Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by behavioural differences in children, but autism diagnosis is far from straightforward.
Now, the Cooperative Research Centre for Autism Diagnosis (Autism CRC) and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) have joined forces to implement a national guideline for diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The system will improve the highly variable and often delayed diagnoses currently delivered across different state health systems.
This initiative comes at a time when authorities such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have recognised autism diagnosis in Australia as an issue in urgent need of attention. Earlier this month, the AMA announced that the speed of diagnosis is of primary concern.
Over the course of the next year, Professor Andrew Whitehouse, Director of the Autism Research Team at the Telethon Kids Institute, will spearhead collaborative research efforts to establish a national guideline to be published by September 2017.
One of the primary aims of the guideline is to streamline the diagnostic process across Australia and thereby accelerate vital, early-stage diagnoses.
Tackling variability in autism diagnosis
In developing the new guideline, the Autism CRC and NDIA hope to address problems that are rooted as much in the state-run approach to the diagnostic process as they are in the nature of autism itself.
“We don’t know enough about the genetics and neuroscience of autism, so we diagnose based on behaviour,” says Whitehouse. “And the way we appraise the particular behaviours differs quite considerably across states.”
According to Whitehouse, some states may require only one medical health professional to carry out a diagnostic assessment, while others mandate that every patient be consulted by a series of interdisciplinary teams. The level of diagnostic training and tools of assessment also vary greatly across regions, and between rural and metropolitan areas.
These factors impact not only the diagnostic outcome, but also the cost and time involved in reaching a conclusion.
“The variability in how we appraise behaviour associated with autism in Australia has a major effect on the cost of an assessment and the waitlist involved,” says Whitehouse.
A recent Australian study suggested that in Australia, autism diagnosis occurs around three to four years later than recommended, with early treatment key to limiting the effects autism has on an individual’s life.
Given the lack of a standardised, transparent approach to autism diagnosis across Australia, Whitehouse believes some families feel like they have to seek out multiple opinions. Not only does that delay the diagnosis, but it also adds to the emotional and financial strain for families, says Whitehouse.
“In the end, a delay is a cost to the family, as well as the Commonwealth government.”
Working with families for families
Over the course of the next year, the research team plans to work with families, individuals on the spectrum, autism experts, doctors, and service providers to make sure that the national guideline addresses the key issues faced by families and individuals on the autism spectrum today.
Their goal is to create an environment where families and individuals on the autism spectrum of all ages feel that they can trust in the process and can expect equal procedures across the whole of Australia.
“The main focus is not just rigour, but what is feasible to administer on the ground and what is acceptable to families,” says Whitehouse.
Along with the publication itself, plans for distributing the national guideline include extensive training of doctors and medical staff, as well as awareness campaigns for families.
Accelerated access to treatment
The Autism CRC and NDIA hope that a national approach to tackling autism diagnosis will lead to a smoother and more efficient diagnostic process, accelerating access to treatment and effecting more equitable outcomes for everyone living with autism.
“The national guideline is an important way to get all children with autism off to the best start in life, so that every child is afforded equal opportunities,” says Whitehouse.
A successful implementation of the guidelines could also set an example for agencies handling other disabilities.
“With this project, we hope to demonstrate that nationally harmonised protocols in the area of childhood disability are possible, particularly through collaboration with Government agencies,” says Whitehouse.
– Iliana Grosse-Buening
Autism CRC aims to provide the national capacity to develop and deliver evidence-based outcomes through its unique collaboration with the autism community, research organisations, industry and government. Find out more here.
Featured image above: Dr Alastair Hick, KCA Chair and Jasmine Vreugdenburg (UniSA), winner of the Best Entrepreneurial Support Initiative and People’s Choice Award at KCA’s Research Commercialisation Awards. Credit: KCA
The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Curtin University (WA) and the University of South Australia (UniSA) were winners at the Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) Research Commercialisation Awards, announced at its annual conference dinner in Brisbane.
Success lay with UNSW which won Best Commercial Deal for securing $20 million capital investment from Zhejian Handian Graphene Tech; Curtin University for the Best Creative Engagement Strategy with The Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Centre; and UniSA won Best Entrepreneurial Initiative and the People’s Choice Award for its Venture Catalyst which supports student led start-ups.
“These awards recognise research organisations’ success in creatively transferring knowledge and research outcomes into the broader community. They also help raise the profile of research organisations’ contribution to the development of new products and services which benefit wider society and have the potential that develop the companies that may grow new knowledge based industries in Australia,” says KCA Executive Officer, Melissa Geue.
KCA Chairman and Director of Monash innovation at Monash University, Dr Alastair Hick, says it is important that commercialising research successes are celebrated and made public.
“KCA member organisations work incredibly hard at developing new ways to get technology and innovation out into industry being developed into the products and services of tomorrow. These awards recognise that hard work and also that we must develop new ways of improving the interface between public sector research and industry.
“I am also excited that KCA members are playing an increasing role in helping the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. It is essential that we help develop their entrepreneurial skills and give them the opportunities in an environment where they can learn from skilled and experienced mentors,” says Hick.
Research Commercialisation Awards – winning initiatives
Best Commercial Deal
Zhejian Hangdian Graphene Tech Co (ZHGT) – University of New South Wales (UNSW)
This is an initiative to fund and conduct research on cutting-edge higher efficiency voltage power cables, known as graphene, and on super-capacitors. With $20M capital investment by the Chinese corporation Hangzhou Cable Co., Ltd (HCCL), and UNSW contributing intellectual property as a 20% partner, the objectives are to execute the deal through research and development; manufacturing of research outcomes in Hangzhou; and finally commercialisation.
