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A Pacific Ocean coral island, populated around 40 years ago, reveals how human settlement can quickly degrade water quality and affect the health of coral reefs, Sydney scientists say.

Jessica Carilli, of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, and Sheila Walsh, of the Nature Conservancy, used Kirimati Island to examine the shells made by an organism that thrives in high-nutrient conditions, which is considered detrimental to coral.

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air_on_boardAirlines and their passengers may both breathe a little easier thanks to a Sydney scientist’s discovery of how to increase cabin airflow without increasing cost.

Chaofan Wu, a PhD student at the University of NSW, has developed a ventilation system that improves airflow in airplane cabins by 10 per cent without consuming more fuel and creating a larger carbon footprint.

“We often hear people complaining about the ventilation during the flight; however, ventilation in the air is extremely expensive because the fresh air is taken from the engine and consumes the airplane’s thrust,” says Chaofan.

“The results of our ventilation system are encouraging as it shows the promise to provide passengers fresher air with no extra cost of engine thrust, which means fuels,” he says.

During his research, Chaofan discovered that fresh air travelled along the ceiling and the side of the cabin before coming to the passengers, in traditional airflow delivery systems.

“If the ventilation air could be smarter and go straight to the passengers, the air freshness would be greatly enhanced,” he says.

With the help of colleagues, he developed airflow small devices that could be attached to the inlets on a plane’s ventilation system, creating a more direct trajectory of fresh air to passengers.

Chaofan says his system is compact, inexpensive to build and could be easily integrated with an existing plane ventilation system.

NSW State Finalist: Chaofan Wu, University of New South Wales

Andrew Ong

A new class of super-accurate atomic clocks may detect miniscule changes in the laws of physics and shed light on how and why life exists in the universe, Sydney physicists have found.

Andrew Ong and his collaborators at the University of New South Wales discovered that the clocks could detect potential changes in a fundamental constant that governs the interaction between electrically charged objects.

“A changing fine-structure constant could explain why the conditions of our universe are so finely-tuned for all life to exist,” says Andrew, who did the research as part of his PhD.

“The value of the certain physical constants have to fall within a narrow range in order for carbon to be produced in stars. Without this mechanism, there would be no building blocks for all carbon-based life on our planet,” he says.

Atomic clocks, which measure time via the frequency of atomic transitions, are about 100 times more accurate than existing clocks. They are used in GPS satellites and the definition of the standard second.

The researchers hope to measure the frequency change over a few years so they can collect enough data to reach a conclusion about whether the fundamental constants vary and the rate at which they might vary.

“If we could show that the physical laws are always changing, then we can say that life exists simply in the region of the universe where the conditions are just right,” Andrew says.

NSW State Finalist: Andrew Ong, University of New South Wales

Alex Donald pic

A Sydney scientist has created the world’s smallest metallic wire, which is 100,000 times shorter than the width of a hair.

Dr Alex Donald, of the University of New South Wales, manipulated five silver atoms into a zigzag-shaped metal wire, overcoming previous difficulties of creating anything smaller than one-billionth of a metre.

“Scientists can already create metallic wires that are measured in nanometres, or one-billionth of a metre, which are many times larger than this wire. A key challenge in going smaller is that it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate and determine the shapes of such small particles,” says Alex, an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award fellow and chemistry lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

Alex used an advanced instrument at the University of Melbourne to first manipulate the five atoms into a bowtie shape and then into a zigzag-shaped wire. He found that the addition or removal of a chemical allowed him to switch between shapes.

“We do not yet know what we can do with this wire, if anything, but these results demonstrate that an impressively small metal cluster can be entirely isolated and moulded into a relatively predicable shape,” he says.

These atom clusters have unique properties, including high-surface areas, which may ultimately make them useful as sensitive chemical sensors. For example, if one ounce of silver was converted into five-atom clusters, the total surface area of the clusters would be equivalent to 10 times the area of Australia.

NSW State Finalist: Alex Donald, University of New South Wales


Regular participation in yoga classes may help older people to stay independent and avoid falls, a Sydney scientist has found.

Dr Anne Tiedemann and a team at the George Institute for Global Health, University of Sydney, found that participants’ balance and mobility had significantly improved after 12 weeks of yoga, while the comparison group had declined. The research was published in the July Journal of Gerontology: Medical Science.

“Previous research has shown that older people who perform well on these balance and mobility tests are about half as likely to fall as people with poor balance and mobility,” says Anne, the study leader and a NHMRC postdoctoral research fellow. “These results show that yoga may prevent falls in older age.”

The study involved 54 people, aged 59 to 87 years. Half of the group took part in twice-weekly Iyengar yoga classes and the other half did no yoga. After 12 weeks the yoga participants showed marked improvements in mobility and balance when performing tests such as one-legged standing, walking fast and standing up from a seated position without arm support.

Falls are a major threat to independence in older age and can result in lasting disability, reduced quality of life and even death. At least one in three older people fall each year, translating to around 1 million older Australians falling annually.

“It’s vital that older people work on their balance through targeted exercise to prevent a fall and experiencing these serious outcomes,” Anne says.

NSW State Finalist: Anne Tiedemann, The George Institute for Global Health, University of Sydney

Angela Crean pic

Swimming fast may ensure a sperm wins the race, but crossing the finish line first doesn’t ensure a gold medal for offspring.

Dr Angela Crean, of the University of NSW, discovered that sea squirts were more likely to survive if they were produced from sperm that swam for longer before fertilisation, questioning assumptions about sperm quality and fertilisation success.

“This is surprising because it suggests that a sperm’s influence on offspring extends beyond just the DNA it carries,” says Angela, an ARC DECRA fellow at the University of New South Wales.

