Prospect Fellow Grid

Forrest Foundation responds to COVID with 13 new research fellowships

The Forrest Research Foundation has responded to the research funding crunch caused by COVID-19 by appointing 13 post-doctoral Prospect Fellows to continue their outstanding research at Western Australian universities.

Prospect Fellowships provide 18 months of funding, together with mentoring and a professional development program, to ensure that these brilliant early career researchers can continue with research that will benefit all Australians.

They are drawn from across the spectrum of academic research, from creative arts, humanities, social science, and psychology to biology, medicine, engineering, physics and mathematics. Their research addresses some of the biggest social, economic and scientific issues of the day – stress and fatigue in the workplace, the aged care workforce, cancer immunotherapy, the development of the hydrogen economy, the treatment of rare diseases, the welfare of animals in the livestock industry, the new frontiers of quantum physics and nanotechnology.

COVID-19 has forced many of these leading early-career researchers to forego offers of research positions in Europe and North America; these Forrest Foundation fellowships ensure that they can continue to develop their research careers and apply their huge talents to creating new knowledge that will benefit everyone.

Warden of the Forrest Research Foundation Professor Paul Johnson, said the Foundation is proud to be able to provide support for early career researchers at this moment of acute need. “Without our support many of these fellows would have to terminate their research, and that would negate the years of investment they and the Australian taxpayer have made in training them to be world leaders in their field.”

The Forrest Research Foundation was established in 2014, by Andrew and Nicola Forrest through their Minderoo Foundation.

Top L-R: Dr Andrea Rassell, Dr Samantha Winter, Dr Kate Loudon, Dr Francesco De Toni, Dr Samuel Lymbery
Middle L-R: Dr Georgia Hay, Dr Ben McAllister, Dr Arman Siahvashi, Dr Shannon Algar
Bottom L-R: Dr Catriona Stevens, Dr Lucy Furfaro, Dr Rachael Zemek, Dr Michael Wilson

NameUniversityResearch Topic
Dr Andrea RassellThe University of Western AustraliaUse media art to explain/educate the public around uses of nano technology and nano medicine
Dr Arman SiahvashiThe University of Western AustraliaUnlocking large-scale hydrogen liquefaction technologies in Australia
Dr Ben McAllisterThe University of Western AustraliaAims to develop single photon counters and high-temperature superconducting materials
Dr Catriona StevensThe University of Western AustraliaUnderstanding our migrant aged care workforce to create safer, healthier future for older Western Australians
Dr Francesco De ToniThe University of Western AustraliaA study of health emotion language, to better understand models of emotion language used to describe health/illness, cultural factors influencing emotion language in health in multicultural Australia, and impact on public health and patient -doctor communications
Dr Georgia HayCurtin UniversityProject to understand how to design and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and creativity in healthcare teams
Dr Kate LoudonMurdoch UniversityOn-farm measurement technologies to optimise beef carcase compliance
Dr Lucy FurfaroThe University of Western AustraliaStudy of bacteriophages in the womb and their potential in regulating bacterial infections
Dr Michael WilsonCurtin University Study of workplace stressors, and relationship between workplace stress and performance, using novel longitudinal real-time monitoring and analysis
Dr Rachael ZemekThe University of Western AustraliaInvestigating how wound healing after cancer surgery can follow cancer-activating and immune-activating pathways; aim to develop therapeutics to reduce cancer activating and stimulate immune activating responses to reduce cancer recurrence after surgery
Dr Samuel LymberyThe University of Western AustraliaUse the biology of ant colonies, and their reliance on internally-produced neuropeptides, to disrupt/destroy them from inside
Dr Samantha WinterThe University of Notre DameSearching for connection between gastro-intestinal biome and the immune system, particularly investigating the role of unconventional T-cells
Dr Shannon AlgarThe University of Western AustraliaSwarm intelligence for animal welfare: data-driven prediction and simulation
Masnun Naher

Applications now open for 2021 Forrest PhD Scholarships – the brightest minds, the best research, the biggest impact.

We attract the brightest minds from around the world to conduct bold and exciting doctoral research at any of Western Australia’s five universities.

Forrest PhD Scholarships are offered to students who have exceptional academic profiles and who have the desire, drive and imagination to undertake doctoral research of the highest standard.

Academic excellence is a neccessary but not a sufficient, condition for winning a Forrest PhD Scholarship. You also need to demonstrate deep curiosity about your chosen field of study, a strong desire to communicate to others your enthusiasm for knowledge and discovery, a commitment to use this knowledge to have a positive impact on the world around us, and the drive and determination to succeed even when faced with obstacles and setbacks.

Forrest PhD Scholarships are open to candidates in all subject areas and from any country and nationality.

Benefits

All Forrest Scholars will receive a scholarship package which includes fees, stipend, accommodation allowance and a research allowance. The total package is valued at over $50,000 per annum.

Selection

Up to 10 Forrest Scholars will be selected from international and Australian applicants who demonstrate an outstanding academic ability to undertake research work with the potential to change the world we live in.

