Stopping superbugs with ‘tyre tracks’; from chemical weapons to saving the planet; media award

Bulletins, Media bulletins, National Science Week

Today: fighting superbugs with ‘tyre tracks’

Cynthia Whitchurch discovered that dangerous bacteria follow each other like ants, or 4WD drivers following tracks in the sand. She plans to stop them in their tracks and new catheters are being developed using her ideas. She’s won the David Syme Prize and is at UTS in Sydney.

More details below, and call Cynthia on 0408 408 443 or Marea Martlew, Media & PR Advisor (Science) on 0424735255

Starting 23 July: Chemistry: from chemical weapons to saving the planet

Trump’s ‘Aussie mate’, three Nobel Prize winners, and 2,500+ chemists converge in Melbourne.

Topics and speakers include:

  • CEO Dow Chemical Company and ‘Trump’s Aussie mate’ Andrew Liveris
  • Caltech scientist Frances Arnold, pioneer of ‘directed evolution’
  • Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
  • 100 years of Australian chemistry: what have we achieved and what’s next?

More below.

And coming up in August…

International geeks and gurus

  • Interstellar visual effects wizard Oliver James
  • Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and The Glass Universe
  • Physicist, astrobiologist, author and broadcaster Paul Davies
  • Canadian astronaut and ‘Space Oddity’ Chris Hadfield

Plus NASA scientists; the schoolboy entrepreneur; Mars One candidates; and a 21st Century Sherlock.

From biofabrication to better batteries: IMPACT7 finals. See researchers pitch their ideas to investors, innovators and start-up leaders in Melbourne

Over 1,300 local events from Tiwi Islands to the Australian Antarctic Division research bases.

  • Life on Mars at Sydney Opera House
  • Virtual reality trips from outer space to inside a plant cell
  • Art meets science in an exploration of ‘Blood’
  • Students competing to build the best bridges or soccer-playing robots
  • Hundreds of schools explore the science of sustainability with ‘Future Earth

All for National Science Week 12-20 August. More below.

Media awards

Awards are open for the American Association for the Advancement of Science for international science stories. Read on for details.

Kind regards,


In this bulletin:

  • Fighting drug resistant bugs with ‘tyre tracks’
  • What have we achieved in 100 years of chemistry? And what’s next?
  • From biofabrication to better batteries: IMPACT7 competition takes research from lab to life
  • NASA scientists, Future Earth, and a she-Sherlock for National Science Week
  • AAAS science journalism awards go global

First female scientist to win the David Syme Research Prize in over thirty years

Fighting drug resistant bugs with ‘tyre tracks’

Cynthia Whitchurch discovered that dangerous bacteria in biofilms follow each other like ants, or 4WD drivers following tracks in the sand. Then she showed she could create microscopic tracks on medical devices to limit the spread of the bacteria that cause infection. Based on her work, new types of catheters are being developed that are less likely to become infected.

For these and other discoveries, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) scientist Associate Professor Cynthia Whitchurch has been jointly awarded the David Syme Research prize for the best original research in biology, physics, chemistry or geology, produced in Australia during the preceding two years. The prize was established in 1904 by a bequest from the publisher of The Age. It is administered by The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science.

The other awardee is UTS physicist Associate Professor Igor Aharonovich for his discovery of new sources of photons for quantum technologies.

Whitchurch is one of a handful of women to receive the award since its inception in 1906. The last was Professor Suzanne Cory, immediate past president of the Australian Academy of Sciences (1982).

As a microbiologist in UTS’ ithree institute, Whitchurch has spent her career studying how bacteria coordinate their behaviour and activities to form biofilms so that she might discover new ways to treat infection and reduce antibiotic use.

Biofilms give bacteria extra protection from antibiotics and grow on implanted medical devices such as catheters. Whitchurch discovered that bacteria organise themselves using a process called stigmergy. “Imagine a 4WD creating tracks across the sand dunes, there’s a natural tendency to follow that path,” she says, “that’s stigmergy.” It’s common in nature, for example in ants and zebras.

