to access the research through journals.

“We need an ongoing model with ongoing funding to support this, and I have been in discussion working towards this,” she added, saying she has already put forward a proposal to the National Science and Technology Council, who were “very positive and are supporting it”. 

“We need to rethink the whole way we communicate research. Peer review is critical to build trust. Open access is important because everyone needs to access the information and understand it. Many journals require scientists to have 9-10 points that summarise the point of the paper,” for example, she said. 

“We need to connect science to engineering, to social access, to government regulation, and marketing – all of these components need to come together for successful science translation. Open access is part of that toolbox.”

R&D needs innovation districts and set priorities

Dr Foley also highlighted the need to set priorities in science R&D and spoke of the revolutionising impact of quantum technologies and AI.

“The next revolution is coming and Australia is globally competitive in this. Quantum technologies will create a new, high-tech industry for Australia that will be worth billions of dollars.”

SA Chief Scientist Caroline McMillen also spoke on the value of international collaboration in science and technology and the need for innovation districts to promote collaboration in research. 

“We need to set priorities including: investment in R&D as a proportion of GDP, convergence of fields – as in AI plus health, and quantum technologies plus space.  We also need to create and foster innovation districts and create places of convergence to hear about and curate these emerging technologies. These must include industry PhDs,” she said.

Science much more than lab work

Foley said there was a need to broaden the concept of science beyond academic pathways.

“We need to broaden the idea of what the STEM pathway looks like. Research is a small subsection of the workforce and yet is the main concept people have of a STEM career. 

“Diversity and gender, digital technologies and a quantitative approach is essential – we need more statisticians and mathematicians and we need to broaden our idea of what a career in STEM looks like. A research pathway is important but it is only a small part of what is possible. 

“The career opportunities in STEM beyond the university sector are huge and we need to open up those doorways.”

AAS awards 24 outstanding Australian scientists

The scientists’ discoveries are changing the world, including revealing the physics of sea-level change, leading the discovery of gravitational waves, harnessing the immune system to fight cancer, answering unsolved mathematical problems and creating cheap, flexible, stable and non-toxic solar cells.

Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger receives the inaugural Ruby Payne-Scott Medal and Lecture. It is one of the Academy’s most prestigious awards and honours Ruby Payne-Scott’s pioneering contribution to radiophysics and radio astronomy.

Professor Praeger’s work on problems of symmetry has led a revolution in mathematics, and the algorithms she developed are used in technology around the world.

She has a long track record of mentoring and inspiring others, supporting women, advocating for mathematics in schools and promoting mathematics in emerging economies.

“I feel very humbled to receive the inaugural Ruby Payne-Scott Medal and I feel it a great honour: Ruby Payne-Scott was a trail-blazer for women in science,” said Professor Praeger.

“Along with all women who have had the opportunity of a life-long career in STEM, I feel enormous gratitude to Ruby for her courage in fighting against the restrictions which prevented this for married women in the 1950s.

 “Although I never had the opportunity of meeting Ruby, I am grateful to have known and worked with her son, mathematician Peter Hall.”

Professor Andrew Holmes is the recipient of the Academy’s other Premier award, the 2021 Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture.

Professor Holmes is recognised for his world-leading contributions to materials science and biology, including plastics that emit light when sandwiched between electrodes connected to a power source—technology that forms the basis of flexible OLED televisions and plastic solar cells.

“Printed plastic solar technology is certainly going to be a technology in the [energy] marketplace,” said Professor Holmes, in a video published today to highlight his award.

“It has the advantage that it’s lightweight, it’s flexible and, in principle, it’s significantly cheaper than the silicon solar cell technology.”

In the career awards, Professor John Endler and Professor Susanne von Caemmerer are each awarded the inaugural Suzanne Cory Medal, which honours the former Academy president and molecular biologist.

Professor John Endler, a world-leading evolutionary biologist, has pioneered the field of sensory ecology, which explores how an animal’s environment helps determine how their specific senses and signals evolve.

Professor von Caemmerer, an expert in the processes underpinning how plant leaves use CO2, has changed the way we think about photosynthesis. Her research, aimed at improving photosynthesis in crops to increase their yields and adapt to climate change, is now applied worldwide.

One of the early-career researchers also honoured this year is Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a world expert on heatwaves—their causes, impacts and how they are changing as the earth warms.

She led a global study that found heatwaves have been increasing in frequency since 1950, and receives the 2021 Dorothy Hill Medal, which honours Australia’s first woman professor.

President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Shine, said the research of this year’s awardees is at the forefront of science, not only in Australia but around the world.

“While many of these researchers are having direct impacts on our technology and everyday lives, others are pushing the boundaries of basic research—both of which are vital to the advancement of science.

“The Academy is proud to honour such a diverse range of researchers this year, reflecting the people driving Australian science.”

The Academy’s 2021 honorific awards go to: 

Premier honorifics

Career honorifics

Mid-career honorifics

Early-career honorifics

The awards will be presented in online ceremonies over the course of the year.

Read more about each of the Academy’s 2021 honorific awardees. 

CSIRO moves to Open Access research

CSIRO Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Sarah Pearce.

The changes represent significant and coordinated steps towards Open Access for a research organisation in Australia, and will see CSIRO lead the way in removing paywalls and enabling unrestricted access to its research in scientific journals, instead of readers paying journals to access CSIRO’s published research.

The global shift towards Open Access aims to democratise science by ensuring research is available to everyone, not just those with journal subscriptions.

