For the petroleum industry remediating oil sludge is a costly and an ongoing challenge, particularly when 3-7 per cent of oil processing activities are irreversibly lost as oily or sludge waste.
Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Biruck Desalegn says without treatment oil contaminated soil presents a massive risk to ecosystems and the environment.
“Last year, global oil production reached a new record of 92.6 million barrels per day, but despite improvements in control technologies, oil refineries unavoidably continue to generate large volumes of oil sludge,” Dr Desalegn says.
“Oil contamination can present cytotoxic, mutagenic and potentially carcinogenic conditions for all living things, including people
“What’s more, the toxicity and physical properties of oil change over time, which means the process of weathering can expose new, and evolved toxins.”
The new nanoparticles, synthesized from green mango peel extract and iron chloride, provide a novel and effective treatment for oil contaminated soil. They work by breaking down toxins in oil sludge through chemical oxidation, leaving behind only the decontaminated materials and dissolved iron.
Dr Desalegn says the new plant-based nanoparticles can successfully decontaminate oil-polluted soil, removing more than 90 per cent of toxins.
“Plant extracts are increasingly used to create nanomaterials,” Dr Desalegn says.
“In this study, we experimented with mango peel to create zerovalent iron nanoparticles which have the ability to breakdown various organic contaminants.
“With mango peel being such a rich source of bioactive compounds, it made sense that zerovalent iron made from mango peel might be more potent in the oxidation process.
“As we discovered, the mango peel iron nanoparticles worked extremely well, even outperforming a chemically synthesized counterpart by removing more of contaminants in the oil sludge.”
Dr Desalegn says this discovery presents a sustainable, green solution to address the significant pollution generated by the world’s oil production.
“Ever since the devastation of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the petroleum industry has been acutely aware of their responsibilities for safe and sustainable production processes,” Dr Desalegn says.
“Our research uses the waste part of the mango – the peel – to present an affordable, sustainable and environmentally friendly treatment solution for oil sludge.
“And while the world continues to be economically and politically reliant on oil industries as a source of energy working to remediate the impact of oil pollution will remain a serious and persistent issue.”
Science and technology has been given a much-needed boost in the Federal Budget handed down today.
The peak body for Australian science, technology, engineering and mathematics – Science & Technology Australia (STA) – has welcomed the support at a time where Australian science and technology is at a crossroads.
Significant funding boosts for crucial scientific research infrastructure has been complemented by major new investments in medical research, and technology infrastructure.
STA CEO Kylie Walker said the 2018 Budget indicates the Government has moved towards positioning Australia as a leader in global science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and innovation.
“The new commitment to $1.9 billion ($1 billion over the forward estimates) in research infrastructure following the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap is very welcome,” Ms Walker said.
“And major commitments to technology infrastructure, medical research ($1.3 billion), the Great Barrier Reef, and space science ($50 million) further strengthen the positive investment for the future of Australia’s STEM sector,” Ms Walker said.
“A return to keeping pace with CPI is very welcome for the Australian Research Council and other research agencies like the CSIRO. We’re also pleased to see specific measures to support greater participation by girls and women in STEM, and ongoing investment in inspiring all Australians to engage with science.
“A refocus of funding for the Research and Development Tax Incentive is another important step in supporting Australia’s innovation future.”
Ms Walker said the investment in science and technology would bolster the capacity for Australian science to support a healthy population, environment, and economy.
“The return on investment for science and technology is solid, and internationally it has been proven to be an effective means of securing and shoring up the economy,” she said.
STEM highlights in the 2018/19 Budget include:
$1.9 billion for a national research infrastructure investment plan over 12 years ($1 billion committed for first 4 years);
$1.3 billion for medical research through MRFF including $500m for genomics, $240m for frontier medical research, $125m for mental health;
$536 million (about $150 million for research) for the Great Barrier Reef
Return to indexation for the Australian Research Council and other research agencies like the CSIRO
$70 million for the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre
$50 million for the Australian Space Agency
$29.9 million for Artificial Intelligence capabilities
$260 million for satellite positioning infrastructure and imaging
$4.5 million over four years for Women in STEM initiatives
Ms Walker said it wasn’t all good news though, with STEM graduate rates threatened by continued capping of commonwealth support for undergraduate places at Australian universities.
“Universities will need to find ways to meet growing demand, while dealing with stagnant funding in the years to come. As STEM degrees are some of the most expensive to run, we don’t expect universities will have the capacity to increase the number of STEM skilled graduates,” Ms Walker said.
“Australia will need many more people equipped with STEM skills in our workforce to compete internationally. This short-term saving will be a loss for future generations.”
The ‘valley of death’ is the place where good ideas go to die in the world of science innovation. The term hints at the often insurmountable financial, logistical and regulatory chasm required to bring a potential new product or idea to market. Unfortunately, not many negotiate it successfully.
In the world of cancer medicine, there are multiple valleys of death, says to Dr Warwick Tong, CEO of the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (Ctx-CRC).
The original valley of death in science innovation encapsulated the idea that “you can have great basic science. But to have something in your hands to translate and take forward, that was a difficult place to get money,” Tong says.
In the biomedical arena, the move from basic science to translatable concept is now considered only one of three valleys of death. The second is having enough money to take a new therapy to clinical trials, which can run into millions; while the third is having enough money to file and maintain patents — also expensive. However, Tong believes the Cooperative Research Centre model addresses at least one of those challenges.
Translate and Take Forward
The Cancer Therapeutics CRC operates like a semi-virtual biotech company. Though its researchers are based at universities and institutions around the country, they work solely for the CRC —collaborating and communicating by means of an e-research platform, which enables real-time sharing of data. The platform also helps to ensure everything is documented and there’s no loss of data— both important factors in patent applications.
Tong also argues that CRC ownership of patents is particularly important in the commercialisation process, at least when it comes to science innovation. “Our model means it doesn’t matter where the inventors of our patents sit, the patent is assigned to us in the CRC, so we own it,” he says. “One of the things the pharmaceutical industry often struggles with is having to reach back into academic institutions for intellectual property, so they have to be sure we have the right contracts in place for what we own.”
Commercial Partner Pitfalls
While central control of intellectual property by the Commonwealth benefits commercialisation in the science innovation space — and was part of the base agreement in earlier CRCs — it has not been an ideal setup for all CRCs with commercial partners.
A product to come out of the recent Invasive Animals CRC was a new bait for controlling feral pigs, which has just begun field trials in the USA. Feral pigs are a growing scourge not only there, but also across Europe and Australia. The bait started life as ‘PIGOUT’, a 1080-toxin-laced product, before evolving into ‘HOG-GONE’, a highly specific bait for pigs containing a common food preservative — sodium nitrite. This chemical kills them quickly and humanely, but targets pigs specifically and poses almost no chance of collateral damage to other species.
At the time the Invasive Animals CRC was set up, the standard model for CRCs dictated intellectual property be retained by the CRC, regardless of who contributed to that IP.
Professor Linton Staples, managing director of Animal Control Technologies — one of the commercial partners in the Invasive Animal CRC — says that model was not ideal for participating companies because it didn’t adequately recognise partner inputs. To overcome an ‘uncommercial’ approach, his company ensured that the projects for which his company made a substantial cash or in-kind contribution were exclusively licensed back to the company to then commercialise.
Regulatory requirements have been another challenge to making this space commercialised. Registering a new animal toxin and products for use in animal control is an onerous task.
“The process to do the trials to the very high standards of the US Department of Agriculture has meant that everything has to be documented to the last decimal dot,” Staples says. “The data on product efficacy and safety has to be bulletproof for regulatory review.”
The path to commercialisation of HOG-GONE has been far from smooth — at one point the baits were bursting apart, as the toxin reacted with their ingredients. Staples says his company has had to foot a significant amount of the development bill.
