Meet the next generation of Aussie scientists and engineers

Taking a closer look at this years teen-scientists

Taking a closer look at this year’s teen-scientists

How much did you love your Bunsen burner time at school? Or were you more of an adoring-algebra type?

To us, nothing is more valuable and important than nurturing a love of science and technology in the next generation. This is why the BHP Billiton Science and Engineering Awards are such a terrific motivator for students looking to turn their great ideas into reality.

So, before you get lost in your high-school reminiscing, we thought we should share a couple of the entries which have made it to the finals this year.

Prepare to be humbled.

Nick's treatment of honey bee silk has some amazing potential for industries

Nick’s treatment of honey bee silk has some amazing potential for industries

Silky Smooth

The honey bee doesn’t normally come to mind when you think about the production of silk. Interestingly honey bee silk has some amazing industrial uses, particularly in biomedical work.

Nick East, 15, from Canberra has discovered a way that honey bee silk can be purified and treated more cost-effectively than current methods. Honey bee silk can be used for replacing parts of the human body – from ligaments to supporting the immune system. Nick went even further to investigate how the honey bee silk protein could be used to deliver a controlled-release of drugs into the system.

Nick’s entry created a buzz in our team, as we’re no strangers to working with bees for science.

Katherine's project looks at improving building safety in cyclone-prone areas

Katherine’s project looks at improving building safety in cyclone-prone areas

Raising the roof. And the bar.

Hailing from cyclone-prone northern Queensland, Kimberley Hardwick, 17, is in the running for the awards for her investigation into how different roof designs stand up in windy conditions.

Kimberley’s project isn’t a whole lot of bluster, in fact it stands up really well against the competition.

By looking into how roof features – such as pitch and surface area – would affect uplift during a cyclone, Kimberley was able to develop a series of recommendations to reduce the pressure placed on a house.

This entry has the potential to save money, houses and people’s lives.

The youngest finalist Dhruv, shows off his in-home sensors, PROTEGO

The youngest finalist Dhruv, shows off his in-home sensors, PROTEGO

Keeping a digital eye on the elderly

To our youngest finalist, Dhruv Verma, 14, from Victoria. Dhruv has developed PROTEGO, or PROactive Technology for Elderly on the GO.

Inspired by his great grandfather who lived independently into his nineties until he had a fall, Dhruv designed PROTEGO to help address the increasing strain on our aged care system by allowing elderly people to live independently in their own homes for longer.

Harnessing some clever technology, such as in-home sensors and real-time alerts sent to carers via their smartphones, this entry is all about using latest tech for social good.

If great minds think alike, then Dhruv is in good company – our scientists are trialling a similar system in Queensland.

We wish all the young entrants the best of luck at the awards next week, and we look forward to working with you in the not too distant future.

The BHP Billiton Science and Engineering awards are a partnership between BHP Billiton, CSIRO and the Australian Science Teachers Association. They are sponsored by BHP Billiton and managed by CSIRO. The awards are also supported by the Intel Corporation.

The winners will be announced in Melbourne next week by Mr Bryan Quinn, Head of Group Technology and Geoscience and Engineering, CSIRO Board Member, Professor Tom Spurling and Australian Science Teachers Association President, Ms Robyn Aitken.


The Hungry Microbiome Part 2: Starch

Plants eat sun, plants make giant cell. Simple.

Plants eat sun, plants make giant, squiggly cell. Simple.

Welcome to the second installment in our four-part animated series on the digestive system.

Today we’re talking about starch – so let’s start with some background.

Almost all of our food comes either directly or indirectly from plants: directly, when we are eating plant parts (leaves and stems), their storage organs (vegetables), their burgeoning embryos (fruits), or their offspring (seeds and pulses), and indirectly when we devour animals that ate plants themselves.

Plants have many components that can be used by our bodies. From their seeds we obtain amino acids to build muscles and upkeep our own cells. And by eating plants and therefore plant cells, we digest their DNA, break it down, and recycle it to use in our own DNA. Some elements and minerals such as phosphorus are necessary for our survival.