Apply

Applications for Forrest PhD Scholarships are open until 31 October 2020. For further details of the scholarships and how to apply, visit https://www.forrestresearch.org.au/scholarship

Hunger for knowledge drives Marisa’s search for muscular dystrophy treatments

By Liz McGrath

Marisa Duong’s love of learning began when she was a child in Vietnam, soaking up everything she could from her computer science teacher mum and electrical engineer dad.

“We were a maths and science family that’s for sure but we had a joke in the family that while mum might have taught me some coding and a bit of English, she never taught me how to cook – she really hated cooking,” Marisa laughs.

She may not have shone in the kitchen but Marisa’s hunger for knowledge meant she made huge strides at school. So much so that when she was just 15, she travelled to Western Australia to stay with an aunt and uncle to learn better English and continue her education.

After a 10 week English course, she successfully tackled Years 11 and 12 at Kalamunda Senior High School, where she not only made school dux but also scored the highest possible tertiary admission score of 99.95.

“I think I was like a starving person seeing food once I was able to read textbooks in English, I just wanted to keep learning,” she recalls.

Thinking her family wouldn’t be able to afford for her to stay in WA, Marisa was making plans to head home to Vietnam when philanthropist Stan Perron stepped in to help.

“My aunt worked for Toyota and Mr Perron owned the business and he encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to study at UWA and so I did,” Marisa explains. “I felt like the luckiest girl when I got it, it was a really magical moment in my life.”

Approaching university with the same dedication she’d shown during her school years, the young student completed a Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours), majoring in Biochemistry and Finance.

Big sister. Marisa with younger brother Henry in Vietnam.

A visitor from home and a Forrest Scholarship

“It was a busy time,” she says. “During my undergrad I had the chance to do a research placement at King Eddies (King Edwards Memorial Hospital) working on an international project which was great and I was also tutoring at three different places including the School of Indigenous Studies (SIS) at UWA.

“I loved the human interaction that came with tutoring, it was a great break from being in the lab and working at SIS is something I’m still involved in.”

It was during this time that Marisa’s younger brother Henry Duong, also came to Perth to study – a familiar face who helped to ease any homesickness the young student was experiencing.

“I missed my family and I have great friends in Vietnam who I felt like I hadn’t seen for a long time and of course I missed the food, although not so much mum’s cooking as street food,” she grins.

In 2016 Marisa’s hard work and dedication saw her rewarded again, this time with a Forrest Research Foundation Scholarship to investigate protein biomarkers in oxidative stress.

“When I got the Forrest Scholarship I couldn’t believe my luck,” Marisa says. “I thought I was lucky already and then this happened!

“The generosity of the philanthropy in WA is amazing. I’m not sure if I can ever pay it back but I’ll try my best, I’m determined to do something with the life-changing opportunities that I’ve been given.

“Mr. Stan Perron actually attended on the day I was awarded the scholarship and being there with him and with Andrew and Nicola Forrest felt very surreal.

“From coming to Australia to learn English to that moment, it was like a dream.”

Feels like home. The large grey structure that is UWA’s Bayliss Building was very familiar to Marisa, as the place she did a lot of her PhD Research. Here she is in December 2016.

Pinpointing which proteins change structure under oxidative stress

Fast forward four years to 2020 and in the midst of a year with challenges no-one in the world could have predicted due to a global pandemic, Marisa completed and submitted her PhD, which she describes as “an enormous relief”.

A continuation of her Honours project, her thesis investigated how protein thiol oxidation contributes to worsening the disease progression of Duchene muscular dystrophy – a debilitating illness which leads to the premature deaths of one in 3,500 schoolboys globally.

“At the moment there is no cure and no effective treatment for this muscle wasting disease which is caused by a genetic fault that prevents the production of a protein called dystrophin,” she says.

“Although the primary defect is genetic, secondary processes involving persistent inflammation and oxidative stress exacerbate disease progression, and, as such, are potential therapeutic targets.”

Proteins, she explains, are little machineries that carry out numerous functions for the cells in our body. In many diseases, our cells suffer from a state called oxidative stress where the protein structures and functions are changed, which worsens the disease symptoms.

Making sense of ‘that’ whiteboard – Marisa during a lab demonstration at UWA.

As part of her thesis, Marisa worked with Proteomics International at Perth’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to develop advanced mass spectrometry methods to measure the oxidation level of thiol groups on proteins, which are particularly sensitive to oxidation.

It’s work she will continue in her new fulltime role with the medical technology company.

“By better understanding what happens inside the disease cells, we are better able to develop effective treatments,” Marisa says.

“I hope that the techniques I develop through my research might ultimately be applicable to other conditions and diseases including Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, diabetes, heart attack, HIV/AIDS, kidney and liver disease, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid arthritis, stroke and aging.”

As for the future, an unassuming and incredibly modest Marisa says she’s excited about being able to continue her life in Perth and seeing where her research might take her.

“I feel very, very lucky,” she says. “I do work hard – I don’t think I’m exceptionally talented but I love learning and I love research.

