Dr Christina Riesselman, geologist, University of Otago, Dunedin
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.
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.
Dr Muireann Irish, cognitive neuroscientist, Neuroscience Research Australia/UNSW, Sydney
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.
Dr Jodie Rummer, marine biologist, James Cook University, Townsville
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.
Dr Elena Tucker, geneticist, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Melbourne
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.
Dr Vanessa Kellermann, evolutionary biologist, Monash University, Melbourne
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.
Dr Cara Doherty, materials scientist, CSIRO, Melbourne
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.