Thumbnail image for Fresh Science partnership to bring FameLab Australia 2014

In 2014, The British Council and Fresh Science have joined forces to bring FameLab to Australia.

Fresh Science is a national competition that helps early-career researchers share their stories of discovery.

In 2014 Fresh Science has partnered with the British Council to bring FameLab to Australia. For details on how to nominate for FameLab Australia, visit www.famelab.org.au

You can read the stories of last year’s Fresh Scientists below.

And you can find out more about Fresh Science here.

yee-lian-chew-feature

The link between a specific gene and brain cell ageing may reveal valuable lessons for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, a Sydney scientist has found.

Yee Lian Chew, a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney, found that when levels of the TAU gene in a worm model were either too low or too high, the brain cells aged faster and the animals lived for a shorter period.

“Diseases of the aging brain are poorly understood,” says Yee Lian. “Our finding provides exciting new information on how the brain ages, and also suggests that we should target this gene in future treatments for dementia patients.”

The human TAU gene has been implicated in brain aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Yee Lian says worms are an exceptional way to study brain ageing as their transparent nature allow her to easily examine the changes that emerge in older brain cells and to study how fast the brain ages.

“Humans are certainly more complex than worms, but at a molecular level there are many striking similarities,” she says. “The lack of complexity is also an advantage – worms have 302 brain cells whereas humans have billions. It is much simpler to study brain aging in an animal where individual cells can be easily observed.”

NSW State Finalist: Yee Lian Chew, The University of Sydney

http://freshscience.org.au/2013/worms-reveal-link

Ummul Baneen pic

A new method may improve the safety inspection techniques for structures such as buildings, aeroplanes, bridges and ships, a Sydney mechanical engineer says.

Ummul Baneen, of the University of New South Wales, has found a way to suppress the noise associated with damage detection techniques, allowing for better identification of unknown edge cracks and delaminations.

“Damage is often not visible and may grow to a serious degree without being obvious from the outside,” says Ummul, who did the research as part of her PhD.

“Noise in data measurements creates a detrimental effect on nearly all damage detection techniques. This can be reduced so that the useful information is not lost along with the noise,” she says.

Ummul used two beams of different materials, steel and glass fibre, and successfully localised multiple edge cracks as severe as 50 per cent and 2.5 per cent of the steel beam’s thickness. In the glass fibre beam she demonstrated the effectiveness of her method by detecting both narrow and wide delaminations.

“These results were achieved without using any reference data, which indicates its potential to be used for in-service structures,” Ummul says.

She used her noise suppression technique on two conventional vibration based damage (VBDD) methods. Unlike other damage evaluation methods, VBDD does not require prior knowledge of the damage location or comparison data from the structure before it was damaged. However, noise in the measurements can often interfere with the ability to accurately detect damage.

NSW State Finalist: Ummul Baneen, University of New South Wales

Melissa Ness

Canberra scientists have unravelled the origin of stars found in the ‘peanut’ of our galaxy, questioning previously held theories about galactic collisions.

Melissa Ness and her team at the Australian National University used data from the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Siding Spring to show that the stars in the central bulge of our galaxy were the product of a more peaceful migratory past.

“These bulge stars are probably not a special population formed in a galaxy collision, as once thought,” says Melissa. “They are just ordinary stars from the Milky Way disk, who have become inter-space travellers and have migrated to a central part of our galaxy a long time ago.”

Computer simulations of the universe predict that galaxies have had an active past of merging and colliding with other galaxies, building up a central bulge of stars in the process. However, the central bulge in our galaxy is small, peanut shaped and does not look like the outcome of a crash with a galactic neighbour.

“Peanut-shaped bulges are seen to form in simulations where galaxies have led a quieter life,” says Melissa.

She says the question they now face is why there are so many galaxies, like the Milky Way, with bulges that point to a peaceful past, when simulations of the entire universe point to an active and violent history for our galaxies.

ACT State Finalist: Melissa Ness, Australian National University

robinbeck1

A 55-million-year old fossil found in rural Queensland is forcing scientists to rewrite their theories about the origin of Australia’s iconic marsupials, revealing an ancient evolutionary link between Australia and South America.