“WA has helped to shape my personality and I love my Australian friends. The people here are so friendly and it is easy to feel included and to feel part of the community. I have some friends from Northern Europe and they say it’s not like that there!”

And while she’s still not tempted to work on her cooking skills, the one-time martial arts fan, she laughs that she is slowly rediscovering the wonder of free time.

“I used to do karate and used to go to the gym but that’s all changed now since COVID,” Marisa say. “I like playing the piano and now that my PhD is submitted, I am reading more novels. It’s such a strange feeling to not be busy every hour of the day and night.”

Making it look easy. Marisa in familiar surroundings in a UWA lab.

$3 million research boost to support ideas and innovation in WA

The Forrest Research Foundation has today announced a new $3 million Prospect Fellowship Program to bring Australia and New Zealand’s brightest recent PhD graduates to Western Australia to continue their ground-breaking research.

The program supports the research and innovation Australia needs to prosper in a post-COVID-19 world, when funding for early career research is increasingly uncertain.

The new program will boost Australia’s research community, with 22 early career researchers to be accepted as Prospect Fellows at any of WA’s five universities –  UWA, Curtin, Murdoch, ECU and Notre Dame. It will also drive innovation and collaboration with business, government and the not-for-profit sector.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel welcomed the Forrest Research Foundation’s investment in the Prospect Fellowship Program.

“Our early career researchers are the engine behind our research effort and require our support and nurturing,” Dr Finkel said.

“A recent report prepared by the Rapid Research Information Forum has shown these emerging research stars are amongst the cohort at the highest risk of having their employment impacted by COVID-19.”

The Forrest Research Foundation was established in 2014, by Andrew and Nicola Forrest through their Minderoo Foundation. Minderoo Research Chair Fiona David said new funding was important, particularly for women and minorities.

“We are seeing concerning signs that women, early-career researchers and recent graduates are being disproportionately affected,” Ms David said.

“Diversity is key to innovation and productivity. Having worked hard for decades to build up diversity in the research pipeline, we cannot let COVID set us back now. This funding will provide a vital boost for the research economy in WA and across Australia.”

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma said the generous investment from the Forrest Research Foundation would allow the Prospect Fellows to help solve some of the world’s most complex challenges.

“It’s vital that we support our young people and harness their skills, ideas and enthusiasm to develop new ways of improving the world in which we live,” Professor Chakma said.

“UWA is delighted to be a part of this program and we look forward to welcoming talented, inspiring young researchers to Perth and helping them develop research and their skill set.”

The Prospect Fellowship program will be aligned with  Western Australia’s Science and Innovation Framework. It will focus on leveraging WA’s unique strengths and assets in high-impact areas such as emerging technologies, natural resources, marine science, agriculture, health, environment, and arts and culture.

For more information about the Fellowships visit www.forrestresearch.org.au. Applications are open until 26 August 2020. Candidates must have completed and passed their PhD since 1 Jan 2019.

How a childhood passion led Forrest Scholar Ana from Argentina to London to ground-breaking research among the Kimberley’s world-famous rock art

By Liz McGrath

Growing up in Buenos Aires with its seductive but omnipresent noise and energy is about as far from the breathtaking wilderness of Western Australia’s remote Kimberley Region as you can get.

But for Ana Paula Motta her childhood in the birthplace of the tango, coloured by a lifelong love of animals, set the scene for what would become her quest 20 years on – exploring the contribution of animals to human identity among one of the oldest cultures on earth.

“Animals have always been part of our life, since the beginning of the human species, more than five million years ago,” the Forrest Scholar says.

“As an only child, I grew up fascinated by their ways. My father had 14 dogs when he was a child and I desperately wanted one. Before the age of eight, I had hamsters, pigmy pigs, turtles, quails, and fish! And then finally, I adopted a cat and a dog.”

Despite her menagerie, Ana says she had no idea then that studying animals would make up such a large part of her future.

“In my country meat consumption is deeply embedded into the culture and there’s a belief that caring for other species can’t be a priority when many people live under the poverty line,” says the now 31-year-old. “Animal rights and welfare aren’t really discussed.”

Hunter-gatherers and guanacos

With an interest in hunter-gatherers and Indigenous studies, Ana decided on an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Universidad de Buenos Aires.

“I was the first generation of my family to go to university,” she says. “One of my favourite units during this time was on South American Indigenous populations and Land Title Claims and I decided to pursue zooarchaeology for my Bachelor’s specialisation.”

As part of this, the young researcher worked in a small North-western Argentinian town for four years studying how past hunter-gatherers related to camelids, in particular guanacos.

She collected modern samples of camelids and plants to better understand how they moved in the landscape focussing on diet (studying stable isotopes) and ancient hunting practices.

While she eventually moved to a different sub-specialisation Ana says the lessons learnt would stay with her for a lifetime.

“That training is coming in very handy now,” she says. “Knowing how to collect information from animals’ bones to understand the diet they had and the environment they lived in gave me a very broad perspective and some great skills.”

In late 2014, Ana had a major life change when she moved to the UK to undertake a Master of Science in Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology at University College London. Making the move with her, partner Bruno.

