Tag Archives: Australian research news

OrbIT group pic resized assistive technology

Game on – assistive tech for Parkinson’s disease

A gaming system called ‘OrbIT’ is being trialled to improve health outcomes for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, thanks to a collaboration between Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and Parkinson’s South Australia.

The three-year study, funded by the Estate of the late Olga Mabel Woolger, will trial the assistive technology as a cognitive training device to improve outcomes and delay the onset of dementia for people with Parkinson’s disease. The research project is led by Flinders University Rehabilitation Engineer David Hobbs and University of Adelaide neuroscientist Dr Lyndsey Collins-Praino, in partnership with Parkinson’s South Australia.

The OrbIT system is a fun and easy to use computer gaming system designed to engage the player in targeted, cognitively challenging activities. It features a novel controller which does not require a strong grip or fine motor control. This makes it highly suitable for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, who may otherwise struggle to use traditional gaming consoles.

There are over 82, 000 Australians living with Parkinson’s today, making it the most common major movement disorder and second most prevalent neurodegenerative condition. There is currently no cure.

“Within 15 to 20 years, 80% of people with Parkinson’s will go on to develop dementia”, explains Dr Collins-Praino. “Using the OrbIT system as a cognitive training device may help to slow down and prevent this.”

OrbIT was originally developed for children with cerebral palsy and has also been trialled for people undergoing stroke rehabilitation. The current collaboration came about through a chance meeting when Dr Collins-Praino attended a presentation by OrbIT lead developer Mr Hobbs and suggested the potential for OrbIT to help people with Parkinson’s.  

“Sometimes the best collaborations come about by chance”, says Dr Collins-Praino, who is looking forward to using OrbIT in a clinical setting. “It’s really exciting to have a potential tool that can make cognitive training accessible.”

The trials will take place through Parkinson’s SA’s new Brain x Body Fitness Studio, a studio which focuses on movement and flexibility, whilst also being a social hub for over 50’s. As well as traditional gym facilities, Brain x Body provides programs and assistive technologies which have been clinically proven to improve neuroplasticity,

Chief Executive Officer of Parkinson’s SA, Olivia Nassaris, has always been on the lookout for assistive technologies and was highly impressed by OrbIT when she first visited Mr Hobbs’ Flinders University laboratory last year. She describes OrbIT as the perfect project. “It happened completely organically. Dr Collins-Praino saw the potential for the benefits of OrbIT to be translated to Parkinson’s research and the collaboration has worked out perfectly between the three groups.”

“Assistive technology such as OrbIT improve quality of life by maximising independence and self-management”, says Ms Nassaris. This research trial will be an important step in improving the health outcomes for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.  

Source: University of Adelaide, Parkinson’s SA

Image: Lyn Paunovic (centre), who has Parkinson’s disease, holds the OrbIT game controller. Left to right: Lyn’s husband Tolley Paunovic, Dr Lyndsey Collins-Praino, Lyn Paunovic, Olivia Nassaris and David Hobbs.

photovoltaic research

The sunshine factory

Featured image above: World record holder Xiaojing Hao with CZTS thin-film cells atop the Tyree Energy Technologies Building at UNSW’s Kensington campus.

Xiaojing Hao couldn’t sleep. Two weeks earlier, the UNSW engineer had sent a thin black tile, barely the size of a fingernail, to the US for testing, and she was waiting anxiously for the results. Her PhD students were equally on edge.

It was midnight when Hao checked her email one more time. It was official: her team had broken a solar cell world efficiency record. “I was full of joy at the achievement,” Hao recalls. “I shared the good news with my team immediately – we made it!”

Hao’s thin black tile had become the newest champion in the solar cell race: one of seven world records UNSW photovoltaics researchers broke in 2016. Efficiency records are not just notches in the scientists’ belts. The more sunlight solar cells can convert, the less manufacturing, transport, installation and wiring is needed to deliver each watt – moving solar energy closer and closer to knocking coal off its perch as the cheapest form of energy.

UNSW photovoltaics researchers, led by Martin Green – often dubbed the ‘father of photovoltaics’  – have held world records for efficiencies in solar cells in 30 of the past 33 years. And with its strong track record in research commercialisation, UNSW’s prototype technology is setting the trends for the commercial solar market.

Meanwhile, their focus is on developing the next generation of solar cells – pushing forward to a zero-emission future. 

