University science is behind some of the most profound innovations and breakthroughs in water research, from the development of cutting-edge techniques to maximise irrigation, to the creation of innovative new materials that can literally capture water from the air.
At the University of Sydney, the Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere (ACWA) project applies nanoscale materials science to mimic the remarkable adaptation of desert beetles in Namibia, a region where just 1.4cm of rain falls each year. The beetle collects water vapour from the atmosphere, turning it into liquid via the intricate shapes of tiny bumps on its exoskeleton.
Biomimicry — learning from, and mimicking, clever strategies found
in nature to solve human design challenges — is an important component of the work
of the University of Sydney Nano Institute, co-led by chemist Professor Chiara
Neto and physicist Professor Martijn de Sterke. Innovations from the research
include a nanotextured surface which can repel bacteria, algae and other marine
life from ships’ hulls, inspired by a lotus leaf; a nanoscale slippery surface,
inspired by the pitcher plant, that can be used for microfluidic channels in
bioengineering; and a stain-resistant paint base.
The Institute has attracted top-level researchers from chemistry,
physics, materials science and bioengineering from across the university.
“We began with the idea of capturing water from the atmosphere by optimising
the surface chemistry of a material so it would enable the formation of
droplets out of humid air,” says Neto.
“We are now developing new devices that capture water from the atmosphere through condensation, using no external source of energy, by designing surfaces that spontaneously cool when exposed to the air,” she says.
The team has made two key breakthroughs. First, they have perfected
the surface science of nanoscale ‘bumps’ shaped in a way to harvest a very thin
film of water vapour, similar to the Namibian desert beetle.
Their second breakthrough is the development of an entirely new surface
that is naturally chilled and causes water to condense into droplets. Wherever
the atmosphere is above 30% humidity, this surface will automatically collect
water vapour from the air.
The ACWA project is well on the way towards its ambitious goal to
create materials that capture sufficient water from the atmosphere to alleviate
the effect of drought by providing water for humans, animals and plants.
Patents are underway for exciting applications for the technology,
including watering devices to use within greenhouses; a portable self-filling
water bottle for bushwalkers and emergency crews; and small water stations to
sustain wildlife in remote areas
The world faces a huge challenge in sustainably delivering our energy needs. Hydrogen promises to become a major clean energy contributor, yet currently most of the world’s 70 million tonnes of hydrogen produced each year comes from hydrocarbon/coal processes such as coal gasification, with only around four per cent from ‘clean’ processes involving electrolysis (converting water into hydrogen and oxygen).
Australian university science provides the basis on which the hydrogen industry has evolved and continues to innovate, playing an essential role as a partner in establishing innovation and technological change. This research is coming from surprising places, including centres of biology, chemistry and geology.
Plant science key to unlimited clean fuels
Using electrolysis to convert water into hydrogen — with a by-product of oxygen — is costly because it must use continuous grid power. At present, these energy-hungry and inefficient processes defeat the purpose of creating hydrogen as an energy source.
At the Australian National University, chemistry professors Ron Pace and Rob Stranger have taken a leaf from nature, uncovering the process used by all photosynthetic organisms to use the sun’s energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. This natural electrolysis is the most efficient method known and relies on a ‘chemical spark plug’ called the water oxidising complex.
For decades, debate has raged about how the atoms that comprise water are used in this photosynthesis process. Profs Pace and Stranger used Australia’s fastest supercomputer at the ANU’s National Computational Infrastructure facility to model the chemical structure of the manganese atoms involved in this process and to decode the reasons behind its efficiency.
Their discovery has opened up opportunities to develop ‘artificial leaf’ technology with the capacity for potential unlimited future hydrogen production.
Professor Pace now heads a $1.77 million project in partnership with Dr Gerry Swiegers and Dr Pawel Wagner at the University of Wollongong, which uses specially designed electrodes, made of Gor-Tex, to mimic natural surfaces. The materials will help the formation of hydrogen and oxygen gas bubbles to operate more efficiently and also allow them to use fluctuating power sources such as wind and solar energy.
Hydrogen pilot plant delivers first shipment
Potential demand for imported hydrogen in China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore could reach 3.8 million tonnes by 2030. The QUT Redlands Research Facility is already geared up to generate hydrogen gas from seawater using solar power generated by its concentrated solar array.
The project received funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to develop next-generation technologies in electrolysis, energy storage and chemical sensing to produce hydrogen without any carbon dioxide emissions.