“We met in Argentina as undergrads and he’s also an archaeologist,” she laughs. “It’s very common in our discipline to marry another archaeologist – with all the time you spend away on digs, it’s the only way to see each other!”

Captivated with Australia’s Kimberley rock art, Ana decided to write her thesis about it – specifically on analysing human depictions and how different artists and groups engaged with one another through art. It was to be a busy, productive time.

“While I was in the UK, I also worked for Archaeology South East doing consulting work, for Equality Focus working as an assistant for disabled university students and as a student volunteer doing excavations and rock art recordings of Upper Palaeolithic Caves in Southern France,” she says. Then, a chance meeting at a conference was to change her life again.

“While I was living in London, I met my current supervisor Peter Veth who encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to undertake a PhD at the University of Western Australia.”

‘Ambiance de Fouille’ taken in France at La Grotte du Points.

A leap of faith leads to Forrest Scholarship

Ana says she decided to “take the leap” and applied for a PhD at the Centre for Rock Art Research + Management, one of the leading rock art research centres in the world.

“I applied for a Forrest Research Foundation PhD scholarship and to my incredible surprise I was successful. I moved to Perth in March 2017 which was exciting and also challenging!

“I think living in Forrest Hall in particular and being a scholarship recipient has had a lot of positive impact on my PhD and my research because you get to meet with different people from different backgrounds and it’s a good problem solving hub as well.

“If you’re struggling with a topic or need help or you want to present to the other scholars, there’s always the space to do that.

“Bruno had stayed back in London and it was a while before he was able to come over but I joined a sports climbing club and outdoor club and took up paddling and kayaking lessons.

“Then Bruno got to Perth and last year we became parents to a baby girl, Allegra! Funnily enough she has really helped me focus – even while I was pregnant she came on research trips with me. We all love the nature and the river and the beaches in WA.”

Ana and Allegra at the Forrest Hall Open Day in 2019.

A change of direction

When Ana was awarded her scholarship, she had intended to expand the scope of her master thesis, focusing on social identity and human-animal relations.

“Little did I know that my initial research questions where going to change after visiting the Kimberley,” she says. “I spent three months working there, doing surveys and recording its rock art alongside the Balanggarra Traditional Owners.

“Before leaving, I’d studied many ethnographic articles and volumes on the significance of Kimberley rock art and how animals and other species were key elements for totemism.

“When I was there, I’d listen to the Traditional Owners discuss their totems and how they would restrict their diets and establish certain bonds with Country.

“My research moved from studying human identity to placing more emphasis on relational ontologies and the identification of animals in rock art representations. In the Kimberley, animals weren’t just good to eat, but good to think about and good to live with.

“They’re part of a symbolic system that sees them as part of human lifeways. Remains of these special bonds can be found in songs, in myths and in art.”

The stories, Ana says, are hugely important in understanding how Indigenous groups of the area saw and represented other species and how this has changed through time.

Ana (far right) at Minjiwarra site in the Kimberley in 2017.

Reassessing how we’ve categorised the past

“My research explores the contribution of animals to human identity,” she explains. “With an emphasis on scenes where they engage with each other – such as dancing and hunting.

“There is evidence animals were good to live with, humans were interacting with them, taking in emus and kangaroos when they were injured and caring for them.

“Indigenous populations all over the world have been caretakers of the environment and established significant relationships with other non-human beings for many millennia.

“Our understanding of other species has always been from a Western point of view, ignoring Indigenous knowledge and so modern definitions have been applied to the past.

“I’m hoping to re-assess the scientific categories we apply to the study of the past and highlight the relationality of the beings that have inhabited the world – bringing together Western taxonomic classification methods with Traditional understandings of animals.”

The first time that social identity is being addressed in the Kimberley region, Ana’s work is expected to have high international and local impact, influencing how identity is perceived by rock art researchers and heritage professionals.

Hard at work in the King George River area in the Kimberley in 2017.

Looking forward to new adventures

For Ana, her work also speaks to the future.

“It’s only by securing a balanced coexistence with the environment, that we can secure the future of many species, ours included,” she says.

“My research re-evaluates what it means to be human and what it means to be animal. Approaching this problem through archaeology is critical and will help bridge the gap between science and art and past and present.”

And as for what’s next for her busy family of three, Ana thinks another move is on the cards.

“I’d like to continue with a research career, Bruno and I would both like to do post docs,” she says. “We’re considering moving back to Europe, maybe Germany or Scandinavia, because the work life balance is good. Somewhere we have flexibility to research and raise Allegra and get out and enjoy nature too.”

And somewhere, no doubt, where animals will also feature.

Forrest Scholar Liam’s electron-molecule collision modelling ‘great step forward’ in largest nuclear fusion experiment the world has ever seen

By Liz McGrath

Put Liam Scarlett to the ‘pub test’ and ask him to summarise his area of research in 30 seconds and no problem. That’s despite his field of theoretical physics being one of the most intellectually demanding in science.