The fossil, a tiny anklebone smaller than a grain of rice, is from a mouse-sized marsupial previously known only from South America.

“As soon as I saw the bone under the microscope, I knew it was a really significant find,” says Robin Beck, the University of New South Wales paleontologist who carried out the research.

“It has very distinctive features that show it is an ‘ameridelphian’ marsupial, a group that until now was thought to be restricted to South America. It’s a bit like finding a fossil kangaroo in Brazil,” he says.

The bone was collected from the Tingamarra fossil site, near the small town of Murgon in southeastern Queensland. The discovery of a ‘South American’ marsupial shows that 55 million years ago Australia and South America shared at least one group of marsupials in common. At this time, Australia, South America and Antarctica were connected, which may have allowed marsupials to move between the continents.

“This shows that we’re still a long way from fully understanding the history of marsupials in Australia,” Robin says. “I think we can expect plenty more surprises like this in future.”

NSW State Finalist: Robin Beck, University of New South Wales

http://freshscience.org.au/2013/tiny-fossils-link-old-bastard-marsupials-to-south-america-and-africa

Aliaa-Shallan-front

The dream of affordable personalised medicine is one step closer to reality as a Tasmanian scientist shrinks a drug-testing laboratory to a size of a hand.

Aliaa Shallan, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania’s school of chemistry, is developing a portable unit that can analyse the drug quinine, using a single drop of blood and costing only a few dollars per test.

“It is devices like this that will make the dream of personalised medicine affordable and dramatically change the quality of life of billions of people around the world,” Aliaa says.

“The challenge was to extract the drug without blood cells and proteins, for which I created nanofilters using controlled lightning; an electric field applied across a thin part of the device. The cost is the lowest among existing nanofabrication techniques,” Aliaa says.

Billions of people take prescription drugs every day but the optimum dose for each person can vary greatly. Personalised medicine accommodates these differences by tailoring the dose according to the drug level in the blood.

Aliaa says creating simple devices that can be used at home is the answer to measuring individual needs without compromising lifestyle. “One example is glucose meters but similar devices for other drugs like antiepileptics and antidepressants are not available,” she says.

The next step in her research will be to apply her method to other approved drugs and to engineer the device for commercialisation.

Tasmania State Finalist: Aliaa Shallan, University of Tasmania

http://freshscience.org.au/2013/portablelab

Patrick Mitchell

Trees can die of hunger, as well as thirst, when they succumb to drought, a Tasmanian scientist has found.

Dr Patrick Mitchell, of the CSIRO, has discovered that drought affects two different parts of a tree’s life support system, which can lead to the tree’s demise.

“We previously thought that trees die when their plumbing system collapses.  My research shows that a tree can potentially starve to death from a lack of stored sugars,” says Patrick.

“Understanding how trees respond to drought is fundamental to predicting which species will be most at risk from climate change and how much carbon they will be able to absorb from the atmosphere into the future,” he says.

As part of his research, Patrick imposed drought conditions on some common forest species and tracked the changes in key attributes of their life-support system.  The study showed that different tree species have different ways of coping with drought.

“We found that the eucalypt species squander their dwindling water supply quickly and eventually die from thirst.  The more conservative pine species studied, survived longer by reducing water loss, but used up its sugar reserves in the process,” he says.

Drought can affect the health of forests across the globe and recent episodes of widespread tree die-off in Australia and overseas highlight the need for understanding how and when trees die.

“This work shows that both the tree species and the type of drought it encounters can determine survival,” Patrick says.

Tasmania State Finalist: Patrick Mitchell, CSIRO

Mandy_in_fieldcropped

Farmers have lent their voices to restoration efforts of a land once considered Darwin’s evolutionary blank canvas.

Mandy Trueman, a Perth ecologist, interviewed farmers in the Galapagos Islands to gather historical details that might help efforts to conserve the island’s special biodiversity, much of which has been lost to agricultural clearing and introduced species.

“I meshed farmers’ knowledge with historical accounts and aerial photographs to map and describe the Galapagos vegetation that existed before humans made major changes. Unfortunately, some parts of the Galapagos Islands have been radically transformed by agricultural clearing and introduced species and now bear little resemblance to their native state,” says Mandy, a PhD student at The University of Western Australia.