Martin Green and Wei Zhang measure the adhesion between metal contacts and solar cells.

Making a commercially viable product

Hao moved to Sydney in 2004 from China, where the solar industry is booming. A materials engineer by training, Hao was intrigued by the frontline photovoltaic research on thin-film solar cells at UNSW.

These cells have benefits over the more traditional silicon cells. The manufacturing process doesn’t require high temperature steps. They can also be much thinner than bulky wafer silicon, and so could engender new solar applications: imagine solar-powered electric cars,  building-integrated solar cells or photovoltaic glazing on windows.

So far, the thin-film uptake in the markets has been sluggish: commercial thin-film cells make up only around 8% of the solar market. The problem is that the commercial products available, cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), are made of toxic or rare materials: cadmium is highly toxic and tellurium is about as abundant as gold.

So Hao decided to go back a step. “We’re trying to make the whole world ‘green’, right?” she says. “So, we should choose materials that are non-toxic and cheap, and that would ensure their deployment in the future – without constraint on raw materials.”

Finding a material worth investigating

Her quest for a greener world began in 2011, after she returned from maternity leave. Hao and her PhD supervisor, Martin Green, knew what they were looking for: a mix of elements that would absorb and conduct energy from sunlight, and are commonly found in nature.

“We worked our way through the periodic table for materials that met those criteria – CZTS was the one that popped out at you as worthy of investigation,” Green explains.

In 2012 CZTS – copper, zinc, tin and sulphide – was recorded for the first time in the solar cell efficiency tables, an internationally curated list of solar cell performance. Inclusion in the tables means a new cell has been independently tested for efficiency by a recognised test centre, and indicates the new cell has features that will be interesting for the photovoltaic community.

Hao began making her own version of the CZTS cell, looking for defects, ironing out the kinks and pushing efficiencies, bit by bit.

At the basic level, all solar cells absorb photons from sunlight and funnel them into an electric current. Hao discovered that tiny holes in her CZTS cells, formed as the components were baked during production, acted like a roadblock for that charge. By adding a microscopic grid layer through the cells, her team stopped these holes from forming, and raised their efficiency to 7.6% in a 1cm2 cell.

That was Hao’s first world record. By changing the buffer that helps the CZTS cell collect charge, the team could further tweak the current flow and voltage output. This buffer netted Hao another world record in September 2016 – a 9.5% efficiency for a 0.24cm2 cell, beating a 9.1% record previously held by Toyota.

“We’re completely leading CZTS solar cell technology at the moment,” Hao says with a smile.

The energy output of Xiaojing Hao’s CZTS cells are tested.

According to Hao, these records have already sparked interest from Chinese, US partners China Guodian Corp – one of the five largest power producers in China – and Baosteel, the giant state-owned iron and steel company based in Shanghai.

Hao is also in talks with thin-film manufacturers MiaSolé of the US, Sweden’s  Midsummer and Solar Frontier in Japan. The companies are commercial producers of CIGS cells and their production lines use similar methods; Hao says they could easily adapt them
for CZTS production.

Hao believes efficiencies of above 15% will start moving CZTS to the commercial market. She is already well on her way, aiming to bring her CZTS cells to 13% efficiency by 2018.

Taking on the solar cell market

After four decades in photovoltaics research at UNSW, Martin Green has a healthy scepticism when it comes to marrying new breakthrough technologies with commercial markets. “The solar industry is just so huge that you need enormous resources to introduce a new product to the market – and there’s a huge risk associated with that,” he says.

With a firm grip on 90% of the commercial solar cell market, “the situation with silicon is a bit like that of the internal combustion engine,” Green explains. “That engine is not the best fossil fuel engine, but the huge industry supporting it means it has been very difficult to displace.”

But CZTS does not need to compete with silicon – the two can complement each other. Silicon absorbs red light better than blue, while CZTS absorbs blue wavelengths better. A CZTS layer on top of a silicon cell can catch the wavelengths silicon does not use efficiently. Green says the big silicon manufacturers could trial the new CZTS technology by selling these ‘stacked cells’ as a premium product line.

“Companies that are well established would be interested in exploring that space – it just seems like a natural evolutionary path for photovoltaic technology,” he says.