“This particular project is now running into millions of dollars, just because of all these technical difficulties we had to solve.” But with support from an AusIndustry Accelerated Commercialisation grant, Staples is hopeful they will soon have their new product on the market.
Finding your Market
One of the biggest traps for aspiring science innovation is finding their niche. That’s an issue that the Data to Decisions CRC isn’t leaving up to chance: they’re going directly to the source, and working with potential clients — namely agencies in the areas of national security and law enforcement — to develop products tailored to their needs.
“Our approach is to build software prototypes that we roll out for the end users to trial,” says the CRC’s commercialisation manager Duane Rivett. “We then use trial feedback to determine which features are put on the product roadmap.” The CRC’s in-house development teams include experienced commercial software architects, software engineers and data scientists, who work closely with the end users on every aspect of a product’s development.
The Data to Decisions CRC has launched two spin-off companies, both wholly owned subsidiaries of the CRC, with boards featuring members of the CRC’s own directors.
“We’re currently looking at expanding the governance of our start-ups to include external advisors and directors, to bring in different viewpoints,” Rivett says.
While the model for CRCs has changed considerably since the program began back in 1991, Rivett believes this approach greatly helps to bridge the valley of death problem in science innovation.
“In our experience, we can build commercial-grade software in-house and leverage our research from our university streams to deliver cutting-edge solutions,” he says.
Four in 10 Australians miss out on a good night’s sleep, with inadequate rest costing over $60 billion a year in lost productivity. But research from the Alertness CRC into diagnosis and treatment for sleep disorders promises big benefits to our society and economy, Bianca Nogrady reports.
A bad night’s sleep can ruin your day, but imagine if every night for a year you suffer from a condition that prevents you from getting a full and satisfying night’s rest.
Then imagine that condition affecting four out of 10 Australians and you begin to get a sense of the enormity of our national problem of inadequate sleep.
Theme leader Professor Doug McEvoy says the Alertness CRC is searching for new tools and approaches to diagnose sleep problems with improved, targeted treatments. “While we talk about sleep apnoea and insomnia, within those conditions there is an amazing variety of presentations and causes of them,” he says. “To get good solutions for patients, you have to understand those differences so you can refine and personalise treatments.”
The Alertness CRC focuses on two leading causes of daytime sleepiness: insomnia and sleep apnoea. Each sleep disorder affects 10% of the population.
Insomnia is defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, and it can last from a few weeks to several years. It can be triggered by a stressful event, or related to conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain and heart failure.
Sleep apnoea is a breathing problem whereby people don’t get enough oxygen during sleep so their brain periodically kicks them awake so they can breathe properly again. It’s often related to obesity, but some people have unexplained problems regulating their breathing while asleep.
Part of the challenge with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnoea is diagnosis, which requires complex tests performed by a specialist. Both conditions are also usually under-diagnosed.
One research focus of the Alertness CRC is developing simpler diagnostic tests that can be administered by a GP, nurse, psychologist or pharmacist.
“We start to involve community practitioners in the identification and management of the condition, and the specialists can then act as more of a tertiary referral system for difficult cases,” says McEvoy.
Another challenge for the Alertness CRC is finding effective treatments for sleep disorders. The current gold standard treatment for sleep apnoea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which requires patients to wear a face mask during sleep. It’s effective, but awkward, and many people can’t or won’t use it.
Patients with insomnia invariably end up being prescribed sleeping medication, which carries the risk of side effects and ‘hangover symptoms’ the next day.
In collaboration with an industry partner and Australian researchers, the Alertness CRC is trialling new solutions to the significant problem of sleepiness.
“Sleep disorders are impacting the health and wellbeing of sufferers, and because they are so prevalent, they’re also impacting productivity and safety of the Australian community,” says McEvoy.
A ‘sun shield’ made from an ultra-thin surface film is showing promise as a potential weapon in the fight to protect the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of coral bleaching.
Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden said the results from a small-scale research trial led by the scientist who also developed Australia’s polymer bank notes were very encouraging.
“The ‘sun shield’ is 50,000 times thinner than a human hair and completely biodegradable, containing the same ingredient corals use to make their hard skeletons – calcium carbonate. It’s designed to sit on the surface of the water above the corals, rather than directly on the corals, to provide an effective barrier against the sun.
“While it’s still early days, and the trials have been on a small scale, the testing shows the film reduced light by up to 30%.
“The surface film provided protection and reduced the level of bleaching in most species.”
With the surface film containing the same ingredient that corals use to make their skeletons, the research also showed the film had no harmful effects on the corals during the trials.
“This is a great example of developing and testing out-of-the-box solutions that harness expertise from different areas. In this case, we had chemical engineers and experts in polymer science working with marine ecologists and coral experts to bring this innovation to life,” Ms Marsden said.
“The project set out to explore new ways to help reduce the impact of coral bleaching affecting the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs globally and it created an opportunity to test the idea that by reducing the amount of sunlight from reaching the corals in the first place, we can prevent them from becoming stressed which leads to bleaching.
“It’s important to note that this is not intended to be a solution that can be applied over the whole 348,000 square kilometres of Great Barrier Reef – that would never be practical. But it could be deployed on a smaller, local level to protect high value or high-risk areas of reef.
“The concept needs more work and testing before it gets to that stage, but it’s an exciting development at a time when we need to explore all possible options to ensure we have a Great Barrier Reef for future generations.”
The research team comprised of Professors Greg Qiao and David Solomon and Dr Joel Scofield from the University of Melbourne, Dr Emma Prime (formerly University of Melbourne, now Deakin University), and Dr Andrew Negri and Florita Flores from the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Professor Solomon (AC) was the winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in 2011 for his exceptional contributions to polymer science.
First published by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation
Science is fundamental for our future social and economic wellbeing.
In Western Australia we’re focusing on areas where we have natural advantages, and an appropriate base of research and industrial capacity. Western Australia’s Science Statement, released by Premier Barnett in April 2015, represents a capability audit of relevant research and engagement expertise in our universities, research institutes, State Government agencies and other organisations. Mining and energy, together with agriculture, are traditional powerhouses, but the science priorities also reflect the globally significant and growing capabilities in medicine and health, biodiversity and marine science, and radio astronomy. It’s a great place to begin exciting new collaborations.
The Science Statement has also helped to align efforts across research organisations and industry. For instance, in 2015 an industry-led “Marine Science Blueprint 2050” was released, followed by the Premier commissioning a roundtable of key leaders from industry, Government, academia and community to develop a long-term collaborative research strategy. These meetings highlighted critical areas of common interest such as decommissioning, marine noise, community engagement and sharing databases.
“Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes.”
Science, innovation and collaboration are integral to many successful businesses in Western Australia. In the medical field, a range of technological innovations have broadened the economy and created new jobs. Some of these success stories include Phylogica, Admedus, Orthocell, iCeutica, Dimerix, Epichem and Proteomics International. Another example in this space is the Phase I clinical trial facility, Linear Clinical Research, which was established with support from the State Government – 75% of the trials conducted to date come from big pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the USA.
Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes. For example, the field of big data analytics is rapidly permeating many sectors. Perth’s Pawsey Centre, the largest public research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, processes torrents of data delivered by many sources, including radioastronomy as the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, is being developed in outback WA. In addition, local company DownUnder GeoSolutions has a supercomputer five times the size of Pawsey for massive geophysical analyses. In such a rich data environment, exciting new initiatives like the CISCO’s Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, in partnership with Woodside, is helping to drive innovation and growth.
Leading players in the resources and energy sector are also taking innovative approaches to enhance efficiency and productivity. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton use remote-controlled driverless trucks, and autonomous trains, to move iron ore in the Pilbara. Woodside has an automated offshore facility, while Shell is developing its Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility soon to be deployed off the northwest coast. Excitingly, 3 emerging companies (Carnegie, Bombora and Protean) are making waves by harnessing the power of the ocean to generate energy.
