Category Archives: L’Oréal For Women in Science

When the oceans were 20 metres higher: revealing past and future climates

Dr Christina Riesselman, geologist, University of Otago, Dunedin

2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Christina Riesselman (Credit: L'Oréal New Zealand)

Three million years ago Earth was much as it is today – familiar continents, animals, and carbon dioxide levels. But temperatures were higher and sea levels were also about 20 metres higher. Today, a billion people live on land less than 20 metres above sea level, and carbon dioxide levels are rising.

Working on the Antarctic ice shelf and at sea Dr Christina Riesselman collects sediment cores from hundreds of metres under the sea floor and reads the climate history of millennia past using the microscopic fossilised fish teeth and diatomic algae she finds in the cores.

Christina will use her L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship to turn her focus to the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. 2014 was the hottest year on record, but was it the hottest year since the end of the last ice age? Christina’s research could answer that question and help us understand and plan for the impact of our planet’s rapidly changing climate.

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The short lives of hard-living, fast burning, high mass stars

2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Shari Breen (Credit: L'Oréal Australia) Dr Shari Breen, astronomer, CSIRO, Sydney

We are made of star stuff. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth and the iron in our blood were all made in high mass stars that burnt briefly and brightly before exploding.

Dr Shari Breen is using ‘The Dish’ at Parkes and a network of international telescopes to understand the life cycle and evolution of these stars. For her the 1,000 tonne Parkes radio telescope is an old friend that creaks and grumbles as she guides it across the sky, hunting for high mass stars.

She will use her L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship to develop her use of masers (laser-like beams of intense radio waves) to investigate these stars.

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How we imagine the future

Dr Muireann Irish, cognitive neuroscientist, Neuroscience Research Australia/UNSW, Sydney

2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Muireann Irish (Credit: L'Oréal Australia) Dr Muireann Irish has discovered which parts of our brain are essential to imagine the future, ranging from simple things like “I must remember my keys and my wallet when I go out,” to imagining complex events such as “my next holiday”. And she has shown that people with dementia don’t just lose the ability to remember the past, they also lose the ability to envisage the future.

She will use her L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship to better understand how dementia affects this cognitive function. She expects her work will inform the development of activities for patients that will improve their quality of life and reduce the burden faced by caregivers.

Cognitive decline in the form of dementia will be one of the greatest challenges for our health system in the next fifty years and Muireann is leading the search for solutions.

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A hot future for sharks

Dr Jodie Rummer, marine biologist, James Cook University, Townsville

2015 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow Jodie Rummer (Credit: L'Oréal Australia) Dr Jodie Rummer swims with sharks for her research. She is fascinated by fish and their ability to deliver oxygen to their muscles 20 to 50 times more efficiently than we can. Her global research into salmon, mackerel, hagfish, and now sharks explains why fish dominate the oceans, and has given her the opportunity to swim with sharks in the world’s largest shark sanctuary, in French Polynesia.

Her L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship will help her predict how sharks and other fish will cope with rapidly changing oceans. Some will be winners, some will be losers as the climate changes. That’s a problem not just for the oceans, but also for the communities that depend on fish for protein.

“Fish have been on the planet for hundreds of millions of years. It’s up to us to ensure they’re here for the next 100 million years,” she says.

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Solving rare disease mysteries

Dr Elena Tucker, geneticist, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Melbourne

Dr Elena Tucker (credit: L’Oréal Australia)
Dr Elena Tucker (credit: L’Oréal Australia)

Dr Elena Tucker has brought peace of mind to families affected by rare energy disorders. She’s found genes responsible for some of these diseases.

Now, with the support of her 2014 L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship, she will look at hundreds of individual genomes to determine the causes of sex-determination disorders.

For the thousands of families affected by these rare disorders Elena’s work provides an understanding of the causes and opens a path to management and to potential treatments one day. And the techniques she’s developing underpin the broader development of personalised medicine.

For her PhD, Elena used high-throughput DNA sequencing to investigate the genetics of mitochondrial disease. Mitochondria are the membranous structures in the cell where food is converted into the energy that powers our bodies. Anything that disables them, such as the mutation of a gene, robs the body of the energy it needs to function. This can lead to symptoms such as seizures, muscle weakness, developmental delays, liver dysfunction, heart failure or blindness.

Elena discovered four genes, and helped in finding an additional four, within which mutations have a direct link to such conditions. This has accounted for a significant proportion of new genetic diagnoses of mitochondrial disease.

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How flies can help us predict the future

Dr Vanessa Kellermann, evolutionary biologist, Monash University, Melbourne

Dr Vanessa Kellermann (credit: L’Oréal Australia) Our planet’s climate is changing. How will bees cope—will they still be able to pollinate our crops? Will dengue and malaria–carrying mosquitoes spread south?