The facility is led by Professor Ian Mackinnon, who possesses deep science expertise in geology and chemistry, and also heads QUT’s Institute for Future Environments. The first shipment of green hydrogen was exported from the facility, to Japan, in March 2019 as part of a collaboration between QUT and the University of Tokyo, which uses proprietary technology owned by JXTG, Japan’s largest petroleum conglomerate. It’s just one of the ways in which Australian science expertise, led by universities, is driving a new economy forward.
— Fran Molloy
University science delivering key outcomes to hydrogen and energy futures
New material splits water into hydrogen cheaply: Professor Chuan Zhao and UNSW chemists invented a new nano-framework of non-precious metals, making it cheaper to create hydrogen fuel by splitting water atoms.
Molecular breakthrough helps solar cells tolerate humidity: Nanomaterials scientists at Griffith University, under Professor Huijun Zhao, invented a way to make cheap solar-cell technology more tolerant of moisture and humidity.
A spoonful of sugar generates enough hydrogen energy to power a mobile phone: Genetically engineered bacteria that turn sugar into hydrogen have been developed by a team of molecular chemists at Macquarie University who are looking to scale the technology.
Solar crystals are non-toxic: Under Dr Guohua Jia, molecular scientists at Curtin University have invented tiny crystals that don’t contain toxic metals but can be used as catalysts to convert solar energy into hydrogen.
Green chemistry breakthrough makes hydrogen generation cheaper: Electromaterials scientists at Monash University, led by Dr Alexandr Simonov, have found a solution to metal corrosion caused by water splitting to create hydrogen.
Gelion revolutionary battery technology: A University of Sydney chemistry team, led by Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, created low-cost, safe, scalable zinc bromide battery technology for remote and renewable energy storage.
Ocean mapping finds prime-tide for energy: University of Tasmania Associate Professor Irene Penesis is using hydrodynamics and mathematics to assess Bass Strait’s tidal energy resources to stimulate investment in this sector.
New catalyst helps turn CO2 into renewable fuel: CSIRO materials chemist Dr Danielle Kennedy, with University of Adelaide scientists, created porous crystals that help convert carbon dioxide from air into synthetic natural gas using solar energy.
Featured image above: L’Oréal Women in Science fellow Dr Camilla Whittington. Credit: University of Sydney
Four researchers from the University of Sydney, the University of Wollongong and the University of Auckland were announced as the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowships at a ceremony held in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Early-career veterinary scientists Dr Camilla Whittington and Dr Angela Crean joined chemists Dr Jenny Fisher and Dr Erin Leitao to receive $25,000 each towards a one-year project.
According to L’Oréal, the Women in Science fellowships were established to “support and recognise accomplished women researchers, encourage more young women to enter the profession and to assist them as they progress their careers”. The fellowships began in 1998, and have recognised over 2,000 women around the world since then.
From the University of Sydney:
“Both Dr Whittington and Dr Crean are early career researchers in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, working in the area of reproduction; both are in research positions funded through the Mabs Melville bequest in excess of $7.2m – one of the biggest gifts ever received by Veterinary Science.
Dr Crean’s work with sea squirts and fly sperm
Dr Crean’s initial research, using the sea squirt as a model organism, showed males can adjust their sperm quality and quantity in response to a perceived risk that their sperm will have to compete against another male’s sperm to fertilise an egg. The sperm quality also had adaptive consequences for both fertilisation and offspring survival.
Similar work using the neriid fly showed sperm quality could be adjusted by the father’s diet and social environment.
The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship will allow Crean to conduct a proof-of-concept study supporting her transition from pure evolutionary research to practical applications in human reproductive health and medicine.
Dr Whittington’s research into pregnant lizards, fish and mammals
Dr Whittington, who last year was one of five University of Sydney researchers who won a 2015 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, is using cutting‐edge techniques to identify pregnancy genes – the instructions in an animal’s DNA causing them to have a live baby rather than laying an egg.
‘Pregnant lizards, fish and mammals face complex challenges, like having to provide nutrients to their embryos and protect them from disease,’ Whittington says.
‘My research suggests that these distantly related animals can use similar genetic instructions to manage pregnancy and produce healthy babies.’
Whittington’s fellowship will allow her to investigate how the complex placenta has evolved independently in mammals, lizards, and sharks to transport large quantities of nutrients to the fetus.”
This information on the L’Oréal women in science was first shared by the University of Sydney on 25 October 2016. Read the original article here.
From the University of Wollongong:
Dr Fisher’s research into compounds that contribute to climate change and air pollution
“Dr Jenny Fisher from UOW’s Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry studies how different emissions interact with one another.