This high-tech, innovative environment is complemented by a rapidly burgeoning start-up ecosystem. In this vibrant sector, Unearthed runs events, competitions and accelerators to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in the resources space. Spacecubed provides fabulous co-working space for young entrepreneurs, including the recently launched FLUX for innovators in the resource sector. The online graphic design business Canva, established by two youthful Western Australians epitomises what entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude can achieve. In this amazingly interconnected world, the sky’s the limit.
Read next:Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University and Dr Andy Marks, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Policy) of Western Sydney University on Making innovation work.
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The Autism CRC is building Australia’s first Autism Biobank, with the aim of diagnosing autism earlier and more accurately using genetic markers. Identifying children at high risk of developing autism at 12 months of age was “a bit of a holy grail”, says Telethon Kids Institute’s head of autism research Professor Andrew Whitehouse, who will be leading the Biobank. Researchers think the period between 12–24 months of age is “a key moment” in brain development, he adds.
As with other neurodevelopmental disorders, a diagnosis of autism is based on certain behaviours, but these only begin to manifest at a diagnosable level between the ages of two and five. Whitehouse says while there are great opportunities for therapy at these ages, researchers believe an earlier diagnosis will make the therapy programs more effective. Some 12-month-old children already exhibit behaviours associated with the risk of developing autism, for example not responding to their name, but currently doctors can’t conclusively diagnose autism at this early age.
“If we can start our therapies at 12 months, we firmly believe they’ll be more effective and we can help more kids reach their full potential,” says Whitehouse.
The biology of autism varies greatly between individuals, and it appears a combination of environmental factors and genes are involved – up to 100 genes may play a role in its development. Studying large groups of people is the only way to get a full understanding of autism and potentially identify genes of importance.
To do this, the Biobank collects DNA samples from 1200 families with a history of autism – children with autism aged 2–17 years old, who are recruited through therapy service providers, and their parents – as well as samples from control families who do not have a history of autism.
The samples are then shipped to the ABB Wesley Medical Research Tissue Bank in Brisbane for the Biobank’s creation. Here, they are analysed for genetic biomarkers using genome wide sequencing – determining DNA sequences at various points along the genome that are known to be important in human development. Whitehouse says they are also planning to conduct metabolomic and microbiomic analyses on urine and faeces.
“It’s the biggest research effort into autism ever conducted in Australia,” he says.
The goal is to use the results to develop a genetic test that can be conducted with 12-month-old children who are showing signs of autism. The samples will also be stored at the Biobank for future research.
The aim is to expand internationally, so that researchers can exchange data with teams around the globe who are doing similar work, thus increasing the sample size.
– Laura Boness
If your child has been diagnosed with autism and you would like to find out about participating in the Autism CRC Biobank, click here.
Featured image above: Associate Professor Ian O’Hara at the Mackay Biocommodities Pilot Plant. He is pictured inside the plant with the giant vats used for fermentation. Credit: QUT Marketing and Communication/Erika Fish
At the same time, says O’Hara, there are opportunities to add value to existing agricultural products. “Waste products from agriculture, for example, can contribute to biofuel production.”
QUT funded a study in 2014 examining the potential value of a tropical biorefinery in Queensland. It assessed seven biorefinery opportunities across northeast Queensland, including in the sorghum-growing areas around the Darling Downs and the sugarcane-growing areas around Mackay and Cairns.
O’Hara says they mainly focused on existing agricultural areas, taking the residues from these to create new high-value products.
But he sees more opportunity as infrastructure across north Queensland continues to develop.
The study found the establishment of a biorefinery industry in Queensland would increase gross state product by $1.8 million per year and contribute up to 6500 new jobs.
“It’s an industry that contributes future jobs in regional Queensland – and by extension, opportunities for Australia,” O’Hara says.
The biorefineries can produce a range of products in addition to biofuels. These include bio-based chemicals such as ethanol, butanol and succinic acid, and bio-plastics and bio-composites – materials made from renewable components like fibreboard.
O’Hara says policy settings are required to put Queensland and Australia on the investment map as good destinations.
“We need strong collaboration between research, industry and government to ensure we’re working together to create opportunities.”
The CTCB has a number of international and Australian partners. The most recent of these is Japanese brewer Asahi Group Holdings, who CTCB are partnering with to develop a new fermentation technology that will allow greater volumes of sugar and ethanol to be produced from sugarcane.
“The biofuels industry is developing rapidly, and we need to ensure that Queensland and Australia have the opportunity to participate in this growing industry,” says O’Hara.
Climate change is affecting the Earth, through more frequent and intense weather events, such as heatwaves and rising sea levels, and is predicted to do so for generations to come. Changes brought on by anthropogenic climate change, from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are impacting natural ecosystems on land and at sea, and across all human settlements.
Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels – which have jumped by a third since the Industrial Revolution – will also have an effect on agriculture and the staple plant foods we consume and export, such as wheat.
Stressors on agribusiness, such as prolonged droughts and the spread of new pests and diseases, are exacerbated by climate change and need to be managed to ensure the long-term sustainability of Australia’s food production.
Increasing concentrations of CO₂ in the atmosphere significantly increase water efficiency in plants and stimulate plant growth, a process known as the “fertilisation effect”. This leads to more biomass and a higher crop yield; however, elevated carbon dioxide (eCO₂) could decrease the nutritional content of food.
“Understanding the mechanisms and responses of crops to eCO₂ allows us to focus crop breeding research on the best traits to take advantage of the eCO₂ effect,” says Dr Glenn Fitzgerald, a senior research scientist at the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.
“The experiments are what we refer to as ‘fully replicated’ – repeated four times and statistically verified for accuracy and precision,” says Fitzgerald. “This allows us to compare our current growing conditions of 400 parts per million (ppm) CO₂ with eCO₂ conditions of 550 ppm – the atmospheric CO₂ concentration level anticipated for 2050.”
The experiments involve injecting CO₂ into the atmosphere around plants via a series of horizontal rings that are raised as the crops grow, and the process is computer-controlled to maintain a CO₂ concentration level of 550 ppm.
“We’re observing around a 25–30% increase in yields under eCO₂ conditions for wheat, field peas, canola and lentils in Australia,” says Fitzgerald.
Pests and disease
While higher CO₂ levels boost crop yields, there is also a link between eCO₂ and an increase in viruses that affect crop growth.
Spread by aphids, BYDV is a common plant virus that affects wheat, barley and oats, and causes yield losses of up to 50%.
“It’s a really underexplored area,” says Dr Jo Luck, director of research, education and training at the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre. “We know quite a lot about the effects of drought and increasing temperatures on crops, but we don’t know much about how the increase in temperature and eCO₂ will affect pests and diseases.
“There is a tension between higher yields from eCO₂ and the impacts on growth from pests and diseases. It’s important we consider this in research when we’re looking at food security.”
This increased yield is due to more efficient photosynthesis and because eCO₂ improves the plant’s water-use efficiency.
With atmospheric CO₂ levels rising, less water will be required to produce the same amount of grain. Fitzgerald estimates about a 30% increase in water efficiency for crops grown under eCO₂ conditions.
But nutritional content suffers. “In terms of grain quality, we see a decrease in protein concentration in cereal grains,” says Fitzgerald. The reduction is due to a decrease in the level of nitrogen (N2) in the grain, which occurs because the plant is less efficient at drawing N2 from the soil.
The same reduction in protein concentration is not observed in legumes, however, because of the action of rhizobia – soil bacteria in the roots of legumes that fix N2 and provide an alternative mechanism for making N2 available.
“We are seeing a 1–14% decrease in grain-protein concentration [for eCO₂ levels] and a decrease in bread quality,” says Fitzgerald.