Best Creative Engagement Strategy
Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Centre – Curtin University
The Cisco Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, co-founded by Cisco, Curtin University and Woodside Energy Ltd, is a new industry and research collaboration centre designed to foster co-innovation. With a foundation in radioastronomy, supercomputing and software expertise, it is growing a state-of-the-art connected community focused on leveraging data analytics, cybersecurity and digital transformation network platforms to solve industry problems. The Centre combines start-ups, small–medium enterprises, industry experts, developers and researchers in a collaborative open environment to encourage experimentation, innovation and development through brainstorming, workshops, proof-of-concept and rapid prototyping. By accelerating innovation in next-generation technologies, it aims to help Australian businesses thrive in this age of digital disruption.
Best Entrepreneurial Initiative
Venture Catalyst Program – UniSA
Venture Catalyst supports student led start-ups by providing up to $50k to the new enterprise as a grant. The scheme targets current and recent graduates who have a high tolerance for risk and an idea for a new business venture that is both novel and scalable. The scheme takes an ‘IP and equity free’ approach and encourages students to collaborate with different disciplines and externals to encourage a diverse skill set for the benefit of the new venture. Venture Catalyst is a collaboration between the UniSA and the South Australian Government, and is supported through UniSA Ventures as well as representatives from industry and experienced entrepreneurs.
This year’s Research Commercialisation Awards were judged by commercial leaders of innovation: Erol Harvey, CEO, MiniFab, Dan Grant, PVC Industry Engagement, LaTrobe University and Anna Rooke, CEO, QUT Creative Enterprise Australia.
About Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA)
Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia (KCA) is the peak body leading best practice in industry engagement, commercialisation and entrepreneurship for research organisations. They achieve this through delivery of stakeholder connections, professional development and advocacy.
This information was first shared by Knowledge Commercialisation Australasia on 2 September 2016. See all finalists here.
Barossa Valley brothers Joshua and Simon Schmidt started their South Australian company Vinnovate in 2012 and have developed a bottle closure that releases a solution to reduce the impact of preservatives or add subtle flavours to wine.
When activated, by pressing a button on top of the screw cap, the solution is mixed with the wine and binds to free sulphites, removing their preservative properties and reducing their ability to cause a reaction.
Co-founder and chief innovation officer Joshua Schmidt says the award – a $35,000 cash prize plus the opportunity to work with Pernod Ricard to bring the product to market – is a huge thrill.
“We believe that the Winexplorer Challenge has validated our idea and it now gives us a springboard from which to go forward,” he says.
Joshua says it will be up to the consumer as to whether they activate the solution or not.
“We’ve found from a lot of market research that more and more people are experiencing a reaction when they drink wine and it’s actually pushing people away from the industry,” he says.
“We wanted to create something that was very similar to an existing screw cap but has an element of functionality because across the wider consumer goods space there is a strong trend towards individualisation.”
Sulphites, which release sulphur dioxide, are preservatives widely used in winemaking because of their antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
Common reactions to sulphites include headaches and red, itchy skin.
“Being Barossa boys and children of the industry we set out to find a means so that everyone can enjoy wine,” Joshua says.
“We believe it freshens up the wine as well and allows it to be more of a consumer-centric experience rather than traditionally having to wait for 30 to 60 minutes after opening for the wine to ‘breathe’.”
“We want to do something good for the industry.”
Vinnovate Managing Director Simon Schmidt is a winemaker while Joshua’s background is in marketing, with a particular focus on the pharmaceutical industry.
The Schmidt brothers have developed prototypes and have commenced discussions with a number of wineries around trials.
Joshua says he hopes for a commercial release towards the end of the year.
“It’s our vision to see this as the next generation screw cap closure for wine,” he says.
“We are currently talking to some wineries about this and it’s our goal that this will be inclusive wine packaging.”
“We believe this has tremendous widespread appeal and application just like how Clare Valley was an early adopter of the screw cap 40-odd years ago.”
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.
Spread the word:Help to grow Australia’s innovation knowhow! Share this piece using the social media buttons below.
Be part of the conversation: Share your ideas on innovating Australia in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!
Curtin University researchers are a step closer to establishing a way for people with type-1 diabetes to introduce insulin into the body without the need for injections, through the development of a unique microcapsule.
People with type-1 diabetes, a condition where the immune system destroys cells in the pancreas, generally have to inject themselves with insulin daily and test glucose levels multiple times a day.
Dr Hani Al-Salami from Curtin’s School of Pharmacy is leading the collaborative project using cutting-edge microencapsulation technologies to design and test whether microcapsules are a viable alternative treatment for people with type-1 diabetes.
“Since 1921, injecting insulin into muscle or fat tissue has been the only treatment option for patients with type-1 diabetes,” Al-Salami says.
“The ideal way to treat the illness, however, would be to have something, like a microcapsule, that stays in the body and works long-term to treat the uncontrolled blood glucose associated with diabetes.”
The microcapsule contains pancreatic cells which can be implanted in the body and deliver insulin to the blood stream.
“We hope the microcapsules might complement or even replace the use of insulin in the long-term, but we are still a way off. Still, the progress is encouraging and quite positive for people with type-1 diabetes,” Al-Salami says.