“I use supercomputers and quantum mechanics to study atomic and molecular collisions,” the 28-year-old Forrest Scholar says simply.

“We work on the theory side of the reactions that take place when subatomic particles and molecules collide with each other – we model the reactions and predict the outcomes.

He might make it sound easy, but during his PhD Liam has successfully advanced the field of molecular collision physics by devising new theoretical methods, developing massively-parallel computer codes and using Western Australia’s Pawsey supercomputing facilities to perform large-scale scattering simulations.

As part of that work, he’s developed a new computational method known as vibronic close-coupling for modelling collisions of electrons and positrons with diatomic molecules.

The method is based on the first principles of quantum mechanics and doesn’t apply the approximations utilised in previous research, which allows Liam to perform the most accurate calculations in the world for molecular collisions.

Quite an achievement for the Fremantle-born scientist who admits he was far more interested in music than science at secondary school!

I was late to physics and to discovering science at all

“We are a musical family,” Liam smiles. “Both my parents are recreational musicians, and Mum is a piano teacher. You could say I had a bit of a windy journey to discovering physics.”

That ‘long and winding road’ (to borrow from Paul McCartney) started with a year studying music at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, or WAAPA, after secondary school at South Fremantle Senior High School (now Fremantle College) followed by a period studying psychology at Murdoch University.

“It was during my psychology degree that my interest in science began,” he recalls. “I’d started reading Richard Dawkins and watching Carl Sagan documentaries and, in a similar way that they’ve inspired many people before me, I was intrigued.

“As part of my psychology degree I had to do a mandatory course in mathematics. To my surprise I was quite capable, which gave me the confidence to pursue my interest in physics.”

Signing up for a Bachelor of Science and then Honours in Physics at Curtin University in 2014, Liam says in one of those synchronistic life changing moments, he was also introduced to a research group that would change his future.

Directed by world-leader in the field of atomic collision theory Professor Igor Bray, the Theoretical Physics Group is internationally known for its work on electrons, positrons, photons, and heavy particles scattering from atoms, ions and molecules, as well as laser and atom-surface interactions.

“I owe everything to this research group, they’ve been incredibly supportive and have provided me with great mentorship,” Liam says. “They’ve been leading the field for the past three decades, they’ve published papers that are older than I am!”

Liam Scarlett at the Sphinx lookout on Magnetic Island (Townsville) during the 2018 Gaseous Electronics Meeting.

Atomic and Molecular Collisions and becoming a Forrest Scholar

At the end of 2017, and with “zero expectation of success”, Liam received another major boost to his career when he was awarded a Forrest Research Foundation Scholarship, designed to support outstanding domestic and international students as they complete their PhDs.

“I applied and didn’t think I’d get it and then I did – it’s been completely life changing,” he says. “It’s allowed me to live at Forrest Hall and it’s been fantastic having access to all the resources the scholarship provides to conduct our research. I feel incredibly lucky.”

And for the future? So far, Liam’s calculations have produced data for over 58,000 possible reactions in electron collisions with molecules of hydrogen and its isotopes, the most comprehensive and accurate dataset of its kind ever produced.

He’s designed an online database (mccc-db.org) to make those results freely available to scientists worldwide, and with the support of the Forrest Research Foundation has promoted the research in numerous national and international forums.

The molecular collisions he models are fundamental processes that play a major role in a diverse range of fields including energy production, medicine and astrophysics. But the area he’s most excited about is nuclear fusion, and his research into electron-molecule collisions is already being used in one of the largest scientific projects in the world, the €20 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France.

“Our calculations are being used to construct models for the plasmas which will be present in the ITER fusion reactor,” he explains. “These models will be used to perform vital diagnostics and improve the performance of the heating and waste-removal systems in the reactor.”

Scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) described the modelling made possible by Liam’s research as “a great step forward that we were awaiting for many years”. The collaboration between the IPP and WA will result in the world’s first ever complete collisional-radiative model for molecular species in fusion plasmas.

Pretty good going for a young man who wasn’t even sure he liked science back in secondary school.

Liam Scarlett presenting at the 2019 POSMOL conference in Serbia.

The future and a strumming guitar

All thoughts now are on the ITER experiment. “Once it’s completed, it will be the largest magnetic-confinement nuclear fusion experiment in the world,” Liam says. “Fusion reactors will be able to provide a safe and virtually limitless source of energy with no long-lived radioactive waste or carbon emissions.

“It’s a much safer alternative to the fission reaction utilised in present-day nuclear power where, as everyone knows, there’ve been some very famous examples of runaway chain reactions. One of the benefits of the fusion process is that runaway chain reactions are impossible, making it much safer.”

Liam says with more than 20 countries contributing, the ultimate aim is to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion energy, paving the way for the next generation of fusion reactors to be used for power production.

But he says, while COVID-19 has meant much more time working from home alongside partner Katie and the couple’s cat Priscilla, he’s also conscious that life can’t be 100 per cent numbers and calculations.

“Yes, I spend a lot of my time working on physics, but that’s not to say we don’t love stepping outside and taking some meandering walks along the river. And very occasionally I do pick up my guitar and strum a few tunes.”

