Meet our Peeps: Rob Bell

Dr Rob Bell, CSIRO guy and face of Scope.

Jesse Hawley has a Facebook chat with…









Jesse Hawley   Jesse HawleyHey Rob, is this okay? I have around 15 questions, when are you free till?

Rob Bell   Rob BellI’m free until whenever really. I mean I have stuff to do, but no set times.

Jesse Hawley   Great to hear. How did your editing go?

Rob Bell   The episode turned out well, but was 34 seconds over, so after a few fix ups we had to find a little time to trim.

Jesse Hawley   It’s always tough trimming stuff. Okay, so the tone of ‘Meet our Peeps’ is casual bbq or dinner party, not formal.

Rob Bell     Cool.

Jesse Hawley     The audience is for Facebook, and our peak audience is 18-34 years old.

Rob Bell     I get a surprising number of people in the age range say they used to watch Scope (or maybe still do).

Jesse Hawley     Haha, I’m sure they watch it now too. My partner and I watch it together occasionally. We are both science geeks. 

Rob Bell   And now it is Saturday mornings, so it will catch even more waking up older people.

Jesse Hawley   Yeah, that’s great. Question number 1: What do you enjoy most about your job (you can incorporate your CSIRO and Ten experience)?

Rob Bell   My favorite part of working on Scope, but working for CSIRO, is that I get the best of both worlds. I really like jumping into a different area of science each week, because the shows are all themed (sometimes very specifically, sometimes quite loosely). I have learnt an awful lot researching for the show, some of which I am sure I have now forgotten.

Jesse Hawley   Excellent. Yeah, that’s very neat – exploring niches. Scientists are normally constrained to their own little microcosm. 

Rob Bell   Too true, and I think that was one of the reasons I didn’t pursue a life of research. Although I do often think about perhaps doing that still. Maybe.

Jesse Hawley   Yeah, I finished honours in bio two years ago and was contemplating the PhD, but the prospect of diving deeper into such a niche is a little off-putting. Communicators do have it good! 

Number two. If you were at a casual dinner party, how would you respond if someone asked what you do? AND, what you do for research (whenever you get/got the chance)?

Rob Bell   It’s funny I am never quite sure how to describe my job without sounding like I am blowing my own trumpet. I used to say that I was in Science Education, I think because people wouldn’t ask too much more about it, and that is what I did with CSIRO. But these days, now that at least a few more people seem to have heard of the show, I say I work on a kids science show. Overwhelmingly people think it is a great thing to be doing. If they don’t know the show they often assume we are on the ABC.

Jesse Hawley   Cool. It’s very neat to have a science show on a commercial station.

Rob Bell   I usually don’t tell people I am on the show, but sometimes they have an “aha” moment when they hear science and TV and realise they have seen me. Nowhere to hide then.

Jesse Hawley   Haha, yeah. Maybe they don’t recognise you without the context of the lab coat.

Rob Bell   I understand how Clark Kent did it now.

Jesse Hawley   Exactly. It’s all in the context. Last week I ran into our next door neighbours at the shops and they didn’t recognise me because I wasn’t at home on the stoop. 

Cognitive failings aside, question 3: What does your job entail on a week to week basis?

Rob Bell   Given that we pretty much make one half hour (well, 24 minute) show each week of the year, the weekly routine has to be pretty much constant. Monday and Tuesday are spent researching and writing all my bits (the stuff in between the stories that links it all together) for the episode we are due to film on Wednesday. Wednesday is filming. Thursdays I have off (kids etc.) and Friday we watch a completed episode (not the Wed. one) and make changes, fix ups etc. then begin to plan for the following week. In between that I help find stories, suggest ideas, themes, trips and read over other people’s story scripts to see how the science sounds. I am currently the only Scope team member with a science background.

Jesse Hawley   Great! That’s a full week indeed! 

It’s surprising to know there’s just one scientist on the team…

Rob Bell   There has been as many as 5 of us with science backgrounds in the past, but now TV people seem to be predominating. Personally half and half is a good mix I think.

Jesse Hawley   Yeah, I could imagine. FOUR) What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Rob Bell   Sorry my boss just dropped by for a quick chat about sets (we just moved studios). I’ll get onto 4, now.

Jesse Hawley   There certainly needs to be a critical number of creative types guiding the science folk.

Rob Bell   I think a career highlight in terms of Scope would have been winning the Japan Prize in 2008. Long time gone now I suppose, but it was an international award for educational television, and I was even flown to Japan for the ceremony and met the crown prince and princess. But I have been on many amazing trips with the show, digging dinosaur fossil in nth west qld last year was a great experience.