Researchers say the biggest challenge in the project to date has been creating a microcapsule that could carry the cells safely, for an extended period of time, without causing an unwanted reaction by the body such as inflammation or graft failure.
“We are currently carrying out multiple analyses examining various formulations and microencapsulating methods, in order to ascertain optimum engineered microcapsules capable of supporting cell survival and functionality,” Al-Salami says.
Featured image above from the Australia’s STEM Workforce Report
Australians with qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are working across the economy in many roles from wine-makers to financial analysts, according to a new report from The Office of the Chief Scientist.
Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel says Australia’s STEM Workforce is the first comprehensive analysis of the STEM-qualified population and is a valuable resource for students, parents, teachers and policy makers. The report is based on data from the 2011 Census, the most recent comprehensive and detailed data set of this type of information. The report will serve as a benchmark for future studies.
“This report provides a wealth of information on where STEM qualifications – from both the university and the vocational education and training (VET) sectors – may take you, what jobs you may have and what salary you may earn,” Finkel says.
“Studying STEM opens up countless job options and this report shows that Australians are taking diverse career paths.”
The report investigates the workforce destinations of people with qualifications in STEM fields, looking at the demographics, industries, occupations and salaries that students studying for those qualifications can expect in the workforce.
The report found that fewer than one-third of STEM university graduates were female, with physics, astronomy and engineering having even lower proportions of female graduates. Biological sciences and environmental studies graduates were evenly split between the genders. In the vocational education and training (VET) sector, only 9% of those with STEM qualifications were women.
Finkel says that even more worrying than the gender imbalance in some STEM fields, is the pay gap between men and women in all STEM fields revealed in the report. These differences cannot be fully explained by having children or by the increased proportion of women working part-time.
The analysis also found that gaining a doctorate is a sound investment, with more STEM PhD graduates in the top income bracket than their Bachelor-qualified counterparts. However, these same STEM PhD holders are less likely to own their own business or work in the private sector.
Finkel says that preparing students for a variety of jobs and industries is vital to sustaining the future workforce.
“This report shows that STEM-qualified Australians are working across the economy. It is critical that qualifications at all levels prepare students for the breadth of roles and industries they might pursue.”
Click here to download the full Australia’s STEM Workforce report.
Click here to read Alan Finkel’s Foreword, or click here to read the section of the report that interests you.
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.
Leveraging the knowledge of researchers from the CSIRO and five of Australia’s top universities, as well as experts in the field, the CRCLCL is heading up efforts to deliver a low carbon built environment in Australia. Its ambitious aim is to cut residential and commercial carbon emissions by 10 megatonnes by 2020.
“The CRCLCL is at the forefront of driving technological and social innovation in the built environment to reduce carbon emissions,” says Prasad.
“We’re looking to bring emissions down, and in the process we want to ensure global competitiveness for Australian industry by helping to develop the next generation of products, technologies, advanced manufacturing and consulting services,” says Prasad.
CRCLCL activities range from urban sustainable design and solar energy to software and community engagement.
“By working effectively with government, researchers and industry, we employ an ‘end-user’ driven approach to research that maximises uptake and utilisation,” says Prasad.
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
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:
An estimated one in 50 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Research from La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) shows that the majority of these children are not diagnosed until they are four years old, more than two years after they can be reliably diagnosed and receive life-changing intervention.
The technique underlying ASDetect has been used over the past decade by hundreds of maternal and child health nurses in Australia, as well as early childhood professionals around the world. It has proven to be more than seven times more accurate than the next best tool in the early identification of autism.
Salesforce developed the ASDetect app on a pro bono basis as part of the company’s 1-1-1 integrated philanthropy model, where the company donates 1% of its employee’s time, its products and its equity to support the not-for-profit sector. A team of Salesforce engineers, designers and developers volunteered their time to build the app on the Salesforce platform.
The app uses questions drawn from breakthrough research by La Trobe’s Dr Josephine Barbaro. It gives parents access to video footage from actual clinical assessments and clearly demonstrates the context and expected key behaviours of children at each age.
“ASDetect is an empowering tool for parents who may feel their children are developing differently than expected and are looking for answers. The new ASDetect app is an ideal way to share proven techniques with thousands of parents,” says Barbaro.
Through a series of videos and questions, ASDetect guides parents through the identification of potential “red flag” signs of ASD. These “red flags” can be raised when young children repeatedly do not:
make consistent eye contact;
show their toys to others;
play social games;
point to indicate interest;
respond when their name is called.
“All typically developing infants are motivated to be social, look at other people’s faces, learn from them and copy. Children with ASD are not doing this – and we can now accurately identify this at a much younger age and take action, with the help of parents,” says Barbaro.
The app combines Barbaro’s assessment questions with videos demonstrating the ‘red flag’ behaviours critical in determining the likelihood of ASD in children as young as 12 months. Parents view two videos: one showing a child with ASD, the other showing a typically developing child. Parents then answer questions regarding their own child. The information entered by the parents is automatically sent to OTARC’s database, which also runs on the Salesforce platform, where analysis of individual results is completed. Parents are then sent information via a notification through the app, with advice as to whether they should seek professional help. As ASD can emerge over time, ASDetect includes assessments for children aged 12, 18 and 24 months.
“This is not a replacement for professional assessment; however ASDetect will provide parents with an indication as to whether they should seek a professional opinion from a doctor at a time when intervention will have the biggest impact,” says Barbaro.
