Big ecology: From tundra to savanna

Why are some plant seeds very small and others large? Angela Moles tackled this simple question by compiling information on 12,669 plant species. She discovered that plant seeds in the tropics are, on average, 300 times bigger than seeds in colder places like the northern coniferous forests. She then used these data to follow the evolutionary history of seed size over hundreds of millions of years.

Angela Moles working with plants (Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo)
Angela Moles working with plants (Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo)

The study was the first of its kind and the results, published in Science and PNAS, have revolutionised our understanding of the factors that determine the size of offspring in plants and animals. Angela is a leader in developing a new approach to ecology—one that could allow us to accurately model and predict the impact of climate change on ecosystems.
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Are nanoparticles safe?

After two decades of research the first wave of nanotechnology consumer products are entering the marketplace in applications as diverse as catalysts, surface treatments for glass, cosmetics and drug delivery. But the properties that make them attractive to industry may also have unforeseen consequences. That worries Amanda Barnard, a physicist at The University of Melbourne.

Amanda Barnard (Graphic by Amanda Barnard. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo)
Amanda Barnard (Graphic by Amanda Barnard. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo)

“Many materials that are normally inactive—gold and silver, for example—become biologically active when the particles are just a few nanometres in size. So, if we are creating these new particles we need to understand how they will behave in the environment.”

Amanda believes she can create a theoretical framework that will allow the risk of nanoparticles to be determined in the computer—before the particle has even been made. She will use her L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship to develop new computational tools to predict the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment. Continue reading Are nanoparticles safe?

Crystallising a career in immunology

As a child, Natalie Borg tried to grow crystals. Two decades on, she is still growing crystals. But now she is analysing them with synchrotron light, to figure out how our bodies mount a rapid defence when we are attacked by viruses.

Natalie Borg at work in the lab. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo
Natalie Borg at work in the lab. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo

“The immune system is complex and is made up of many specialised types of cells and proteins. The key is to understand their function,” Natalie says.

To date, she’s been working as part of a successful team at Monash University. In 2007 her work on how our natural killer T cells recognise fats from invaders was published in Nature.

Now she’s setting up her own laboratory at Monash—a bold move but essential if her career is to grow. With the help of her L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship, she will study key steps in our body’s early warning system against viral attack.

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Unravelling the immune system

Erika Cretney is fascinated by the human immune system. “As we find out more about how it works, it seems to grow in complexity,” she says. “I’m not sure that we’ll ever know everything about it.”

Erika Cretney at work in the lab Photo, credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo
Erika Cretney at work in the lab Photo, credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo

Her interest lies in ferreting out the function of genes, proteins and cell types in the immune system, and identifying the roles they play. And with the help of her L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship, she is pursuing a new target: a small group of T cells that play a role in controlling inflammation and auto-immune diseases.

The Fellowship will give her the freedom to promote her new field of study at international conferences and it will help with childcare costs as she balances a full-time research career with the needs of her young son. Continue reading Unravelling the immune system