Moving barriers

The 100-year-old organisation has begun the journey towards Open Access, expected to take a number of years, by signing transformative ‘read and publish’ agreements with publishers including American Institute of Physics, Company of Biologists, Elsevier, Microbiology Society, Royal Society, and Royal Society of Chemistry to publish CSIRO science for readers to access for free – many of which are the first of their kind in Australia.

CSIRO’s editorially independent publishing business, CSIRO Publishing, also offers Open Access arrangements, including this month signing a number of agreements with the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) member institutions, as well as with CSIRO itself.

CSIRO Acting Chief Scientist, Dr Sarah Pearce, said CSIRO was removing barriers to access and increasing opportunities for their published research to make a difference in the world.

“At a time when people around the world are turning to science for answers, we’re proud to be making more and more of our published research openly available,” Dr Pearce said.

“In this way, everyone can read the science themselves and increase the impact of our research.

“At the same time, we must maintain the very highest standards of peer review and publishing practices, so finding a viable way to transition the model for journal publishers, like CSIRO Publishing, towards Open Access is exciting.

“We can expand the reach of the outputs of scientific research while ensuring scientific integrity is protected.”

CSIRO Chief Information and Data Officer, Brendan Dalton, encouraged other research institutions to join the movement.

“As the national science agency, sharing our research with the world is essential to supporting national and international research excellence and fostering collaboration, so we’re proud to have signed a number of transformative agreements already, and look forward to increasing this number over the coming years as contracts come up for renewal,” Mr Dalton said.

“Open Access ensures we can solve the greatest challenges by sharing new knowledge across borders, across industries, and across communities to stimulate innovation, deliver social benefits and drive economic prosperity.”

This piece was originally published by CSIRO. View CSIRO’s Open Access Position Statement

CSIRO Publishing’s Open Access approach

Government calls for consultation on uni research fund

Can universities do more – or get more help – in commercialising research to drive the economic growth we need post COVID-19? And how can we facilitate more collaboration between university research and business? It might sound like a familiar refrain, after the $1.1 billion NISA (National Innovation and Science Agenda) was announced in December 2015.

But NISA petered out after 4 years, and the fact that the questions are being asked – and the consultation is happening – is being welcomed by Australia’s top bodies including Science & Technology Australia and the Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS).

Minister the Hon Alan Tudge released the University Research Commercialisation consultation paper on Feb 26 seeking feedback into these questions.

“I want to see new ideas on how we can increase collaboration between business and universities and put our research at the heart of our economic recovery,” Minister Tudge said.

“We want our high-quality research to better translate into the breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas we need to grow our economy and improve our society.

“COVID provides a unique opportunity to reassess university business models and better leverage research to grow our economy and generate Australian jobs.

“I will work with any university that is prepared to take a bold approach.”

It’s time to “level up”

Peak body Science & Technology Australia welcomed the initiative and said university science is ready to “level up”, calling for a $2.4 billion Science Future Fund.

“Australian science is ready, willing and able to answer that call,” said Science & Technology Australia Chief Executive Officer Misha Schubert.

ACDS joined the call for funding similar to the long-established Biomedical Research Translation Fund that fed $500m into medical research translation in 2015-2017.

“We strongly support the proposal for a non-medical research translation fund and a comprehensive long-term national plan for science and technology,” they stated in a press release.

“Such a scheme will enable the great work by University science in areas like environmental science, agriculture, chemistry and physics, to contribute to global challenges like food and water security, climate change, renewable energy and smart materials.”

Release the release here, or click here for a direct link to download the consultation paper.

Bioinformation is about to change the world

“Hey Google, do I need to wear a mask in here?”  Imagine if your personal digital assistant could identify traces of COVID-19 in a room’s air, in real time, and tell you if you needed to take precautions.

Long a staple of science fiction, ‘bio-informational’ tools are poised to change the way we imagine, and interact with, the living world.

In a paper recently published in Nature Communications, Macquarie University’s Thom Dixon, Dr Thomas Williams and Professor Isak (Sakkie) Pretorius take an in-depth look at what enhancements may be coming to a biological system – say, a plant or animal – near you, and sooner than you might have thought.

Dr Thomas Williams, Department of Molecular Sciences; Prof Sakkie Pretorius, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research); Thom Dixon, National Research Assessments Leader.

Future focus: Research authors Dr Thomas Williams, Professor Sakkie Pretorius and Thom Dixon … ensuring SynBio technologies are safe for the planet is key for Macquarie researchers. Photo credit: Michael Amendolia

And in thinking ahead, says Professor Pretorius, “We are also thinking about what will be needed to make sure these technologies are safe for the planet and what the legal and regulatory frameworks need to safeguard society from what the unintended consequences might be.”

It is our responsibility as researchers to imagine what might happen. That way we can guard against the possibility of causing harm through trying to do good.

At the Macquarie-based ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology  scientists are coming up with solutions to global agricultural, food production, manufacturing, healthcare and environmental challenges.

One of the underpinnings of Macquarie’s research framework is consilience – a term taken from biologist E.O. Wilson’s quest for a unified theory of knowledge, spanning from physics and biology to the humanities and social sciences.

For this reason, like Macquarie’s work throughout the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology, this paper is multi-disciplinary, drawing on the arts and social sciences to examine not just the technical aspects of such revolutionary technology, but the broader implications and potential risk/benefit, to make sure that when these technologies are operational, they are also fit for social and environmental purpose.

Lead author Thom Dixon says: “It is our responsibility as researchers to imagine what might happen, both technologically and more broadly. That way we can guard against the possibility of causing harm through trying to do good.”

