Reading the genome

Marnie Blewitt wants to understand how genes are controlled. Credit: Sam D’Agostino, SDP Photo
Marnie Blewitt wants to understand how genes are controlled. Credit: Sam D’Agostino, SDP Photo

Dr Marnie Blewitt wants to know how a human being is made: how does a single fertilised egg develop into an adult with millions of cells performing a myriad of different functions.

“How does a cell know which of its 30,000 or so genes should be active and which should be dormant?” says Marnie, a researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

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Reading the hidden clock in a grain of sand

Zenobia Jacobs, University of Wollongong. Credit: timothyburgess.net
Zenobia Jacobs, University of Wollongong. Credit: timothyburgess.net

Dr Zenobia Jacobs wants to know where we came from, and how we got here. When did our distant ancestors leave Africa and spread across the world? Why? And when was Australia first settled?

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How did we get here?

Zenobia Jacobs

University of Wollongong

Zenobia Jacobs wants to know where we came from, and how we got here. When did our distant ancestors leave Africa and spread across the world? Why? And when was Australia first settled?

Zenobia Jacobs, University of Wollongong (photo credit: timothyburgess.net)

These are difficult and controversial questions. But Zenobia has a deep understanding of time and how to measure it. She has developed a way of accurately dating when individual grains of sand were buried with human artefacts. And that technique is transforming our understanding of human evolution.

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On the hunt for dark energy

Tamara Davis

University of Queensland / University of Copenhagen

In 1998 astronomers made an astonishing discovery-the expansion of the Universe is not happening at a steady rate, nor is it slowing down toward eventual collapse. Instead, it is accelerating. The discovery required a complete rethink of the standard model used to explain how the Universe works.

Tamara Davis, University of Queensland / University of Copenhagen (Photo credit: timothyburgess.net)

“Now we know that stars, planets, galaxies and all that we can see make up just four per cent of the Universe,” says Tamara Davis, a University of Queensland astrophysicist.

“About 23 per cent is dark matter. The balance is thought to be dark energy, which we know very little about.”

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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

Could Vitamin D have a role in diabetes?

On Mondays, Jenny Gunton sees diabetes patients at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. And from Tuesday to Friday, she heads up a diabetes research laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. She’s also the mother of two-and-a-half-year-old “Action Boy”.

Jenny Gunton, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison
Jenny Gunton, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison

Gunton is one of a growing band of physician-scientists. “It’s not a financially sensible decision, but I enjoy it,” says Gunton. “It’s also a better way for me to ask questions and attempt to answer them. And in that way, I help my patients.”

And now, with the help of her L’ORÉAL Australia For Women In Science Fellowship she will be exploring the link between Vitamin D and diabetes.

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School girls join study to understand black holes and the birth of stars

Black holes are some of the most bizarre objects in the universe. They can have as much mass as a billion stars combined. How did they form and how did they get so big?

Ilana Feain, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison
Ilana Feain, Photo credit: SDP Photo, Tim Morison

“What are they doing to the galaxies in which they live?” asks Dr Ilana Feain of the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility.

This is one of the biggest questions facing astronomers in the 21st Century. The 29-year-old astronomer will use her L’ORÉAL Australia For Women In Science Fellowship in her quest for an answer to this question.

And she is enlisting two Australian girls’ schools to contribute to a 24/7 program to observe a ‘nanoquasar’ and its associated black hole some billion billion kilometres from Earth. Continue reading School girls join study to understand black holes and the birth of stars