Vanessa Kellermann is working with native fruit fly species from Tasmania to tropical Queensland to find out. She has already demonstrated that tropical flies are more vulnerable to change in the long term. They don’t have the genetic capacity to evolve quickly. Now, with her L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship, she will explore how flexible they are in the short term—how individual insects can respond to change during their lifetimes.

“No one sets out to study flies,” she says. But they are perfect for asking basic questions that will allow us to create models of evolution and help people—from farmers to health professionals—plan for change.

When Dr Vanessa Kellermann tells people she studies flies, there’s an almost automatic assumption that she’s working to get rid of them. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Vanessa would consider her research a success if her flies hung around for many more millions of years, along with most of the other plants and animals on Earth.

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Clean water with crystals

Dr Cara Doherty, materials scientist, CSIRO, Melbourne

Dr Cara Doherty (credit: L’Oréal Australia) Cara Doherty is developing new technologies that could transform water filters, batteries and medical sensors, and clean up carbon emissions. And it all comes down to holes and surface area.

She has a vision for a new manufacturing industry for Australia. She works with crystals that are packed with… nothing. They’re highly porous sponges—down to a molecular level—and can be customised to absorb almost any molecule.

These crystals are metal–organic frameworks (MOFs). They can be challenging to make. And it’s also difficult to determine which crystal will be good for which job. But it’s even harder to deploy the crystals—to put them in the right place to do useful work.

Cara uses antimatter (positrons) and synchrotron light (X-rays) to measure the crystals and their properties. Then she uses her patented technique to imprint useful shapes for devices.

With the help of her L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship she will investigate how to take the next step: to develop the 3D structures that would be needed for a smart water filter.

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Tracking the spread of deadly diseases

Dr Kathryn (Kat) Holt, Bio21 Institute, The University of Melbourne

Kathryn-Holt-700x500-2 Kat Holt is using genetics, maths and supercomputers to study the whole genome of deadly bacteria and work out how they spread. Studying a typhoid epidemic in Kathmandu, she found that it didn’t spread in the way we thought epidemics did. Her research, published in Nature Genetics, will change how we go about responding to epidemics.

With the support of her L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship, Kat will be using the same techniques to understand how antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread in Melbourne hospitals. Are people catching these superbugs in hospital, or are they bringing the bugs into hospital with them? Can we give the intensive care clinicians early warning of a drug-resistant bacteria in their patients?

Kathryn (Kat) has been a pioneer ever since she became the first student at the University of Western Australia to undertake an honours year in the then-fledgling area of bioinformatics.

Kat ventured across the Nullarbor to the other side of Australia—to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne—where she sought advice from bioinformatics guru Prof Terry Speed. As a result, she ended up as a doctoral student at the world renowned Sanger Institute at the University of Cambridge, one of the homes of the human genome project.
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How Australia and India broke up—100 million years ago

Dr Joanne (Jo) Whittaker, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart

Dr Joanne (Jo) Whittaker likes to solve jigsaw puzzles. Now this marine geoscientist is tackling the biggest puzzle on the planet—the formation of continents.
With SDP_0059 the help of Australia’s national marine research vessels, and now her L’Oréal Fellowship, Jo is reconstructing how the Indian, Australian and Antarctic tectonic plates separated over the past 200 million years, forming the Indian Ocean and the continents as we see them today. This information will help us model climate change better, find new gas resources, and understand the dynamics of the land in which we live.

The piece of this jigsaw she is now working on centres on two underwater plateaux, the Batavia and Gulden Draak Knolls, towering about 3000 metres above the Perth Abyssal Plain (PAP), which is around 1600 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australia. In November 2011, Jo’s team mapped and sampled rocks from both knolls. Based on the evidence so far, Jo says, it looks like they split from the margins of the moving Indian Plate about 100 million years ago.
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When killing saves lives: our immune system at work

Dr Misty Jenkins, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne

Misty-Jenkins-700x500 Dr Misty Jenkins spends a lot of her time watching killers at work: the white blood cells of the body that eliminate infected and cancerous cells. She can already tell you a great deal about how they develop into assassins and arm themselves. Now with the support of her L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship Misty is exploring how they become efficient serial killers—killing one cancer cell in minutes and moving on to hunt down others. Her work will give us a greater understanding of our immune system and open the way to better manage T cells to defeat disease.

Misty’s career so far has been quite a journey for a girl from Ballarat. Along the way she been mentored by Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Prof Peter Doherty and become the first Indigenous Australian to attend either Oxford or Cambridge. Now working with Prof Joe Trapani as a National Health and Medical Research Council  (NHMRC) postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Cell Death laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Misty has been awarded a $25,000 L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowship. She will use the money to further her study of what triggers T cells to detach themselves from their targets and seek additional prey.
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