$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.

Robotic fish helps protect native species from invasive pests

Researchers at The University of Western Australia have developed a robotic fish that behaves like a bodyguard for native species and safeguards them against the aggressive attitudes of invasive pests.

Lead researcher Dr Giovanni Polverino, from UWA’s Centre for Evolutionary Biology, was awarded one of the inaugural Forrest Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in 2017.

Dr Polverino’s research is focused on evolutionary mechanisms behind the ecological success of invasive fish over native ones to predict different species’ response to human-induced changes in the environment.

His research team has developed a new generation of bio-inspired robots capable of combatting invasive and pest species in Australian fresh waterways while also protecting the local fauna.

“Originally introduced by humans in many environments to control mosquito larvae, mosquitofish are now one of the biggest threats in freshwater ecosystems worldwide, including Australia,” Dr Polverino said.

“Current solutions to stop, or at least slow down, the invasion of mosquitofish are largely failing and tadpoles of most frog species are paying the costs of this forced cohabitation. Is robotic fish the silver bullet against mosquitofish?

“We’ve studied the appearance and swimming patterns of native predators of the invasive mosquitofish from North America and integrated these features into a robotic predator fish that looks and moves like a real mosquitofish predator.

“We have developed a computer vision system to allow the robot to recognise in real time the invasive mosquitofish from the native tadpoles based on their movement, shape and behaviour so that robot could act differently towards the two species.

“It protects the native tadpoles as a robotic bodyguard by performing real time attacks towards the invasive mosquitofish when they threaten the tadpoles.

“We want to demonstrate that the most advanced technology using an engineered robotic fish can help protect Australia’s biodiversity and combat the spread of invasive species.”

Dr Polverino said the study built on a long-term research collaboration with Professor Maurizio Porfiri and his research group from New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

“This study builds on a series of previous studies in which my collaborators and I have found that bio-inspired robotic fish can simultaneously repel the invasive mosquitofish and attract native species, with stressed mosquitofish that lose most of their energy reserves and likely compromise their survival and fertility in the long term.

“This study was performed at the Centre for Evolutionary Biology at UWA under my supervision and with the collaboration of researchers at UWA and a visiting engineering student from NYU supported by the National Science Foundation and the Forrest Research Foundation.”

 

Media references

Dr Giovanni Polverino (UWA Centre for Evolutionary Biology) 08 6488 2239 / 0487 364 501

Simone Hewett (UWA Media & PR Adviser) 08 6488 7975

First Forrest Scholar part of WA ‘brain gain’

Tim Hammer, the very first of the Forrest Scholars to commence his PhD in 2015, was also this week the first to submit his doctoral thesis. Tim came to UWA from the US to undertake research in plant taxonomy, investigating the evolution and characteristics of the iconic plant genus Ptilotus, more commonly known as mulla mulla, widely distributed throughout Australia and especially diverse in the Pilbara. As part of his PhD research, Tim has described 8 new species of Ptilotus and has published 13 papers which help us to better understand the complex and amazingly rich plant biodiversity of Western Australia.

Tim’s research contributes to the ‘brain gain’ created by the Forrest Research Foundation, which attracts some of the world’s brightest minds to Perth to undertake outstanding doctoral and post-doctoral research. After completing his doctorate Tim and his family are staying in Perth where he will use the skills and knowledge gained during his Forrest Scholarship to help understand and document the rich biodiversity of Australia.

photo of Tim in paddock surrounded by Ptilotus exultatus

Announcement of 2019 Scholars

The Forrest Research Foundation has announced its 2019 scholars.

Since the program began in 2015, 26 scholars from 17 countries around the world have commenced their studies through the program in Western Australia. The annual scholarship program is quickly becoming recognised on a global scale, which is reflected in the diversity of the 2019 recipients;

  • Adam Wdowiak (UWA) from Poland, who will pursue his PhD on synthetic chemistry.
  • Akila Balachandran (Murdoch) from India, to pursue her PhD on treatments for liver cancer. She plans to return to India after her studies to set up a lab equivalent to Murdoch University’s in India.
  • Claire Doll (UWA) from Canada, who will pursue her PhD on using econometrics to assess effectiveness of agri-environmental policies.
  • Monica Danilevicz (UWA) from Brazil, to pursue her work on machine learning and use of drones to remotely scan for disease and other conditions among canola crops.
  • Nicholas Lawler (UWA) from Bunbury, who will pursue his PhD on using lasers to achieve genetic treatments in brain cells.

The program seeks to attract outstanding minds to Western Australia to undertake high quality research with the potential to change the world.

The scholarship includes fees, stipend, accommodation and travel allowance. Scholars are accommodated in the purpose built Forrest Hall, located on the banks of the Swan River adjacent to the University of Western Australia.

The Forrest Research Foundation has already helped to position Western Australia as a global centre of discovery, innovation and creativity. The scholars participating in the program undertake cutting-edge research at one of Western Australia’s five universities – The University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, Curtin University, Edith Cowan University and University of Notre Dame. The annual scholarship applications are open each September, with Fellowship applications due to open in March.

The Forrest Research Foundation aims to attract the brightest minds to conduct research in Western Australia. Supporting international and domestic students to enrol in a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree at one of the state’s universities, the scholarships also support leading researchers who are at the start of their career by providing post-doctoral fellowships.