Sentinel plants and thought-controlled medicine delivery

The 21st century so far has been a period in which satellites, sensors and medical devices have made remarkable advances, and collected staggering amounts of data. The key word, though, is ‘collected’ – and collection is a one-way process. Information has flowed from the built, natural and living environment into digital systems, with nothing flowing back.

Two-way communication: Imagine a grapevine that could send electrical pulses to a satellite, alerting the vineyard manager to turn the sprinklers on.

But this is beginning to change.

We are now at the point when technology can allow information to flow the other way – from digital systems into living organisms and systems. With the practices and techniques of synthetic biology now being integrated into ‘multiscale’ designs that allow two-way communication across organic and inorganic information systems, biological devices are being reimagined as advanced cyber-physical systems.

Imagine, for example, that a vineyard contains one grape vine – just one – that has an engineered biosensor in its DNA. If that plant was getting low on water, it could send electrical pulses to a satellite, alerting the vineyard manager that it was time to turn the sprinklers on. This solves the problems of both under- and over-watering, optimises water use, and could also optimise yield.

What if we could use engineered gut microbiota, controlled by thought, to release medication on time and in the correct amounts.

The same plant could also potentially monitor air quality. If our hypothetical grape vine was in, for example, the NSW Hunter Valley, where vineyards and coal mines share the land, a sentinel plant could alert both vineyard and mine management if pollutants were escaping.

Or to take another example – what if we could use engineered gut microbiota, controlled by thought (monitored by an EEG) to release medication on time and in the correct amounts? People who are paralysed would no longer need to depend on others being there at the right time when they needed medication.

Over time, this could even be integrated with wearables and smartphones, to enable more sensitive calibration of medication delivery in a far broader range of patients.

Bringing everyone on board for the future

These are technologies for which the potential is truly vast, but they might encounter resistance.

As the article points out, “It remains unclear how those sectors of the public who have traditionally taken an opposition stance to engineering biology will respond to treatments and vaccines that are a product of that discipline and practice.”

The consilience approach is needed to ensure that public concern is anticipated and addressed, Pretorious says.

He stresses that these technologies are not yet practicable. But, he argues: “We need to look 10 to 20 years ahead, so that we’re ready.

“By getting the legal and governance aspects right at the same time as we’re perfecting the science, we make sure we use the technology without risk of harm, because we’ve already thought that through.”

Professor Sakkie Pretorius is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Macquarie University.

Thom Dixon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations.

Dr Thomas Williams is a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology.

This article was originally published on Macquarie University’s Lighthouse website. Read the original article here.

AI can now learn to manipulate human behaviour

Jon Whittle, Data61

A recent study has shown how AI can learn to identify vulnerabilities in human habits and behaviours and use them to influence human decision-making.

It may seem cliched to say AI is transforming every aspect of the way we live and work, but it’s true. Various forms of AI are at work in fields as diverse as vaccine development, environmental management and office administration. And while AI does not possess human-like intelligence and emotions, its capabilities are powerful and rapidly developing.

There’s no need to worry about a machine takeover just yet, but this recent discovery highlights the power of AI and underscores the need for proper governance to prevent misuse.

How AI can learn to influence human behaviour

A team of researchers at CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital arm of Australia’s national science agency, devised a systematic method of finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in the ways people make choices, using a kind of AI system called a recurrent neural network and deep reinforcement-learning. To test their model they carried out three experiments in which human participants played games against a computer.

The first experiment involved participants clicking on red or blue coloured boxes to win a fake currency, with the AI learning the participant’s choice patterns and guiding them towards a specific choice. The AI was successful about 70% of the time.

In the second experiment, participants were required to watch a screen and press a button when they are shown a particular symbol (such as an orange triangle) and not press it when they are shown another (say a blue circle). Here, the AI set out to arrange the sequence of symbols so the participants made more mistakes, and achieved an increase of almost 25%.

Read more: If machines can beat us at games, does it make them more intelligent than us?

The third experiment consisted of several rounds in which a participant would pretend to be an investor giving money to a trustee (the AI). The AI would then return an amount of money to the participant, who would then decide how much to invest in the next round. This game was played in two different modes: in one the AI was out to maximise how much money it ended up with, and in the other the AI aimed for a fair distribution of money between itself and the human investor. The AI was highly successful in each mode.

In each experiment, the machine learned from participants’ responses and identified and targeted vulnerabilities in people’s decision-making. The end result was the machine learned to steer participants towards particular actions.

In experiments, an AI system successfully learned to influence human decisions. Shutterstock

What the research means for the future of AI

These findings are still quite abstract and involved limited and unrealistic situations. More research is needed to determine how this approach can be put into action and used to benefit society.

But the research does advance our understanding not only of what AI can do but also of how people make choices. It shows machines can learn to steer human choice-making through their interactions with us.

Read more: Australians have low trust in artificial intelligence and want it to be better regulated

The research has an enormous range of possible applications, from enhancing behavioural sciences and public policy to improve social welfare, to understanding and influencing how people adopt healthy eating habits or renewable energy. AI and machine learning could be used to recognise people’s vulnerabilities in certain situations and help them to steer away from poor choices.

The method can also be used to defend against influence attacks. Machines could be taught to alert us when we are being influenced online, for example, and help us shape a behaviour to disguise our vulnerability (for example, by not clicking on some pages, or clicking on others to lay a false trail).

What’s next?

Like any technology, AI can be used for good or bad, and proper governance is crucial to ensure it is implemented in a responsible way. Last year CSIRO developed an AI Ethics Framework for the Australian government as an early step in this journey.