‘When I was little, I was intrigued by outer space and I knew I wanted to work for NASA. As my career progressed I felt that understanding my own planet was more important to me, so I made the change to researching the chemistry of our atmosphere,’ Fisher says.
Through the financial support provided by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship, Dr Fisher plans to develop an Australian atmospheric chemistry model, similar to those already successfully used in North America and Europe. Australia provides a unique globally-relevant lens for examining these processes due to the nation’s much lower presence of nitrogen oxides, pollutants that mainly come from human activities like driving cars and burning coal in power plants.
As stricter emission controls are enforced globally, the level of nitrogen oxides elsewhere in the world are predicted to decrease and Australia serves as a window to the expected future pollution outcomes.
The information provided from the model Dr Fisher works on will assist in predicting pollution amounts and their responses to future change. Australia’s much lower nitrogen oxide levels means this atmospheric model will also provide a novel insight into the pre-industrial atmosphere.
Currently, Dr Fisher can only investigate the Australian atmosphere by looking at large areas (~5 million hectares); however with the funding she will work on a more accurate ‘nested’ model, which can show what is occurring within an area more than 60 times smaller. This will enable her to increase the complexity of her atmospheric chemistry research and findings.
‘Winning the fellowship means I will finally be able to apply tools I have used in other global environments to problems that are specific to Australia. This work will help advance scientific understanding of the atmosphere on a global scale — while also providing new insight into what affects our local air quality,’ she says.
Dr Fisher’s work highlights her passion for communities to understand the impact we have on the environment. Her work in unlocking information about the chemistry of our atmosphere will improve our ability to make informed decisions in order to live in a sustainable way.”
This information on the L’Oréal women in science was first shared by the University of Wollongong on 25 October 2016. Read the original article here.
Featured image above: Professor Richard Shine is the winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. The PM’s prizes for science celebrate excellence in scientific research, innovation and teaching. Credit: Terri Shine
Meet the winners of this year’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, worth a total of $750,000.
Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science
Richard Shine – defending Australia’s snakes and lizards
Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Northern Australia’s peak predators—snakes and lizards—are more likely to survive the cane-toad invasion thanks to the work of Professor Richard Shine.
Using behavioural conditioning, Shine and his team have successfully protected these native predators against toad invasion in WA.
He has created traps for cane toads, taught quolls and goannas that toads are ‘bad,’ and now plans to release small cane toads ahead of the invasion front, a counterintuitive ‘genetic backburn’ based on ‘old school’ ideas that his hero Charles Darwin would have recognised.
Following in the footsteps of Darwin, Shine loves lizards and snakes.
“Some people love model trains, some people love Picasso; for me, it’s snakes.”
For his work using evolutionary principles to address conservation challenges, Professor Richard Shine from The University of Sydney has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.
Michael Aitken—fairness underpins efficiency: the profitable innovations saving Australia billions
Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Global stock markets are fairer and more efficient thanks to the work of Professor Michael Aitken. Now he’s applying his information technology and markets know-how to improve health, mortgage, and other markets. He says there are billions of dollars of potential savings in health expenditure in Australia alone, that can go hand in glove with significant improvements in consumers’ health.
Aitken and his team created a service that captures two million trades per second, enabling rapid analysis of markets.
Then he created the SMARTS system to detect fraud. Bought by Nasdaq Inc., it now watches over most of the world’s stock markets.
One of the companies he established to commercialise his innovations was sold for $100 million and the proceeds are supporting a new generation of researchers in the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre.
Now his team of IT researchers are taking on health and other markets with a spin-off company and large-scale R&D program that are identifying large-scale inefficiencies and fraud in Australia’s health markets.
A powerful advocate of scientific and technological innovation, Professor Michael Aitken from the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for creating and commercialising tools that are making markets fair and efficient.
Colin Hall – creating new manufacturing jobs by replacing glass and metal with plastic
Prize for New Innovators
Dr Colin Hall and his colleagues have created a new manufacturing process that will allow manufacturers to replace components made from traditional materials like glass, in cars, aircraft, spacecraft, and even whitegoods—making them lighter and more efficient.
Their first commercial success is a plastic car wing-mirror. The Ford Motor Company has already purchased more than 1.6 million mirror assemblies for use on their F-Series trucks. The mirrors are made in Adelaide by SMR Automotive and have earned $160 million in exports to date. Other manufacturers are assessing the technology. And it all started with spectacles.
Hall used his experience in the spectacle industry to solve a problem that was holding back the University of South Australia team’s development of their new technology. He developed the magic combination of five layers of materials that will bind to plastic to create a car mirror that performs as well as glass and metal, for a fraction of the weight.