“This finding has the potential to change the way we view and study inheritance. It is unknown how widespread this phenomenon is, but given the obvious implications for IVF technologies, it will be exciting to test if sperm and offspring quality are linked in other species,” she says.

Sea squirts reproduce by releasing both eggs and sperm into the ocean. Some sperm find an egg to fertilise straight away, while other sperm have to swim for hours.

This unusual reproductive strategy allowed Angela to test whether differences in sperm quality can influence offspring fitness. She found that offspring produced from long-lived sperm were more likely to hatch and to survive when put back into the ocean, compared to offspring from fresh sperm of the same male.

While differences in sperm traits are known to influence the fertilisation success of sperm, the influence of sperm quality was thought to end there. Angela’s research questions this assumption by linking sperm longevity to offspring survival.

NSW State Finalist: Angela Crean, University of New South Wales


Matt Collins pic

A new optical circuit could make internet communication secure from increasingly sophisticated hacking attacks, a Sydney physicist says.

Matthew Collins, a PhD student at The University of Sydney, has developed an optical circuit that creates a secure communication link, which can detect any online eavesdroppers.

“People have become reliant on internet security for almost everything they do online, including emails, shopping and business/bank transactions, but new technologies are continually developed that could be used for hacking,” says Matthew.

“Our invention uses quantum physics to guarantee that any message sent can’t be listened to without us knowing about it,” he says.

The technology will be compatible with fibre optics, which make up the bulk of modern internet infrastructure, including the NBN network.

About $8 trillion exchanges hands each year via e-commerce. In 2011 the number of US companies that reported being hacked was 20 per cent, up from 7 per cent in 2007. These attacks cost hundreds of millions of dollars to developed economies, as well as other impacts including legal action and eroded trust in the companies who are hacking victims.

“With rapid technology developments threatening our online privacy, new ways of securing our communications will become vitally important in the future,” Matthew says.

“The next step is for us to take our millimetre-sized optical circuit into the field and test it within the real network. We can then start developing a product that may one day secure the internet for everyone in Australia,” he says.

NSW State Finalist: Matthew Collins, The University of Sydney

Jerry Zhou

Cancer cell ‘fingerprints’ may spell the end to one-size-fits-all therapy as patients are given information to personalise their treatment, says a Sydney scientist.

Jerry Zhou, a PhD candidate, and a team at the Cancer Proteomics Laboratory, University of Sydney, took molecular fingerprints of cancer cells, which allowed them to predict a cancer’s progress and match patients with the best possible therapy.

“Traditionally, all cancers have been labelled as a mindless mass of growing cells and the therapies reflect this one-size-fits-all approach,” says Jerry.

“We are now just beginning to understand their complexity. Cancers are consistently changing and evolving, which means for therapies to work, we need to be one step ahead of the cancer,” he says.

The evolution of cancers is assisted by changes in proteins on their surface. These proteins do the cancer’s dirty work by allowing the cancer to elude the body’s own defences or absorb more nutrients for rapid growth.

To predict what cancers are going to do next, Jerry used an Australian patented cell-capture biochip to take protein fingerprints from over 100 cancer patients around NSW. These cancer fingerprints revealed the aggressiveness of the cancer and helped to predict a patient’s survival.

“By knowing how a cancer will act, we can match the correct therapy with the right patient to get the best results. Protein fingerprinting is providing us with the information needed to personalise cancer therapy,” Jerry says.

NSW State Finalist: Jerry Zhou, The University of Sydney


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


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


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


Shayne Macgregor

A Sydney scientist has identified a second ‘off-switch’ for El Niño, which helps govern Australia’s cycles of drought and floods with the help of La Niña.

Dr Shayne McGregor, of the University of New South Wales, has discovered that a surface wind shift that occurs during El Niño is the other off-switch for the event, allowing climatologists to get a better indication of when El Niño events and their rainfall impacts will finish.

“Prior to this, we had a basic understanding of these El Niño and La Niña events and what was thought to be their only off switch,” says Shayne, a postdoctoral fellow at UNSW Climate Change Research Centre.

“However, this single off-switch could not explain why El Niño events would normally peak in summer and finish in the following autumn while La Niña events lasted much longer,” he says.

Shayne says during an El Niño event the surface winds shift southwards in summer and this shift is the second off-switch. Its occurrence during summer explains why El Niño events tend to peak during these months, while La Niña, with only one off switch, lasts longer.

“This means that El Niño events have two off-switches working together, while La Niña events only have the one switch,” he says. “Now that we know what this second off-switch is we can monitor it to get a better indication of when El Niño events and their rainfall impacts will finish.”

Shayne McGregor, Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales

Two thymus glands fast-track immune defences

Baby wallaby photos available

Until now, it was a mystery why many marsupials have two thymuses—key organs in the immune system—instead of the one typical of other mammals. Now postdoctoral researcher Dr Emily Wong from the University of Sydney and her colleagues have found that the two organs are identical, which suggests why they are there. [click to continue…]

A new technology to stop falls before they happen could help the elderly stay in their own homes longer.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have developed a simple way of predicting the likelihood of an elderly person falling in the near future, allowing action to reduce the chances of it happening. [click to continue…]

A compound produced by a pregnant lizard may provide important information on the origins and treatment of cancer in humans, according to zoologist Bridget Murphy from the University of Sydney, who discovered the protein, which is pivotal to the development of the lizard placenta.

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A young UNSW researcher has created conductive bioplastics which will transform the performance of bionic devices such as the cochlear ear and the proposed bionic eye. [click to continue…]