Jesse Hawley   Oh wow, they’re both big highlights.

I didn’t know there was a crown prince and princess in Japan.

Which fossil deposit were you digging at?
Rob Bell   We were about 45 minutes out Winton (2hrs from longreach), the dig was run by Qld Museum and the Age of Dinosaurs (set up after they discovered fossils out there a few years back).

Jesse Hawley   Did you find anything…?

Rob Bell   They were working on getting out vertebrae and pelvis of a big sauropod. Very encased in rock, but the real work was back in the fossil lab, they have a backlog of many years there still to clean up and prep. Digging them up is the quick part it seems.

Jesse Hawley   Hmm, I didn’t imagine that. I’ve heard they have plenty of unidentified species and things in the natural history museum, London, because of that back-log problem too.

What is the most funny/unique/odd situation you have experienced in your time at SCOPE?

Rob Bell   There have been a few of those. The show has always been a little quirky, and I have ended up in a few odd spots with my lab coat on. Perhaps the strangest was swimming with dolphins at SeaWorld (which was the good part), but then competing with them for the fish the trainers throw. Quite hard to catch a fish with our shaped mouths it turns out, but I got one once, and I took a while to get that taste out..

Jesse Hawley   Haha, it’s funny out that happens. I had a salmon sandwich for breakfast (I don’t know why), so I know about that inescapable fish taste. And good beakless catching skills!

Were you in your lab coat too?

Rob Bell   Yep, in the lab coat, which the dolphins found strange at first, they are used to strangers in wet suits, but not giant white creatures. But they quickly came around.

Jesse Hawley   It’s good to know they have open minds for when we have to welcome our new dolphin overlords.

Next question: What was your first job?

Rob Bell   My first paid job was picking strawberries. I grew up on a pineapple farm so had to help out a bit around the place, but they also grew strawberries in the district and during picking season would take all sorts and ages on. Tough on the knees that job. And I don’t like strawberries, but I think that was the case before picking them. I still like pineapple.

Jesse Hawley   Maybe that’s why they hired you. Definitely hire the guy who doesn’t like eating the crop. Perfect.

That’s a very Queenslandery first job

Rob Bell   Yeah, I guess I have spent a lot of my life as a walking cliché. Can’t escape it.

Jesse Hawley   Do you wear glasses? Because that would be the icing on the lab coat cake.

Rob Bell   No. Good point. I got out of that one at least.

Jesse Hawley   Thank you, parents’ genes. To calibrate the interview – we are exactly half way through the questions, so if you are busy, feel free to let me know.

Rob Bell   No, all good.

Jesse Hawley   Great.

Aside from berry pickin’, what profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Rob Bell   I don’t really know what they entail, but I remember liking the idea of being a tech stock analyst at one point or working in an ad agency (even though I dislike most advertising, maybe it isn’t clever enough?).

Jesse Hawley   Clever ads are few and far between. It would be nice to try and aim a bit higher.

What hobbies do you have outside of your work?

Rob Bell   I play football (soccer) and have done most of my life. Getting older and slower of course, but I refuse to acknowledge that on the field. I ride my bike a bit, but not enough to own lycra, and I am pretty avid about brewing beer.

Jesse Hawley  Well done with the lycra abstinence.

What advice would you give to somebody looking to follow your career path? Either a scientist, a TV person, or a science communicator (or all of the above).

Rob Bell   That is a tough one. I lucked into what I do really. Even getting my job with CSIRO Education without any real Education or communication study or background was probably a bit fortunate. From there, I was in the right place at the right time, as Totally Wild used to come and film segments, and I was the new guy. Getting into TV presenting is hard I think, there seems to be not really a very defined path. But Science, follow the area that interests you the most, and if it is all of them, get into Science Communications (I didn’t know such a thing existed when I left Uni). We have had several ex-ANU Science Comms/Science Circus people work on Scope.

Jesse Hawley   That’s great. ‘Go with the flow, and steer occasionally’ is your advice, then?

Rob Bell   Yes, absolutely. My wife is often frustrated by my floating attitude, but then in hindsight it seems to have been a theme in my life. But yes, remember to steer occasionally at least.

Jesse Hawley   You’ve been on a fortunate course, then!

If you were at a dinner party, how much would science influence your conversation? This is an interview question. Not my own curiosity. (That too).

Rob Bell   I guess it depend upon the topics, but invariably something comes up to which i can inject some level of “did you know”, or a gross fact or even just clarify (politely) someone’s misconception. Often the science comes in because people have been storing up questions to ask me though. I do wonder why they just don’t google, but hey, happy to try and help.

Jesse Hawley   Cool. Having an eloquent and informed explanation will always trump Googs.

