Live at the AM podcast: 2018 Eureka Prizes launch
In this live recording of the launch of the 2018 Eureka Prizes, our panel explores the theme "Science for Humanity".
This lively panel is hosted by Director and CEO of the Australia Museum Kim McKay AO and features 2017 Eureka Prize winners Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran, Dr. Emilie Ens and Dr. Bryn Sobott.
The discussion covers a diverse range of topics including citizen science, science in challenging and remote settings, wearable technology and the profile of science in Australia.
The full list of 2018 finalists is available on the Eureka Prizes’ website, with winners to be announced at a black tie award dinner at Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 29 August.
Rebecca Johnson: Good evening and welcome. My name is Rebecca Johnson and I am the director of the Australian Museum Research Institute. I'd like to acknowledge that we are on Gadigal land. I'd like to pay my respects to the elders of that land, past and present, and also to the emerging Gadigal leaders. I'd also like to pay my respects to all those Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in the room with us tonight.
Science friends, thank you so much for joining us this evening for the launch of the 2018 Australian Museum Eureka prizes. It's great to see so many of you here for what I'm sure will be a fantastic evening full of discussion around the theme for tonight's event, which I'm sure you've noted is Science For Humanity.
There are a number of special guests in the room that I would like to acknowledge, and I have quite a few pages. There are many of you that are special, in fact all of you are special. Firstly I'd like to acknowledge my fellow scientific institution colleagues Cameron Kerr, CEO and director of Taronga Zoo. I'd also like to acknowledge Kim Ellis, director and CEO of Centennial Parklands, and the Royal Botanic Garden Trust.
I'd also like to welcome Margaret Shepherd, president of the Science Teachers Association of New South Wales, welcome to you. Welcome to the trustees of the Australian Museum, I know there are several of you here. Also the trustees of the Australian Museum Foundation, trustees of the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation. And also a special welcome to our former Australian Museum director Professor Frank Talbot and his wife Sue. Welcome to you both, it's always a delight to have you here.
I'd also like to welcome my colleagues from the Australian Museum, and our many partners and supporters, and there are many, many of you in the room, it's so exciting to see a packed room of people.
And particularly I would like to acknowledge John Vassallo who is the CEO of Celestino Developments. Celestino has come on board as our newest sponsor, and they have sponsored the Eureka Prize for Promoting the Understanding of Australian Science. This has always been one of our favourites, and we haven't had it for the last couple of years. Past winners include Emma Johnston, someone that you may have seen in the media a wee bit, and Lisa Harvey-Smith. So a wonderful prize to restart again this year, thank you so much Celestino, and also to all of our wonderful sponsors here in the room tonight.
I'd also like to thank the judges who generously give up their time to judge our prizes on their own time, I might say, although they do join us for a wonderful dinner in August. I'd also like to welcome in the Eureka prize winners and finalists, and in fact I believe we have about 20 Eureka prize winners in the room with us tonight. They have a red star on their badge. And now it's my turn to embarrass you; if you have a red star on your badge, I would like you to put your hand up very high, and I would like everyone in the room to acknowledge your fantastic achievements. Thank you so much for being with us tonight.
And finally I have our three brilliant panellists who are actually the stars of our show tonight. We have Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran, we have Dr Emilie Ens, and we have Dr Bryn Sobott. And you might have noticed that I am not Kim McKay. She's sitting very quietly there for now. Kim is our moderator extraordinaire and she needs no introduction but she is our director and CEO here at the Australian Museum. So welcome, all of you.
So the theme for tonight is Science for Humanity, and this is a topic that is incredibly dear to our heart here at the Australian Museum Research Institute. And while you might think of us as an institute full of millions of animals that have passed their expiry date, in fact some of them date back well over 150 years, we turn 191 this year, we still pride ourselves very much on making a difference through our science every single day. And this is a great fit for our theme tonight.
So in the past few months you might have noticed a little project that we launched in the citizen science space called Frog ID. In fact, Jodi Rowley, who I believe is here tonight, she has basically not stopped doing media on Frog ID which is an incredible citizen science project. And when she is not doing media, she and her team are identifying frog calls. In fact today we announced our 20,000th frog call that has been loaded in the last four months. So Jodi is not only a superstar scientist in her own right but her ability to communicate science and the importance of citizens contributing to science is extraordinary and such a great fit for our theme. And in fact the concept of 40,000 people downloading our app and contributing data records in the last four months is something that is basically unprecedented for a field biologist. Those 20,000 records that have been identified to today represent 133 species of frogs in Australia. That's 55% of what we know we have. And they've found things like frogs that are 100 kilometres away from the known range previously. They've found frogs that are potentially…they are native but they are now in a completely different environment to where they are known from.