The bacterium that Whitchurch focuses on is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It is a ‘superbug’ and number two on the World Health Organization’s ‘critical’ priority list of pathogens requiring urgent development of new antibiotics.

Whitchurch tested whether small furrows in silicone can inhibit biofilm expansion and confirmed that they did. Her team’s findings have resulted in an industry partnership with a Sydney-based catheter manufacturer. The potential benefit to hospital patients and aged care clients is significant because nearly 25 per cent of hospital patients require catheters.

The second part of Whitchurch’s original work is around a related phenomenon she terms ‘explosive cell lysis’ where bacteria release ‘public goods’ back into the biofilm where they are used by other members of the community.

Igor Aharonovich is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Biomedical Devices (IBMD) at UTS. His research underpins the development of quantum computing based on photonics. He led his team in the discovery of new sources of single photons – including gallium nitride and zinc oxide that could help quantum technologies transition from a laboratory to a commercial setting in the form of ultrasensitive sensors and key components for secured communications.

Aharonovich has also made breakthroughs in the broader field of physical sciences by engineering quantum emitters in an atomically thin material (2D material) – hexagonal boron nitride.

“This award recognises the extraordinary contributions Cynthia and Igor have made in their fields. Through their respective research, they have expanded our understanding of of antibiotic resistance and made significant strides towards realising quantum technologies,” says Professor Glenn Wightwick, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at UTS.

“These achievements reflect the quality of research being undertaken at UTS, and our focus on delivering outcomes that benefit society.”

“I am delighted with the outcome of this year’s David Syme Research Prize, particularly as it recognises our faculty’s active role in promoting research excellence and the achievements of women in STEM,” says Professor Karen Day, Dean of Science at The University of Melbourne.

“As Dean of Science, I am also pleased to celebrate the research of one of our alumni, Associate Professor Aharonovich.”

Contact details:

A/Prof Cynthia Whitchurch – p: 02 9514 4144 m: 0408 408 443,
Marea Martlew, Media & PR Advisor (Science) – p: 02 95141766 m: 0424735255,

What have we achieved in 100 years of chemistry? And what’s next?

9 conferences and 2,500+ chemists under one roof

  • What’s the role of chemistry in shaping the economy, now and in the future?
  • What is e-drug discovery and what will it offer medicine?
  • Can chemistry help save the planet through energy storage or cleaner production?
  • How will chemistry address the challenges of the 21st Century?

In two weeks, Melbourne will host the RACI 100 Centenary Congress, celebrating the 100th birthday of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) and bringing nine national, regional and international conferences under one congress roof.

Visiting speakers include:

  • ‘Trump’s Aussie mate’ Andrew Liveris – Australian-born, US-based chairman and CEO Dow Chemical Company, who Trump has appointed to lead his American Manufacturing Council.
  • Nobel Prize for Chemistry (2005) winner Robert Grubbs (Caltech), who won for his work on a multistep reaction process and catalysts to help it. The benefits can be cleaner, cheaper and faster reactions.
  • His Excellency Mr Ahmet Üzümcü – Director-General, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner)
  • Frances Arnold (Caltech) – American scientist and engineer, and a pioneer of ‘directed evolution’, which uses chemical engineering to create useful biological systems such as highly reactive enzymes or microorganisms that convert biomass to alternatives fuels.
  • Martyn Poliakoff (University of Nottingham) – a green chemistry research leader working with supercritical fluids – gases compressed under so much pressure that they have properties of both gases and liquids. Martyn is also a star of the YouTube series The Periodic Table of Videos.

If you’d like to attend the conference, media passes are available—contact Suzannah Lyons on to register.

We’ll be tweeting news and interesting content from the Congress from @RACI_HQ and using #RACI100.

For more information about the Congress itself, visit the website:


From biofabrication to better batteries: IMPACT7 competition takes research from lab to life

On 1 August, finalist IMPACT7 researchers will pitch problem-solving projects to industry and the public.

