This week at Science in Public

This Week

Spinal cord injury? Tired? Get treated!

Media releases

Melbourne researchers have found that 80 percent of people with quadriplegic spinal injuries have sleep apnoea. It’s having a big effect on their lives but they don’t know they have it, and they don’t know it can be treated.

The researchers are calling for everyone with quadriplegia to see a doctor if they are tired and fatigued, and they’ve produced videos demonstrating the impact on patients’ lives.

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An island haven for frogs in a sea of extinctions

Macquarie University, Media releases

New Guinea is one of the only places in the world where frogs are safe from the species-destroying chytrid fungus. An international team of scientists has published a new paper that shows how to keep it that way, but they need help to carry out their plan.

The chytrid fungus has wiped out more than 90 frog species around the world, and it’s driving hundreds more towards extinction. New Guinea – the world’s largest tropical island, and home to 6% of all known frog species – is one of the last remaining refuges from the deadly infection.

A team of scientists led by researchers from Macquarie University and the University of New England in Australia think they know how to keep the island’s frogs safe, but they need support to establish a long-term program of monitoring and conservation.

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Earth recycles ocean floor into diamonds

Macquarie University, Media releases
Is the sparkler on your finger recycled seabed? Photo: Flickr CC/Stephen Durham

Most diamonds are made of cooked seabed.

The diamond on your finger is most likely made of recycled seabed cooked deep in the Earth.

Traces of salt trapped in many diamonds show the stones are formed from ancient seabeds that became buried deep beneath the Earth’s crust, according to new research led by Macquarie University geoscientists.

Most diamonds found at the Earth’s surface are formed this way; others are created by crystallization of melts deep in the mantle.

In experiments recreating the extreme pressures and temperatures found 200 kilometres underground, Dr Michael Förster, Professor Stephen Foley, Dr Olivier Alard, and colleagues at Goethe Universität and Johannes Gutenberg Universität in Germany, have demonstrated that seawater in sediment from the bottom of the ocean reacts in the right way to produce the balance of salts found in diamond.

The study, published in Science Advances, settles a long-standing question about the formation of diamonds. “There was a theory that the salts trapped inside diamonds came from marine seawater, but couldn’t be tested,” says lead author Michael. “Our research showed that they came from marine sediment.”

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More safe havens for native plants and animals needed in NSW’s west

Macquarie University, Media releases
The squirrel glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) is listed as a vulnerable species in New South Wales. Photo: Wikimedia CC/Brisbane City Council

Location matters for species struggling to survive under a changing climate.

A new study led by Macquarie University has found we need to provide more safe havens for wildlife and plant species to survive under climate change in New South Wales’ west.

Along the Great Dividing Range, the vulnerable spotted-tailed quoll will be forced to move into higher habitats as the climate changes, but can find sanctuary in protected areas like Kosciuszko National Park.

The squirrel glider, also listed as a vulnerable species, will have more suitable places to live under climate change. However, few of its potential new homes in central western New South Wales are adequately protected.

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It’s not just fish, plastic pollution harms the bacteria that help us breathe

Macquarie University, Media releases

Plastic pollution can harm both the micro and macro-organisms living in our oceans. Photo: Kevin Krejci

Ten per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one kind of bacteria in the ocean. Now laboratory tests have shown that these bacteria are susceptible to plastic pollution, according to a study published in Communications Biology tonight.

“We found that exposure to chemicals leaching from plastic pollution interfered with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria,” says lead author and Macquarie University researcher Dr Sasha Tetu.

“Now we’d like to explore if plastic pollution is having the same impact on these microbes in the ocean.”

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National Science Week federal grants 2019

National Science Week

Announcement from the National Science Week office at Questacon

Congratulations to all of the successful recipients in the 2019 National Science Week grant round. A total of $723 000 has been awarded to 53 projects.

QuestaGame players using the app

Can you get a decent cup of coffee in space? What makes a cell turn into cancer? Why are Port Adelaide’s dolphins special?

National Science Week grant projects will explore the far reaches of the universe through a travelling observatory, an art exhibition, virtual reality and a multimedia experience of gravitational waves. Sustainability will be a focus for Perth’s suburbs, the Indigenous knowledge of Tasmania’s midlands will be shared and celebrated, and Rob and Dean from The Curiosity Show will team up with the Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra.

The projects are listed below in the state or territory where the lead applicant is located.

ACT | NSW | NT | QLD | SA | TAS | VIC | WA

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Building farms and towers at sea to feed and power the world

Macquarie University, Media releases

As partners in the $329 million Blue Economy CRC announced in Launceston

Chief investigators from Macquarie L-R: Dr Fatemeh Salehi, Professor Darren Bagnall, Dr Ming Li, Dr Rouzbeh Abbassi

Macquarie University engineers will develop new technologies for ocean infrastructure as part of the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre announced by Karen Andrews, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.