“This is due to the reduction in protein and because changes in the protein composition affect qualities such as elasticity and loaf volume. There is also a decrease of 5–10% in micronutrients such as iron and zinc.”
There could also be health implications for Australians. As the protein content of grains diminishes, carbohydrate levels increase, leading to food with higher caloric content and less nutritional value, potentially exacerbating the current obesity epidemic.
The corollary from the work being undertaken by Fitzgerald is that in a future CO₂-enriched world, there will be more food but it will be less nutritious. “We see an increase in crop growth on one hand, but a reduction in crop quality on the other,” says Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald says more research into nitrogen-uptake mechanisms in plants is required in order to develop crops that, when grown in eCO₂ environments, can capitalise on increased plant growth while maintaining N2, and protein, levels.
For now, though, while an eCO₂ atmosphere may be good for plants, it might not be so good for us.
ANSTO’s Synroc technology locks up radioactive elements in ‘synthetic rock’ allowing waste, like naturally occurring minerals, to be kept safely in the environment for millions of years.
Synroc technology offers excellent chemical durability and minimises waste and disposal volumes, decreasing environmental risks and lowering emissions and secondary wastes.
ANSTO’s Synroc team is developing a waste treatment processing plant using Synroc technology for Australia’s molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) waste; Mo-99 is the parent nuclide for technetium-99m, the most widely used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. The plant will be the first of its kind, and will lead the world in managing nuclear wastes from Mo-99 production.
Dr Daniel Gregg, leader of the Synroc waste form engineering team at ANSTO, says the plant will demonstrate Australia’s commitment to providing technology solutions to the global nuclear community.
“We hope to partner with others and build several more plants around the world using Synroc technology,” he says.
Gregg says several countries are looking to build new Mo-99 production facilities, and regulators want assurances that facilities will be able to treat the resulting waste streams.
“With national regulators around the world putting more and more pressure on waste producers to deal with nuclear wastes, opportunities exist for Synroc as a leading option for nuclear waste treatment.” This places Synroc and Australia in an enviable position, adds Gregg.
“Synroc is a cost-effective, environmentally responsible option to treat and appropriately dispose of nuclear wastes without leaving a burden to future generations.”
In developing the plant, the Synroc team has designed process engineering technology and a fully integrated pilot plant that can treat large volumes of waste under a continuous process mode.
The team is also collaborating with national laboratories around the world to demonstrate strategies to treat radioactive waste for commercial benefit.
The focus is on waste streams – such as the growing stockpiles of long-lived nuclear waste – that are problematic for existing treatment methods. The real advantage, says Gregg, is Synroc’s ability to immobilise these problematic waste forms.
“Waste producers are required to immobilise nuclear wastes, and Synroc and Australia will be at the forefront of waste management technology.”
1. Make sure there is a viable, readily accessible market that is sufficiently large to support a spin-off company.
2. The actual invention is only the trigger to start a company – you are establishing a company that will need to innovate on an ongoing basis if it wants to be successful. Make sure that innovation capability and desire exists and thrives in the spin-off.
3. Identify competent board and management capability to direct the business and generate revenue for the company. Most often the management capability is not the same people who carried out the research, but sometimes it can be. Without the right people running the show, the spin-off will not be successful.
4. Make sure you have sufficient funding available to get the company through to a viable revenue stream, and ideally flexible funding arrangements. Unexpected things will happen and you need capability to accommodate those changes.“
“Most start-ups are focused on development plans that contain binary events and marginal financing. This makes them vulnerable to unforeseen delays and additional development steps that require additional funding.
I believe that we should be looking to generate portfolios of innovation under experienced management teams that give our projects the best chance of success – and adequate funding to reach proof of concept in whatever market we are targeting – but at the same time help to spread risk.“
“Ensuring a strong board, CEO, and a quality management team will be critical to success. The availability of funds for programs is an often-discussed barrier to rapid progress. Underfunded companies and poorly thought-out product concepts or technologies are more likely to fail early.“
“1. For biotechnology R&D spin-off start-ups in Australia, major hurdles are the dearth of seed capital as well as access to large follow-on venture funds that are needed to build successful biotechnology companies.
2. There is a mismatch between the 10-year life span of a venture capital fund in Australia and the 15+ years needed to translate research findings into a novel drug or biologic product for improving human health.
3. Hence, these systemic issues are major impediments to building successful biotechnology companies in Australia and these issues need to be addressed.”
– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland
There are two potential ‘valleys of death’ for R&D spin-off companies. One is in translating their research concepts into prototype products. The other is in maturing from prototype to full commercialisation.
“Taking the prototype through to full commercialisation was probably more difficult for us due to the complexities involved.
This included high-tech scale-up manufacturing, which we do at our bio-manufacturing facility in Malaga. Today, we have the ability to expand production as necessary, as well as refine and develop our processes in-house to accommodate new products and product improvements.
There was also a focus on generating sales once CardioCel was commercialised. Just because a product is approved doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used straight away by the intended customers.
We’ve focused on educating the market about the benefits of CardioCel, such as its biocompatibility and lack of calcification (hardening) at the site of surgery. We’ve also built a strong global sales and marketing team who work closely with our customers to understand their needs.
As a result, we’ve seen continued quarter-on-quarter growth in CardioCel sales, and the product is now used in over 135 heart centres globally.“
“For pharmaceuticals the so called ‘second valley of death’ is by far the most significant.
Lack of funding often prevents companies from attempting to cross this valley and causes them to license their technology at an earlier stage and to realise rewards as the licensor takes their innovation to market.
For a small company with limited resources, the key to success here is to understand the commercialisation risks, link the higher-risk projects with partners and try to make that step themselves for markets with lower entry costs and higher clinical need.
If done well, they should end up with a portfolio approach with the risks mitigated but still significant opportunity for value appreciation.”
“SmartCap Technologies had substantial industry support to develop the prototype products, however even with this it was a very challenging process to deliver working prototypes.
SmartCap was exceedingly fortunate in that CRCMining provided substantially more financial support for SmartCap than originally envisaged, enabling it to finally deploy the prototype products. Those prototypes were sufficiently effective to generate commercial interest from some large mining companies.
So despite having robust plans in place, it always helps to have access to further funding, via investors or other stakeholders with a high level of commitment as well as deep pockets, to overcome unforeseen eventualities.”
“The biggest hurdle may be the combination of the two – translating research concepts (i.e. technical information associated with the technology) following commercialisation into an immature market.
Catapult‘s technology is not a consumer product and therefore is very high touch in terms of its service and client support. Due to the perceived complexity of the information obtained from the technology, part of the trick is to simplify the underlying research concepts to new markets that need a low touch product.”
“I would argue that you should have a prototype – before any spin-off. That way you can at least prove technical viability of your concept. Ideally you would also have done some level of customer validation.
The next step of full commercialisation is definitely the hardest.
In our case it was a matter of finding early customers that were willing to spend time assessing the product and its benefits – even though it was too early to commit to a purchase and full roll-out. This phase was key to understanding the market and adjusting our path.”
“The first phase is the most difficult – a poor prototype will show its deficiencies later in development. A prototype needs to demonstrate a safe and efficacious profile, and that it will meet the need you have defined in the target market.”
“We are in the middle of our valley of death translating our platform into the clinic and we have not yet overcome it. Data is key, but one needs the funds to produce the results! So, we are seeking investors wherever we can find them and buddying up to big pharmaceuticals who have the muscle to progress our technology.”
– Dr Jennifer Macdiarmid, pictured above with Dr. Himanshu Brahmbhatt, joint Chief Executive Officers and Directors
R&D company Fibrotech Therapeutics has the goal of treating fibrosis, which results from persistent tissue damage and leads to organ failure in more than 45% of diseases. Fibrotech develops orally active anti-fibrotic inhibitors designed to treat underlying pathological fibrosis in kidney and heart failure.