But plants need phosphorus just as much as us. Plants get phosphorus via their roots, which get it via the soil (which is composed of pulverised phosphate-rich rocks). Whether we eat the herbivores that are feasting on the plants, or go straight to the plants, we are replenishing our phosphorus reserves to make more cells. All of this phosphorus, used in our very genetic make up, is ultimately derived from soil and rocks — the Earth. Hippies sure know their biochemistry.

Among many of the nutrients created by plants, for plants, starch is a fundamental one.

So what’s the deal with it?

‘Sup with starch?
In this video, we take a look at starch and the role it plays in our digestive system. What is it? Where’s it come from? Why is it important?

But that’s not all there is to know about starch. When our own bodies consume too much food, instead of excreting it and wasting those precious resources, our body converts those nutrients into storage materials for later use on a rainy day. If we ingest more simple sugars than we need, for example, our bodies will take those components, transform them into fats, and store them away in our body. Then, when food is scarce, those fats can be broken down and used as life-preserving energy.

Plants do this too. Instead of fat, plants use ‘starch’, and instead of love handles, plants have potatoes and yams. Where animals eat plant sugars, plants make plant sugars from scratch. If they make too much, they’ll fold up the sugars into starch and store it in their tubers. To the plants existential dismay, hungry animals — too inept to make their own sugar — come fossicking for the plants’ precious starch reserves.

Some plants protect their starch with lethal solanine, the toxic chemical found in green potatoes, while others forfeit their reserves to rabbits. Ehh, what’s up doc?

Nonetheless, once the starch is consumed by us hungry herbivores, it must be broken down into its constituent saccharine parts. For true herbivores, rabbits and cows and the like, this is not such a problem. For more omnivorous creatures such as ourselves, starch is a hard nut to crack. Our bodies have evolved elaborate mechanisms to get the most out of starch, but, as always, we must rely on our bacterial comrades to finish the job for us.

For more information on starch, its ultimate fate in our insides, and why we need it more than it needs us, Check out these videos!


Digital trend: the time is ripe for “creatives”

Image of Stefan Hajkowicz

Stefan Hajkowicz – Principal scientist for strategic foresight

By Emily Lehmann

It’s hard for some of us to remember a time when phones couldn’t take video (you can video conference with the humble home phone nowadays), let alone life without the internet. In fact, some of you reading now may not have even been born yet.

Last year delivered everything from a smartphone that you can use as a credit card to ground-breaking, tech-like tiny robots that can swim through the bloodstream.

We have also been busy working on some great developments, like the very clever work of our own team (who doesn’t want a 3D-printed bike?).

The Flying Machine's 3DP-F1 has luges 3D printed out of titanium

The Flying Machine’s 3DP-F1 has luges 3D printed out of titanium

Not all technology was welcome of course – we are looking at you selfie stick – but generally the last few years have been great for technological advancements.

And, yet we must pause and remember our ancient proverbs – “With great leaps forward in technology, comes great responsibility.”

Over the weekend, the World Economic Forum (WE Forum) announced a new collaboration tasked with a mission called the Global Strategic Foresight Community.

It is bringing thought leaders from all over the globe together to compare and contrast insights into global shifts (megatrends), and positively shape the future.

We’re delighted because our principal scientist for strategic foresight Stefan Hajkowicz is one of the 32 members chosen to take part.

As part of this community of experts Stefan will explore the potential of the creative economy. His report shows that creative services (e.g. music, film, theatre, arts, entertainment and a wide range of knowledge products) are an underappreciated bright spot of the global economy.

Which is odd, considering how resilient these industries are. For example, when the global financial crisis threw an enormous spanner into the world economy, creative services continued to grow by an average rate of 14 per cent per annum worldwide, while international trade contracted by 12 per cent.