Mandy spent four years living in the Galapagos Islands, where she witnessed restoration projects aiming to repair the damage and to protect iconic species, but she noticed that not all of this work was successful.

She spoke to farmers in an effort to gain information that could help land managers restore resilient combinations of plant species and prevent further extinction of unique Galapagos species.

“I loved hearing stories of times-gone-by, when vermillion flycatchers flitted among endemic coffee bushes and giant tortoises grazed under huge daisy trees,” Mandy says. “Farmers have an intimate relationship with the land; their knowledge can add invaluable insights to a scientific understanding of nature.”

WA State Finalist: Mandy Trueman, The University of Western Australia

Sticky ear mystery solved

13 February 2014

in 2013

Ruth Thornton doing video otoscopy2

Perth researchers plan to end the sleepless nights of families faced with chronic ear infections, reduce their need for antibiotics and surgery, and help tackle hearing loss in indigenous communities, with the trial of a new treatment.

Dr Ruth Thornton and her research team at The University of Western Australia have identified a new target for treatment: sticky nets of DNA that hide bacteria in the ears of children with recurrent ear infections.

“This is the first potential change in treating middle-ear infections for a long time, and more effective treatments will hopefully lead to improved hearing, better learning outcomes and a reduced burden on children and their families,” says Ruth, a research assistant professor at the University of Western Australia.

“Bacteria hide in a sticky glue made up of big nets of DNA from the children’s own immune system. This can be a reason why these infections don’t always get better with antibiotics. It is similar to what happens in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis, where a treatment known as Dornase alfa is used to break this sticky DNA up,” she says.

In Australia, middle-ear infections are one of the most common reasons for children to see their doctor, where they are often prescribed antibiotics or referred to specialists for grommet surgery. While current treatments can be effective in the short term, about 30 per cent of children who have grommet surgery will need to have repeat surgery due to re-infection and its associated hearing loss and health outcomes.

“We are now trialling this treatment in the ears of children when they are having grommets put in. We believe this could get rid of these bacteria in nets and stop children getting more infections and needing more ear surgery,” Ruth says.

WA State Finalist: Ruth Thornton, The University of Western Australia

http://freshscience.org.au/2013/glue-ear 

Natalie Strobel

Antioxidants, popular with athletes and fitness enthusiasts, are being challenged by research that shows the nutritional supplements may reduce exercise benefits.

Dr Natalie Strobel, of Edith Cowan University, has found that long-term use of Vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid, purported to counteract free radicals during exercise, reduced the development of skeletal muscle in animals.

“We found that even before the animals exercised, taking antioxidants put their muscles behind the eight ball and who wants all that effort exercising wasted,” says Natalie. “Antioxidants are taken in large quantities by athletes and healthy people under the false impression that this is helping their sporting performance or boosting health.”

For her PhD at The University of Queensland, Natalie observed that rats that exercised for 12 weeks had positive muscle adaptations, but when they took vitamin E and alpha-lipoic acid they did not experience the same benefits.

Natalie says further research is needed in this area. “Antioxidants have their place as an important nutritional supplement, but if you’re healthy you can’t beat a nutritious diet and exercise,” she says.

WA State Finalist: Natalie Strobel, Edith Cowan University

The Sea Butterfly effect

13 February 2014

in 2013

Liza Roger

Barely the size of a lentil, a charismatic sea creature may prove a barometer for climate and ocean health.

Liza Roger, of The University of Western Australia, has found that two species of tropical sea butterflies have suffered from thinning shells over the last 46 years, linked to increased carbon dioxide levels and ocean acidification and indicating a potential threat to the food chain that it supplies.

“Shell dissolution has been predicted in the future for polar sea butterflies but it’s already happening in the tropics. It’s not tomorrow; it is now,” says Liza, who did the research for her Honours.

“The building blocks of sea butterfly shells have become less available because of the increase of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by global human activity,” she says.

Liza studied the shells of two sea butterfly species at seven different sites in tropical waters north-west and north-east of Australia, between 1963 and 2009.  She discovered that the shells of both species had become progressively smaller, thinner and more porous.

“Their only protection against the environment and predators is falling apart. Even if their close cousins, the Sea Angels, have no shell, we don’t know if the sea butterflies can do the same and live without a shell,” Liza says.