For his contribution to creating a new manufacturing technology, Dr Colin Hall from the University of South Australia receives the inaugural Prize for New Innovators.
Richard Payne – re-engineering nature to fight for global health
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Richard Payne makes peptides and proteins. He sees an interesting peptide or protein in nature, say in a blood-sucking tick. Then he uses chemistry to recreate and re-engineer the molecule to create powerful new drugs, such as anti-clotting agents needed to treat stroke.
His team is developing new drugs for the global challenges in health including tuberculosis (TB), malaria, and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. They’re even developing synthetic cancer vaccines. His underlying technologies are being picked up by researchers and pharmaceutical companies around the world and are the subject of four patent applications.
For his revolutionary drug development technologies, Professor Richard Payne from The University of Sydney has been awarded the 2016 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.
Kerrie Wilson – conservation that works for governments, ecosystems, and people
Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
What is the value of the services that ecosystems provide—services such as clean air, water, food, and tourism? And what are the most effective ways to protect ecosystems? Where will governments get the best return on their investment in the environment? These questions are central to the work of Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson.
Wilson can put a value on clean air, water, food, tourism, and the other benefits that forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems provide. And she can calculate the most effective way to protect and restore these ecosystems. Around the world she is helping governments to make smart investments in conservation.
For example, in Borneo she and her colleagues have shown how the three nations that share the island could retain half the land as forest, provide adequate habitat for the orangutan and Bornean elephant, and achieve an opportunity cost saving of over $50 billion.
In Chile, they are helping to plan national park extensions that will bring recreation and access to nature to many more Chileans, while also enhancing the conservation of native plants and animals.
On the Gold Coast, they are helping to ensure that a multi-million-dollar local government investment in rehabilitation of degraded farmland is spent wisely—in the areas where it will have the biggest impact for the natural ecosystem and local communities.
For optimising the global allocation of scarce conservation resources Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson receives the 2016 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.
Suzy Urbaniak – turning students into scientists
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Geoscientist Suzy Urbaniak combined her two loves—science and education—by becoming a science teacher 30 years after finishing high school. But she couldn’t believe it when she saw how little the teaching styles had changed over the years.
“I decided then that I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to turn the classroom into a room full of young scientists, rather than students learning from textbooks,” Urbaniak says.
Starting out as a geoscientist, Urbaniak found that while she knew all the theory from school and university, she didn’t have any hands-on experience and didn’t feel as though she knew what she was doing.
She realised there needed to be a stronger connection between the classroom and what was happening in the real world, out in the field, and took this philosophy into her teaching career at Kent Street Senior High School.
“The science in my classroom is all about inquiry and investigation, giving the students the freedom to develop their own investigations and find their own solutions. I don’t believe you can really teach science from worksheets and text books.”
For her contributions to science teaching, and inspiring our next generation of scientists, Suzy Urbaniak has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.
Gary Tilley – creating better science teachers
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Gary Tilley is mentoring the next generation of science and maths teachers to improve the way these subjects are taught in the classroom.
“In over 30 years of teaching, I’ve never seen a primary school student who isn’t curious and doesn’t want to be engaged in science. Once they’re switched onto science, it helps their literacy and numeracy skills, and their investigative skills. Science is the key to the whole thing,” Tilley says.
Tilley recognised a long time ago that the way science was taught in primary schools needed to change. So he has taken it upon himself to mentor the younger teachers at his school, and helps train science and maths student teachers at Macquarie University through their Opening Real Science program.
At Seaforth Public School, he and his students have painted almost every wall in their school with murals of dinosaurs and marine reptiles, and created models of stars and planets, to encourage excitement and a love for science. The school is now known by local parents as the ‘Seaforth Natural History Museum’.
“Communicating science, getting children inspired with science, engaging the community and scientists themselves with science to make it a better place for the kids—that’s my passion,” Tilley says.
For his contributions to science teaching, and mentoring the next generation of science teachers, Gary Tilley has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.
This information on the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science was first shared by Science in Public on 20 October 2016. Read the original article and the full profiles here.
Despite strong opposition from traditional taxi operators and some governments, Uber and Uber-type ride sharing services, have proven very popular amongst travellers, according to a University of Sydney Business School survey.
“What we are seeing with Uber-styled services is the growing appeal of high quality mobility services that in due course might be a substitute for the taxi and indeed one’s own car,” said the Director of the School’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, Professor David Hensher.
The latest Transport Opinion Survey also found that 7% of those who used an Uber or Uber-type services did so as a substitute for some travel in their own car and 4% substituted all of their own car travel. 10% used a ride-sharing services but did not want to lose the option of their own private car.