The Blue Economy CRC will drive an evolution in marine-based industries, unlocking enormous economic, environmental and technological benefits in aquaculture and renewable energy in Australia’s maritime zone.

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Macquarie University to link Australia’s future smart satellites

Macquarie University, Media releases

As partners in the $245 million SmartSat CRC announced in Adelaide this morning.

Eighty-four research and industry partners are contributing $190 million investment in cash and in kind to the new Cooperative Research Centre for Smart Satellite Technologies and Analytics, and the Australian government is contributing a further $55 million. The CRC is led by the University of South Australia. 

“A new generation of low-cost smart satellite technology has the potential to enhance agriculture, mining, communication and national security,” says Associate Professor Sam Reisenfeld, who leads Macquarie University’s contribution to the CRC.

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Prizes; election wish lists; event grants and a NASA astrobiologist for Science Week

Science stakeholder bulletins

CORRECTION: In our science news bulletin sent out on 3 April 2019 we stated that ARC, CSIRO, and NCRIS received funding cuts in the 2019 Federal Budget. This is incorrect and neither CSIRO, nor the ARC received funding cuts. We based our statement on an analysis by the Australian Academy of Science. This has since been clarified. Here is the updated media release and here is a statement about the CSIRO funding.


Over $350,000 in science prizes are open for nomination right now including 18 Eureka Prizes, WA and SA scientists of the year, and the APEC Science Prize. The ABC is inviting 10 postdocs to media bootcamps. The Science Academy’s awards are open, as are the Tall Poppies for early career researchers. Details on these, and more below. If you need help with your awards strategy, and with finessing nominations, give us a call. 

Are you using National Science Week? Last year, 1.2 million Australians got involved in more than 2,100 events. Now is the time to register your event, apply for state funding and be part of the action. More below. We’ll be providing national publicity support so, if you’ve got anything special planned, let us know.

My colleague Tanya Ha has prepared a summary of the science world’s response to the budget and the coming election. In one line: there’s nothing much to see yet.

Send your journos and science communication geeks to Switzerland in July for the World Conference of Science Journalists, which we hosted in Melbourne in 2007. Join us for a briefing at the Swiss Consulate in Sydney on Wednesday 17 April. Register on Eventbrite.

We’ve got communication training courses coming up in Melbourne (9 April and 29 May), Perth (early May), Sydney (21 May), Adelaide (4 June), Canberra (6 June) and Darwin (early August). And we have cost-effective 90-minute courses for ECR training.

  • Make Your Pitch forum: learn what makes a good pitch, write one, present and get feedback. Suitable for 10 to 200 participants and runs for 90 minutes. $2,000
  • Meet the Media: panel discussion with TV, radio and print journalists. Suitable for 10 to 100 participants and runs for 90 minutes. $2,000
  • Meet Business and Government: panel discussion with business and government advisors. Suitable for 10 to 100 participants and runs for 90 minutes. $2,000

More below and if you want to find out more call me on 0417 131 977.

In this bulletin:

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Lisa’s call to action; science and science writing prizes; Jane Goodall tour; and promoting women in science

Science stakeholder bulletins

Lisa Harvey-Smith has issued a call to action for International Women’s Day for a last minute push for nominations for the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. Entries close on Tuesday and the initial entry process has been simplified. Lisa is an astrophysicist and Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador. More on this, the Eurekas, France and EU grants below.

Primatologist Dr Jane Goodall is coming to Australia in May. See her around the country, and support her tour.

Our own team (pictured) is packed with talented female scientists-turned-communicators. Meet them at our media training courses around the country.

Our Director of Engagement Tanya Ha has shared her insights from media training scientists on LinkedIn. Read on for more information about our courses and upcoming workshop dates. We also offer cost effective training packages for larger HDR groups.

In this bulletin:

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Mission design at rocket speed

Australian science stories, Stories of Aus Sci, This Week

Planning space missions is traditionally a time-consuming and costly process. But the new Australian National Concurrent Design Facility (ANCDF), housed at UNSW’s Canberra campus, speeds things up so a mission can be planned in weeks rather than months.

Harnessing the expertise, design processes and software of the French Space Agency CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales), the UNSW team has created Australia’s first concurrent design facility.

The ANCDF allows engineers and scientists—both professionals and students—to design different parts of a mission in parallel rather than one after the other, which is the traditional approach. [continue reading…]

Wheat that’s good for guts

Australian science stories, Stories of Aus Sci, This Week

A new kind of wheat high in resistant starch can improve intestinal health

Bowel cancer is the world’s third most common cancer. A diet that includes more resistant starch, a kind of fibre that feeds good bacteria in the large intestine, can make it less common. Resistant starch helps improve gut health and reduces the risk of conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Since 2006, CSIRO scientists have been working in a joint venture with French company Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients and the Grains Research and Development Corporation to develop wheat with more resistant starch. [continue reading…]

A polariton filter turns ordinary laser light into quantum light

Macquarie University, Media releases

Nature Materials paper Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Artist’s impression of the polaritonic photon conversion platform. Laser photons enter through the top mirror and leave through the bottom mirror exhibiting quantum ‘granularity’ – after interacting with the semiconductor layer. Image: Andrew Wood

An international team of researchers led out of Macquarie University has demonstrated a new approach for converting ordinary laser light into genuine quantum light.

