Making STEM deadly

Picture of Tayla Macdonald

Tayla Macdonald

Before she went on a science and maths camp, 19-year-old Tayla Macdonald says, she didn’t have a huge interest in science. She wanted to be a journalist.

But the camp made science significant and meaningful to her, and to her family’s Aboriginal roots. Tailored for Indigenous students, the camp blended science with Aboriginal culture, involving fieldwork and activities at culturally significant sites.

‘The camp gave me the belief that a science degree could be possible and that perhaps it wouldn’t be as difficult as I thought it was. I felt like it opened up new possibilities and choices I hadn’t considered before,’ says Tayla.

Three years later and Tayla is studying medical science, hoping to specialise in paediatrics and work either in regional communities or in humanitarian aid.

Initiatives like this are important, because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects at university and in related professions is significantly lower than the Australian average.

Alarmingly, an international survey showed that, overall, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are around two-and-a-half years behind their peers in scientific and mathematical literacy, and this gap has remained the same over ten years.

The reasons for this are complex, but our research shows that tailored learning programs can make a real difference.

That’s why we’ve partnered with BHP Billiton Foundation to deliver a new education project for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students that aims to increase their participation and achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as STEM).

The five-year project is expected to involve Aboriginal students from all states and territories, from primary school through to tertiary education. It will cater to the diversity of learners – from those in remote communities through to high-achieving students attending mainstream schools.

Our research shows that community engagement, learning on-country and long-term investment and collaboration are vital for improving Indigenous education outcomes in science and maths subjects.

We’ve designed the project incorporating these elements, along with hands-on, inquiry-based learning approaches. There’s an awards program to recognise and reward high-achieving students.

This tailored approach will provide students with the learning setting and support they need for their best chance to achieve.

We hope students who participate in the program will consider taking up a career in science, just like Tayla.

Read more about our education program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.


When it comes to big data, the eyes really have it

Hungry microbiome

Hungry microbiome. Image by Christian Stolte and Christopher Hammang

Biological illustration has come on a bit from the days of Gould’s gorgeous illustrations of birds, or Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Today, with the help of big data and big graphics power, we can visualise things, not just at the molecular level, but at work.

But why – apart from because it’s beautiful and fascinating – do we do it? How is it helpful? What can it show us?

Obviously, we’ve been using rudimentary data visualisation for a very long time. Charts, maps, tables, graphs. All data visualisations, but not at the level we now find ourselves working at. As Sean O’Donoghue, from our Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, puts it, ‘Data visualisation is a new visual language; we need to become fluent in it to manage the complexity of computational biology’.

Let’s think about genomic data. The more we know, the more we need new tools to deal with the knowledge we have. And we now know a lot. We’ve got the ability to generate tremendous amounts of genomic data from sequencing. Analysing that data is now the roadblock to our being able to convert what we’ve found into something useable.

Visualisation of a genome

Everybody’s uniqueness. Image by Beat Wolf, Pierre Kuonen and Thomas Dandekar

Obviously, some genome analysis can be done using automated processes. But that still leaves a lot that depends on human judgement, particularly in the early stages such as hypothesis formation. Our concentration – and eyes – frankly aren’t up to spotting something different in a field of As, Cs, Gs and Ts (and nothing else), that seems to go on forever. Think of Where’s Wally?, in monochrome, with one Wally hidden on a single page hundreds of times larger than book pages. And then imagine that finding the Wally you’re looking for could make a big difference to people’s lives.

If we can combine visual and automated analysis, the pairing becomes more powerful. Users can user can seamlessly look at their data and perform computations on it, refining their analysis with each step.

Visualising also helps us reason about complex data. Sometimes, a well-chosen visualisation can make the solution to a complex problem immediately obvious. That’s because of the way that visual representations simultaneously engage the eyes and the memory. When we look at a visual, our eyes and our brain work in parallel to take in new information, and break it into small chunks. Then both the eyes and the brain process the bits in their different ways to extract meaning. It works like this.