The creative economy has great potential, and Stefan predicts that they could grow significantly in the future thanks to:

  • Greater income growth in developing countries – opening even more markets
  • Technological change – creating new platforms and ways to collaborate and trade
  • The growth of the internet – which will continue to fuel creative industries with more ideas and opportunities.

The internet is growing as a platform to deliver products such as music and television rapidly and for little cost. Take for instance, the growing number of people using video, media and music streaming websites to get the latest content instantly for a fraction of the price of traditional retailers or outlets.

3D printers could allow virtual goods to be made cheaply on demand, without the need to own a factory or warehouse. Already you can purchase 3D-printed jewellery and quirky accessories online, while companies and researchers are now experimenting and developing products like 3D-printed prosthetic limbs (we successfully printed and implanted a titanium ankle bone last year), clothing and cars.

3D printed titanium heel implant

The 3D-printed titanium heel implant

Advances and trends like this will have a massive impact, by increasing trade in creative services and changing the way the world economy works. They can even help to alleviate some of the world’s greatest challenges like youth unemployment and poverty. We are excited Stefan will be taking part and shaping the conversation.

You can read more about Stefan’s global shifts at the WE Forum’s Global Strategic Foresight Community and his forthcoming book Global Megatrends will be available through CSIRO Publishing in April.


Cosmic radio burst caught red-handed

Nicholas Kachel:

An international team of scientific sleuths are putting together the pieces of a cosmic puzzle – attempting to identify the source of powerful “fast radio bursts” that have originated from the far corners of our known Universe.

Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:

News this week that astronomers using our Parkes radio telescope have detected a short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth is the latest chapter in a cosmic ‘whodunnit’ mystery. We have mounting evidence, a team of detectives, and a good pinch of suspense. All we need now is to find the body.

The evidence
‘Fast radio bursts’ are short and bright: they last only milliseconds but give out an enormous amount of energy.

The first burst was discovered in 2007 by astronomers combing old Parkes data archives for unrelated objects. Five more detections were made from Parkes data before researchers using data collected with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico made the first finding using another facility.

This latest discovery, made by Swinburne University of Technology PhD student Emily Petroff, is the first ‘live’ detection of one of these mysterious bursts…

View original 442 more words


Smart home tech: keeping you independent in your golden years

How will you spend your golden years? Image: Flickr / Smitty

How will you spend your golden years? Image: Flickr / Smitty

By Emily Lehmann

Have you thought much about retirement? Do you think about long days on the beach, or picking tomatoes in the garden, or lounging on the back deck with a J.K. Rowling novel? Or was it Hilary Mantel? Whatever your dreams, it’s fair to say most people see themselves spending that time in their own home, their independence assured.

The reality can be markedly different. As we age, or as a result of disease, daily tasks can become increasingly difficult, putting our health and safety at risk. And our independence.

To help the elderly and those living with a disability stay at home for longer, we’ve come up with a sensor-based care system that allows carers to keep an eye on their loved ones.

For Sunshine Coast resident Eleanor Horton, our Smarter Safer Homes technology has been a massive help in caring for her husband Patrick who suffered a severe stroke 15 years ago.

The stroke greatly affected his mobility – he gets around using a stick and a splint – and left him with only one working arm.

Using the technology, Eleanor can monitor Patrick’s health and safety while at work or away from home. It has meant she can continue her job as a senior lecturer at the Sunshine Coast University and juggle visits to her now elderly parents.

The technology uses motion and heat sensors to subtly and non-invasively track Patrick’s movements. It can detect, for example, whether he rose from bed at the usual time, how much he’s moved around that day, falls or slips, or if the oven has been left on.

It also collects critical disease-specific health information, can potentially alert carers to emergencies and allows Patrick and Eleanor to stay connected online.

Eleanor and David

Eleanor Horton and director of our e-Health research, David Hansen with the app.

The Hortons are one of five Queensland households participating in a trial of the technology we’re undertaking in partnership with Global Community Resourcing and Bromilow Home Support Services.

So far the results have been promising, and we’re hoping to roll out the technology into hundreds more homes.