That early love of music, it seems, hasn’t completely disappeared.

My focus was always going to be the brain says Forrest Scholar Bhedita, ‘our most complex organ but the least understood’

By Liz McGrath

Bhedita Seewoo laughs that growing up the middle of five children in a highly competitive and tight-knit family might have left her with a burning desire to succeed, but it didn’t allow for much downtime.

That’s despite the fact that home was a small northern village on the African island nation of Mauritius, famous for its stunning beaches with turquoise waters and impossibly white sands fringed with lush green vegetation.

Legend has it that an islander once told Mark Twain that ‘Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius’. Many would agree.

For Bhedita though, it was books and learning and a fascination with science and in particular the human brain, that commanded her attention, rather than the picture postcard surroundings that formed the background of her childhood.

“I remember always being amazed by the brain – it’s our most complex organ, the one that controls everything but the one that is also the least understood,” she recalls.

It was a fascination that led to her father, a University of Delhi graduate employed in the Mauritian government in law and management, suggesting his middle child pursue a career in medicine.

“I was scared at the sight of blood so I told him that wasn’t happening,” Bhedita grins. “I also knew I was the sort of person who would struggle if someone died at my hands.”

It was confronting that reality, Bhedita thinks, that saw the seeds sown for a career in research rather than as a clinician. But there would be one last hurdle in the young student’s way before she could begin her undergraduate studies.

“My home country operates on a laureate system where the top students get a scholarship to abroad to study,” she explains.  “They usually take the top eight students and I came in 10th in my year. The next year, they changed it to the top 10 students! So my family had to pay for my undergraduate studies and for me to travel, which was a big ask.”

A 17-year-old Bhedita just about to start her second last year of high school on a family holiday at the popular tourist destination, Grand-Bassin in Mauritius.

Embarking on a whole new life of study in Australia

Supported by her parents, it was Perth where fate decided Bhedita would plant her university roots, beginning at Murdoch University, where she completed her undergrad and honours in Biomedical Science.

It was during a third-year undergrad unit that she had a sliding doors moment that would influence the whole future direction of her career.

“We had to choose an assignment topic and of all the things in front of me, I decided to focus on Alzheimer’s disease because I’d always found it very sad that people can forget those they are the closest to,” Bhedita says.

“While reading up about it, I came across a paper about the use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS, as an alternative therapy for cognitive impairment in this disease. This spiked my interest and just like I think all intellectuals tend to do, I dived into the topic deeper and deeper. This is when I knew I wanted to know more about rTMS.”

The significance of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation

A relatively new non-invasive brain stimulation technique that’s shown huge potential in treating a wide range of neurological and psychiatric disorders, rTMS uses a wound coil placed on the scalp of the subject over the region of interest.

The current flowing through the coil induces a rapidly changing magnetic field that passes into the brain unimpeded by the skin, skull or muscle, with the changing magnetic field inducing small electrical currents that stimulates nerve cells in the targeted brain region.

“Not so long ago it was thought the brain was unchangeable after childhood, that it was fixed by the time we became adults,” Bhedita explains. “But scientists now know that the brain has an amazing ability to change and heal itself based on mental experiences. In fact, our brain changes every day as we experience and do different things, which is known as neuroplasticity.”

Bhedita’s research focused on proving a direct comparison between how magnetic fields affect human and animal brains, imperative to establish best clinical protocols for rTMS.

“I wanted to close the knowledge gap by showing for the first time – using the same methodology – that brain stimulation causes equivalent changes in rodent and human brains,” she says.

“The use of animal models will allow us to link the rTMS-induced changes in brain activity, chemistry and structure, using MRI, to the changes in symptoms, through behavioural tests, following rTMS treatment. This will ultimately allow us to improve its efficacy as a therapeutic tool by developing optimal stimulation protocols for translation to the clinic.”

But even before she had completed her honours Bhedita made another decision that would change her life – she applied for and was ultimately granted a Forrest Research Foundation Scholarship.

Bhedita Seewoo

New beginnings – Bhedita just before beginning her Forrest Scholarship in 2017.

A life-changing opportunity

“The Forrest scholarship was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bhedita says. “When I put my application in I was facing the prospect of having to go home because my family were at the point where they couldn’t afford for me to keep studying in Australia.

“I clearly remember that it was about 5am and I was sleeping when Andrew Forrest called me himself from the east coast to tell me that I had been successful!

“He personally rang all of the successful applicants and I remember him telling me that this was my chance to show everyone that I have what it takes. I called my parents in Mauritius and they were absolutely blown away, it was unbelievable.”

The news meant that Bhedita would be able to spend the next four years completing her PhD in Neuroscience at The University of Western Australia (UWA) under the supervision of Assistant Professor Jennifer Rodger while living at Forrest Hall.

“It’s such a nice collegiate feeling living there, a great place to be. We were the first ones to move in and I feel incredibly lucky.”