You’ve gone to the supermarket – not your usual one – to buy bananas. When you walk in, your eyes scan the layout. At the same time, your brain is processing the various sections of the layout, and telling your eyes to home in on the fruit and veg section. It does this by sending signals from memory about how fruits look. Your eyes then break the entire scanned area into parts, then scan each part until they (all but instantly) recognise the veggie section. The same process is repeated until you spot the bananas in the fruits section. Your eyes and memory do their own things but work in parallel.

Protein folding visualisation

‘Folding beauty’ Image by Shareef Dabdoub and William Ray

We’ve used our brains to build tools that can help us discover more and more. But making sense of what they’ve found still depends on us and our limitations. Around half of the human brain is devoted – directly or indirectly – to vision. Visualising the vast streams of data lets us work with what we’ve got to make it something more than a hunt for a tiny needle in a monstrous haystack.

If you want to see more data visualisations, there are some beautiful ones at Vizbi.


Mission accomplished: lost bushwalker saved by flying robots

Outback_Joe_mannequinpicture-108

At long last, Outback Joe has been found.

By Emily Lehmann

Flying robot enthusiasts can breathe a deep sigh of relief, because Outback Joe has finally been saved after spending eight years lost in the bush.

This week, sixteen teams from around the world competed in the search and rescue mission to save our beloved Akubra-clad mannequin pal, who has year after year, been strategically placed in the Queensland outback as part of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge.

After eight years running, this was the first time that a team – not just one, but four– successfully delivered the emergency package to save Outback Joe, with the top team taking home a grand prize of $50 000.

Each team was tasked with developing their own custom-made UAV (a.k.a flying robot or drone) and navigating it through a course to first locate Outback Joe, and then secondly deliver him a life-saving bottle of water.

The competition brings some of the latest international aerial robotics technology and puts it to the test to highlight its value for use in search and rescue efforts.

These flying machines can cruise at various speeds – some are just like helicopters – and can mostly fly for 40 to 60 minutes at a time. They rely on modern computers and sensors, such as GPS, to figure out where they need to go in order to perform tasks that the operator has asked it to do.

The clever minds behind the winning ‘bot are from CanberraUAV and managed to score the most points out those that completed the challenge – two other Australian teams and one from the United States.

The winning CanberraUAV  team

The winning CanberraUAV team

The UAV Challenge also involves a delivery challenge for high school teams, taking place earlier in the week. Students build their flying robots from scratch, designing and developing the software and hardware needed for their own rescue mission for Outback Joe.

This year’s winner was the all-girl DareDivas team from Mueller College at Redcliffe with a $5 000 prize.

We run the UAV Challenge annually in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology.

One of the UAVs at the challenge (MelAvio)

One of the UAVs at the challenge (MelAvio)


Three men and a RAFT

Lab and chip
We’re certainly not counting any chickens. The champagne is definitely not on the ice. But there could be a few crossed fingers here and there. You might have seen a story going the rounds that three of our scientists are contenders for a Nobel Prize.

So we thought you might like to know more about the science that won them this level of respect.

Ezio Rizzardo, Graeme Moad and San Thang developed RAFT – Reversible Addition-Fragmentation chain Transfer – polymerisation. This is a method of producing the synthetic polymers (AKA plastics) that we use every day.

What makes it outstanding is that it allows chemists to produce polymers with defined properties and a chemical structure tailored to order. Before RAFT, making polymers was an inexact science. Using RAFT means chemists can have precise control over the way in which small molecules link together to form long polymer chains. They can now design the exact polymer to fit the purpose. The result is a whole new generation of polymeric materials.

Now, a new generation of plastics doesn’t sound too exciting. But it is.

Not only does it mean existing polymer-based products and devices will perform better, it also opens up new fields. There are a large number of possible new applications in areas like engineering materials, electronics, healthcare and biotechnology. And that’s only the ones we’ve already thought of. This is the kind of technology that can create fields that haven’t been thought of yet.