Dan Bognar, Senior Vice President, Salesforce APAC says: “The ASDetect app is a great example of leveraging the power of the Salesforce platform to improve the capabilities of health providers and treatment for individuals. Being able to deploy on a global scale means that organisations like OTARC can make a significant impact on society.”
“The development of ASDetect highlights our ethos of giving back as well as our commitment to improving the local communities we operate in. It has been incredibly rewarding for everyone involved, and we look forward to seeing the results of this important initiative,” says Bognar.
Watch ASDetect in action:
This information was first shared in a press release by La Trobe University on 14 February 2016. Read the press release here.
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.
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 Jack Hills are part of an ancient landscape of scorched red earth in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. But it wasn’t until 2001, when a rock from the hills was brought 800 km south to Curtin University’s John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research (JDLC), that scientists discovered just how ancient this landscape really is. The Curtin scientists dated zircon crystals in the sample at 4.4 billion years, making it the oldest known Earth rock.
This groundbreaking research required a sophisticated measurement of trace elements in the crystal, and there are very few facilities in the world where this could have taken place. Zircon traps uranium in its crystal structure when it is formed. In principle, the radioactive decay of uranium into lead is like a ticking clock. If you can accurately measure how much lead has been created and how much uranium remains in a particular sample, you can work out when the crystal was formed. To do this, and to arrive at an age with an uncertainty of just 0.2%, Curtin researchers called upon the $4 million Sensitive High Resolution Ion Micro Probe (SHRIMP), the flagship technology of the JDLC. There are fewer than 20 SHRIMPs in the world, and Curtin is home to two of them.
“Zircon is like diamond – it’s forever,” explains JDLC Director, Professor Brent McInnes. Being a very hard and chemically inert material, zircon lasts for billions of years. The JDLC has world-renowned expertise in dating rocks by analysing the uranium-lead decay process in zircon.
The JDLC is also regularly put to more practical uses, such as aiding resource exploration in Western Australia. The SHRIMPs are the centrepieces of a suite of equipment worth $25 million, including scanning electron microscopes, transmission electron microscopes, ion beam milling instruments, laser probes and mass spectrometers.
“We are an open access lab,” explains McInnes. “These instruments can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The JDLC collaborates with research groups around the world and also assists the Geological Survey of Western Australia to make maps used to attract investment in mining and petroleum exploration. Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences researchers use the instruments to do similar work in China, controlling the Perth-based SHRIMPs remotely from Beijing.
The JDLC facilities have also been used to solve practical problems for industry partners. When exploration company Independence Group NL found tin in a gravel bed at the base of a WA river, they turned to the JDLC to help identify the origins of the ore. Was it from a local source or had it been transported from elsewhere and deposited in the riverbed? Using SHRIMP, the JDLC team measured the quantities of trace uranium and lead elements in the tin ore cassiterite and calculated its age. When they performed similar measurements on zircon from local granite, they found its age was the same. This showed the tin was local, and helped the Independence Group pinpoint the precise locations to drill exploratory holes. “We have an incredibleset of research tools that can be deployed to help industry reduce the risks and costs of exploration,” says McInnes.
“Recognising the gap, Curtin has set up a dedicated funding program, called Kickstart, to help translate lab research into commercial ventures.”
Collaborating with industry is a commonplace activity for John Curtin Distinguished Professor and Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor – Faculty of Science and Engineering, Moses Tadé. Industry possesses considerable experts, he says, yet still tends to approach academics when looking at something more fundamental. Tadé’s group brings a range of skills to the table, including expertise in multi-scale modelling, computational flow dynamics, reaction engineering and optimisation modelling. Collaboration is highly beneficial for both sides, he says.
Ongoing projects include the development of solid oxide fuel cells with a Melbourne-based fuel cell company, and a project in partnership with a petroleum industry multinational to remove mercury from oil and gas. In recent years, sponsorship from leading minerals and exploration companies Chevron Australia and Woodside Energy has supported the growth of the Curtin Corrosion Engineering Industry Centre, of which Tadé is Director. The Centre looks to develop practical solutions to the problem of corrosion in gas pipelines, which can lead to costly leaks and dangerous explosions.
In another project, led by chemical engineer Professor Vishnu Pareek, Curtin has teamed up with Woodside to develop a more efficient way to regasify liquefied natural gas. Currently, natural gas from Australia is liquified so it can be transported efficiently by ship to overseas markets, particularly China. But once it gets there, the regasification process can burn up to 2% of the product. A new process being developed at Curtin uses the energy in the ambient air to aid regasification – a more efficient solution that will both increase profits and reduce CO2 emissions. “It’s very exciting,” says Tadé. “A big thing for the environment.”
Curtin has become a busy hub of innovation, with a spate of spin-off companies being created to translate the research. “We have a focused effort on commercialisation and research outcomes,” explains Rohan McDougall, Director of IP Commercialisation at Curtin.
Public funding of science and engineering research can often only take new technology to a certain level of development such as ‘proof-of-concept’. Securing funds from investors to turn pre-commercial work into a real-world product is tough as investors are wary at this early high-risk stage. “The gap is traditionally known as the ‘valley of death’,” says McDougall. Recognising this gap, Curtin has set up a dedicated funding program, called Kickstart, to help translate lab research into commercial ventures.