If you had infinite resources, is there a special topic or field that you’d like to base an episode on?

Rob Bell   I’d love to get to Antarctica, and I’d love to go over to America and check out NASA’s Jet propulsion labs. Actually anything and everything they do over there, many episode could be done on them.

Jesse Hawley   Definitely NASA! We’re in a relatively good position for Antarctica, though.

Penultimate question: Which song or band best captures your job and why?

Rob Bell   They Might Be Giants. A band I grew up and listened to before my life in science. Now my kids like some of their songs too. But they are geeks who write the occasional science tune amongst all the others.

Jesse Hawley   Perfect.

And finally – Did you have anything you wanted to add about working with CSIRO or Scope?

Oh, and what did you research before you got full-time into TV?

Rob Bell   Nothing really to add. I really enjoy working for CSIRO. It is an organisation that so many Australians seem to respect, and they have always been so helpful and flexible with me off playing in TV land. Network Ten doesn’t always enjoy the same kudos.

Before TV, was CSIRO Education, and before that was my PhD and traveling the world for a year. But my PhD was in the area of ceramic fuel cells. So materials science was my thing I guess.

Jesse Hawley   Great. Well thank you so much for your time. I got some fantastic material. Nice to meet you.

Rob Bell   Bye.

The Hungry Microbiome Part 4: The colon, colon cancer, and butyrate

The growth and migration of cancer cells in the colon: No humour here. Sorry.

The growth and migration of cancer cells in the colon. No wise cracks in this caption: sorry.

Welcome to the fourth and final installment of our animated series on the digestive system.

Fittingly, this episode will be focussing on the end of the digestive system – the colon. We will look at the genesis of colon cancer, as well as a little molecule scientists like to call ‘butyrate’, and the influence it has on colon health.

The colon, otherwise known as the large intestine, is one and a half metres long. It primarily extracts water and micronutrients (such as salts) from our faeces. The first half of the following video describes the colon, its structure and function in glorious, animated detail.

Colon cancer (colorectal or bowel cancer) is the third most common cancer, accounting for around 10% of cancer cases. After the colon, the second half of the video describes the anatomy and mechanisms of colon cancer.

The second video describes the formation of colon cancer (known as colon carcinogenesis):

Butyrate is a small molecule created by the bacteria in our guts. Butyrate is formed when these bacteria breakdown resistant starch and is involved with up-keeping colon health. Recent research suggests that butyrate might be important in staving off the formation of colon cancer.

That’s it for our series on the microbiome.

Just like your breakfast from yesterday, our journey through the digestive system had to come to an end. We have come a long way through the alimentary canal, there has been lots of information to digest, lots to ruminate upon. There were simmering facts about the stomach, ups and downs through the tortuous mess of intestines, and sobering descriptions of colon cancer. And also like yesterday’s breakfast, we too emerged on the other side of the journey, changed. Over the last 4 weeks, we hope you learned as much about the alimentary canal as we did.

Butt – it’s not over. For the back catalogue of microbial madness, here are our previous blogs on the (faecal) matter. And for more anatomical animations, check out the writer, animator, and narrator’s YouTube channel.

Life animated in 3D: Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes

Using 3-D modelling tools,  wee can look deeper into the causes of diseases like Alzheimer's and diabetes.

Using 3D modelling tools, we can look deeper into the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes. Here we have neurons with amyloid plaque attached.

By Emily Lehmann

Oscar hype is in full-swing, and we all have our favourites for Hollywood’s night of nights (we must admit we are partial to Birdman taking home the ‘best picture’ gong). But the big-screen isn’t the only place to find world-class movies.

At our Discovery Centre in Canberra yesterday, we unveiled two world-class movies of our own. The animations, created by up-and-coming Australian biomedical animators, uses the latest data visualisation techniques to bring science to life in incredible 3D detail.

An animated cross-section of the insulin receptor inside the cell membrane.

An animated cross-section of the insulin receptor inside the cell membrane.

Created by Australian up-and-coming biomedical animators using the latest data visualisation techniques, they feature key research into Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes from CSIRO and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI).

Through narrated picture, the animations explain very complex biological processes related to each disease with scientific accuracy: zooming in on what happens inside our body but can’t be seen with the naked eye.

The animations illustrate key research techniques into Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes, based on work we have done with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI).

Alzheimer’s Enigma

The first video looks at Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia – which affects one in four people over the age of 85, a number that will increase significantly as our population ages.

This animation takes you on a journey to the neurons of the human brain, revealing how normal protein breakdown processes become dysfunctional, and cause plaque to form during Alzheimer’s disease.