One of RAFT’s big hits so far is for creating OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), that can produce low-cost power-efficient lighting.

RAFT polymers also form the backbone of the printable solar cells we’re so thrilled about.

See, we told you plastic could be exciting.


Who will win, the Swans or the Hawks? We asked science

MCG grand final

Which bird is going to fly at the MCG?

By Fiona Brown

Wondering who’s going to win the AFL grand final on the weekend? We were too, so we did what scientists do best and undertook some research to predict whether it will be the Swans or the Hawks taking home the cup on Saturday afternoon. This is what we found.

In favour of the swans is their size and weight. They are among the largest flying birds, with a wingspan of up to 3 metres and weighing in at up to a solid 15 kg. Compared with the hawk*, which has a wingspan of around 95 centimetres and is lucky to tip the scales at 355 grams, we’re guessing that the Swans will surely have the advantage when it comes to tackling.

Will the Swans fly?

Could the Swans’ size, weight, and speed in the air see them fly away with a win? Image by Smudge 9000

However, when it comes to speed, is all that extra weight going to slow the Swans down? If you’ve ever seen a swan walk, you’ll know the answer to this one – yes. Swans are clumsy walkers, moving at slow speeds on dry land thanks to their short legs and large bodies. In contrast, hawks have relatively long legs for birds and will sometimes be seen stalking prey by running along the ground. The Swans will need to be careful that the Hawks don’t literally run away with the game.

Will the Hawks stare the Swans down?

Or will the Hawks’ speed on the ground and agility in the air see them dominate their prey? Image David Jenkins

Interestingly, in the air it’s not quite so clear cut as to who has the advantage – swans have the speed but hawks have better agility. The top speed of a Mute Swan** is claimed to be around 85 km/h, whereas when in pursuit of prey the hawk is reported to only reach speeds of up to 61 km/h. However, hawks are highly agile in flight, able to power through very small gaps in the canopy without colliding with branches. They use this ability to hunt, so are well-practised at using sudden, short bursts of speed to spring from a concealed perch, surprising unsuspecting prey. The take-home message? Watch out for some great marks!

Another key factor in predicting who will win any sporting match is the elusive team spirit. Who has the drive and aggression to get the job done? Which team will come together when it matters most? When it comes to aggression, both birds have pretty nasty reputations. Swans will aggressively protect their nests and young, using their size and powerful wings to ward off would-be predators (including humans). Hawks will also aggressively defend their territory, and they don’t get the title ‘bird of prey’ for nothing. They prey mainly upon other small to medium sized birds (including crows and magpies, which could explain Hawthorn’s defeat of Adelaide and Collingwood earlier in the season), but also eat mammals, amphibians, reptiles and occasionally insects. However, when it comes to commitment to the team, the Swans have it in the bag, with adult swans usually mating for life.

And lastly, what about the all-important weather forecast? With our friends at the Bureau of Meteorology predicting showers in Melbourne over the next couple of days and drizzle on Saturday morning, the G could be a bit damp under foot, which might be an advantage if those feet are webbed…!

Okay, so our ‘research’ might not be the most accurate method of predicting who’ll win the big game, but we definitely learnt something about our Australian feathered friends, and as Paul the Octopus clearly demonstrated, animals shouldn’t be dismissed when it comes to predicting results of football matches.

If you’d like to learn more about hawks, swans or any other Australian species for that matter, check out the Australia’s species page on the Atlas of Living Australia.

*Information about the hawks is based on our assumption that ‘hawk’ is short for ‘Brown Goshawk’, as this species of hawk has a brown head and body, yellow legs, and bright yellow eyes.

**The Swan’s mascot is based on the white species of swan found in Australia, which is the Mute Swan.


Bees backpacking in Brazil

Bee with a backpack...of the sensor variety.

Bee with a backpack…of the sensor variety.