As well as the extra funding, commercialisation is aided at Curtin by strong links with the venture capital community and industry, which advise on commercialisation routes and intellectual property. The university also encourages an innovation environment by running contests in which staff and students describe technologies they are working on and that may have commercial applications.
This commercialisation focus has reaped dividends in terms of successful spin-off companies. In the medical space, Neuromonics sells a device for the treatment of the auditory condition tinnitus. In digital technology, iCetana has developed a video analytics technology for security applications. Skrydata, a data analytics company, provides a service for extracting patterns from big data. Sensear has developed sophisticated hearing equipment technology for high-noise environments such as oil and gas facilities.
One of the biggest recent success stories has been Scanalyse, which in 2013 won the prestigious Australian Museum Rio Tinto Eureka Prize for Commercialisation of Innovation. Scanalyse grew out of a collaboration between Curtin and Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminium producers. Alcoa called on Curtin’s experts to find a way to analyse the grinders used in their mills. Every time a grinder wore out, it was costing ~$100,000/hour in downtime. It was crucial to monitor the condition of these machines, but this required someone to climb inside and take measurements. Through their 2005 collaboration with Alcoa, spatial scientists at Curtin developed a laser scanning system capable of measuring 10 million points in just 30 minutes.
“At the same time, they developed a software tool that could be applied more generally,” explains McDougall. “So the business was established to look at the application of that technology to mills and other mine site equipment.”
Scanalyse has since found customers in more than 20 countries and is making an impact worldwide. In 2013, it was bought by Finnish engineering giant Outotec.
Scientists who are leading the world on solar energy efficiency, helping to develop one-shot flu vaccines, and making portable biosensors to detect viruses are among the winners of the Australian Academy of Science’s annual honorific awards.
Each year the Academy presents awards to recognise scientific excellence, to researchers in the early stage of their careers through to those who have made life-long achievements.
This year’s announcement includes 17 award winnersacross astronomy, nanoscience, mathematics, chemistry, physics, environmental science and human health.
Professor Martin Green, sometimes known as the “father of photovoltaics”, has won the prestigious Ian Wark Medal and Lecture for his world-record breaking work improving solar efficiency.
Dr Jane Elith and Associate Professor Cyrille Boyer, who recently won awards in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, will be the recipients of this year’s Fenner and Le Févre prizes.
The Academy President, Professor Andrew Holmes congratulated all the award winners for their work.
“These scientists are simply inspirational. They are working at the leading edges of their fields and of human knowledge, and they are developing innovations that will change and improve our society, our economy and our health,” says Holmes.
“This list of winners represents the best of Australia’s leading and emerging scientists; from researchers doing fundamental research to those building next generation technologies,” says Holmes.
The awards will be formally presented at the Academy’s annual three day celebration of Australian science, Science at the Shine Dome, in Canberra in May 2016.
Read more about the awardees and their research here.
This article was shared in a media release by the Australian Academy of Science on 23 November 2015. Featured image above: Aerial Shine Dome May 2015 credit Adi Chopra.
The nanoscale is so tiny it’s almost beyond comprehension. Too small for detection by the human eye, and not even discernible by most laboratory microscopes, it refers to measurements in the range of 1–100 billionths of a metre. The nanoscale is the level at which atoms and molecules come together to form structured materials.
The Nanochemistry Research Institute — NRI — conducts fundamental and applied research to understand, model and tailor materials at the nanoscale. It brings together scientists – with expertise in chemistry, engineering, computer simulations, materials and polymers – and external collaborators to generate practical applications in health, energy, environmental management, industry and exploration. These include new tests for cancer, and safer approaches to oil and gas transportation. Research ranges from government-funded exploratory science to confidential industry projects.
The NRI hosts research groups with specialist expertise in the chemical formation of minerals and other materials. “To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of atoms,” explains Julian Gale, John Curtin Distinguished Professor in Computational Chemistry and former Acting Director of the NRI. “To do this, we use virtual observation – watching how atoms interact at the nanoscale – and modelling, where we simulate the behaviour of atoms on a computer.”
The mineral calcium carbonate is produced through biomineralisation by some marine invertebrates. “If we understand the chemistry that leads to the formation of carbonates in the environment, then we can look at how factors such as ocean temperature and pH can lead to the loss of minerals that are a vital component of coral reefs,” says Gale.
This approach could be used to build an understanding of how minerals are produced biologically, potentially leading to medical and technological benefits, including applications in bone growth and healing, or even kidney stone prevention and treatment.
Gale anticipates that a better understanding of mineral geochemistry may also shed light on how and where metals are distributed. “If you understand the chemistry of gold in solution and how deposits form, you might have a better idea where to look for the next gold mine,” he explains.
There are also environmental implications. “Formation of carbonate minerals, especially magnesium carbonate and its hydrates, has been proposed as a means of trapping atmospheric carbon in a stable solid state through a process known as geosequestration. We work with colleagues in the USA to understand how such carbonates form,” says Gale.
Minerals science is also relevant in industrial settings. Calcium carbonate scaling reduces flow rates in pipes and other structures in contact with water. “As an example, the membranes used for reverse osmosis in water desalination – a water purification technology that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove salt and other minerals from saline water – can trigger the formation of calcium carbonate,” explains Gale. “This results in partial blockage of water flow through the membrane, and reduced efficiency of the desalination process.”
A long-term aim of research in this area is to design water membranes that prevent these blockages. There are also potential applications in the oil industry, where barium sulphate (barite) build-up reduces the flow in pipes, and traps dangerous radioactive elements such as radium.