AI and machine learning are typically very hungry for data, which means it is crucial to ensure we have effective systems in place for data governance and access. Implementing adequate consent processes and privacy protection when gathering data is essential.

Organisations using and developing AI need to ensure they know what these technologies can and cannot do, and be aware of potential risks as well as benefits.

Read more: Robots can outwit us on the virtual battlefield, so let’s not put them in charge of the real thing

Jon Whittle, Director, Data61

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gender gap in STEM begins early

Dr Alex Thomson heads up UTS’s Deep Green Biotech Hub, and is one of Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM, a program started to raise the profile of women in STEM.

International Women’s Day on March 8 this year and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 Feb shone a light on the continuing work to do to reduce the gender gap in pay, employment and equity across the board.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology the Hon Karen Andrews marked the International Women’s Day and highlighted the gender gap in STEM by launching the Women in STEM critical evaluation tool, the STEM Equity Monitor.

“The STEM Equity Monitor provides a mechanism for measuring change and analysis of trends over time, with results to be published annually over a ten-year period,” said Minister Andrews.

“These initiatives are part of a collective effort to create change and greater opportunities for the next generation of girls,” she said.

Lisa Harvey-Smith, the Women in STEM Ambassador joined Minister Andrews in launching the STEM Equity Monitor and Women in STEM Action Plan.

“A focus on data and evaluation is really valuable as a sound evidence base will help us to track progress and target action where it’s most needed,” she said.

“Gender equity in STEM and improving participation and opportunities for girls and women in these fields will result in significant social, economic and technological benefits for everyone,” says Minister Andrews.

What does the future look like?

Research from the Women in STEM Ambassador’s team has focussed on the early stage breaking down STEM stereotypes through the Future You initiative, and this week released results from the evaluation of the $1.5m campaign.

Future You is all about exciting and informing young people about the vast array of career options that use STEM skills and breaking down gender stereotypes about who works in STEM. 

The site aims to break down gender stereotypes for women and men in STEM careers (eg nurse=female, doctor=male). The team found statistically significant increase in children who reported being “very interested” in STEM after seeing the campaign (from 36% before to 63% after). This increase was especially strong in girls, with their interest in STEM growing three-fold (from 20% to 68% after the campaign).

Parents who considered STEM skills to be “very important” for their children’s future job prospects grew by 7%, and amongst women, the proportion of mothers who perceived STEM skills as “very important” for future job prospects rose from 52% before to 71% after the campaign.

Gender gap starts early but continues across all levels

Careers with STEM, produced by ScienceMeetsBusiness publishers Refraction Media, is an industry funded platform focussed on the next level aiming to inspire all students aged 12-20 into STEM careers. The site has grown 218% year-on-year and presents a diversity of people in STEM to provide role models in STEM for all people.

The site contains 400 role models in STEM careers from engineering and trades to data science and AI.

More information on Action Plan and Equity Monitor can be found at

Get your kids to play and enjoy the Future You site.

Find hundreds of role models, quizzes, videos and free magazines on

Visit the Women in STEM Ambassador’s site.

The next generation needs to know this

By Heather Catchpole

I have a vested interest in the future. I’m hoping there’ll still be bees and butterflies, that democracy will survive, that people will have access to basic human rights, quality of life throughout life, fulfilling careers.

I’ll be honest, right now it’s not looking promising. Unprecedented and pivot were two of 2020’s most overused words. And the climate challenge was practically forgotten in the COVID crisis. The scale of this change will soon be business as usual for the next generation. So what are the things they need to know right now to help them navigate the future?

To help answer this question, I pulled together some of the best and brightest thinkers across education, health-tech, machine learning, social media, climate science and entrepreneurship to look at just that – what do our next generation need to know in order to create a world that supports them into the future.

Spark new ideas

The livestream STEM event was part of Spark Innovation Festival, Oct 2020. Spark is about innovation, startups and business and finding your purpose and this year’s focus was on being Agents of Change.

How education will/has changed

Mohamad Jebera, Founder & CEO Mathspace

Mohamad is founder and CEO of Mathspace, technology which personalises a student’s maths education. He began his career as a derivatives trader at Optiver, leading its “Robot trader” project and became a senior partner at the firm. Wanting to use his mathematical skill set for a greater good— he decided to switch careers, initially intending to become a maths teacher. Mathspace is his effort to extend his enthusiasm for numbers to as many classrooms as possible, and is now used in over 25% of Australian high schools.

The future of health-tech

Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO & Co-founder, Coviu

Dr Silvia Pfeiffer is Coviu’s CEO and Co-founder, driving the global mission of Coviu for universal access to healthcare. In recent months, Coviu became the leading telehealth software in use by Australian healthcare providers, delivering 500K+ consultations in April. With over 20 years of experience building new Web video solutions, Silvia has worked at leading corporations including Google, Mozilla, NICTA and CSIRO. Silvia and co-founder Nathan Oehlman spun Coviu out of the CSIRO in March 2018. Silvia has a double degree in computer science and business management and has led Coviu through the pandemic from a team of 7 to 35.

AI, algorithms and social media

Associate Prof Richi Nayak, QUT

Richi Nayak is leader of the Applied Data Mining Research group, the HDR coordinator of Computer Science Discipline, Course-coordinator of IT81 (Doctor of IT) and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science and Technology at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.

She has made significant contributions to three areas of Data and Web Mining: (1) Semi-structured Document Mining; (2) Web Personalisation and Social Network Mining; and (3) Applied Data Mining. Recently a deep learning algorithm identifying hate speech against women in social media was created by Nayak along with Professor Nicolas Suzor and research fellow Dr Md Abul Bashar in a collaboration between QUT’s faculties of Law, Science and Engineering, and the Digital Media Research Centre.