“Sea Butterflies are an important part of the diet of tuna, salmon, mackerel but also seabirds, seals and whales. The impacts on marine mammals and fish-stocks could be critical worldwide,” she says.

Liza is extending this work for her PhD at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Perth.

WA State Finalist: Liza Roger, The University of Western Australia – ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

 

Gino Putrino

A breathalyser-type device has the potential to sniff out lung cancer in a patient’s breath, allowing for the early detection of the disease without the need for an invasive biopsy.

Gino Putrino and a research team at The University of Western Australia have created an artificial nose that can detect the volatile organic compounds associated with lung cancer, as well as the ‘smell’ of explosives in an airport and the pesticides in groceries.

“The air we breathe is packed full of invisible chemicals that carry a huge amount of useful information. A sensitive enough device can decipher this information, giving us the ability to tell if someone has lung cancer simply by sniffing their breath, detecting explosives in an airport, or just checking if vegetables in a supermarket are fresh,” says Gino, who did the research as part of his PhD.

Studies have shown dogs can be trained to detect lung cancer by smelling people’s breath. Researchers worldwide have recently been able to duplicate this canine feat with devices, but they are often large and static.

“We found a way to miniaturise a core part of the device, making it more sensitive and small enough to be built into a hand-held package,” says Gino.

The handheld device is still in the early stages of testing and may take up to 10 years before it is commercially available. However, strong industry interest has helped fund applications for three US patents based on this technology.

WA State Finalist: Gino Putrino, The University of Western Australia

 

Veer Gupta

A protein may hold the promise of an early blood test for the development of Alzheimer’s disease, a Perth neuroscientist has found

Dr Veer Bala Gupta has identified apolipoprotein E as a potential indicator for Alzheimer’s by showing lower levels of the protein in those with the disease, compared to those who remain healthy.

“Recent neuro-imaging scans have confirmed that lower blood apolipoprotein E levels correspond with the build-up of a toxic protein, amyloid beta, which is shown to accumulate in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease,” says Veer, a research fellow at Edith Cowan University

“To get an understanding of the importance of apolipoprotein E in tracking disease progression, I undertook a follow-up study at 18 months in the same set of people. Surprisingly, I found a further decline in the blood apolipoprotein E levels in the people with Alzheimer’s disease, confirming the relationship between apolipoprotein E and the risk of the onset of the disease,” she says.

Veer says individual blood proteins have historically been less successful in predicting complicated illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Her research therefore focused on finding a unique combination of different proteins that best defined the disease pathology when studied together.

“This unique group of proteins could serve as a fingerprint for early identification of this devastating disease. This is important because early detection can give clinicians an opportunity to treat the disease in its initial stages,” she says.

WA State Finalist: Veer Gupta, Edith Cowan University

Kitty Rose-Foley

Mainstream employment may improve the quality of life and behavioural problems of people with Down syndrome, a Perth researcher has found.

Kitty Foley, of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, found that participation in employment was associated with improved mental health outcomes and quality of life not only for the person with Down syndrome but also their families.

“We have found that, for those young adults participating in employment in the mainstream workforce, their families report trends towards better family quality of life and improving behaviour in the young person with Down syndrome overtime,” says Kitty, a PhD student at the institute and Edith Cowan University.

Her study followed approximately 200 young people with Down syndrome through their transition from school to adulthood. Families were sent questionnaires in 2004, 2009 and 2011, asking about the person’s activities, behaviour, occupations, hobbies, friends, families, communication, support and medical impairments.

Down syndrome occurs in approximately one in 600 births and is an intellectual disability that affects individuals to varying degrees. Young people with Down syndrome have increased rates of behavioural problems compared to the general population, as well as minimal participation in employment and reduced participation in leisure activities.

The life expectancy for Down syndrome has increased from 12 years old to approximately 60 years old over the past two generations, bringing the issues of participation and employment into relief and highlighting the importance of assessing whether their social and community needs are being met in adulthood.

“The improvements in life expectancy for people with Down syndrome is very encouraging; however, it is now just as important to ensure that there are enough appropriate supports to allow these young people to participate in society and lead lives that are fulfilling and meaningful,” says Kitty.