Collaborating with the competition

Just a few labs down the corridor of the Tyree Energy Technologies Building at UNSW’s Kensington campus, Anita Ho-Baillie is working with Green to put another ‘stackable’ thin-film solar cell through its paces.

In 2009, a material called perovskite arrived on the thin-film solar cell stage with an efficiency of 3.8%. Perovskites have since shot up in efficiency ratings faster than any other solar cell technology.

After Ho-Baillie’s team found a new way to apply perovskite to a surface in an even layer, their solar cells broke three more world records in 2016. Her next step is to make perovskites more durable to match the current lifetime of silicon solar cells – an essential prerequisite for large-scale commercial deployment.

Anita Ho-Baillie with her record-setting perovskite cells.

As the leader of the perovskites project in UNSW-based Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP), Ho-Baillie stands at the nexus of Australia’s greatest cluster of scientists pushing thin-film technologies forward. 

This alliance consists of six research organisations around Australia: the national research agency, CSIRO; Melbourne’s Monash University and the University of Melbourne; the University of Queensland in Brisbane; the Australian National University in Canberra; and UNSW in Sydney.

ACAP director Martin Green says, “We’ve been able to draw on the expertise of all these groups and come at problems from different angles, so it’s really put us in a good spot internationally”.

Ho-Baillie admits balancing collaboration with competition is tricky in a field where everyone is trying to claim the top spot. “It’s hard, but we find working together really helps,” she says. 

Much like CZTS and other thin films, perovskite cells are flexible, making them a perfect candidate for energy-harvesting glazes on building materials, cars or windows. But Ho-Baillie has even greater ambitions: with their low weight-to-power ratio, perovskites would be perfect for supplying precious energy to spacecraft, where every kilo counts. 

“Perovskites came from nowhere,” she says. “Now I think they will lead us to something that we never even thought would work.”

Improving the cost of solar energy by 150 fold

Thin films are making their mark, but Green is also working to squeeze more energy from sunlight using silicon, smashing two more world records in 2016. Using specialised mirrors and prisms, Mark Keevers from Green’s team pushed silicon cells to collect concentrated sunlight with 40.6% efficiency, and unconcentrated sunlight at 34.5%.

Mark Keevers made silicon cells more efficient using specialised mirrors and prisms.

Although these prototypes are perfect for soaking up photons on solar tower ‘concentrators’ with heavy-duty efficiency, their manufacturing costs are too high to make them viable in the consumer market.

But on the rooftop, silicon is still king. And it’s thanks to plunging costs made possible by a UNSW-led boom in silicon solar cell production in China, which now provides more than half the world’s solar cells.

In 1995, Green and his long-term collaborator Stuart Wenham – along with (then) PhD student Shi Zhengrong – started solar cell company Pacific Solar in Australia.

Solar pioneers Martin Green and Stuart Wenham

After six years racking up a wealth of management and manufacturing know-how, Zhengrong returned to his native China and founded the silicon solar manufacturing company Suntech Power in 2001, using technology developed at UNSW to dramatically reduce costs.

By 2005, Zhengrong became the world’s first ‘solar billionaire’, and a wave of Chinese companies hit the market, following Suntech’s recipe. The global solar industry was growing at an average 41% year-on-year. And within a decade, China’s market share of the global photovoltaic industry had grown from near zero to over 55%. Suntech itself delivered more than 13 million solar panels to 80 countries.

Where photovoltaic solar cells used to deliver one watt for US$76.67 in 1977,  that’s down to just US49¢ today. That’s a 150-fold improvement in the 40 years Green has been in the field.

“Shi was the right person at the right place and the right time to move in both Chinese and Western cultures,” Green says.

“It’s interesting to ponder what would have happened if UNSW hadn’t kick-started the Chinese industry.”

Breaking through the next barrier of photovoltaic research

With plunging module prices, rising efficiencies and more durable cells, why is the world still relying on coal for the lion’s share of its electricity needs? 

Perhaps it’s not the solar technology that we’re waiting for. A fundamental challenge remains: how to store the energy we can now capture from sunlight for later use.

“I think photovoltaics has already reached the tipping point – the efficiency and cost is already able to compete with fossil fuels,” says Wenham. “I think the next breakthrough needs to be in energy storage, to bring down that cost enough to make photovoltaics usable everywhere at any time.”