Algae, biofuels and innovation in climate change and science

Dr Alex Thomson, UTS

Dr Alex Thomson is a Superstar of STEM and the manager of the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) Deep Green Biotech Hub, and a lecturer in Environmental Science and Marine Biology. She has produced research papers on marine ecology and the carbon capturing potential of coastal systems. An advocate for sustainability and climate change action, she uses her research to engage and educate audiences about the potential of our global sustainable future. Alex is currently spearheading the world’s first dedicated algae accelerator program – joining biotechnology and entrepreneurship – through the Deep Green Biotech Hub, creating opportunities for STEM-preneurs across NSW to accelerate algae innovation and engage with science.

Read next: A Reverse Engineering Journey, Maryam Parvis

Science Meets Business kicks off new partnership

Science Meets Business, a website produced by specialist STEM content company Refraction Media has launched a new partnership with LCU, Laboratories Credit Union. Science Meets Business reaches thousands of unique users weekly and focusses on science innovation and business news.

LCU is a locally owned and operated credit union established 60 years’ ago by CSIRO staff and based in North Ryde, Sydney. LCU has partnered with Science Meets Business as a sponsor of the Science Meets Business’ regular e-newsletter.

“We are delighted to partner with LCU with our aligned audience and interests as Australia’s only site focussed on the full cycle of innovation in Australian science,” said Refraction Media CEO and publisher, Karen Taylor-Brown.

“LCU was founded by scientists and we’re committed to connecting with, and supporting, this important part of the community,” said Leanne Harris, General Manager, LCU.

Science Meets Business kicked off in 2014 and is also supported by the Co-operative Research Centre’s Association and the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

To speak to the publishers or find out more about working with Refraction Media, email

Industry Futures: latest issue of Australian University Science

Australia’s strong science research and training are integral to driving new economies. Universities have a critical role as partners in establishing innovation and technological change in industry.

As science delivers new insights and tools, new industries are emerging, and people with science skills will be essential to these new industries. Australian University Science magazine highlights these stories, showcasing exceptional science teams and Australian science graduates working in industry.

This issue we look at How the Quantum Revolution is scaling up. Moving far beyond super-fast computing, quantum technologies can be applied to detect cancer, detect submarines from the seafloor, and encrypt data in such a way that it can never be hacked. This article from award winning journalist Wilson da Silva covers the exciting developments in this fast-growing industry.

Plus, other industry futures under development in Australia that are building better economies through advanced manufacturing. Algae can make anything that can be made from fossil fuel derived plastic. And the plus side? It’ not only doesn’t emit greenhouse gases: it absorbs them. Read about the UTS Deep Green Biotech Hub and how university science is working with industry in the green economy, future batteries, biotechnology and modelling of new materials.

You can read the full issue, published November 2020 here, or subscribe to receive print copies and more here.

You can also catch up on previous issues on:

Issue 1: Energy Futures, Sept 2019

Issue 2: Water Futures, March 2020

Issue 3: Global Health Futures, July 2020

Australian University Science is published by STEM specialist content company Refraction Media.

Australian universities COVID-19 response – Issue 3

When the pandemic hit, the Australian Council of Deans of Science quickly mobilised to understand Australian universities COVID-19 response, covered in the latest issue of Australian University Science.

University science research is a deep repository of knowledge and is uniquely positioned to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, through research across multiple disciplines and targeting many different problem areas.

As Professor John Shine notes in the introduction to the issue, university science in Australia is developing strong candidates for a vaccine with the support of the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and from global biotech giant CSL, established in Australia in 1916.

But the response goes far beyond vaccine research, with a number of cutting edge molecular biology research and environmental science pivoting into the COVID-19 problem.

In addition, Australian universities COVID-19 response included university science departments utilising their unique facilities and knowledge.

They manufactured hundreds of thousands of masks and other personal protective equipment, began research into mental health effects, modelled the spread of the virus, looked at the effects on specific groups including minorities and regions, and worked with the government and schools to provide resources and expertise.

This virus is not finished, nor is the research. There will be rapidly changing approaches to testing regimes, new drugs and new vaccines. There will also be ongoing impacts, challenges and setbacks.

As this latest issue of Australian University Science goes to show, as the virus continues to change our world, university science research will be at the frontline in helping us to understand, adapt and respond to this crisis.

Heather Catchpole, Editor, Australian University Science & Head of Content, Refraction Media. @hcatchpole

About Australian University Science

Australian University Science is produced by STEM-specialist publisher, Refraction Media (publishers of, on behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

Australian University Science highlights the collaborative work of the science community in this third edition, and profiles the roles graduates play in industry.

To provide feedback or suggestions to the editors, subscribe to this publication or order additional copies, email

Early career researchers make a big impact

Five early career researchers are vying for $10,000 in prize money thanks to CQUniversity and the Co-operative Research Centre Association (CRC Association). The finalists’ fields range from using Artificial Intelligence in mental health to peer pressuring stem cells to become brain cells and creating a beehive “breathalyser” for disease detection.

The five early career researcher finalists were selected from submissions that came from 25 CRCs and the 30 universities that are supporting members of the CRC Association. They are: Dr Kiara Bruggeman, Australian National University; Jessica Moran, CRC for Honey Bee Products; Dr Gemma Sharp, Monash University; Dr Ben Sinclair, Monash University and Dr Julia Stone, CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity.