WA State Finalist: Kitty-Rose Foley, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research

Chesman pic

A new light-absorbing ink heralds the possibility of solar cells that require little more than a printer.

Dr Anthony Chesman, a CSIRO scientist, has developed an ink that could print solar cells on plastic and metal foils, opening up the possibility of lightweight, cheap and easy-to-install solar power.

“We imagine a future where durable solar cells are printed by the metre and are so cheap that you can afford to install them on pergolas, garden sheds, or even your caravan for when you hit the road,” says Anthony, a member of the Flexible Electronics Theme at CSIRO in Melbourne.

“This source of renewable energy will go a long way to lowering household electricity bills,” he says.

The ink contains a light-absorbing material in the form of nanocrystals, tiny particles that are just nanometres in size. The techniques used to print the ink are similar to those that the CSIRO  developed for plastic bank notes.

Anthony says the new cells will have a great advantage over the silicon solar cells that people install in their homes, which were often heavy and expensive.

“Because these solar cells can be millimetres thin, extremely light and produced as rapidly as a printed magazine, this technology overcomes many of silicon’s current limitations,” he says.

“It would be fantastic to see this technology continued to be developed in Australia, because it creates amazing opportunities for our local manufacturing sector to create a technological impact and help the global environment.”

Victoria State Finalist: Anthony Chesman, CSIRO

TuLe (640x449)

A future without injections draws one step closer with the development of smart material designs that may deliver drugs to targeted areas of the body.

Dr Tu Le, a CSIRO research scientist, has developed a tool that predicts the behaviour of self-assembling nanoparticles, allowing for the accurate design of smart nanocapsules for drugs, gene therapies or diagnostic materials.

The work raises the possibility of more comfortable therapy treatment for chronic-disease sufferers worldwide.

“These materials can load a large amount of therapeutic agents, travel to a targeted destination in the body and release the therapeutic agents over a period of time in a controlled manner. They are non-toxic, biodegradable and bioadhesive,” says Tu, who is working in a multi-discipline team developing these smart materials.

Concerns have previously been raised about the inability to predict how these smart materials will form in different conditions. However, Tu has developed novel theoretical models that can predict the complex behaviour of these materials in various conditions.

Subsequent experiments at the Australian Synchrotron have confirmed her predications, opening the way for the design of carrier materials for different types of medicine.

“The success of our research will change the life of a large number of people who are suffering from different diseases such as macular degeneration. Macular degeneration patients who are having weekly or fortnightly injections into their eyeballs can soon have monthly or even less frequent injections,” Tu says.

“People with heart problems who are taking medicine daily will also benefit from a more cost effective and more comfortable therapy treatment.”

Victorian State Finalist: Tu Le, CSIRO

Rachel Mann

A new test will help protect Australia’s apple and pear  industry from a devastating bacterial disease affecting other countries, says a Victorian scientist.

Rachel Mann, of La Trobe University, has identified unique signatures in the DNA of fire blight-causing bacteria that can be targeted with a test, ensuring the accurate detection of the biosecurity hazard and the protection of the fruit industry’s economic viability.

“Maintaining Australia’s status as ‘fire blight free’ is not only important for protecting our industry from the disease, but also for retaining market access for Australian fruit into other countries,” says Rachel, who conducted the work at the Centre for AgriBioscience in a joint venture between La Trobe University and the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

Fire blight is found in New Zealand, North America and Europe, but is not present in Australia.

“Fire blight causes the leaves, shoots and limbs of apple and pear trees to permanently shrivel and blacken. It can eventually kill whole trees and destroy orchards,” Rachel says.

By comparing the genomes of numerous fire blight-causing bacteria, Rachel identified unique signatures only found in the DNA of the fire blight bacteria, which could then be targeted for accurate diagnostic testing. Her work is set to have an international impact.

“Working with collaborators in the United States and Switzerland, we want our new tests to be accepted as the international standard for fire blight,” Rachel says.

“Additionally, as part of a new Plant Biosecurity CRC project, the methods used to develop improved tests for fire blight are now being used to improve tests for other microbes important to Australia’s biosecurity,” she says.

Victoria State Finalist: Rachel Mann, Department of Primary Industries Victoria /La Trobe University