This doesn’t mean UNSW photovoltaics scientists are calling it a day. Instead, they continue to push silicon to its limits, while new technologies, such as Hao’s record-breaking CZTS tile, are racing to catch up to silicon’s powerhouse.

“Solar technology will continue to be higher-efficiency, lower-cost – and will keep getting better,” says Wenham. “The more we develop photovoltaic technology, the easier the transition will become.”

“We’ve reached a new era where coal is no longer the cheapest way of making electricity – it’s solar,” says Green. “And the exciting thing about that is – I regard solar as still in a very primitive stage of development, so there is plenty more cost reduction to come.”

– Viviane Richter

Photography: Quentin Jones

For more stories at the forefront of engineering research, check out Ingenuity magazine.

Recommended for you: The Quantum Gamble

preventing soil erosion

Preventing soil erosion with nuclear know-how

Scientists from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Macquarie University have combined their respective backgrounds in nuclear science and geomorphology to determine rates of soil erosion across catchments in Asia and the Pacific.

The study, using fallout radionuclides, is part of a technical cooperation project under the Regional Cooperative Agreement for Asia and the Pacific, funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Soil erosion reduces land productivity and degrades soil, and can be caused by poor agricultural practices. Understanding the causes and rates of soil erosion is essential for maintaining productive agricultural landscapes, food security and the surrounding environment.

“Nuclear techniques give us an opportunity to look at the longer term patterns of soil erosion and deposition through strategic sampling and analysis,” says Dr Tim Ralph, senior lecturer at Macquarie University’s Department of Environmental Sciences. “Instead of monitoring soil erosion for many years, selective samples can be used to interpret the pattern of erosion over the past 10 or 20 years, or longer.”

The soil samples were analysed by ANSTO scientists for radioactive isotopes, such as naturally occurring Lead 210 (210Pb). “Within your soil profile, you can also see high levels of 210Pb in the top of your profile, and then the deeper you go, the more it has decayed away,” says Professor Henk Heijnis, senior principal research scientist and leader of environmental research within the Nuclear Science and Technology cluster at ANSTO.

“If you have soil erosion, you don’t see that decay of 210Pb with the profile. You might see very low values right at the top; that means the top has disappeared and nothing is accumulating at that time,” explains Heijnis.

Samples were also analysed for compound specific stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, which are produced by various crops in different amounts. These elements accumulate in deposition sites at the bottom of a catchment and can help determine, particularly across larger catchment areas, which crops are contributing to erosion.

“The analysis at the deposition site for compound-specific stable isotopes will give you a list of crops and land uses,” Heijnis says. “The relative abundance of these compounds will tell you the contribution of each of the types of land use and crops.”

Understanding the causes and rates of erosion and which agricultural practices are contributing to erosion will inform steps to mitigate the effects of these practices, such as terracing slopes or planting crops that can assist in soil stability.

“One of the big things this project did was to build a regional database of soil erosion based on these radionuclide techniques, so that we can now get a picture of the extent of erosion throughout Asia and the Pacific,” Ralph explains.

Scientists are continuing to construct the database of natural and unnatural erosion rates across different catchments. Ralph says the data to date shows that erosion rates were hugely variable between countries and even between different land uses within a single catchment.

There are plans for a future project to look at soil and water quality and soil structure, which would further add to the erosion database.

Find out more at ansto.gov.au

– Laura Boness 

Navigating the future of GPS

The world’s most accurate GPS service could be on its way to Australia, thanks to collaboration between the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI), Geoscience Australia and Land Information New Zealand.

The pilot project, called a Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS), will improve GPS accuracy from several metres to less than one metre – and potentially down to a few centimetres.

“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to test this technology in Australia,” says Dr John Dawson from Geoscience Australia. “It’s also enabling us to test the next generation of this technology, and it really will provide unprecedented positioning accuracy for Australia and New Zealand.”

GPS satellites orbit at a constant, relatively well-known height above the Earth. They transmit precise time signals by measuring the difference between those time signals and its own clock, a GPS receiver can figure out how far away the satellites are. With three or more signals from different satellites, the receiver can calculate where it is on the surface of the Earth.

But these signals from space aren’t perfect. They are affected by variations in the satellite’s clocks and orbit, and by conditions in the atmosphere between the satellite and receiver. These error sources mean that the usual accuracy of a position calculated using GPS is five to 10 metres.