Their approach uses nanometre-thick films made of gallium arsenide, which is a semiconductor material widely used in solar cells. They sandwich the thin films between two mirrors to manipulate the incoming photons.

The photons interact with electron-hole pairs in the semiconductor, forming new chimeric particles called polaritons that carry properties from both the photons and the electron-hole pairs. The polaritons decay after a few picoseconds, and the photons they release exhibit distinct quantum signatures.

The teams’ research was published overnight in the journal Nature Materials.

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Trees remember heatwaves

Macquarie University, Media releases

Eucalyptus grandis

The flooded gum or rose gum (Eucalyptus grandis). Photo: Geoexplore

An Aussie eucalypt can ‘remember’ past exposure to extreme heat, which makes the tree and its offspring better able to cope with future heatwaves, according to new research from Macquarie University.

This finding could have important implications for restoring ecosystems and climate-proofing forestry, as the number of hot days and heatwaves increase due to climate change.

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The Milky Way is warped

Macquarie University, Media releases

A slightly exaggerated impression of the real shape of our warped and twisted Milky Way. Image: Xiaodian Chen (National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

The first accurate 3D map of our galaxy reveals its true shape: warped and twisted.

Background information and further images below.

Astronomers from Macquarie University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have used 1339 ‘standard’ stars to map the real shape of our home galaxy in a paper published in Nature Astronomy today.

They found the Milky Way’s disc of stars becomes increasingly ‘warped’ and twisted the further away the stars are from the galaxy’s centre.

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Cane toads: what they do in the shadows

Macquarie University, Media releases

A juvenile cane toad (Rhinella marina) in Emma Gorge, Western Australia. Photo: M.G. Swan

Cane toads are picking up some shady habits, according to a new study co-authored by a Macquarie University researcher.

Toads in Western Australia have been spotted awake and active during the day in deeply shaded habitats, despite the species usually being nocturnal in Australia and other parts of the world.

However nearby cane toad populations at more exposed sites remained only active at night.

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Promiscuous females and their role in evolution

Macquarie University, Media releases

A promiscuous female fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) marked with paint. Photo: The Wigby Lab

Males have to make less of an effort to mate with promiscuous female fruit flies, making the quality and quantity of their semen all the more important in the competition to fertilise the females’ eggs.

This also leads to male flies repeatedly mating with the same female, according to a paper published overnight in Nature Communications, by researchers from Macquarie University, the University of Oxford and the University of East Anglia, who looked into the eyes of thousands of fruit flies.

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The shape of a perfect storm: saving lives by predicting firestorms

Fresh Science, Media releases

Scientists available for interview – details and photos below.

Correction: an earlier version stated the tool is being formally trialed by the NSW Rural Fire SERVICE. It is currently in use, but formal trials ended in 2016.

A fully developed pyrocumulus cloud, formed from the smoke plume of the Grampians fire in February 2013. Credit: Randall Bacon

Firestorms are a nightmare for emergency services and anyone in their path. They occur when a bushfire meets a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental conditions and creates a thunderstorm.

Dr Rachel Badlan and Associate Professor Jason Sharples are part of a team of experts from UNSW Canberra and ACT Emergency Services that has found the shape of a fire is an important factor in whether it will turn into a firestorm.

Fires that form expansive areas of active flame, rather than spreading as a relatively thin fire-front, are more likely to produce higher smoke plumes and turn into firestorms, the researchers found.

This finding is being used to underpin further development of a predictive model for firestorms. The model was trialed in the 2015 and 2016 fire seasons by the ACT Emergency Services Agency and the NSW Rural Fire Service, and now forms part of the national dialogue around extreme bushfire development.  

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The quest for the missing proteins in rice

Macquarie University, Media releases

Rice (Oryza sativa) is the major food source for more than half the world’s population. Photo: Pille-Riin Priske/Unsplash CC

Researchers have identified over 5,700 new proteins in rice and are calling for a global effort to find the remaining missing proteins, in a new study co-authored by Macquarie University.

The international team of scientists from Australia, Iran and Japan say there’s an estimated 35,000 proteins encoded by the rice genome, and yet we still don’t have experimental evidence for 82 per cent of them.

This is important because rice is the major food source for more than half the world’s population, and in order for it to grow in warmer climates and with less water we will need to better understand rice at the molecular level. [continue reading…]