Another problem for exploration companies is the formation of hydrates of methane and other low molecular weight hydrocarbon molecules. These can block pipelines and processing equipment during oil and gas transportation and operations, which results in serious safety and flow assurance issues. Materials chemist Associate Professor Xia Lou leads a large research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering that is developing low-dose gas hydrates inhibitors to prevent hydrate formation. “We also develop nanomaterials for the removal of organic contaminants in water, and nanosensors to detect or extract heavy metals,” she says.
“To understand minerals, it’s often important to know what is going on at the level of the atom.”
The capacity to control how molecules come together and then disassociate offers tantalising opportunities for product development, particularly in food science, drug delivery and cosmetics. In the Department of Chemistry, Professor Mark Ogden conducts nanoscale research looking at hydrogels, or networks of polymeric materials suspended in water.
“We study the 3D structure of hydrogels using the Institute’s scanning probe microscope,” says Ogden. “The technique involves running a sharp tip over the surface of the material. It provides an image of the topography of the surface, but we can also measure how hard, soft or sticky the surface is.” Ogden is developing methods for watching hydrogels grow and fall apart through heating and cooling. “We have the capability to do that sort of imaging now, and this in situ approach is quite rare around the world,” he says.
“We’ve identified lanthanoid clusters that can emit UV light and have magnetic properties,” explains Ogden. “Some of these can form single molecule magnets. A key outcome will be to link cluster size and shape to these functional properties.” This may facilitate guided production of magnetic and light-emitting materials for use in sensing and imaging technologies.
“If you understand the chemistry of gold … then you might have a better idea of where to start looking for the next gold mine.”
The NRI is working across several areas of chemistry and engineering to develop nanoscale tools for detecting and treating health conditions. Professor Damien Arrigan applies a nanoscale electrochemical approach to detecting biological molecules, also known as biosensing. He and his Department of Chemistry colleagues work at the precise junction between layered oil and water.
“We make oil/water interfaces using membranes with nanopores, some as small as 15 nanometres,” he says. “This scale delivers the degree of sensitivity we’re after.” The scientists measure the passage of electrical currents across the tiny interfaces and detect protein, which absorbs at the boundary between the two liquids. “As long as we know a protein’s isoelectric point – that is, the pH at which it carries no electrical charge – we can measure its concentration,” he explains.
The technique enables the scientists to detect proteins at nanomolar (10−6 mol/m3) concentrations, but they hope to shift the sensitivity to the picomolar (10−9 mol/m3) range – a level of detection a thousand times more sensitive and not possible with many existing protein assessments. Further refinement may also incorporate markers to select for proteins of interest. “What we’d like to do one day is measure specific proteins in biological fluids like saliva, tears or serum,” says Arrigan.
The team’s long-term vision is to develop highly sensitive point-of-need measurements to guide treatments – for example, testing kits for paramedics to detect markers released after a heart attack so that appropriate treatment can be immediately applied.
Also in the Department of Chemistry, Dr Max Massi is developing biosensing tools to look at the health of living tissues. His approach relies on tracking the location and luminescence of constructed molecules in cells. “We synthesise new compounds based on heavy metals that have luminescent properties,” explains Massi. “Then we feed the compounds to cells, and look to see where they accumulate and how they glow.”
The team synthesises libraries of designer chemicals for their trials. “We know what properties we’re after – luminescence, biological compatibility and the ability to go to the part of the cell we want,” says Massi.
For example, compounds can be designed to accumulate in lysosomes – the tiny compartments in a cell that are involved in functions such as waste processing. With appropriate illumination, images of lysosomes can then be reconstructed and viewed in 3D using a technique known as confocal microscopy, enabling scientists to assess lysosome function. Similar approaches are in development for disease states such as obesity and cancer.
Beyond detection, this technique also has potential for therapeutic applications. Massi has performed in vitro studies with healthy and cancerous cells, suggesting that a switch from detection to treatment may be possible by varying the amount of light used to illuminate the cells.
“A bit of light allows you to visualise. A lot of light will allow you to kill the cells,” explains Massi. His approach is on track for product development, with intellectual property protection filed in relation to using phosphorescent compounds to determine the health status of cells.
Improving approaches to cancer treatment is also an ongoing research activity for materials chemist Dr Xia Lou, who designs, constructs and tests nanoparticles for targeted photodynamic therapy, which aims to selectively kill tumours using light-induced reactive oxygen species.
“We construct hybrid nanoparticles with high photodynamic effectiveness and a tumour-targeting agent, and then test them in vitro in our collaborators’ laboratories,” she says. “Our primary interest is in the treatment of skin cancer. The technology has also extended applications in the treatment of other diseases.” Lou has successfully filed patents for cancer diagnosis and treatment that support the potential of this approach.
Spheres and other 3D shapes constructed at the nanoscale offer potential for many applications centred on miniaturised storage and release of molecules and reactivity with target materials. Dr Jian Liu in the Department of Chemical Engineering develops new synthesis strategies for silica or carbon spheres, or ‘yolk-shell’-structured particles. “Our main focus is the design, synthesis and application of colloidal nanoparticles including metal, metal oxides, silica and carbon,” says Liu.
Most of these colloidal particles are nanoporous – that is, they have a lattice-like structure with pores throughout. The applications of such nanoparticles include catalysis, energy storage and conversion, drug delivery and gene therapy.