SBAS will use stationary receivers across the continent to measure these errors, calculate a correction, then broadcast that correction to GPS users using another satellite. With this data, the accuracy of a GPS location can be improved to less than a metre.

“We anticipate that most Australians’ devices will be able to see that signal, and exploit the improved positioning,” says Dawson.

“What we’ll be trialling, for the first time in the world, is a new sort of correction message that has the potential to get accuracy down to 10cm,” says Dr Phil Collier, research director at CRCSI.

“Our role will be to work with organisations across industry to run trials, demonstrations and research projects to find out what applications exist for this technology, and what the benefits are to those sectors,” he says.

“For precision agriculture, for example, where tractors are driving themselves around, an accuracy of 5cm means they’re not running over crops in the paddock.”

CRCSI and Geoscience Australia are seeking expressions of interest from industry to test potential applications of the new system, which is expected to begin operation from July 2017.

“This capability opens up a raft of applications in many fields. Mining, agriculture, transportation – the higher precision is a very tantalising prospect,” says Collier.

For more information, visit crcsi.com.au

– Rockwell McGellin

Read more CRC discovery in KnowHow 2017

emergency services health

Mental health emergency

World-first research by beyondblue and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC will invite up to 20,000 current and former personnel from 34 police and emergency organisations across Australia to participate in a survey about their mental health and risk of suicide.

As part of the National mental health and wellbeing study of police and emergency services, beyondblue is working closely with employers, personnel and their families on practical strategies to improve the mental health of police and emergency services workers and volunteers.

It is the first time data is being collected on a national scale from police and emergency service organisations. The emergency services health research is being conducted in three phases after qualitative analysis was gathered in phase one last year.

From August 2017, police and emergency service workers will be surveyed about their wellbeing; common mental health conditions; suicide risk; stigma; help-seeking behaviour; and factors supporting, or jeopardising, mental health in the workplace.

The University of Western Australia and Roy Morgan Research are working together on phase two of the emergency services health study, which is expected to conclude in December.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC has provided a funding contribution to the study and will support beyondblue’s work.

“The only national statistic we have about the mental health of police and emergency service workers is a devastating one – 110 Australian police and emergency services workers died by suicide between 2010 and 2012,” says beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman.

“Beyondblue’s reputation is based on its use of scientifically sound, evidence-based research from which we build and develop programs to promote a better understanding of depression and anxiety and suicide prevention.”

Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC CEO Dr Richard Thornton says the project will provide important information to understand both the number of people affected and the range of issues they face.

“The understanding we gain will be used to design interventions to support them and their families and improve personal, family and agency outcomes,” says Thornton.

In phase one, completed in November last year by Whereto Research, current and former police and emergency service employees, volunteers and family members were interviewed about their experiences of mental health conditions in which participants felt at risk of suicide.

Initial findings suggest:

  • the nature of the stigma associated with mental health conditions differs across police, fire and rescue and ambulance services;
  • although exposure to trauma is seen as an underlying cause for post-traumatic stress disorder, workplace culture and practices also contribute to the prevalence of mental health conditions;
  • working in police and emergency services, particularly for volunteers, can support workers’ mental health.

“In phase three, beyondblue will work alongside police and emergency service organisations to identify strategies to practically address the issues raised by the findings of this research,” says Harman.

These evidence-based strategies will support individuals, improve organisational culture and address systemic concerns that impact on mental health and wellbeing across the sector nationally.

They will be developed in collaboration with a cross-section of the police and emergency services sector including agencies, unions, government departments, individuals and family and community groups around Australia.

This article on emergency services health research was first published by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Read the original article here.

coastal flooding

Coastal flooding tool aids communities at risk

Coastal Risk Vanuatu is an open access website created to give individuals, residential groups, and local and national governments awareness and knowledge of how coastal communities in Vanuatu will be affected by sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Developed by NGIS Australia and the CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI), the website is meant to empower people living on the coast to take proactive steps to act on sea level rise.

“The Coastal Risk Vanuatu website will build awareness regarding the challenges that Vanuatu faces with climate change, and will ultimately lead to more effective decision making”, says Director General of Climate Change Vanuatu, Jesse Benjamin.

Coastal Risk Vanuatu is a new initiative that builds on the work of the Pacific Island Coastal Inundation Capacity Building project and the Vanuatu Globe – previous research conducted by NGIS Australia and CRCSI in 2014.