Their goal was to take compounds through early safety studies in animals and humans, before selling on to a pharmaceutical company. They designed compounds off the structure of tranilast, an anti-fibrotic compound, reducing its toxicity and increasing its potential.
Fibrotech was sold to global specialty biopharmaceutical company Shire in 2014 for an upfront US$75 million and further milestone payments of US$482.5 million.
In May 2015, Kelly launched OccuRx to develop drugs to treat ophthalmic disorders associated with retinal fibrosis and inflammation, and aims to take them to Phase 2 clinical trials. “We licensed the technology to administer anti-fibrotics to people with eye disease and fibrosis.”
“An excellent intellectual property position is a key starting point. This is in addition to having a proven concept or great technology. A quality team to back up project execution is paramount. Understanding and being able to explain where your commercialised projects will fit into a market segment in terms of the need they will meet is also important.”
“SmartCap Technologies is a spinoff from CRCMining. CRCMining carries out industry directed research, which ensured that the research into fatigue management technologies was a high priority for the mining industry at the project’s inception.
In SmartCap’s case, the industry support was sufficiently high that Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, in conjunction with CRCMining, co-funded the development of the prototype commercial SmartCap products.
This ‘incubation’ of the SmartCap technology by a significant end user was extremely important to advancing from research into prototype products.
The prototype products performed sufficiently well for SmartCap to be selected by two other large mining companies for large supply contracts for fatigue monitoring technology.
So the support of significant end users, along with the commercial contracts the company had in place at that time, provided potential investors with the confidence to invest in SmartCap Technologies.”
“Pharmaxis has been restructured following a regulatory setback for our lead product. Rebuilding investor confidence has been critical to our longer term success. To do this we focused on three things:
1. transparency – explaining the business model and being clear about the risks as well as the opportunity;
2. building in meaningful milestones which marked development steps that significantly reduced risk and provided opportunities to realise value;
3. hitting milestones and delivering realistic objectives.”
“I think there are a number of reasons investors are drawn to our business: Admedus has two technology platforms which diversifies the risk for investors; we have a product on market; and we are generating revenue.
The first of the two platforms is our regenerative tissue platform, where we use our proprietary ADAPT tissue engineering process to turn xenograft tissue into collagen bio-scaffolds for soft tissue repair. The second is our Immunotherapies platform, where we work with renowned scientist Professor Ian Frazer and his team to develop therapeutic vaccines for the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases and cancers.
Our lead regenerative tissue product CardioCel, which is used to repair and reconstruct congenital heart deformities and more complex heart defects, has made the journey from prototype to commercial product and is on the market in the USA, Europe and parts of Asia.
Frazer’s previous success with the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV) program that lead to the USD$2 billion product, Gardasil, is well-recognised and gives investors further confidence in our immunotherapy work.
As a result, Admedus has a good balance of validated science via approved products and an exciting product pipeline working with successful scientists. This balance, along with our diversified program portfolio, gives investors confidence in our business. “
Because the technology was engineered to take elite athlete monitoring from the laboratory to the field, value was seen in the data immediately as there was no precedent for this type of information. A new product category had been formed and Australian Olympians were now able to train in their performance sweet spot without getting injured because their coaches had objective data to guide their lead up to big events.
So this combination of pioneering a new industry in a popular space (elite sport), with the ability to create immediate value, certainly helped with the initial funding.”
“Neuropathic pain is a large unmet medical need because the currently available drug treatments either lack efficacy and/or have dose-limiting side-effects.
Due to this, my patent-protected angiotensin II type 2 (AT2) receptor antagonist technology – encompassing a potentially first-in-class novel analgesic for the treatment of often intractable neuropathic pain conditions – attracted initial seed capital investment from the Symbiosis Group, GBS Ventures and Uniseed Pty Ltd. In total $3.25M was raised and in mid-2005 the spin-out company, Spinifex Pharmaceuticals was formed by UniQuest Pty Ltd, the main commercialisation company of The University of Queensland.
The raison d’etre for Spinifex Pharmaceuticals at that time was to develop AT2 receptor antagonists as efficacious, well-tolerated first-in-class novel analgesics for relief of neuropathic pain.
In 2006, I discovered that AT2 receptor antagonists also alleviated chronic inflammatory pain in a rat model. This was quite unexpected as clinically available drug treatments for neuropathic pain, such as tricyclic antidepressants and newer work-alikes as well as gabapentin and pregabalin, do not alleviate chronic inflammatory pain conditions such as osteoarthritis. Thus the potential for small molecule AT2 receptor antagonists to alleviate chronic inflammatory pain conditions was patent protected by UniQuest Pty Ltd in 2006 and subsequently in-licensed to Spinifex Pharmaceuticals for commercialisation.
As both neuropathic pain and chronic inflammatory pain are large unmet medical needs, Spinifex Pharmaceuticals was able to raise additional venture capital from the initial investors as well as from Brandon Capital to fund Investigational New Drug (IND)-enabling Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) toxicology and safety pharmacology studies, as well as early phase human clinical trials. “
– Professor Maree Smith, Executive Director of the Centre for Integrated Preclinical Drug Development and Head of the Pain Research Group at The University of Queensland
“Investors understood that the intellectual property would be generated in-house and there was no “stacking” from the beginning.
We were fortunate at the outset to meet two venture capitalists and a number of high net worth individuals who saw the potential upside in our business plan, had already had some success with investing in biotech – e.g. Biota – and did not ask ‘who else is in?’.
That being said, we had very limited time and money to show proof of concept, and only after that and our first patent, did we convince those investors that we had something viable.”
– Dr Jennifer Macdiarmid, pictured above with Dr. Himanshu Brahmbhatt, joint Chief Executive Officers and Directors
Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere from activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are changing the chemistry in the ocean. When carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed by seawater, it forms carbonic acid. The increased acidity, in turn, depletes carbonate ions – essential building blocks for coral exoskeletons.
There has been a drastic loss of live coral coverage globally over the past few decades. Many factors – such as changing ocean temperatures, pollution, ocean acidification and over-fishing – impede coral development. Until now, researchers have not been able to isolate the effects of individual stressors in natural ecosystems.
“Our oceans contribute around $45 billion each year to the economy”
The international team – led by Dr Rebecca Albright from Stanford University in the USA – brought the acidity of the reef water back to what it was like in pre-industrial times by upping the alkalinity. They found that coral development was 7% faster in the less acidic waters.
“If we don’t take action on this issue very rapidly, coral reefs – and everything that depends on them, including wildlife and local communities – will not survive into the next century,” says team member Professor Ken Caldeira.
Destruction of the GBR would not only be a devastating loss because it’s considered one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, but would be a great economic blow for Australia.
Our oceans contribute around $45 billion each year to the economy through industries such as tourism, fisheries, shipping, marine-derived pharmaceuticals, and offshore oil and gas reserves. Marine tourism alone generates $11.6 million a year in Australia.
Impact of acidification on calcification
Corals absorb carbonate minerals from the water to build and repair their stoney skeletons, a process called calcification. Despite the slow growth of corals, calcification is a rapid process, enabling corals to repair damage caused by rough seas, weather and other animals. The process of calcification is so rapid it can be measured within one hour.
Manipulating the acidity of the ocean is not feasible. But on One Tree Island, the walls of the lagoons flanking the reef area isolate them from the surrounding ocean water at low tide – allowing researchers to investigate the effect of water acidity on coral calcification.
“We were able to look at the effect of ocean acidification in a natural setting for the first time,” says One Tree Reef researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Kennedy Wolfe.
In the same week, an independent research team from CSIRO published results of mapping ocean acidification in the GBR. They found a great deal of variability between the 3851 reefs in the GBR, and identified the ones closest to the shore were the most vulnerable. These reefs were more acidic and their corals had the lowest calcification rates – results that supported the findings from One Tree Reef.