Judges agreed the quality of the submissions was very high this year, and the selected finalists especially stood out by communicating their science, its impact, and their role in delivering it.

Read more: Celebrating 30 years of CRC success

Bee breathalysers sniffs out disease

Jessica Moran is investigating the smell of the honey bee disease American foulbrood in order to create a “beehive breathalyser” that can non-invasively diagnose sick hives.

“We’re currently starting to develop the sensors, but we’re optimistic that the beehive breathalyser will be commercially available within the next five years. Our device will help safeguard Australia’s honey bee industry: by allowing beekeepers to rapidly screen hives for disease, outbreaks will be detected earlier, preventing severe losses in production and revenue,” says Moran.

“In particular, this device will be used to prevent diseased hives from entering pollination sites, protecting the pollination services that are estimated to be valued at $14 billion annually in Australia.”

AI helps to address eating disorders

Early career researcher Gemma Sharp is leading a team working on a novel conversational agent or “chatbot” which uses artificial intelligence technology to provide therapeutic support to people with body image concerns and also to their concerned loved ones.

“Negative body image is a major risk factor for a number of mental health issues most notably eating disorders, the most fatal of all mental disorders,” says Sharp.

“There are 1 million Australians living with an eating disorder and less than 25% of these will receive treatment or support. The chabot aims to fill this gap by preventing and intervening in the development of negative body image and eating disorders.”

Early career researcher Dr Gemma Sharp is using chatbots to provide therapeutic support to people with body image concerns and their families.

Writing a winning application

Sharp says the award application was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the “big picture” impacts of her research and articulating this information in an accessible way.

“It was a very challenging but rewarding exercise”, adds Sharp, who collaborates with The Butterfly Foundation and AI company Proxima as well as Swinburne University of Technology and Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre. 

“There are not enough mental health practitioners in Australia to meet the high demand for services and so online tools like chatbots could be very helpful in meeting these needs.” Watch Gemma Sharp’s 30 second video here.

Moran, who collaborates with AgriFutures Australia and the state bee biosecurity officers to field-test the sensor, says doing the Early Career Researcher award application made her re-think the language she uses to describe her project to the public.

“The exercise has really improved my skills and the way I think about science communication. I would really like to research other bee diseases, particularly those exotic to Western Australia, and create beehive breathalyser-type tools for them too.” Watch Jessica Moran’s video here.

Each finalist receives $1,000. The winner, chosen by popular vote on Jun 24 2020, receives an additional $5,000. Register to watch or vote here.

Read more: University Science delivering water innovation

Wearable sensors track body clock

Monitoring individual body clock time through wearable sensors will provide huge benefits in personalised medicine, says Dr Julia Stone, from the CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, another early career researcher finalist.

“Cancer treatment outcomes can differ depending on the time they are given in terms of an individual’s body clock. However, it is really hard to know what time it is for each individual’s body clock, and that is what my research is trying to solve,” says Dr Stone.

“Similarly, we could use this technology to develop personalised approaches for managing body clock disruption experienced by shift workers. Light interventions can help people adapt better to their night shift schedule, however if they are timed incorrectly, they can actually make things worse.

“Being able to monitor body clock time using wearable technologies would have a huge impact in both of these scenarios, and potentially many more.”

Early career researcher Dr Julia Stone
Early career researcher Dr Julia Stone is investigating wearable tech in the personalised medicine space.

– Heather Catchpole

Australian University Science Issue 2: Water Futures

As an increasingly dry continent, Australia faces immense water challenges. Australian universities play a critical role in undertaking research and development to assist in the identification of water management problems, the achievement of water security, and the creation of innovative solutions.

Universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to help water managers deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment.

The stories within this issue highlight university science contribution to enterprise, education and agriculture in Australia.

In the Foreword to the latest edition of Australian University Science, Professor Rob Vertessy, Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne looks at the big picture issues in water management.

End-to-end solutions

From catalysing new science to ‘pull’ water out of the air using smart, fundamental chemistry to testing research and development (R&D) directly with end users, universities engage at each stage of the innovation cycle to deliver water security to communities, industries, agriculture and the environment.

Australia’s comparative success in addressing our water challenges has much to do with the fact we have had a strong water research and teaching community that functions as an early warning system for emerging problems, and as a training ground for the advanced technical capability that is entrained in the water sector. This knowledge transfer is needed today more than ever before to contribute expertise to the ‘wicked’ problem of equitable sharing of water as a highly contested resource. Achieving water security is one of the great global challenges of our times.

Related: Water sensitivity can be achieved in Australia

Through ideas and people working within and with Australian university science, we create world-leading expertise in water management problem identification and remediation. We still have many serious water security issues to surmount, as evidenced by the recent crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. Advances will require a national architecture for identifying and funding research priorities. It will also require the ingenuity, tools and people that can bring together research knowledge with fast, effective delivery of solutions.

Consulting with the university science community, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) are working to prepare a strategic vision for Australian water research in 2020. That vision will require collaboration between university science, national agencies, industry, researchers, education and end users. Australian universities have a vital role to play in shaping this strategy and promoting it to government.

University science has the facilities, space and expertise to test R&D in the environment in which it will be used, and the remit to train people to address these challenges. Our resilience to a changing climate and water system will rely on this inbuilt capacity and ingenuity.

Professor Rob Vertessy

Enterprise Professor (Water Resources), University of Melbourne

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Water for country

Bradley Moggridge is a Kamilaroi water scientist, a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recent Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year in the ACT. Managing the aquifers, water catchments and rivers that span Australia’s arid lands lies deep in his blood. “My people have been interested in water for more than 65,000 years,” he says.