“The most practical outcome of our research would be the development of new catalysts for the production of synthetic gases, or syngas,” he says. “It may also lead to new electrodes for lithium-ion batteries.” Once developed, nanoscale components for this type of rechargeable battery are expected to bring improved safety and durability, and lower costs.
Atomic Modelling matters in research
Professor Julian Gale leads a world-class research group in computational materials chemistry at the NRI. “We work at the atomic level, looking at fundamental processes by which materials form,” he says. “We can simulate up to a million atoms or more, and then test how the properties and behaviour of the atoms change in response to different experimental conditions.” Such research is made possible through accessing a petascale computer at WA’s Pawsey Centre – built primarily to support Square Kilometre Array pathfinder research.
The capacity to model the nanoscale behaviour of atoms is a powerful tool in nanochemistry research, and can give direction to experimental work. The calcium carbonate mineral vaterite is a case in point. “Our theoretical work on calcium carbonate led to the proposal that the mineral vaterite was actually composed of at least three different forms,” Gale explains. “An international team found experimental evidence which supported this idea.”
NRI Director Professor Andrew Lowe regards this capacity as an asset. “Access to this kind of atomic modelling means that our scientists can work within a hypothetical framework to test whether a new idea is likely to work or not before they commit time and money to it,” he explains.
Formally established in 2001, the Nanochemistry Research Institute began a new era in 2015 through the appointment of Professor Andrew Lowe as Director. Working under his guidance are academic staff and postdoctoral fellows, as well as PhD, Honours and undergraduate science students.
An expert in polymer chemistry, Lowe’s research background adds a new layer to the existing strong multidisciplinary nature of the Institute. “Polymers have the potential to impact on every aspect of fundamental research,” he says. “This will add a new string to the bow of Curtin University science and engineering, and open new and exciting areas of research and collaboration.”
Polymers are a diverse group of materials composed of multiple repeated structural units connected by chemical bonds. “My background is in water-soluble polymers and smart polymers,” explains Lowe. “These materials change the way they behave in response to their external environment – for example, a change in temperature, salt concentrations, pH or the presence of other molecules including biomolecules. Because the characteristics of the polymeric molecules can be altered in a reversible manner, they offer potential to be used in an array of applications, including drug delivery, catalysis and surface modification.”
Lowe has particular expertise in RAFT dispersion polymerisation, a technique facilitating molecular self-assembly to produce capsule-like polymers in solution. “This approach allows us to make micelles, worms and vesicles directly,” he says, describing the different physical forms the molecules can take. “It’s a novel and specialised technique that creates high concentrations of uniformly-shaped polymeric particles at the nanoscale.” Such polymers are candidates for drug delivery and product encapsulation.
A project to chart the history of fires in the Southern Hemisphere during the past 100,000 years is using a surprising natural resource: ice.
The record of bushfires in Australia, South Africa and South America is revealed in tiny particles of soot trapped in deep ice across Antarctica.
Led by Dr Ross Edwards, an Associate Professor in physics and astronomy at the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research, the research is being carried out by a Curtin University team that’s collaborating with an international group of scientists to analyse a 750 m-long core drilled from pristine Antarctic ice.
The concentrations of soot in the ice are minute (ranging from 20 parts per trillion to one part per billion) and extremely sensitive equipment is needed to detect them. “It took many years to come up with a method to analyse and detect these tiny particles,” says Edwards.
“Most of the fires on Earth are in the Southern Hemisphere, and the only way to understand the long-term impact of soot on the atmosphere is through Antarctic ice,” he explains.
“Antarctic ice is like the Earth’s hard drive. Up to now we’ve only been able to open a few of its folders, but now we’re starting to see that there is much more information than we thought.”
Antarctica is ideal for studying Southern Hemisphere fires. “It’s the remotest region on Earth, so any particles that get there are really well mixed, giving the background levels. Of course, there are no natural fires there. It’s a remote viewing point,” Edwards says.
Tracking bushfire history could shed light on past ecosystems and increase our understanding of Earth’s climate. Edwards hopes to go all the way back to a period before the El Niño Southern Oscillation phenomenon (which drives the climate in the Southern Hemisphere) became established. He also hopes to quantify the human influence on fires, by looking at ice that formed before people arrived in South America and Australia.
“The problem now is that we are overwhelmed with data and it takes a long time to work through it,” Edwards says.
Ways to work out from which continent the soot has come are still being developed, but Edwards has already noticed that fires were most common when Australia had been through a wet period. High rainfall in the interior of Australia leads to more vegetation growth, which then fuels fires when the dry weather returns.
Next, Edwards wants to analyse a core that covers a million years of data – and he’s already working with national and international collaborators to develop that project.
New Chief Scientist Finkel is an outspoken advocate for science awareness and popularisation. He is a patron of the Australian Science Media Centre and has helped launch popular science magazine, Cosmos.
He is also an advocate for nuclear power, arguing that “nuclear electricity should be considered as a zero-emissions contributor to the energy mix” in Australia.
“The Academy is looking forward to the government’s announcement, but Finkel would be an excellent choice for this position. I’m confident he would speak strongly and passionately on behalf of Australian science, particularly in his advice to government,” he says.
“The AAS and ATSE have never been closer; we have worked together well on important issues facing Australia’s research community, including our recent partnership on the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative.”