Marine biologists have predicted that corals will switch to a net dissolution state within this century, but the team from CSIRO found this was already the case in some of the reefs in the GBR.
“People keep thinking about [what will happen in] the future, but our research shows that ocean acidification is already having a massive impact on coral calcification” says Wolfe.
Bookshelves in offices around Australia groan under the weight of unimplemented reports of research findings. Likewise, the world of technology is littered with software and gadgetry that has failed to gain adoption, for example 3D television and the Apple Newton. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The best are not always adopted. To change that, says Brown, developers need to know how their research solutions will be received and how to adapt them so people actually want them.
“Physical scientists, for example, benefit from understanding the political, social and economic frameworks they’re operating in, to position the science for real-world application,” she says.
The big-picture questions around knowledge and power, disadvantage and information access, political decision-making, community needs and aspirations, policy contexts and how values are economised – these are the domains of the social sciences. When social science expertise is combined with that of the physical sciences, for example, the research solutions they produce can have a huge impact. In the case of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, such solutions have influenced policy, strategy and regulations for the management of urban stormwater run-off, for example. Brown and her colleagues have found it takes a special set of conditions to cultivate this kind of powerful collaborative research partnership.
The CRC for Water Sensitive Cities has seen considerable growth. It started in 2005 as a $4.5 million interdisciplinary research facility with 20 Monash University researchers and PhD students from civil engineering, ecology and sociology. The facility grew over seven years to become a $120 million CRC with more than 85 organisations, including 13 research institutes and other organisations such as state governments, water utilities, local councils, education companies and sustainability consultancies. It has more than 230 researchers and PhD students, and its work has been the basis for strategy, policy, planning and technology in Australia, Singapore, China and Israel.
In a 2015 Nature special issue, Brown and Monash University colleagues Ana Deletic and Tony Wong, project leader and CEO respectively of the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities, shared their ‘secret sauce’ on bridging the gap between the social and biophysical sciences, which allowed them to develop a partnership blueprint for implementing urban water research.
8 tips to successful collaboration
Cultivating interdisciplinary dialogue and forming productive partnerships takes time and effort, skill, support and patience. Brown and her colleagues suggest the following:
1 Forge a shared mission to provide a compelling account of the collaboration’s overall goal and to maintain a sense of purpose for all the time and effort needed to make it work;
2 Ensure senior researchers are role models, contributing depth in their discipline and demonstrating the skills needed for constructive dialogue;
3 Create a leadership team composed of people from multiple disciplines;
4 Put incentives in place for interdisciplinary research such as special funding, promotion and recognition;
5 Encourage researchers to put their best ideas forward, even if unfinished, while being open to alternative perspectives;
6 Develop constructive dialogue skills by providing training and platforms for experts from diverse disciplines and industry partners to workshop an industry challenge and find solutions together;
7 Support colleagues as they move from being I-shaped to T-shaped researchers, prioritising depth early on and embracing breadth by building relationships with those from other fields;
8 Run special issues of single-discipline journals that focus on interdisciplinary research and create new interdisciplinary journals with T-shaped editors, peer-reviewers or boards.
A recent Stanford University study found almost 75% of cross-functional teams within a single business fail. Magnify that with PhD research and careers deeply invested in niche areas and ask people to work with other niche areas across other organisations, and it all sounds impossible. Working against resistance to collaborate requires time and effort.
Yet as research partnerships blossom, so do business partnerships. “Businesses don’t think of science in terms of disciplines as scientists do,” says Brown. “Researchers need to be able to tackle complex problems from a range of perspectives.”
Part of the solution lies in the ‘shape’ of the researchers: more collaborative interdisciplinary researchers are known as ‘T-shaped’ because they have the necessary depth of knowledge within their field (the vertical bar of the T), as well as the breadth (the horizontal bar) to look beyond it as useful collaborators – engaging with different ways of working.
Some scholars, says Brown, tend to view their own discipline as having the answer to every problem and see other disciplines as being less valuable. In some ways that’s not surprising given the lack of exposure they may have had to other disciplines and the depth of expertise they have gained in their own.
“At the first meeting of an interdisciplinary team, they might try to take charge, for example talk but not listen to others or understand their contribution. But in subsequent meetings, they begin to see the value the other disciplines bring – which sometimes leaves them spellbound.
“It’s very productive once people reach the next stage in a partnership where they develop the skills for interdisciplinary work and there’s constructive dialogue and respect,” says Brown.
In a recent article in The Australian, CSIRO chief executive and laser physicist Dr Larry Marshall describes Australians as great inventors but he emphasises that innovation is a team sport and we need to do better at collaboration. He points out that Australia has the lowest research collaboration rates in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and attributes this fact to two things – insufficient collaboration with business and scientists competing against each other.
“Overall, our innovation dilemma – fed by our lack of collaboration – is a critical national challenge, and we must do better,” he says.
Brown agrees, saying sustainability challenges like those addressed by the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities are “grand and global challenges”.
“They’re the kind of ‘wicked problem’ that no single agency or discipline, on its own, could possibly hope to resolve.”
The answer, it seems, is interdisciplinary.
There’s a wealth of great advice that CRCs can tap into. For example the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC approached statistical consultant Dr Nick Fisher at ValueMetrics Australia, an R&D consultancy specialising in performance management, to find the main drivers of the CRC’s value as perceived by its research partners, so the CRC could learn what was working well and what needed to change.
Fisher says this kind of analysis can benefit CRCs at their formation, and can be used for monitoring and in the wind-up phase for final evaluation.
When it comes to creating world-class researchers who are T-shaped and prepped for research partnerships, Alison Mitchell, a director of Vitae, a UK-based international program dedicated to professional and career development for researchers, is an expert. She describes the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which is a structured model with four domains covering the knowledge, behaviour and attributes of researchers, as a significant approach that’s making a difference to research careers worldwide.
The RDF framework uses four ‘lenses’ – knowledge exchange, innovation, intrapreneurship [the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working with a large organisation] and entrepreneurship – to focus on developing competencies that are part and parcel of a next generation research career. These include skills for working with academic research partners and industry.
Featured image above: In his National Press Club address this week Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, says lessons can be learned from The Swedish Vasa warship. Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis as per the Creative Commons License, image resized.
Over a series of workshops and activities, people from the media, policy advisers and parliamentarians share their insights on developing policy and how to engage key influencers.
With a host of esteemed speakers, the Science meetsParliamentprogram covers topics such as ‘what journalists need to turn your science into news’ and ‘science and politics, how do they mix?’. This year it also addressed what the National Innovation and Science Agenda means for scientists across Australia.
The event’s organisers, Science and Technology Australia, say that Science meets Parliament aims to “build links between scientists, politicians and policymakers that open up avenues for information and idea exchanges into the future”.
It also hopes to “stimulate and inform Parliament’s discussion of scientific issues that underpin Australia’s economic, social and environmental wellbeing”.
This year, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Alan Finkel AO, spoke about a nation in transition, learning from failure and encouraging intelligent innovation. Finkel believes this requires thinking and operating at scale, and collaborative research to manage the issues and interactions that surround bold, innovative technology.
Click here to read the full transcript of Finkel’s address published by The Conversation on 2 March 2016.
CEO of Vinehealth Australia, Alan Nankivell, who is leading the project, says phylloxera had a significant economic impact on the wine industry, as “the quality of our wines is based on the quality of our vines”. Eighty per cent of Australia’s vineyards have vines that are own-rooted, rather than grafted onto resistant rootstock; some are very old and the wines produced from these are highly sought after.
Phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae) feeds on grapevine roots and leaves them open to bacterial infection, which can result in rot and necrotic death due to cell injury. It destroyed substantial areas of vines in France in the mid-19th century and has affected several winegrowing areas of Australia; the only effective treatment is removing infested vines and replanting with resistant rootstock.