With Australia’s ageing population, this type of technology could become a standard feature in home care services of the future, as a cost-effective way of easing pressure on aged care facilities and wider healthcare system.

It could help ease pressure on the healthcare system by reducing hospitalisation and regular visits to the clinic for the monitoring of chronic disease, while enhancing the lives of patients and their carers.

Read more about our Smarter Safer Homes technology.

We’re also working on other measures to help sufferers manage chronic disease at home, including telehealth:


A shark’s tale: is there something fishy in the waters off Newcastle?

shark 4

A shark off Burwood beach, Newcastle, on Thursday. Pic: Peter Stoop, courtesy Heliservices Newcastle

The coastal city of Newcastle is in the midst of a media frenzy, thanks to a string of shark sightings close to popular swimming beaches.

A 15 kilometre stretch of beaches has now been shut for a record six consecutive days, with lifeguards and police craft reporting shark sightings seemingly by the hour. Of most concern have been a purportedly 5 metre, 1,700kg White shark that has been lingering along the coastline; and what is suspected to be a 3 metre tiger shark that was photographed attacking and killing a small dolphin only 50 metres from the shore yesterday (warning: graphic images).

While no attacks on humans in the area have yet been recorded, the sharks have become national celebrities in their own right, with widespread media coverage and commentary. There has even been a Twitter account set up for the @Newy_Shark (which is one account you probably don’t want to be “followed” by).

So what’s the deal here? Are we seeing the real-life return of Jaws? Has a curse been struck down upon the town of Newcastle by Poseidon himself? Is a Sharknado next?

Our resident White shark expert, Barry Bruce, knows a thing or two about these ancient predators. He is one of Australia’s pre-eminent authorities on the species and is the head of our White Shark Research Program. But he is perhaps most famously known for having one of Finding Nemo’s most famous characters named after him.

According to Barry, the story behind Newcastle’s shark saga is far less salacious. Thankfully, we’re not gonna need a bigger blog.

The coastline just north of Newcastle (stretching from the appropriately named Stockton Bight to the even tastier-sounding Seal Rocks) is famously known as being a nursery ground for White sharks. These juveniles are usually about 2-3 metres in length, and a tagging program undertaken by Barry and his team has shown that they are more than prevalent in the area.

Satellite positions for 19 tracked juvenile White sharks in the Port Stephens region 2007 – 2010. Registered positions are colour-coded for each shark. Dotted pink line denotes approximate boundary of the White shark nursery area.

Satellite positions for 19 tracked juvenile White sharks in the Port Stephens region 2007 – 2010. Registered positions are colour-coded for each shark. Dotted pink line denotes approximate boundary of the White shark nursery area.

Seeing a larger sized White in this area, like the infamous #NewyShark, is slightly less common, but still not at all unusual.

Large White sharks are well known to move up and down the New South Wales coastline, stopping in certain areas when food is prevalent. White sharks have been exhibiting this exact behaviour for countless millennia – it is only when they stop near a heavily populated area like Newcastle that we would notice.

But these are nomadic creatures, and they won’t stay in one spot for too long. We know through collaboration with our colleagues in New Zealand that white Sharks will travel as far north as the Great Barrier Reef – and even across the Tasman to NZ – in a span of just months.

Bruce and his team tagging a white shark with an acoustic tagging device.

Barry and his team tagging a white shark with an acoustic tagging device.

Barry puts the current concentration of sharks in Newcastle purely down to natural variability. Sharks go where the food goes – if there are more sharks in one area at one point in time, it means there will be less in others.

And while we’re in the mood for debunking myths, here’s another one: dolphins are just as much a food source for sharks as are any other species of their size. While it is uncommon for us to observe – and the images were undeniably distressing – sharks are well-known to attack dolphins. Unfortunately, what Flipper taught us was wrong.

More than anything, Barry says that this is a positive advertisement for the health of marine ecosystems in Australia. That there is a large enough food source to sustain shark populations is a good thing, and should be celebrated.