Never one to do things by halves, before completing her honours degree, Bhedita had also begun part-time work as a research assistant and then research officer in the MRI facility at UWA’s Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis (CMCA) overseeing the operation and development of different research projects. She’s continued working there on a casual basis.

But it wasn’t all work and no play, with the passionate scientist admitting she finds time for dancing (“I absolutely love Bachata”) and also the gym, although the coronavirus pandemic has stopped that in tracks for the time being.

Dreaming big for the future

With her Forrest Scholarship soon to draw to a close, Bhedita, now 27, says she is daring to dream that she can make a “real difference” to the world through her research.

“Since coming across rTMS I’ve found out it has the potential to cure so many different conditions, not only Alzheimer’s disease but also Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and others.”

“Depression is something my mum has battled with and that’s an area I have been concentrating on.”

“My biggest dream is to be able to tailor rTMS treatment to specific individuals with specific disease conditions. People are so different from each other and one size does not fit all. To be able to adjust where we deliver the stimulation and the strength and duration of the stimulation will really make a difference.”

Also on the agenda, a trip home when international borders open again – where as well as a longed-for catch up with her family, Bhedita promises to soak up her country’s beautiful beaches.

“I love Australia and love Perth and the beaches here are stunning, but there’s always something special about home,” she says.

Future leaders – Bhedita and other Forrest Scholars at a research open day for UWA alumni and local residents at Forrest Hall in 2019.

Meeting climate change head on with a focus on feeding the future world is Forrest Fellow Philipp Bayer’s challenge

By Liz McGrath

Bioinformatician and Forrest Fellow Philipp Bayer is a valuable commodity in today’s world – a biologist with ‘a knack’ for computational analysis and a desire to tackle one of the most pressing and complex problems on the planet.

“Climate change is real and climate change is here and the world is running out of food,” the German-born scientist says starkly. “Particularly with a growing population. And we know that because of climate change, this problem will only get worse. So the question I’m trying to solve, along with many other people, is to how to feed a future world.”

With elevated temperatures and water stress already having an adverse effect on food production and food quality across the globe, Philipp says farmers and plant breeders desperately need crops that will be able to be grown under drastically different conditions than those of the past.

“Take the wheatbelt in Western Australia for example, which is being reshaped due to climate change which is affecting wind patterns in the southwest of the state leading to changes in rain patterns.

“In simplest terms, my research involves using computational techniques to find new novel combinations of plants that are more resilient that we can very quickly get out so they can become part of the breeding process.

Indoors with a computer and I’m happy

He’s lived in some of the most beautiful places in the world but Philipp admits he’s not a person who needs to be outside in nature.

“I’m more a computers and inside sort of guy and have been since I was a child,” the Postdoctoral researcher says, admitting that two busy young sons with wife Keiko don’t always make that easy these days.

“They love living in Forrest Hall because we’re so close to the river and the Matilda Bay foreshore and they can run around like crazy,” he laughs, adding while three-year-old Alex and Charlie, one, are too young to be showing any talent for technology just yet, “my younger child did break a laptop by dropping it from the couch, if that counts!”

Growing up in Germany, close to some of neighbouring France’s most beautiful wine towns, was ‘happy’ with a doctor dad, mum and a sister who has moved into medicine and now lives in Switzerland.

It was during his undergrad days (a BSc Biology at the University of Muenster) where he worked on the evolution of HIV and SIV and heat shock resistance in sea grasses, that Philipp’s interest in bioinformatics – the mathematical and computational approaches used to glean understanding of biological processes – began.

“Turns out I have a knack for computational analysis – in bioinformatics we use massive computing systems to analyse genetic variation data from hundreds of plant cultivars,” he explains. “And that fascination was something that just grew and grew.”

Dad might be busy inside but life is never boring outside for the Bayer boys, particularly at Easter! Charlie (left) and Alex see just how kind the bunny has been outside Forrest Hall.

Australia and diverse opportunities

After finishing his undergrad, Philipp decided he needed to further his IT skills and cast his net wide.

“I basically applied all over the world, and Australia said yes,” he says. And so began a Master of IT at Bond University on the Gold Coast, where he graduated with a High Distinction, followed by a PhD in Applied Bioinformatics at the University of Queensland.

“What were my impressions when I got to Australia and Queensland? It was hot! And there were a lot of beautiful beaches.”

But there was little time for relaxing. On top of his study Philipp co-founded openSNP.org, an open repository for human genotyping datasets from customers of direct-to-consumer genotyping companies like 23andMe, known for its at home DNA testing kit.

His PhD was spent in the Edwards Group at UQ developing a novel low-coverage genotyping by sequencing pipeline, then used to assess genome assembly quality in Brassica napus (rapeseed/canola) and Cicer arietinum, which we know as chickpea.

Philipp’s current work as a post-doc is in the same group which has moved to UWA, focusing on knowledge networks, the assembly and analysis of pan-genomes of several crop series (legumes and cruciferous vegetables), genome-wide association studies, population genetics and so much more, along with student supervision and teaching duties.