This project, funded by the Australian Government, provided hands-on knowledge about mapping the coastline. It delivered coastal mapping and risk assessment capacity building and training to 190 people in four Pacific nations.

Coastal Risk Vanuatu is an open interactive sea level rise platform, based on the Vanuatu digital elevation model. It incorporates social media photos and Pacific Community UAV imagery captured during the first response recovery post Cyclone Pam in 2015; demonstrating the value of imagery during disaster recovery.

“Building on the technical capabilities drawn from Australian research agencies, we now have the ability to accurately map coastlines to understand the impact of changing sea levels”, says Dr Nathan Quadros, Program Manager at CRCSI.

“Given our previous work in the Pacific Islands and the strong ties we have developed in the region, it is fitting that we extend our knowledge and expertise to vulnerable coastal communities, governments and NGO’s,” says Quadros.

“Through this easy-to-use sea level rise visualisation tool Vanuatu will have access to the best information for their coastal adaptation planning”.

Insight into the impact of rising sea level is hoped to aide Government and local agencies and guide stakeholders through better policy decisions. It will also assist NGO’s and emergency services to prepare for worse-case scenarios during coastal storms and flooding.

“With growing interest in the Pacific Region to be “climate ready”, we envisage further localised coastal risk websites to be developed in the coming months”, says Quadros.

“We encourage you to explore the layers and coastal knowledge captured in this website and provide feedback to info@coastalrisk.com.au”.

– Jessica Purbrick-Herbst

This article on the coastal flooding webtool was first shared by the CRCSI on 14 December 2016. Read the original article here.

snakebite

Snakebite deaths prevented by Aussie expertise

Featured image above: Myanmar Union Minister of Industry U Khin Maung Cho films venom milking of a tiger snake at Venom Supplies to treat snakebite in South Australia last month.

Australian snake and health experts are part way through a three-year project to protect Myanmar’s 55 million inhabitants from snakebites by boosting the quality and quantity of antivenom supplies, establishing distribution networks and educating residents and health workers how to effectively treat and prevent attacks.

Australia is home to the world’s deadliest snakes including the Inland Taipan, Eastern Brown, Belcher’s Sea Snake and Mainland Tiger Snake. This has led to Australia becoming a world leader in antivenom development and snakebite treatment and prevention strategies.

The Myanmar Snakebite Project began in late 2014 when the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade awarded the University of Adelaide $2.3 million for a three-year project, which is a partnership between Australian Government and the Myanmar Ministries of Industry & Health.

Two years on, a visit to the Australian city of Adelaide by Myanmar Union Minister of Industry U Khin Maung Cho has helped boost the profile of the project and strengthen ties with South Australia.

The Minister used the visit in late November to learn more about the project and the world-class snake venom facilities in South Australia and also to find opportunities for further collaboration.

Royal Adelaide Hospital Renal Physician, Dr Chen Au Peh, is heading up the project with Women’s and Children’s Hospital Toxinologist, Professor Julian White, and University of Adelaide Senior Lecturer in Public Health, Dr Afzal Mahmood.

Snakes, primarily Russell’s vipers and cobras, bite thousands of people in Myanmar every year and lead to hundreds of deaths. They are a major concern in rice growing regions along the country’s biggest river the Irrawaddy.

While not as deadly as some Australian snakes, Russell’s viper is a particularly dangerous snake because of the devastating impact its venom can have on the kidneys.

Up to 70% of acute kidney failure in Myanmar is due to snakebite, placing a major strain on the country’s underdeveloped health system.

Dominated by rice, agriculture is Myanmar’s major industry, accounting for about 40% of GDP and 60% of employment.

Rats and mice are attracted to the crops, which in turn attract the snakes.

Although the majority of snakebites occur in rural farming areas and many victims seek help from traditional healers rather than through the official health system, data has previously only been collected at major hospitals in Myanmar.

Professor White, one of Australia’s pre-eminent toxinologists, says simple steps such as encouraging farmers to wear boots and seek help quickly from health care workers rather than relying on traditional healers could make a significant difference.

He says the scope of the snakebite problem will become apparent as data is collected throughout the project beyond what has been captured at major hospitals.