But of course, it is important for beachgoers to take advice from authorities when entering the water. While this is a natural spectacle that should be enjoyed, it is advisable to do so from a distance – and on land. In time it will run its course, and we can all return to the water.

White shark fast facts:

    • A common mistake people make is calling these awesome creatures, ‘Great White Sharks’, it’s actually just ‘White shark’ (Carcharodon carcharias). But we still think they’re still pretty great.
    • Sharks play a vital ecosystem role as top predators. Declines in top predators can cascade through the food web, seeing some species groups increase while eliminating others.
    • We have one of the most comprehensive White shark research programs in the world, with over 250 tagged White sharks in Australian waters. Check out a few shark tracks on our website.
    • Our tagging program provides us with a good idea of migration patterns – we know for example that there is an East and a Southwest population.
    • Our research on White sharks is a collaborative project funded under the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program.
    • We tag these beauties in a very humane way – in a sling, in the water:


The Hungry Microbiome Part 1: The Digestive System

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A diagrammatic overview of our digestive system, by Armando Hasudungan. Imagine if our organs were actually labelled like that…that’d be handy.

Welcome to the first in a four part series on the digestive system.

You might know it as the alimentary canal, or maybe just ‘the food tube’. Whatever you like to call it, it can be easy to ignore the digestive system and all of its complexities – that is, until something goes wrong with it. So why not be ahead of the game and learn a little more about our insides?

Basically, the digestive system is a tube with two ends. Food, rich in nutrients, enters one end of the tube, whereupon our body works hard to extract all it can. After some days, the ‘food’ exits the other end of the tube, largely devoid of its nutrient content.

But that’s only part of the story. We sought the assistance of Armando Hasudungan, a biomedical animator and explanation extraordinaire, to explain what’s really going on in your digestive system.

This series is composed of 9 digestion-related animations, which will be broken up into four blogs.

Today’s animation is an overview of the digestive system, a journey from the mouth to the poop chute and everything in between.

Part 1: The Digestive System

We hope that wasn’t too much to swallow! But if you’re still hungry for some more alimentary enlightenment, here’s some further food for thought:

Your body is composed of 100,000 billion cells – each of which need food to keep functioning. Thankfully, these guys aren’t snacking on breakfast burritos. They only need extremely tiny portions of food, broken down by our teeth, acid and enzymes, which are in turn fed to them by even smaller capillaries – just one cell thick.

These food-bearing capillaries have a massive delivery area, nourishing cells at the furthest reaches of our bodies. It’s not an easy job, when you consider the unimaginably tiny scales they are working at. But these guys are responsible for satiating brain cells, eye cells, hair follicles and bone cells – essentially keeping our body running.

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Breakfast burrito in the eye. Photo by Christopher Porter, Flickr.

Of course, our bodies are only so good at breaking down foods. As you now know, our mouths have amylase, an enzyme to break down starch. But if you were to try eating cardboard or grass or sand (which we do not recommend) your body would not extract one iota of nourishment.

Of course, there are many single-celled organisms that can eat ‘cellulose’ – the structural chemical that makes cardboard and grass inedible. There are even bacteria that can digest minerals from rocks.

What’s that we hear you saying? If only we could somehow ingest these bacteria, these single-celled eating machines, and use them to get more nutrients from our food?

Well, evolution has got you covered there. Literally covered. We have more cells of bacteria covering our insides and outsides than we do human ones. In fact, for every human cell composing your body, there are 10 bacterial cells in and on you. And you call yourself an individual, pah! Yes, we have billions of bacterial cells in our digestive systems, with a concentration in our large intestine, which also goes by another name: the colon. But more on that later.

Over the coming weeks, our ‘Hungry Microbiome’ animations are going to focus on carbohydrates, their breakdown by our microbiome (the bacteria in our guts), and the various benefits of butyrate – the molecule released by our little colonic companions.

We can’t wait! In the mean time, you can see more of Armando’s videos here.


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