TOPS also asked Australians if they would be willing to make their car available to other people for a fee. About 20% said they would share their car with other people either by driving for Uber or similar companies (10%), peer-to-peer car sharing, through organisations such as Car Next Door (4%), or by both (5%). More than half (56%) said that would not be prepared to share their car with anyone outside their immediate friends and family.
“These percentage are relatively low at present but suggest a growing interest in mobility as a service in contrast to having to own a car in order to use a car,” says Hensher. “This will open up in the future with the aid of digital apps and new ways of serving the transport market that are not dependent on ownership.”
The latest TOPS survey also reveals that Australians are regaining confidence in their local transport services. The TOPS Confidence index rose from 44 to 62 over the past year but remains well below the base line of 100 set in September 2010.
As for the future, more people now look to the next 12 months with confidence than did in 2015 (46 to 65) and to the next five years (62 to 78).
Featured image above: Winners of the 2016 UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research, Melissa Little and Minoru Takasato from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. Credit: Australian Museum
Regenerating kidneys, smart plastics, artificial memory cells and a citizen science network that tracks falling meteors. These and many other pioneering scientific endeavours have been recognised in the 2016 annual Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, awarded at a gala dinner in Sydney.
Having trouble with a kidney? It may not be long before you can simply grow a new one. This is the ultimate ambition behind the research of the 2016 UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research winners, which was awarded to Melissa Little and Minoru Takasato from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.
They have developed a method of growing kidney tissue from stem cells, and their kidney “organoids” develop all the different types of cells that are needed for kidney function. The kidney tissue is currently used in the lab to model kidney disease and to test new drugs, but one day the technique could be developed to regrow replacement kidneys for transplant.
For his work using the latest in 3D printing and materials technology develop a world centre for electromaterials science, Gordon Wallace, from the University of Wollongong, received the 2016 CSIRO Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science.
Some of the materials he and his team are developing include structures that are biocompatible, meaning they can be used inside the body without causing an adverse reaction. These structures can be used to promote muscle and nerve cell growth. Other cells include artificial muscles using carbon nanotubes.
The CSIRO’s Lisa Harvey-Smith has been one of the most vocal and energetic proponents of science in the media and the general public, especially amongst Indigenous communities. It is for her work as the face of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) and communicating astronomy to the public that Harvey-Smith was awarded the 2016 Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science.
Have you ever seen a meteor streak across the sky and wondered where it landed? Phil Bland, from Curtin University, certainly hopes you have. He and his team set up the Desert Fireball Network, which allows members of the public to track meteors as they fall, helping them to identify where they land, and where they came from.
For this, Bland and his team were awarded the 2016 Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.
But not all the awards went to seasoned researchers. Some were reserved for the next generation of scientific pioneers.
Hayden Ingle, a Grade 6 student from Banksmeadow Primary School in Botany, received the 2016 Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize for Primary Schools for his video production, The Bluebottle and the Glaucus. It tells the remarkable tale of a little known sea predator, the tiny sea lizard, or glacus atlantica, and its fascinating relationship with the bluebottle.
Speaking of predators, a video by Claire Galvin and Anna Hardy, Year 10 students at St Monica’s College, Cairns, won the 2016 Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize for Secondary Schools for exploring the eating habits of the Barn Owl.
They examined “owl pellets”, which contain the indigestible components of the owl’s last meal, and used them to identify its prey.
Other winners of the 2016 Eureka Prize
Ewa Goldys from Macquarie University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics and Martin Gosnell from Quantitative Pty Ltd have been awarded the ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology for their development of hyperspectral imaging technology, which enables the colour of cells and tissues to be used as a non-invasive medical diagnostic tool.
For his discovery and development of novel treatments for serious brain disorders, Michael Bowen, from the University of Sydney, is the winner of the Macquarie University Eureka prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher. His research has established oxytocin and novel molecules that target the brain’s oxytocin system as prime candidates to fill the void left by the lack of effective treatments for alcohol-use disorders and social disorders.
For developing a new generation of armoured vehicles to keep Australian soldiers safe in war zones, Thales Australia and Mark Brennan have won the 2016 Defence Science and Technology Eureka Prize for Outstanding Science in Safeguarding Australia.
Davidson Patricia Davidson is Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Maryland, and has mentored more than 35 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, working tirelessly and with passion to build the capacity of early career researchers, an achievement that has won her the 2016 University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers.
For taking basic Australian research discoveries and developing them into a new cancer therapy that was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in April this year, David Huang and his team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research has win the 2016 Johnson & Johnson Eureka Prize for Innovation in Medical Research. The drug, venetoclax, was approved for a high-risk sub-group of patients with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and is now marketed in the US.