By Emma Pyers

How do bees in the Amazon jungle compare to those in Tasmania? They get up earlier, for a start.

Paulo de Souza and his team have been tracking bees in the two regions using tiny backpack sensors as part of our Swarm Sensing Project to gather biological and ecological data to improve honey bee health.

The tiny backpacks are just a quarter of a centimetre square and are fitted to the back of the bees.

“We have already attached the micro-sensors to the backs of thousands of bees in Tasmania and the Amazon and we’re using the same surveillance technologies to monitor what each bee is doing, giving us a new view on bees and how they interact with their environment,” Paulo said.

Graph: Daily distribution of bees in Brazil and Tasmania

Daily distribution of bees in Brazil and Tasmania (click for large version)

“Once we have captured this information, we’ll be able to model it. This will help us understand how to manage our landscapes in order to benefit insects like bees, as they play such a key role in our lives. For example, one third of the food we eat relies on bees for pollination, that’s a pretty generous free service these humble insects provide us!”

Early modelling has shown one notable difference between the bees in Tasmania and those in the Amazon; Amazon bees are up and about very early in the morning while Tassie bees prefer to wait until the day warms up before they leave the hive.

But finding out what time bees get out of bed is only a tiny part of what the research can show us. For example the research will also look at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites with trace amounts of commonly used chemicals.


A global buzz in micro sensing

We’re working with the Vale Institute of Technology in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on micro-sensory technology and systems.

Working with researchers across the globe has its unique challenges as well as its rewards, and it’s the physical challenges that have been the most interesting.

“As the Africanised honey bees were very aggressive, the hive was placed in an isolated area away from housing and domestic animals – and isolation meant working in densely vegetated areas,” Paulo explained.  “We had to clear a path to the hive and we wore fully protective bee clothing which was tough given the extreme humidity and heat.”

The Brazilian media got a taste of what it was like to work in these conditions, when they suited up to interview Paulo and our colleagues from the Vale Institute of Technology about their work.

Pressure from the press

Pressure from the press

The collapse in global populations

Bee health is important globally however, honey bee populations around the world are in danger.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony abruptly disappear – and Varroa mite are two major problems facing bee populations globally. While these two problems haven’t appeared in Australia, there is a very real risk.  And what happens if it does? Catastrophe!

Check out this video where Peter Norris, Tasmanian beekeeper, describes his first hand experience with CCD while working in the United Kingdom.

So it’s a good thing our scientists, and their colleagues in Tassie and Brazil, are on the case.

To learn more about how we’re trying to save honey bees around the world tune into ABC Catalyst at 8pm tonight.

CSIRO’s Swarm Sensing Project is a partnership with the University of Tasmania and receives funding from Vale, a Global mining company.


Mining and biodiversity: are they getting along?

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 11: Mining

Dolphin poking its head out of the water in the foreground and a ship in the background

Dolphin conservation is carried out to offset impacts of infrastructure development in Darwin Harbour. Image: Carol Palmer

Many people worry about the environmental impacts of mining, but as a society we have a growing demand for its products. Most Australian’s consider it worthwhile and a valuable industry for the nation’s prosperity, as our recent national survey indicates.

The direct impacts of mining on biodiversity are relatively limited compared with other major land uses—less than 1% of the Australian land area is used for mining, while 62%  is used for agriculture for example.

The greatest threats to biodiversity from mining come from the cumulative impacts of the infrastructure required for mining operations—roads, ports, pipelines, shipping etc. Science can help to assess any potential implications for biodiversity from mining development so that impacts can be better managed and rehabilitation and offsetting efforts can be more effective.

In the eleventh video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Alan Andersen talks about the main impacts of mining on biodiversity and how these can be appropriately managed through processes like strategic regional assessments, use of bioindicators in rehabilitation, and biodiversity offsets:

To find out more about mining and biodiversity in Australia, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at the biodiversity in our inland water systems and how our approach to water management impacts ecosystem health. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.


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