This build up of plaque in the brain can take decades and is one of the main indicators of the disease.

The Insulin Receptor and Type 2 Diabetes

About one million Australians currently live with diabetes and about 100,000 new diagnoses are made each year.

These staggering statistics are fuelling research efforts aimed at finding a cure or ways to prevent or better manage the disease.

Highlighting a recent discovery by WEHI, this animation focuses on the role that the insulin receptors play in the disease and what might cause resistance to the hormone insulin.

It’s part two in a series of animations on type 2 diabetes, you can check out part one here.

These are the second round of animations created through VizbiPlus – a joint project between CSIRO, WEHI and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

Under the guidance of internationally-acclaimed biomedical animator Drew Berry from WEHI, VizbiPlus is training-up the next generation of biomedical animators, to raise the bar in science communication and bring critical research to the world.

You can read more about our data visualisation work here.

How our supercomputers are helping fight heart rhythm disease

Dr Adam Hill and Professor Jamie Vendenberg are driving this groundbreaking research.

Dr Adam Hill and Professor Jamie Vendenberg working on the groundbreaking technology.

Heart rhythm disease is a life-threatening, electrical disorder that stops the heart from pumping blood effectively. It is a lethal condition that is responsible for around 12 per cent of Australian deaths each year.

In order to open the door to better diagnosis and treatment for heart rhythm disease, we’ve been working with the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute to develop our very own ‘virtual heart’. What’s more, we’ve done this using the same technology that drives your favourite computer games.

Impressively, when we ran a simulation through the virtual heart, it was able to model hundreds of thousands of different heart beats. This then allowed scientists to screen all of those heart beats, and search for abnormalities.


According to the Victor Chang Institute’s Dr Adam Hill who led the research, this has taken us a step closer to understanding rhythm disturbances in our most vital muscle.

“This research is hugely exciting! We were able to identify why some patients have abnormal ECG signals, and how a person’s genetic background can affect the severity of their disease,” he says.

Analysis on this scale has simply never been possible before. The simulation took just ten days, thanks to the computational grunt of CSIRO’s Bragg supercomputer cluster, which combines traditional CPUs with more powerful graphics processing units or GPUs.

GPUs have typically been used to render complex graphics in computer games. However they can also be used to accelerate scientific computing by multi-tasking on hundreds of computing cores.

By comparison, if you were to try to do the same simulation using a standard desktop PC, it would take 21 years to get the job done.

Powerful and eco-friendly? This is one super computer worth Bragging about.

Powerful and eco-friendly? This is one super computer worth Bragging about.

Adam hopes the new technology will help doctors read ECGs more accurately, which will mean faster, more accurate diagnosis of heart rhythm disease. By understanding why the same disorder affects people differently, the right treatment can be given to the right patients.

Scientists at the Victor Chang Institute are now using these discoveries to develop automatic computerised tools for diagnosing heart rhythm disorders.

Read more about how we’re using data and digital technologies to tackle health challenges on our website.

The Hungry Microbiome Part 3: Gut Microbiome

6) Gut Microbiome

You should never feel lonely when there are billions of tiny lifetimes playing out in your insides.

Welcome to the third installment in our four-part animated series on the digestive system. Today’s episode is all about the Gut Microbiome. As we learned last week, we have many millions of bacteria in our insides. And before you freak out and try to kill them with an antibacterial colonic irrigation, let us stress: you need them!

In our current germaphobic Zeitgeist, it might seem counter-intuitive to put these tiny little creatures on a pedestal — but there is a growing body of research pointing to their importance for a healthy digestive system (see video below).

There is a special density of bacteria – in number and species diversity – in our large intestine, or colon. These microbes serve a type of extra-digestive digestive system, breaking down foods that our own bodies are unable to.

In fact, most of the energy used by our large intestinal cells is directly sourced from the bacteria in our guts. Picture that: you’re actually being ‘fed’ by bacteria, utilising the nutrients from their excrement, where normally they’re feeding off our outputs — oh how the tables have turned.

From the food they find in our colon, our residential bacteria produce a fatty acid called butyrate, which is important for our immune function and adiposity, or fat deposition.

You can learn a whole lot more about the importance of our gut microbiomes in this video:

For more animated explanations of our digestive system, visit our YouTube playlist. And for more Hungry Microbiome madness, click here.

Powerful new tool produces proteins in 3D

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The amazing depth of atomic-scale 3D structural information now available via Aquaria.

By Andrew Warren

If you’re a regular at the gym or an early morning boot-camp fanatic, it’s possible that the first thing you picture when you think of protein is the powder you use to make your post-workout recovery shake.