For creating a three part documentary that portrayed both the good and the evil of uranium in a series seen around the world, Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, Sonya Pemberton, Wain Fimeri and Derek Muller, won the 2016 Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Science Journalism.
Sharath Sriram, Deputy Director of the A$30 million Micro Nano Research Facility at RMIT University, has won the 2016 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science for his extraordinary career – during which he and his team have developed the world’s first artificial memory cell that mimics the way the brain stores long term memory.
For bringing together a team with skills ranging from mathematical modelling to cell biology and biochemistry, Leann Tilley and her team from the University of Melbourne have won the 2016 Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Disease Research. They have uncovered an important life saving mechanism by which the malaria parasite has developed resistance to what has been previously a widely used and successful malarial treatment.
For recruiting an international team of scientists to measure trace elements in the oceans from 3.5 billion years ago to the present day to understand the events that led to the evolution of life and extinction of life in the oceans, Ross Large from the University of Tasmania and researchers from as far as Russia and the US have won the 2016 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research.
For conducting the world’s first survey of plastic pollutants which has given us a confronting snapshot of the impacts on marine wildlife of the 8.4 million tones of plastic that enters the oceans each year, Denise Hardesty, Chris Wilcox, Tonya Van Der Velde, TJ Lawson, Matt Landell and David Milton from CSIRO in Tasmania and Queensland have won the 2016 NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.
The Functional Annotation of the Mammalian Genome (FANTOM5) project produced a map that is being used to interpret genetic diseases and to engineer new cells for therapeutic use. The team led by Alistair Forrest from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research has won the 2016 Scopus Eureka Excellence in International Scientific Collaboration Prize.
– Tim Dean
This article on the Eureka Prize 2016 winners was first published by The Conversation on 31 August 2016. Read the original article here.
Sobering statistics on gender disparity were released by the Office of the Chief Scientist in early 2016 as part of a report on STEM-based employment. These followed the federal government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) announcement of a $13 million investment to encourage women to choose and stick with STEM careers. So, what are the issues for men and women entering STEM graduate pathways today and how can you change the game?
The rate of increase in female STEM-qualified graduates is outstripping that of males by 6 per cent. Overall, however, women make up just 16% of STEM-qualified people, according to the Chief Scientist’s March 2016 report, Australia’s STEM Workforce.
SAGE was founded by Professors Nalini Joshi and Brian Schmidt (a Nobel laureate) with a view to creating an Australian pilot of UK program the Athena SWAN Charter. Established in 2005, Athena SWAN was described by the British House of Commons as the “most comprehensive and practical scheme to improve academics’ careers by addressing gender inequity”.
Since September 2015, 32 organisations have signed up for Australia’s SAGE pilot, which takes a data analysis approach to affect change. Organisations gather information such as the number of women and men hired, trained and promoted across various employment categories. They then analyse these figures to uncover any underlying gender inequality issues, explains Dr Susan Pond, a SAGE program leader and adjunct professor in engineering and information technologies at the University of Sydney. Finally, participating organisations develop a sustainable four-year action plan to resolve the diversity issues that emerge from the analyses.
Women occupy fewer than one in five senior researcher positions in Australian universities and institutes, and there are almost three times as many male than female STEM graduates in the highest income bracket ($104K and above). The Australia’s STEM Workforce report found this wealth gap is not accounted for by the percentage of women with children, or by the higher proportion of females working part-time.
There are, however, some opportunities revealed by the report. While only 13% of engineering graduates are female, 35% of employees with engineering degrees are female, so a larger proportion of women engineers are finding jobs. Across all sectors, however, employment prospects for STEM-qualified women are worse than for non-STEM qualified women – a situation that’s reversed for men.
Part of the problem is that graduates view academic careers as the only outcome of a STEM degree – they aren’t being exposed to careers in industry and the corporate sector, says Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea, a senior research leader at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and co-founder of Women in Science Australia.
“There are so many compounding issues in the academic environment: it’s hypercompetitive, you have to be an elite athlete throughout your entire career,” she says. “This impacts women more because they are often the primary caregivers.”
An increased focus on diversity in STEM skills taught at schools, however, is changing the way women relate to careers in the field, Marguerite says.
“There are opportunities for women because, with diversified training, we can realise there is a broad spectrum of careers. A PhD is an opportunity to hone your skills towards these careers.”
In the workforce, more flexible work arrangements and greater technical connectivity are improving conditions for women at the early-career level but, as Marguerite points out, there is still a bottleneck at the top.