Moggridge is a hydrogeologist who recently led Australia’s only Aboriginal water unit at the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

His Master’s thesis, in 2005, at the University of Technology Sydney explored how Aboriginal knowledge was used to understand and access groundwater. “The flexibility that allows exploratory research through university science gave me the opportunity to connect the dots between hydrogeology, hydrogeochemistry and Aboriginal science,” he says.

Moggridge is now completing his PhD at the University of Canberra, where his research links western science with traditional knowledge to develop best-practice methodologies for water planning and management tailored to specific landscapes.

He says that his own heritage, as a Murri man from the Kamilaroi Nation of north-western New South Wales, deeply informs his work.

Australia has been home to thousands of generations of its First Peoples despite its arid landscapes. Traditional knowledge about how to find water sites has been integral to the survival of Aboriginal people, says Moggridge.

“Move away from the coastal regions and the river lands, and your dependence on surface water diminishes. In a dry landscape, knowing when, where and how to find water, where groundwater is the only source of water, that is how our people survived,” he says.

“Aboriginal ways of thinking and managing country involve scientific processes and generations of observation — why there’s a stand of gum trees here, why birds go to a certain place — but it has been regarded as myth and legend.”

Rangers in the Great Sandy Desert cite stories about one dryland location that had previously been a river. “Hydrogeologists drilling there found evidence of a paleo channel,” says Moggridge. “This is old, old knowledge.

Related: Tracing Change: Past Australian Environments

“Our stories hold the key to managing water on this continent. It’s a knowledge system that has survived changes in climate for millennia. Protecting water remains a cultural obligation.

“The support of university science will let me continue my work, applying an Indigenous methodology to the way we manage water.”

Fran Molloy


>> Bachelor of Environmental Science, Australian Catholic University

>> Master of Science, Hydrogeology and Groundwater management, University of Technology Sydney 

>> Team Leader, Aboriginal Water Initiative, NSW Department of Primary Industries

>> Special Advisor, First Peoples Water, Water Stewardship Australia

>> Indigenous Water Research Specialist, CSIRO

>> Environmental Officer, Camden Council

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Drops from thin air

The University of Sydney Nano Institute team

University science is behind some of the most profound innovations and breakthroughs in water research, from the development of cutting-edge techniques to maximise irrigation, to the creation of innovative new materials that can literally capture water from the air.

At the University of Sydney, the Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere (ACWA) project applies nanoscale materials science to mimic the remarkable adaptation of desert beetles in Namibia, a region where just 1.4cm of rain falls each year. The beetle collects water vapour from the atmosphere, turning it into liquid via the intricate shapes of tiny bumps on its exoskeleton.

Biomimicry — learning from, and mimicking, clever strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — is an important component of the work of the University of Sydney Nano Institute, co-led by chemist Professor Chiara Neto and physicist Professor Martijn de Sterke. Innovations from the research include a nanotextured surface which can repel bacteria, algae and other marine life from ships’ hulls, inspired by a lotus leaf; a nanoscale slippery surface, inspired by the pitcher plant, that can be used for microfluidic channels in bioengineering; and a stain-resistant paint base.

The Institute has attracted top-level researchers from chemistry, physics, materials science and bioengineering from across the university.

“We began with the idea of capturing water from the atmosphere by optimising the surface chemistry of a material so it would enable the formation of droplets out of humid air,” says Neto.

“We are now developing new devices that capture water from the atmosphere through condensation, using no external source of energy, by designing surfaces that spontaneously cool when exposed to the air,” she says.

Related: Software saves rainwater

The team has made two key breakthroughs. First, they have perfected the surface science of nanoscale ‘bumps’ shaped in a way to harvest a very thin film of water vapour, similar to the Namibian desert beetle.

Their second breakthrough is the development of an entirely new surface that is naturally chilled and causes water to condense into droplets. Wherever the atmosphere is above 30% humidity, this surface will automatically collect water vapour from the air.

The ACWA project is well on the way towards its ambitious goal to create materials that capture sufficient water from the atmosphere to alleviate the effect of drought by providing water for humans, animals and plants.

Patents are underway for exciting applications for the technology, including watering devices to use within greenhouses; a portable self-filling water bottle for bushwalkers and emergency crews; and small water stations to sustain wildlife in remote areas

Fran Molloy

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

The war on waste

With a career spanning 20 years in the water sector, Karen Rouse is well placed to provide leadership in her role as CEO of Water Research Australia (Water RA). She serves on the Board of the Global Water Research Coalition and Water Industry Alliance, and led the CSIRO urban water research program looking at positive environmental outcomes for wastewater treatment.

A native Brit, Rouse worked as a geologist in the energy and construction sectors in Australia before completing her Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide. The interdisciplinary nature of the course brought a seismic shift in her career.

“The course I studied had science subjects such as conservation, biology and freshwater ecology, but it also included environmental economics, law and a synthesis subject,” she says. “That has enabled me to see how science gets into policy and practice, and to understand the systems that go around it.”

Water RA transitioned from a Cooperative Research Centre with university partners 10 years ago to being fully industry funded today, coordinating collaborative research between universities to tackle water challenges. “Our members are roughly half universities and half industry, including water utilities, health regulators, consultants and a few small niche companies,” says Rouse. “We call them our big team.”

A major challenge is to work out how to reuse water regardless of where it comes from, whether that be stormwater or treated wastewater, to treat it appropriately and then communicate that to the community. “In towns in western New South Wales where they’re running out of water, we are making sure people in leadership have access to accurate and evidence-based information with which to act,” she says.