“We don’t know the real figures for Myanmar yet, the official figure is 600 deaths and 13,000 cases per year but we think that figure will increase by a factor of between two and five once we’ve got more accurate data,” White says.

snakebite

Dr Peh says the project was unique in its approach because it involves working closely with people in Myanmar at all levels to ensure the system being established is sustainable beyond the life of the project.

He says the holistic three-step approach includes increasing the quality and quantity of anti-venom supplies produced in Myanmar, establishing reliable distribution networks and educating health workers and the general population about how to treat and prevent snakebites.

The project has so far focused in the region of Mandalay, the biggest rice growing region and one of the worst affected by snakebite.

Horses are used in Myanmar to produce antibodies to make anti-venom for Russell’s viper and cobra bites leading to Australian veterinary, horse husbandry experts and top-tier antivenom producer Seqirus being called on to provide advice.

Since the snakebite project started, horse mortality has been reduced by 90% while antivenom production has more than doubled to almost 100,000 vials a year.

Thirty solar-powered fridges have been purchased to store antivenom in remote areas in Myanmar and thousands of rural families have been educated about how to avoid being bitten and what to do if they are.

Dr Mahmood says South Australia was also well placed to share its health expertise with the nation beyond the snakebite project.

“We have been able to run refresher snakebite training for 200 doctors, we have run training for more than 200 primary health care workers, we have been able to reach 4500 families and provide them education in their homes, we have been to 150 villages and held community meetings,” he says.

snakebite
Dr Mahmood, standing left, teaches doctors and nurses in Myanmar about snakebite prevention and treatment.

“We have the skill set and there is also a huge potential to collaborate on the health side of things with the development of hospitals, health services training, hospital maintenance and it goes on.”

White says the project is on track to have a significant impact by the time the current Australian Government funding runs out in 2018.

“By then the antivenom production will be meeting the entire national need, the distribution will be sorted out so it gets to where it is needed we will have assisted in teaching master trainers to provide sustainable ongoing training for all staff levels within their health system.

“Myanmar has a production capacity and thanks to our input and their hard work they have the potential to produce more anti-venom than they need so they could become an exporter in the region.”

“Snakebite is very much a major problem in the rural tropics – it’s not just isolated to Myanmar – if we cross over the border into India, we know there are upwards of 45,000 people dying every year from snakebite.

“We think there’s an opportunity here to make this a much bigger and much longer-term enterprise involving skills from Australia and skills developed in Myanmar and pushing them out more broadly to the region.”

– Andrew Spence

This article was first published by The Lead on 13 December 2016. Read the original story here

industry engagement

Engaging industry in research

Featured image above: Industry engagement expert Natalie Chapman and the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (SIMS) at ANSTO

The Australian Government is making changes to universities’ funding that will compel researchers to cross the border from Academia into Industryland, to meet and trade with the natives, under the banner of ‘industry engagement’. This is inspiring for some researchers, but nerve-wracking for others.

I empathise with those who feel nervous, because when I was a new researcher, I was sent on a commercialisation mission into Industryland.

Fifteen years ago, I started in a role at ANSTO where I was tasked with operating a SIMS surface science instrument (Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer) on behalf of clients (researchers from around Australia) and conducting research, as well as being expected to create a spin-off business by finding new clients from research and industry.

This was an ambitious and daunting project. Not only did I have to learn how to operate an extremely complex piece of scientific equipment (it took me six months to achieve competency), but I also had to provide a highly reliable service to existing clients, while finding enough new customers to support the annual operating expenditure.

I had no background in semiconductors (the field of R&D for which the instrument was ideally suited), no knowledge of which research groups or companies (Australian or international) were strong in this field, and no clue how to create a commercial relationship with them. It was a tad overwhelming.

But my scientific training had at least equipped me with problem solving skills, so I took a deep breath and mapped a logical sequence of steps to take to make the task manageable.

Seven key steps towards industry engagement

1. Use the Internet to identify key locals and learn their language

First, I found out how semiconductors worked. Next, I found relevant conferences in Australia and Singapore (the semiconductor capital of South-East Asia). Before attending the conferences, I searched the programs for both research and industry contacts and analysed their use of semiconductors, to make a ‘hit list’ of useful people to connect with.

2. Attend conferences and network as if your funding depends on it

I attended semiconductor and advanced materials workshops and conferences to learn more about these fields and to meet people. I asked lots of questions of everyone I met and explained the capabilities of ANSTO’s instrument to them.