“I’m still justifying my career breaks to this day,” she says. “It’s something that travels throughout your entire career – and this needs to change.”
Part of the issue is the way we measure success, as well as gender disparity, on career and grant application review panels – and this won’t change overnight.
“How we define merit may be different if there are more women in the room,” Marguerite adds. “There will be a more diverse range of ideas. Collaborations and engagement with the public may be valued more, as well as your ability to be an advocate and be a role model to other women in STEM. Paired with essential high-quality research, it could provide a broader lens.”
Leading scientific figures, pioneers and representatives from key organisations internationally are visiting Sydney for today’s launch of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (AINST) – and the official opening of its headquarters – the most advanced facility for nanoscience in the region – where design, fabrication and testing of devices can occur under one roof.
Nanoscience is expected to be more impactful this century than the industrial revolution in the 19th century. But “the buildings in which we work, rather than our imaginations, are what’s been limiting the science,” says Associate Professor Michael Biercuk, formerly a consultant to the US government organisation the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and now the research leader of a quantum flagship in AINST.
More than six years in the making, the award-winning Sydney Nanoscience Hub was co-funded with $40 million from the federal government, includes teaching spaces alongside publicly available core research facilities that will support fundamental research as well as the work of startups and established industry.
Professor Benjamin Eggleton, the Director of CUDOS who also heads the photonics flagship at AINST, says photonics (the study of photons – the building blocks of light) was already delivering real-world solutions: “Photonics is the backbone of the internet and underpins a $7 trillion industry,” Eggleton says.
“Our team has led the world in photonic-based chip processing and we are now working on building a photonic chip – or a lab on a chip – that may one day be compatible with mobile phones, enabling them to sense environmental pollution or be used for testing blood samples to diagnose health issues.”
Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence says the University-wide AINST reached across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
“The Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology continues the University of Sydney’s tradition in addressing multidisciplinary issues in a unique way to ensure that we are ready to solve the great challenges of science, engineering and beyond,” he says.
AINST Director, Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, will also head one of five initiating flagships – in energy and environment – and this month announced an investment valued at $11 million from the United Kingdom into a university nano spin-off.
“There is little doubt that society must progressively transition to non-fossil-based energy,” Maschmeyer says.
Professor David Reilly, research leader of the AINST’s quantum measurement and control flagship, says breakthroughs at the nanoscale hold the key to major advances in areas such as artificial intelligence and security.
“The challenge for us over the next few years is to take the physics results that we have probing the basic phenomena of quantum mechanics and see those results turn into technologies.”
Director of the Sydney Nanoscience Hub building Professor Simon Ringer says new science would be enabled through this purpose-built facility for nanoscience – the first in Australia.
“This is the best building of its kind in our region. It will allow us to operate research instruments that enable us to ask questions at the frontiers of science.”
AINST Director of Community and Research, Professor Zdenka Kuncic says the ‘rules of the game’ in nanoscience were still being worked out.
“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of nanoscience is the potential for new discoveries, including in health and medicine,” she says.
“We have only scratched the surface of the new knowledge that remains to be revealed.”
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.
Images and video: Peter Godfrey-Smith. The University of Sydney.
An unusual site chanced upon in the tourist area of Jervis Bay in NSW prompted a collaboration spanning the United States and Australia. University of Sydney Professor Peter Godfrey-Smith from the Faculty of Science, who is also a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York, said the high density of octopuses at the site allowed researchers to uncover some mysteries of their communication.
The new research looked at signalling and displays the animals use when they deal with each other in various competitive contexts. “There’s a lot of pushing other animals around, kicking them out of the site, and sometimes vigorous fights,” Professor Godfrey-Smith said.
“We showed when octopuses change colour they are signalling their degree of aggression. Darker colours go with aggressive behaviours, and these are combined with other displays.”
The researchers were tipped off about the site by a diver who alerted an online community of people interested in cephalopods that he had seen something interesting. The researchers followed up, ultimately witnessing 186 octopus interactions and more than 500 actions.
Co-author Professor David Scheel of Alaska Pacific University in the United States said as a result of these new observations, they discovered octopuses used body patterns and postures to signal to each other during disputes. “The postures and patterns can be quite flashy, such as standing very tall, raising the body mantle high above the eyes, and turning very dark.”
They also learned that when an octopus with a dark body colour approached another dark octopus, the interaction was more likely to escalate to grappling. When a dark octopus approached a paler one, the pastier octopus more often retreated. When the opposite happened and a light octopus approached a darker one, the latter more often stood its ground.
“Dark colour appears to be associated with aggression, while paler colours accompany retreat,” Professor Scheel said.