Water RA also delivers an acclaimed research leadership program that offers industry sponsorship to Honours, Master’s and PhD students, to make them ready for careers in the water sector. “Our success is a 95% rate of employment within the sector when they finish,” says Rouse.

Students receive industry mentorship, attend leading industry conferences, and importantly, an ongoing program aimed at maintaining a lifelong research mindset.

“It’s a risk as a scientist working in industry to become ‘frozen’ in time if you don’t continue to pursue new knowledge and actively keep up with your discipline. That’s where universities play a crucially important role.”

Brendan Fitzpatrick


>> Bachelor of Science (Hons), University of Exeter 

>> Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide

>> Senior Environmental Assessment Officer, SA Planning 

>> Principal Strategist, Environment and Sustainability, SA Water

>> Theme Leader, Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, CSIRO

>> Manager, Source Water and Environment Research, SA Water

>> CEO, Water Research Australia

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

Smart science at regional universities driving future farms

Outside Armidale, in northern NSW, eight different properties covering 3900 hectares of woodland, grassland, water sources and pasture comprise the University of New England’s Sustainable Manageable Accessible Rural Technologies (SMART) Farms, an outdoor laboratory for the Precision Agriculture team.

These farms include a commercial sheep property, 1000-head cattle feedlot, long-term agronomy plots, a genomic research centre and teaching lab featuring innovative farming technologies that are tested, assessed and monitored on working farms.

UNE crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel says agricultural science works best when universities are in partnership with industry.

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“Universities have an opportunity to bring in expertise and to do the things that industry hasn’t got the time, or the economic drivers, to do themselves, and to really boost innovation.”

For more than three years, UNE scientists have gathered data from a wide network of more than 100 soil moisture probes that create a ‘living map’ reporting on the moisture levels across a segment of the property.

Other sensor networks report on the water use in trees, the growth of pasture and even the amount of honey being produced in the property’s beehives.

Water and its use is always a key focus of the university’s research.

Innovation in farming

Dr Flavel says regional universities are well placed to explore scientific solutions for some of the big challenges facing Australia’s farmers, most of these relating to how best to use limited water resources.

“All of the innovative systems that have come online in farming during the past 30 years — from no-till systems, to maintaining and improving groundcover, to retaining stubble — these are all essentially about managing water,” he says.

At UNE’s campus in Armidale, level-five water restrictions are in place following years of crippling drought.

“Farming in Australia is very responsive to our climate. Our growers are governed by when, and by how much water they get,” says Dr Flavel.

He says with just five per cent of Australia’s crops irrigated, cropping industries in Australia rely on rainfall, and most water for crops is stored in the soil.

“Our research looks at current water use by dryland crops and grazing pasture, and how best to make use of the water when it lands on paddocks,” he says.

University of New England researcher Dr Richard Flavel
University of New England crop scientist Dr Richard Flavel at the Precision Agriculture SMART farm outdoor laboratory.

Sub-soil profile changes could double yields

Decades of research in universities have delivered real improvements in agricultural topsoil structures, with growers now seeing remarkable improvements from techniques that improve soil sodicity, salinity and acidity. The next step is sub-soil management, explains Dr Flavel.

At the University’s SMART farm, moisture sensors show there’s still substantial water being held in sub-soils after harvest.

“When a crop has finished, the water in the sub-soil profile should have been used up and turned into wheat. High sub-soil water shows that plants haven’t been able to access water at depths — that’s a reduction of yield potential for the grower,” he says.

Sub-soils, which sit 15cm or deeper below the surface, are now recognised as an important area for further improvement. Addressing this problem is a focus for more research.

“We’re currently looking at ways to fix sodic or saline sub-soils to improve how much our plants can use the water that falls on the paddock,” says Dr Flavel.

“Unlocking water deep in the soil profile could potentially double yields in some situations.”

Treating hydrophobic soils

Another research area is the massive tracts of soil across Australia’s croplands — nearly five million hectares — which are non-wetting or water-repellent.

University scientists found that some particles of soil developed a water-resistant coating, leaving rainfall to evaporate from the surface rather than penetrate the ground for plants’ use.

“Understanding this phenomenon has involved some tricky physics at a microscopic level,” he says.

Dr Flavel’s research is looking at ways to address this problem, which can include wetting agents, bringing up clay from deep in the soil profile and changing crops.

“Growers are very innovative, and as a scientist that’s exciting. We’ve got a group which is keen to work with our scientists to find and adopt new discoveries.”

Fran Molloy

Cleaning up our waterways

Dr Steven Melvin, research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute

Science at regional and rural universities can work with local land managers, government agencies and communities to monitor the health of waterways, assess problems on the ground, and to help develop evidence-based solutions that minimise human impact and deliver the best outcomes for sustainable communities.

At Griffith University, in south-east Queensland, the Australian Rivers Institute has a range of industry and government partners through the ARI Toxicology Research Program.

“Our research looks at the source of contaminants, their fate or where they end up, and the effect,” says Dr Steven Melvin, who is a research fellow at the ARI.

Tens of thousands of different chemicals enter our waterways, but most have a relatively low impact, he says. The ARI collaborates with industry and government agencies to identify contaminants that are potentially damaging and looks at ways to treat and remediate these.

“Largely through industry-collaborative, university-led research, we now have advanced technology, such as reverse osmosis, which uses energy and pressure to treat wastewater by forcing it through a semi-permeable membrane that filters out minute chemical compounds that could cause effects in the environment.”

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.