They’ll be pitching to a group of ‘Impact Leaders’ including Charles Day (Office of Innovation and Science Australia CEO), Amanda Caples (Victoria’s Lead Scientist), Lara Olsen (Tesla Energy APAC), Alex Wonhas (Sustainable Industries, Aurecon), and John Dyson (Investment Principal at Starfish Ventures).

The IMPACT7 finalists are:

  • Preventing global ecosystem collapses: Lucie Bland, Research Fellow, Centre for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University
  • Seeing small: LuciGem, diamonds for biomedical imaging: Carlo Bradac, Research Fellow, UTS
  • Biofabrication: the hospital of the future: Mathilde Desselle, Project Manager: Biofabrication and Tissue Morphology, QUT
  • LithSonic: Daniel Jewell, Project Manager, LithSonic
  • GEF-D (Geo Energy Foundation Design): Guillermo Narsilio, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne
  • Passive Radar: see without being seen: James Palmer, CEO, Silentium Defence
  • CONSULT: A brain surgery planning tool: Lee Reid, Research Fellow, Australian e-Health Research Centre, CSIRO
  • Using bacteria to fight mosquito-borne disease: Perran Ross, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

The day will be hosted by broadcaster Marc Fennell, with biomedical innovator and 2005 Australian of the Year Fiona Wood the keynote speaker.

More information:

NASA scientists, Future Earth, and a she-Sherlock for National Science Week

National Science Week just over one month away, from 12 to 20 August.

We’ll be helping to promote the best stories and talent of the Week. Here’s a taste:

International guests coming to Australia:

  • Canadian astronaut and ‘Space Oddity’ Chris Hadfield
  • The man behind the visual effects of the movie Interstellar, Double Negative Chief Scientist Oliver James
  • Acclaimed US science writer Dava Sobel, author of books including The Glass Universe and Longitude
  • English physicist, writer and broadcaster Paul Davies

Local science stars:

  • 17-year-old inventor, social entrepreneur and educational pioneer Taj Pabari, who developed a build-it-yourself tablet and creativity kit for kids
  • Forensic chemist and modern day Sherlock Holmes Shari Forbes, who uses a ‘farm’ of buried bodies to study the smell of death and decay
  • Astrophysicist and science communicator Alan Duffy, Mamamia’s ‘hot astronomer
  • Katie Mack—the astrophysicist J K Rowling follows and retweets—who will be the Women in Physics Touring Lecturer, before heading back to America in 2018

Over 1,300 events are already registered—from the Tiwi Islands to the Australian Antarctic Division research bases—with dozens being added daily:

  • Life on Mars at the Sydney Opera House, with astrophysicists and NASA scientists
  • Big Science Adelaide—a new festival bringing big issues, brilliant minds, great sights and top science to Adelaide’s CBD, with events such as SAHMRI’s exploration of Proton Therapy for cancer treatment
  • Neuroscience meets music at the Harry Perkins Institute
  • Catch a Rising Star events, with women in science touring regional Queensland
  • The Questagame Great Australian Biodiversity Challenge online competition, where participants can join the botanic garden team of their choice and find and identify iconic Australian species
  • Science Gallery Melbourne’s first exhibition/experiment ‘Blood’
  • Robocup Junior finals in Tasmania
  • The Aurecon Bridge Building Competition, challenging senior students around Australia to put their engineering skills to the test

Organisers are registering local event details online at and we’ll let you know about events and stories relevant to your round/area in coming weeks.

Visit our National Science Week media centre for more information and images.


AAAS science journalism awards go global

Call for international nominations for American science journalist awards

Are you a science journalist working on stories other than medical and health science?

The science journalism awards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAS) were opened up to science journalists worldwide last year.

The Kavli Science Journalism Awards recognise excellence in scientific journalism (outside of the fields of health science and medical science). For the 2017 awards, the nominated works must have been published between 16 July 2016 and 15 July 2017. The entry deadline is 1 August 2017.  There are separate categories for newspaper (large and small), magazine, TV (in-depth and spot news), radio or podcast, online and children’s science news.

More information here: rules, guidelines, FAQ.

View last year’s winners.