Financially, the cost of managing a vineyard with phylloxera is estimated to range from 10–20% in additional operating costs.
The current method of detection uses a shovel and magnifying glass to inspect sites in areas of low vigour; however, phylloxera may have been present for some time and the test is usually conducted in summer, one of the industry’s busiest seasons.
The new DNA-based test requires 10-cm soil core samples to be taken 5 cm from the vine’s trunk. The samples are then sealed and sent to a lab where they are dried and tested for the presence of phylloxera DNA.
Nankivell says the incidence of finding phylloxera using the test was very high (around 98%), even when the amounts of phylloxera present were low.
“At the moment, we’re able to find phylloxera at sites any time of the year.”
The new DNA-based test could help prevent the spread of phylloxera in Australia, as those who have it on their property can determine where it is and whether it is spreading.
Sampling in vineyards across Australia over time will establish a baseline for the maintenance of area freedom. Nankivell says with this baseline in place, the quarantine management and farm-gate hygiene of vineyards will improve industry knowledge about where phylloxera is and isn’t.
PBCRC researchers are currently working to establish the most suitable grid pattern for taking the soil core samples.
They will also compare the DNA sample method with two other methods: the ‘shovel method’ and another using emergence traps to catch insects inside an inverted container placed on the soil, to determine performance against selected criteria.
This research strongly supports the wine industry’s focus on identifying and managing biosecurity threats to ensure the ongoing health of grapevines. Healthy vines are the foundation for a prosperous Australian wine industry.
To learn more about phylloxera, click here or watch this video about the Phylloxera Rezoning Project carried out in Australia:
“When I was nine years old my parents bought me a programmable games console, and I discovered that I really enjoyed getting computers to do things from my imagination – it appealed to my logic and creativity.”
Karin went on to study BASIC – a high-level computer programming language developed for non-scientists that was popularised in the 1980s when the home computer market exploded.
Born in Senegal on the west coast of Africa to Dutch parents, Karin’s formative experience with the games console drove her study for an undergraduate degree with double major in Computer Science and Cognitive Sciences at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “I was drawn to the question of how to get computers to think and understand language,” Karin says.
“It was the perfect course because it combined computing, psychology, philosophy and linguistics.”
“It was arguably the most exciting period of my career – I was involved in two start-ups with amazing ideas,” Karin says. “One of them was trying to build a thinking machine that was going to predict the stock market. It was crazy and so much fun, but it died after the dotcom bubble crash.”
Although the second start-up was much more successful, Karin missed the world of research and so took up a position at the prestigious Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where she was able to leverage her business experience and pursue applied research in computational methods for the extraction and retrieval of knowledge from databases and information systems.
“Los Alamos was the home of the human genome project, and it was there I got into computational biology,” explains Karin, “I started working on text mining in the published molecular literature, which eventually led me to the University of Colorado and an opportunity to work exclusively in biomedical text mining.”
Text mining is the analysis of a natural language text – like English or French – by a computer. It’s used to discover and extract new information by linking together data from different written sources to generate new facts or hypotheses.
Karin’s current work at the University of Melbourne involves applying text mining to the field of biomedical research. “The rate of scientific publications is dramatically increasing in the biomedical space,” explains Karin, “The most important biomedical research repository called PubMed, hosted by the United States National Library of Medicine, has indexed over 25 million research publications.”
The multi-disciplinary nature of current biomedical research combined with the huge amounts of published material means that scientists today must stay abreast of a much broader range of literature to stay up-to-date.
“We’re looking to develop an automated computer system that analyses words to discover the relationships between them – to provide researchers with a tool that allows them to ask more structured questions and receive more targeted information,” Karin says.
For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.
Leader of the Australian Partnership in Advanced LIGO Professor David McClelland from ANU, says the observation would open up new fields of research to help scientists better understand the universe.
“The collision of the two black holes was the most violent event ever recorded,” McClelland says.
“To detect it, we have built the largest experiment ever – two detectors 4000 km apart with the most sensitive equipment ever made, which has detected the smallest signal ever measured.”
Associate Professor Peter Veitch from University of Adelaide says the discovery was the culmination of decades of research and development in Australia and internationally.
“The Advanced LIGO detectors are a technological triumph and the discovery has provided undeniable proof that Einstein’s gravitational waves and black holes exist,” Veitch says.
“I have spent 35 years working towards this detection and the success is very sweet.”
Professor David Blair from UWA says the black hole collision detected by LIGO was invisible to all previous telescopes, despite being the most violent event ever measured.
“Gravitational waves are akin to sound waves that travelled through space at the speed of light,” Blair says.
“Up to now humanity has been deaf to the universe. Suddenly we know how to listen. The universe has spoken and we have understood.”
With its first discovery, LIGO is already changing how astronomers view the universe, says LIGO researcher Dr Eric Thrane from Monash University.
“The discovery of this gravitational wave suggests that merging black holes are heavier and more numerous than many researchers previously believed,” Thrane says.
“This bodes well for detection of large populations of distant black holes research carried out by our team at Monash University. It will be intriguing to see what other sources of gravitational waves are out there, waiting to be discovered.”
The success of LIGO promised a new epoch of discovery, says Professor Andrew Melatos, from The University of Melbourne.
“Humanity is at the start of something profound. Gravitational waves let us peer right into the heart of some of the most extreme environments in the Universe, like black holes and neutron stars, to do fundamental physics experiments under conditions that can never be copied in a lab on Earth,” Melatos says.
“It is very exciting to think that we now have a new and powerful tool at our disposal to unlock the secrets of all this beautiful physics.”
Dr Philip Charlton from CSU says the discovery opened a new window on the universe.
“In the same way that radio astronomy led to the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the ability to ‘see’ in the gravitational wave spectrum will likely to lead to unexpected discoveries,” he says.
Professor Susan Scott, who studies General Relativity at ANU, says observing this black hole merger was an important test for Einstein’s theory.
“It has passed with flying colours its first test in the strong gravity regime which is a major triumph.”
“We now have at our disposal a tool to probe much further back into the Universe than is possible with light, to its earliest epoch.”
Australian technology used in the discovery has already spun off into a number of commercial applications. For example, development of the test and measurement system MOKU:Lab by Liquid Instruments; vibration isolation for airborne gravimeters for geophysical exploration; high power lasers for remote mapping of wind-fields, and for airborne searches for methane leaks in gas pipelines.
This information was first shared by Monash University on 12 February 2016. Read their news story here.
Wheat again led the way with 4.3 million tonnes while barley contributed 1.9 million tonnes.
Grain Producers SA CEO Darren Arney says it was a rollercoaster season courtesy of a slow start followed by a cold, wet winter and a very hot, dry spring.
“In the end it was quite incredible that we actually had the harvest that we did,” he says.
“The crops had the potential to yield another 15–20% if we’d had a normal spring so it could have been 8–9 million tonnes of grain.”
Arney says a fall in world grain prices generally had been offset by a falling Australian dollar.
He says varietal advances resulting in better strains of wheat and barley, more efficient matching of fertilisers and the strategic use of herbicides were among advances helping to achieve productivity gains.
“A similar rainfall year was probably 2007 where we produced 5.5–6 million tonnes so we’ve picked up 20–25% because of advancements in research and development and advancements in cropping systems,” says Arney.
The Upper South East and Western Eyre Peninsula regions recorded below average harvests while the Eastern Eyre Peninsula and Mid North regions experienced relatively good seasons, helping them to produce about a million tonnes each.
Extreme weather conditions in late November resulted in a fire in the Pinery area, which spread rapidly and burnt approximately 85,000 ha.
About 22,500 ha of unharvested crops were burnt with estimated crop losses of 60,000 tonnes of grain, 33,000 tonnes of hay and 50,000 tonnes of straw. The fire also destroyed 18,000 sheep and 87 cattle.