But when our scientists discuss protein, they’re talking about the many thousands of molecules that act as the essential building blocks of life as we know it. Because proteins are so important to constructing life, researchers need a way to visualise the exact ways in which they fit together so that they can better understand the functions they play in our bodies.

With this in mind, a team of international programmers and bioinformaticians (think biology, computer science and maths mixed together) led by our very own Dr Seán O’Donoghue have created a new web-based tool named Aquaria that can create unprecedented 3D representations of protein structures.

Aquaria is based on the Protein Data Bank, an online resource which houses more than 100,000 structures of proteins that contains a wealth of detail about the molecular processes of life. But Sean and his teams were conscious that few biologists were taking full advantage of the site. The Protein Data Bank is designed for and by biologists who are expert in structures; however for most biologists, its organisation can be confusing.

So, they created Aquaria to make this valuable information more accessible and easier to use for discovery purposes.

Freely and publicly accessible, Aquaria can help scientists like ecologists, nutritionists and agriculture, biosecurity and medical researchers to streamline their discovery process and gain new insight into protein structures.

Sean’s team added additional layers of information (like genetic differences) to the basic protein structure and made it accessible in a fast, easy-to-use interface that’s visualised in a fully 3D environment.

“We’ve added protein sequences that don’t yet have a structure, but are similar to something in the Protein Data Bank,” says Sean.

“That meant we first had to find all these similarities. We took over 500,000 protein sequences and compared every one of them with the 100,000 known protein structures, and that has given us around 46 million computer models.

ICAM-1 a

This image shows an example of one of the many spectacular molecular structures that science has determined at atomic resolution. This is the Aquaria view of Intercellular Adhesion Molecule 1, a protein that occurs on the surface of endothelial and immune system cells.

“For example, you can add Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) that cause protein changes, then visualise exactly where those changes occur in the protein structure. This provides valuable insight into why proteins sometimes completely change their function as a result of one small change in the DNA code.

“You can then ask interesting questions like ‘Does this set of SNPs cluster in 3D?’ and the answers to such questions can set new research directions.”

Aquaria was developed in collaboration with Dr Andrea Schafferhans from the Technical University of Munich, and is hosted with support of a grant from Amazon Web Services.

To learn more about Aquaria, you can take part in a special webinar scheduled for 9am Tuesday, 3 February (AEDST).

Protecting our privacy parts in the online identity crisis

The new face of online terrorism? PhotoCredit: Mamamia

Ever heard of the Lizard Squad? They’re an online group that’s claimed to have hacked some pretty large and well-known web identities in recent times. As well as attacks on the Sony, Microsoft and Facebook networks, they’re even alleged to have gained access to Taylor Swift’s Twitter account.

Surely that’s enough to get alarm bells ringing!? But in all seriousness, these sort of attacks are becoming a global concern as our interaction on all levels moves increasingly online. Keeping data private is of the utmost importance. That’s why we’ve been working with global software giant IBM and other partners through the AU2EU project to strengthen how we can protect our own data and improve collaboration in secure environments.

One of the technologies we’re using is IBM’s new Identity Mixer software. Identity Mixer uses cryptographic algorithms to encrypt profile information like age, nationality, personal address and credit card details. By keeping this data hidden from websites and only revealing the most relevant information, we get to hold onto our data, rather than constantly handing it over when we collaborate online.

Identity Mixer will allow our scientists to securely authenticate who they are, and share sensitive data with experts and our partners. For example, in the event that there is a biosecurity issue, it is imperative that this team can freely share data and collaborate with partners and other labs in instances when the lab is locked down, or if the threat requires a rapid response.

Identity Mixer will improve our ability to securely respond to these issues. This is all part of an emergency response plan we have developed with the Australian Government to maintain our agricultural disease free status. In order to deal with these threats it is important to bring together academic, government and research together swiftly and securely to deal with issues.

Adding another level of security, to ensure that this plan can be actioned, is a great outcome for our biosecurity teams.

Wouldn't it be nice to just press a button for Privacy?

Wouldn’t it be nice to just press a button for Privacy? Photo credit:

Looking ahead, Identity Mixer could be really useful for the individual web user.  When we are exchanging information online, there is only certain data any websites or vendor really needs. Identity Mixer will only share the relevant data and keep the rest locked away – think of it like a sober friend stopping you from declaring your deepest feelings for a close friend, after you have had one to many bottles of wine.

It doesn’t matter who you are – from the single user, paying bills online to a massive multi-national corporations – securing data and protecting our privacy is vital. Especially when you have national treasures as important as our awesome database of insects – who else is going to protect the arthropods? Check out this video, which runs through some interesting scenarios to help you understand better how the technology works:


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