3. Create some industry friendly marketing material

I wrote some simple information which addressed the problems experienced by potential customers and explained how the SIMS could help them. It’s a long walk from authoring a scientific paper to wordsmithing a marketing flier, so if you’re not up for it, use a professional writer. These days everything is visual so if you can use photos, video or animation to help describe complex concepts you’ll have better engagement.

4. Make some cold calls to relevant locals and ask for meetings

I found a semiconductor company (the only one in Australia) located in Homebush and arranged to meet with them. Then I discovered a solar cell manufacturer two doors down and introduced myself to them as well. I contacted wafer fabrication manufacturers in Singapore to learn about that market, what their needs were and how we could assist them.

5. Follow up meetings by sending your marketing materials and invite them to free trial the service

Using the SIMS instrument, I ran free test samples for potential customers so they could see the type of information it was possible to garner from their own samples and lowered the barrier to them buying.

6. Collaborate and cross-promote

I partnered my project with other ANSTO capabilities and experts to offer a packaged solution to clients. This was better value and of interest to clients rather than a small, isolated piece of analysis, which didn’t solve their problem or provide them with advice on how to fix it.

7. Approach the competition and propose a mutually beneficial relationship

After a bit of background research on the competition I approached the largest competitor Evans Analytical Labs (a US based company), to discuss the possibility of partnering with them as their South-east Asian hub, providing services to Singapore and the region.

Did I succeed in establishing an ANSTO colony in Industryland?

Sort of. I certainly found new customers for ANSTO. But the proposed spin-off company was not viable, because the Australian market was simply too small, and to succeed in South-east Asia, we needed a back-up instrument to offer 100% reliable service.

Nonetheless, I returned from my expedition with a new mindset, a new industry engagement skill set and new confidence in my ability to engage with the inhabitants of Industryland, while remaining true to my values and my first love, Science.

– Natalie Chapman, Managing Director, gemaker

You might also be interested in these articles about industry engagement and commercialisation:

Research commercialisation is push and pull

Industry engagement must start at school

Is commercialisation the dark side?

gender equality in research

Gender equality in research and physics

The underrepresentation of women in the STEM research sector in Australia is a significant issue. I acknowledge, with some degree of shame, that my own core discipline of physics is one of the worst offenders.

Data from the ARC’s latest Excellence in Research for Australia round indicates that women represent only 16% of academic levels A–E in the physics discipline. As with all other Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines, the fraction is even worse in higher levels — only 10% of physics professorial staff are women.

While this fraction is probably representative of physics around the world, there are some interesting exceptions. For example, in France, the overall rate of women in physics is much stronger (around 26%). As a practitioner of nuclear physics, I was always struck by the much stronger presence of women in that sub-discipline in France. Of course, France has the presence of Marie Curie, who was awarded two Nobel prizes for her contributions to physics and chemistry. Clearly role models matter!

It is with this in mind that at least two dedicated fellowships for exceptional women researchers are awarded under the ARC’s Australian Laureate Fellowships scheme each round. One of these, the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship, is awarded to a female researcher in science and technology. The award is won on the basis of merit, but these researchers are given extra funding to assist them to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.


“Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce.”


Australian Laureate Fellows, such as Professors Veena Sahajwalla and Michelle Simmons from UNSW Australia and Professor Nalini Joshi from The University of Sydney, are tremendous role models and are actively encouraging and supporting women to undertake careers in STEM. A fantastic example of this is the Science 50:50 programme, led by Sahajawalla, which aims to inspire Australian girls and young women to pursue degrees and careers in science and technology.

This is a start, but it is not enough. I have been determined to strengthen the ARC’s commitment to gender equality in research through a number of initiatives. We have achieved relatively even success rates for women and men across the schemes of the National Competitive Grants Programme, but we still need significant improvements in the participation rate of women in research.

While the ARC can promote and monitor gender equality in research, Australia’s research institutions need to take joint responsibility for the progression and retention of women in the research workforce. That is why it has been so encouraging to see the research sector’s very strong response to the Science and Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot. This is surely a pivotal step forward, and one we should all support to ensure it succeeds.

Professor Aidan Byrne

Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council (ARC)

Read next: Macquarie University’s Professor Barbara Messerle highlights the need to celebrate cross-disciplinary role models who have paved non-linear careers from foundations in STEM.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

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