The power of Pawsey

Plant breeding is fairly slow, the data whizz explains, while climate change is not. Which is why he, and scientists like him, are using some of the most powerful computers on the planet to crack the complex genetic codes of plants like canola and cabbage so as to make them stronger and more resistant to a hotter and drier world.

Proximity to the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in the nearby suburb of Kensington (co-funded by the Australian and WA governments, the CSIRO and four WA universities – Curtin, Edith Cowan, Murdoch and UWA), with its massive data storage and visualisation infrastructure is a massive advantage for the Nedlands based scientist.

“Pawsey has had a massive impact on our work,” Philipp explains. “It’s got many CPU nodes for our day-to-day work, high memory nodes for our genome assembly workflows and GPU nodes for our machine learning and our deep learning work.

“We sequence hundreds or thousands of plant individuals which generates massive amounts of data on the petabyte scale. And we need supercomputers to look at that data. It’s helped us massively accelerate our workflows because analysis that would have taken a few years in the past, now takes maybe a month or even less than that.”

Happy Hacky Hour

Somehow Philipp has also found the time to set up ‘Hacky Hour’ at UWA, an informal weekly meet up where researchers (staff and students) from all disciplines workshop their problems related to code, data or digital tools in a friendly, welcoming environment.

“It started at the University of Melbourne, an idea by Damien Irving, and has taken off across the country,” he says. “It’s a great way to be able to help people and I really enjoy it. As long as I get a coffee I’m happy!”

While the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying social isolation mean the club is now run purely online via Zoom, the change has only added to the number of people using it, Philipp reports.

“We’ve had people calling in from Japan, Melbourne, and all over the place with their problems and requests, it’s been really interesting how far the concept has spread.”

Admitting he’s interested in ‘far too many things for my own good’, the certified Software and Data Carpentry instructor is also involved in organising and teaching the Bioinformatics courses for Masters students at UWA.

There’s no doubt that Philipp Bayer is someone we’ll be hearing a lot more of as Australia joins the world in trying to protect future food security amid disruption from increasingly extreme weather events.

Forrest Scholar involved in unique discovery at a 12,000 year old swamp

Frederik Seersholm, a Forrest Scholar completing his PhD at Curtin University, is part of an international team who have uncovered a large number of bones of extinct Mauritian animals, including the well-known Dodo.

A group of local and international researchers re-discovered a swamp near Mare la Chaux in September 2015 after being inspired by an 1832 description of the swamp as being so full of extinct animal bones that you only had to stick your hand in the water to retrieve them.

A collaboration between the National Heritage Fund and land owner Constance la Gaieté Co Ltd. was set up resulting in the first excavation at the site. The findings from the excavation will help reconstruct the pre-human environment of Mauritius.

The swamp contains an incredibly high density and diversity of bones of extinct animals, as much as 600 bones per cubic metre, which is higher than the other famous fossil locality, the Mare aux Songes in the southwest of the island. The bones belong to extinct giant tortoises, giant skinks and also a few Dodos. The Dodo is culturally significant on Mauritius and globally a true icon of extinction.

The discovery of fossil plant seeds and pollen allows reconstruction of the forests in which these animals once lived. The material is 12,000 years old and thereby the oldest fossil site in the Western Indian Ocean, apart from Madagascar and Aldabra. This is also the first inland lowland fossil site in north Mauritius. The fossil record will help us to understand how the forest has changed over the last 12,000 years and help in the assessment of the impact of climate change and cyclone activity. This first season heralds future years of collaboration with Constance la Gaieté Co Ltd., the National Heritage Fund and Mauritian colleagues.

Ongoing excavation from above. Photo credit Julia Heinen.

2020 Forrest Fellows Announced

Four post-doctoral researchers from around the world have been named recipients of the prestigious 2020 Forrest Fellowships.

Forrest Fellowships are provided to outstanding early career researchers to undertake high quality research at any of the five universities in Western Australia.

Dr Jessica Buck who is the first Indigenous Forrest Fellow and was the first Aboriginal woman to graduate with a PhD from Oxford University, will take up her Fellowship at UWA and Telethon Kids Institute. Dr Buck is a medical researcher developing ways to improve the treatment of brain tumours in children.

Dr David Gozzard, a recipient of a 2017 WA Premier’s Science Award, will be carrying out his research at UWA on how satellite and laser communication technologies can be used to improve space exploration.

Dr Peter Kraus who graduated with his PhD from Imperial College London will join Curtin University where he will help develop emerging technologies such as semiconductors, batteries and photovoltaics as a way to combat climate change.

Moroccan researcher Dr Houda Ennaceri, who is currently based at the Leibniz Institute of Surface Engineering in Germany, will be undertaking her research at Murdoch University to develop a more efficient method for producing bio diesel from microalgae.

Warden of the Forrest Research Foundation, Prof Paul Johnson, was extremely pleased that the Foundation has appointed such exceptional early career researchers as the 2020 Forrest Fellows.

“The research of these four outstanding early-career scientists will further build the reputation of Perth as a dynamic hub of discover and innovation,” Prof Johnson said.

This year’s recipients will reside at Forrest Hall and commence their Forrest Fellowships in 2020.