Holmes also thanked outgoing Chief Scientist for his strong leadership for science in Australia, including establishing ACOLA as a trusted source of expert, interdisciplinary advice to the Commonwealth Science Council.
“Since his appointment, Chubb has been a tireless advocate of the fundamental importance of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills as the key to the country’s future prosperity, and a driving force behind the identification of strategic research priorities for the nation,” says Holmes.
This article was first published on The Conversation on 26 October 2015. Read the original article here.
“Finkel is an energetic advocate for STEM across all levels of society, from schools and the general public to corporate leaders. We’re excited and optimistic about the fresh approach science and innovation is enjoying.”
“This is truly the most fantastic news. Finkel is an extraordinary leader. He has proven himself in personal scientific research. He has succeeded in business in competitive fields. It is difficult to think of anyone who would do this important job with greater distinction.”
“Finkel has a profound understanding of the place of science in a flourishing modern economy, as a scientist, entrepreneur and science publisher of real note. We look forward to working closely with Finkel, as we jointly pursue better links between STEM and industry.”
Australian scientists and science educators have been honoured at the annual Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. The awards, introduced in 2000, are considered Australia’s most prestigious and highly regarded awards, and are given in recognition of excellence in scientific research, innovation and science teaching.
The awards acknowledge and pay tribute to the significant contributions that Australian scientists make to the economic and social betterment in Australia and around the world, as well as inspiring students to take an interest in science.
Previous winners include Professor Ryan Lister (Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2014) for his work on gene regulation in agriculture and in the treatment of disease and mental health, and Debra Smith (Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools in 2010) for her outstanding contribution in redefining how science is taught in Queensland and across the rest of Australia.
This year’s winners were announced by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra yesterday, which was also attended by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.
Professor Farquhar’s models of plant biophysics has led to a greater understanding of cells, whole plants and forests, as well as the creation of new water-efficient wheat varieties. His work has transformed our understanding of the world’s most important biological reaction: photosynthesis.
Farquhar’s most recent research on climate change is seeking to determine which trees will grow faster in a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere. “Carbon dioxide has a huge effect on plants. My current research involves trying to understand why some species and genotypes respond more to CO2 than others,” he says. And he and colleagues have uncovered a conundrum: global evaporation rates and wind speeds over the land are slowing, which is contrary to the predictions of most climate models. “Wind speed over the land has gone down 15% in the last 30 years, a finding that wasn’t predicted by general circulation models we use to form the basis of what climate should be like in the future,” he says. This startling discovery means that climate change may bring about a wetter world.
“Our world in the future will be effectively wetter, and some ecosystems will respond to this more than others.”
Professor Farquhar will also receive $250,000 in prize money. Looking forward he is committed to important projects, such as one with the ARC looking at the complex responses of plant hydraulics under very hot conditions.
“It’s important to understand if higher temperatures will negatively affect the plants in our natural and managed ecosystems, and if higher temperatures are damaging, we need to understand the nature of the damage and how we can minimise it.”
You can find out more about the 2015 winners including profiles, photos and videos here.
Photo from left: Refraction founders Heather Catchpole and Karen Taylor-Brown, with Production Manager Heather Curry and Publishing Co-ordinator Jesse Hawley.
Refraction Media, a Sydney-based publishing start-up, was announced Australia’s Best Small Publisher at the 2015 Publish Awards. Specialising in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), Refraction Media came out on top in a category that included sport, luxury and lifestyle at the industry’s night-of-nights.
The jurors at the 2015 Publish Awards said:
“Refraction Media outclassed the other entrants. For a start up operation that’s only two years old, the company has managed to capitalise on an untapped market with incredible skill and with many clever, innovative and successful media streams.”
Publishing’s leaders, representing titles such as Vogue, the Australian Women’s Weekly and Gourmet Traveller, competed for accolades at the 2015 Publish Awards alongside youth disrupters such as Junkee, Vice and Pedestrian.tv while business and industry like In the Black and Australian Pharmacist brought their A-game.
Amongst the glitz and glamour at the 2015 Publish Awards, science valiantly flew its flag with New Scientist‘s Australasia reporter Michael Slezak a finalist for Journalist of the Year (Consumer/Custom) and COSMOS magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr Elizabeth Finkel, a finalist for Single Article of the year for her piece ‘The buzz around brain stimulation‘.
With a strong presence on the main stage and by sharing the language and aesthetics of mass publishers, science publishers are taking science out of a niche audience and placing it firmly at the centre of a dynamic industry of interactivity, sharing and scrolling.
As science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) becomes more visual, accessible and dynamic, especially to Australia’s youth, engagement and participation rates will climb. This future STEM-skilled workforce is critical to Australia’s future prosperity. STEM graduates will facilitate innovation and collaboration.
Refraction Media fills a unique niche in the market that connects science and technology with the general public. Since its launch in 2013, Refraction has printed over half a million magazines across eight titles, shared 16 in-depth science study guides with schools, produced 13 3D animations, edited 17 scientific white papers, developed two e-learning platforms and created the worldwide, one-and-only virtual tour of a nuclear reactor.
Refraction produce two websites, for news at the nexus of research and industry, www.sciencemeetsbusiness.com.au; and careerswithcode.com.au, which aims to inspire high school students to combine their passion – whether it’s music, arts, business, sports or the environment – with STEM skills to create the careers of the future.
Refraction Media has demonstrated that rather than being ‘niche’, specialising in science uncovers a world of opportunity and discovery.