“Despite the challenging season, South Australia’s grain sector continues to be a powerhouse industry generating more than $4.6 billion in revenue in 2014–15, with approximately 85% exported around the world,” he says.
“SARDI is the nation’s leading research provider in farming systems for low to medium rainfall areas, crop protection and improvement as well as projects such as the National Oat Breeding Program,” he says.
“SARDI will commit staff, equipment and resources to the value of $25 million and the GRDC will match the State Government’s investment with a cash investment.”
Remoteness, cultural differences and follow through on health issues from diagnosis to treatment are persistent barriers, says Selina Madeleine, Global Communications Manager of the Brien Holden Vision Institute.
The Indigenous eye care toolkit addresses these identified gaps in the system by allowing health workers to assess current health care practices, and includes referral flowcharts and information that can be sent electronically, as well as eye testing kits.
The toolkit is also made with consideration of Indigenous community perspectives, says Madeleine.
“I don’t think there’s anything quite like this out there, specifically targeting improved eye care outcomes within the Indigenous population,” she adds.
The kit has been used for five years across NSW and the Northern Territory and measurements over the last two years show an increase in optometry examinations from 51% to 97% and in ophthalmology services from 28% to 93%.
Follow through from use of the Indigenous eye care toolkit has also jumped, with the proportion of referred individuals with diabetic retinopathy who saw an ophthalmologist up from 25% to 54%, and those referred for cataracts and who received surgery up from just 3% to 32%.
More funding needed
The toolkit is now being disseminated to hundreds of other health care workers in these states and Madeleine says the Institute plans to role it out further.
“We would like to role this out in other states across Australia because it has been so successful in the places we’ve used it so far.”
Madeline says a lack of funding is all that is preventing the widespread adoption of the toolkit elsewhere.
Oceans cover about 71% of the Earth’s surface and contain more than 97% of the planet’s water. An estimated 80% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast, and fish provide the bulk of the protein consumed by humans. But the marine ecosystem impacts of global warming on the biodiversity of ocean waters are difficult to determine.
Increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide – the result of activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation – are acidifying and warming the world’s oceans.
One of the most widely documented effects of warming, according to Dr Adriana Vergés, senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of New South Wales, is the widening distribution of tropical fish as they move away from equatorial waters towards the poles, resulting in increasing numbers of tropical species appearing in temperate waters.
The marine ecosystem impacts from this warming has profound implications for the underwater environment and marine life.
“Species have three options in response to changing conditions – they die, adapt or move,” explains Vergés. “We are seeing a lot of movement. And because the rate of change is so fast, the question is: will species be able to keep up?”
The intrusion of tropical fish to temperate waters, referred to as tropicalisation, could have far-reaching repercussions for the health of these waters, their biodiversity and the industries that rely on them.
“When the tropical fish arrive, they overgraze on the seaweed and the whole system begins to shift,” says Vergés. “And we’re starting to see this in oceanic waters around northern NSW, where algal forests are disappearing.”
“In Australia, the two largest fisheries are abalone and rock lobster, whose preferred habitats are algal forests and seagrass meadows. If you lose algal forests, the abalone industry will collapse, with significant consequences for the fishing industry and the economy.”
The Abalone Council Australia Ltd estimates about 4500 tonnes of wild abalone were harvested in Australian waters last year, worth around $180 million. And according to Southern Rock Lobster Ltd, in 2011–12 rock lobster fishing produced around 3000 tonnes, worth nearly $175 million.
Vergés, however, is working to reverse some of the damage to the algal forests that threaten this industry.
Together with a number of volunteers, she is involved in Operation Crayweed, a project that aims to re-introduce crayweed – a vital habitat for lobsters, abalone and crayfish – to the waters around Sydney.
“The project is looking to bring crayweed back to the whole of Sydney. We’ve re-planted crayweed, and it has started to come back – we’re now on to our third generation. It’s a really good news environmental story, and we hope the fisheries will benefit too,” she says.
As well as helping to save the fisheries industry and reduce the marine ecosystem impacts in temperate waters around Sydney, Vergés is also involved in the Scientists in Schools national program, where she sparks enthusiasm for the wonders of the underwater world in seven and eight-year-olds.
“It’s so rewarding – children are natural scientists and they ask all the right questions. Speaking to a group of them is the closest I’ve felt to being a rock star. And they love absolutely anything to do with the sea. They are the best audience without a doubt,” says Vergés.
The award recognises the importance of her work on the influence of anthropogenic climate change on extreme weather events, and is supporting her research into a particular event that receives less attention than storms, floods or droughts, but potentially has more impact on human health and the environment.
“My research explores how heatwaves have changed, why they change, and how they will change in the future,” explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick, “as well as looking at how we measure them, and how to detect the human contribution from climate change that is affecting them.”
Heatwaves are prolonged periods of unusually hot weather and, according to the website Scorcher (developed by Perkins-Kirkpatrick), they kill more people annually than any other natural disaster. They can also damage infrastructure such as power supplies, which can become overloaded during peak air-conditioner use, and rail networks, where prolonged periods of intense heat can buckle train lines.
“Heatwaves are highly regional and very complex events, and are driven by changes in background temperatures due to climate change, but also things like weather systems, soil moisture, and long-term variability like the El Nino/Southern Oscillation,” explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick.
“Measuring them is not an easy task, as good quality daily temperature data are needed. Fortunately, there are good datasets available in Australia so we have a good picture of how they are changing here. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many parts of the world, such as South America, Africa and India.”
The subject matter sounds exciting but, according to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, she spends much of her time in front of a computer screen number-crunching.
“On a day-to-day basis, I’m processing big data from observations collected from all over Australia as well as those that are done globally. We’re not meteorologists, so we don’t go out and release weather balloons. For people like me, it’s very much about processing data,” says Perkins-Kirkpatrick.
The ability to analyse, interpret and discern trends in large datasets suggests Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s maths abilities are well honed. She admits, however, that a bad decision in high school has meant playing catch-up on her maths.
“Something that I didn’t do was keep up with my maths. I was pretty good at it in school, but I just never understood why I was learning differential equations, integrals … I just didn’t see the point. Lo and behold, I hit my career now, and I’m, ‘OK, whoops’,” she says.
Perkins-Kirkpatrick partly blames her older sister for this, who advised her not to take higher maths at school: “You’ll never need it,” her sister told her. So Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s advice to her younger self would be: “Don’t listen to your older sister, she doesn’t always know best.”
Although heatwaves are synonymous with summer, they can also develop in winter. They may not pack the punch of the sweltering temperatures experienced during summer, but they can have a disastrous effect on crops such as fruit trees, by interfering with their reproductive systems and inhibiting growth.
So how has climate change influenced heatwaves in the recent past, and what does the future hold?
“We can say with a high degree of certainty that heatwaves have increased since at least the 1950s,”explains Perkins-Kirkpatrick, “and that’s the case for pretty much everywhere on the globe where we’ve got good enough measurements.”
“Canberra over the last 50 years, for example, has seen a doubling in the number of heatwave days. Melbourne hasn’t seen much of a change in the number of heatwaves, but they have become hotter over the last 60 years. And Sydney has seen the heatwave season starting up to two or three weeks earlier.”
And the future looks anything but encouraging. According to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, the frequency, intensity and magnitude of heatwaves are all increasing, with frequency increasing fastest; and what is particularly concerning, these trends are also accelerating, meaning the rate of change is increasing too.
As with other areas of climate change research, Perkins-Kirkpatrick is attempting to make predictions; so it’s hardly surprising her favourite film reflects this.
“Back to the Future is pretty much my favourite movie trilogy of all time,” she says, recalling her childhood. “I recently gave a talk on how, in climate change, we look into the future, and managed to slip in a reference to Back to the Future.”