Octopuses also displayed on high ground, standing with their web spread and their mantle elevated. Octopuses in that ‘stand tall’ posture frequently also sought higher ground. The researchers suspect the octopuses’ behaviours are meant to make them appear larger and more conspicuous.
The findings expand scientists’ understanding of how octopuses interact and communicate with each other. The researchers now suspect that social interactions among octopuses are likely to occur wherever food is plentiful and hiding places are scarce.
They will continue to study these octopuses and explore what role these signaling behaviors and other interactions play in their lives.
Worldwide, invasive species cause devastating impacts on native predator populations. The 7 kg, yellow-spotted monitor, or floodplain goanna, is central to Aboriginal culture and plays a pivotal ecological role.
In Australia, the spread of cane toads has caused catastrophic population declines in many native predators because of fatal poisoning when toads are ingested. Smaller predators often survive because the toads they attack are small enough to make them sick but not kill them. Small toads contain much less poison than large adult toads. So, the predators learn not to eat toads.
Immediately prior to the arrival of toads at a remote floodplain at Oombulgurri in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia, researchers offered small (non-lethal) cane toads to wild lizards. Follow-up trials confirmed just one or two toad meals were enough to convince a goanna not to eat another toad.
The trained lizards then went on to ignore the large toads that arrived a few months later. Eighteen months after the study started, many of the trained lizards are still alive despite the presence of toads.
The research led by University of Sydney is published today in the journal Biology Letters in the paper: ‘Ecological immunization: in situ training of free-ranging predatory lizards reduces their vulnerability to invasive toxic prey’.
An international team of scientists in Australia and the United States has captured the first-ever images of a planet in the making. The accumulation of dust and gas particles onto a new planet – the process by which the planet continues to form and grow – has been directly observed for the first time.
None of the nearly 1900 planets previously discovered and confirmed outside our Solar System (called exoplanets) are in the process of formation.
A star known as LkCa 15, located 450 light years from Earth, has been observed exhibiting all the trappings of an expectant parent: it is surrounded by a vast disc of dust and gas, making an ideal environment for planets to grow from; the dust shows distinct signs of disturbance – something within has eaten away part of the disc.
Co-author of the paper, Tuthill, says the images provided unambiguous evidence.
“This is the first time we’ve imaged a planet that is definitely still in the process of forming.”
The photo provided the proof: “The difficulty had been that when you have indirect evidence, there are always alternate explanations that might fit the data,” says Tuthill.
Researchers are just now being able to image objects that were close to and much fainter than a nearby star, thanks to specialised instruments. These include the Large Binocular Telescope, or LBT– the world’s largest telescope, located on Arizona’s Mount Graham, and the University of Arizona’s Magellan Telescope and its Adaptive Optics System, MagAO, located in Chile.
Capturing sharp images of distant objects was challenging, in large part because of atmospheric turbulence, says Professor Laird Close, Follette’s graduate adviser.
“When you look through the Earth’s atmosphere, what you’re seeing is cold and hot air mixing in a turbulent way that makes stars shimmer,” says Close. “To a big telescope, it’s a fairly dramatic thing; you see a horrible looking image.” The breakthrough was possible because the Large Binocular Telescope was purpose-built, incorporating a novel imaging technique to sharpen the images.
Meanwhile, Close and Follette used Magellan’s adaptive optics system MagAO independently to corroborate the discovery. Using MagAO’s unique ability to work in visible wavelengths, they captured the planet’s ‘hydrogen alpha’ spectral fingerprint, the specific wavelength of light that LkCa 15 and its planets emit as they grow.
When cosmic objects are forming, they get extremely hot, and because they are forming from hydrogen, those objects all glow a deep red, which astronomers refer to as H-alpha, a particular wavelength of light.
That single shade of red light was emitted by both the planet and the star as they underwent the same growing process, says Follette.
“We were able to separate the light of the faint planet from the light of the much brighter star and to see that they were both growing and glowing in this very distinct shade of red,” she says.
Tuthill says the results were only made possible because of the application of a lot of very advanced new technology to the business of imaging the stars.
“It’s fantastic to see these cutting-edge instruments now enabling us to make such exciting discoveries.”
This article was first shared by The University of Sydney on 19 November 2015. Video credit: Created by Andrew Shuta (University of Arizona), conceptualized by Laird Close (University of Arizona), disk and planet illustration modified from NASA/JPL-Caltech image, greyscale VLA disk image from Andrea Isella (Rice), all other LkCa 15 images from the LBT and Magellan telescopes, see Sallum et al. Nature 2015 for details.