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?
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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. Continue reading Big ecology: From tundra to savanna→
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.
“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?→
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.
“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.
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.”
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→
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”.
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.
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?
“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.