And we all know the story of the noisy miner, everyone's favourite native bird they love to hate. In fact I know we have Richard Major from the Australian Museum in the audience today. He tried an experiment where he removed noisy miners from the environment to see what happened. They just come back. So understanding how our own native species change over time and in response to our impacts on the environment is incredible, and only possible through the mobilisation of all of the citizens across Australia. I'd also like to thank Inspiring Australia and IBM for generously supporting that project.
So, many of you might have also heard of our incredible project with the Solomon Islands. There's a community there that we've been working with, they are big landholders but they live off their land. They are very traditional in their cultures, and they are working towards conserving their biodiversity, which in their case actually involves them not eating that biodiversity because it's actually part of their landscape and how they live. That project is something that was inspired by Professor Tim Flannery who used to work here at the Australian Museum, and our friendly term for it is the 'rats and bats project', because what we are doing in the Solomon Islands is we are looking for the giant rats and monkey faced bats of the Solomon Islands.
I'm channelling Kim here, she always likes to tell a secret at every event. Just before Christmas we actually found the first evidence of the monkey faced bat in the Solomon Islands ever. So this is really, really exciting and we are working towards understanding that and properly identifying that. Probably it's an entirely new species. What's really exciting about us being able to collaborate with that community is that we are providing them with the expertise that they need to understand their environment and to preserve their environment. We've seen hundreds and hundreds of hectares of land conserved under that project because they so deeply believe in conserving their own biodiversity, and we are so proud to be partners on that project.
Finally, this year we were all greeted with the incredible news of Professor Michelle Simmons being announced as Australian of the Year for 2018. Something that you might not know is that Professor Simmons is the fourth Australian Museum Eureka prize winner to be announced as Australian of the Year. What does that tell you? Just in case you were wondering, before her was Tim Flannery, Ian Frazer, and Alan Mackay-Sim. These are incredible scientists who before they were recognised by all of Australia were recognised by the Australian Museum Eureka prizes. So I think that's a great reason to enter this year. There will be more on that later.
So it's nearly time for me to introduce the fabulous Kim McKay who is then going to introduce our panel for this evening.
Kim McKay: Thank you Rebecca, thanks so much, and welcome everyone. I too would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are gathered on tonight. It's wonderful to see you all, many Eureka prize nominees and winners in the audience, and lots of other great supporters and partners too, it's fantastic.
Rebecca said I always like to share a secret. What she didn't tell you is that one of them is about her. Apart from Rebecca Johnson, which is no secret, being named one of the Superstars of STEM this year, Rebecca as part of that Solomon Islands project last year actually trekked over 12 hours up to one of the most remote villages in the blighted province of the Solomons. And to do that, about halfway up they said, well now Rebecca you have to put on the traditional dress. It was pretty much being naked.
But what Rebecca will do for science here at the museum, there are no bounds. I have seen the photographs, we don't share them with many people, except for a fee, and I can tell you the funniest part of this was imagine trekking all this way, very scantily clad, literally a little lap-lap at the front and that was it, and she got to the community and they were so excited to see her, and a couple of hundred people had gathered, and there was no lectern to hide behind, and they asked her to give a speech. So Rebecca Johnson took one for the team big-time and addressed a couple of hundred people in her birthday suit. Well done Rebecca!
Three people are with us tonight who are not in their birthday suit, I think they've put some of their best attire on for us to speak to us tonight, and I'm going to introduce each of them, and we can applaud because they are all extraordinary and outstanding individuals.
The first person I'd like to welcome down to our seats tonight is Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran from the School of Engineering at RMIT University. Welcome Madhu. Now, Madhu co-leads the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT. She is also the Associate Dean for Higher Degrees by Research at the School of Engineering. She has won several awards and fellowships for her research, including a competitive Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellowship, an Australian Research Council DECRA fellowship. She has also won a Victoria Fellowship, and has been named as one of the top 10 innovators under 35 for Asia by MIT Technology Review2016.
In 2016 she was recognised with the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Research, and also named as Australia's most innovative engineer by Engineers Australia. She is not a very high achiever at all. Her research interests include functional oxide thin films, wearable technologies, and stretchable electronics. And boy, where that will take us no one knows. Interestingly, and I'm sure she won't mind me telling you this, Madhu's husband, Associate Professor Sharath Sriram who is also based at RMIT, one the 2016 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leaders in Science. So he's trying to compete with you now, right? That's fantastic.
Our second panellist tonight is Dr Emilie Ens from the faculty of science and engineering at Macquarie University. Emilie works in an area that is particularly relevant to the Australian Museum and an area that we are exploring more of. She is actively involved in conducting cross-cultural ecological research that informs local to national decision-making about Australia's natural and cultural resource management. She works in close collaboration with a number of Aboriginal ranger groups in Arnhem Land and in northern New South Wales to develop cross-cultural environmental monitoring, techniques including for wetlands, biodiversity and bio-cultural values.
The Ngukurr Wi Stadi Bla Kantri (which I have just butchered the pronunciation of, but in pidgin it means 'we study the country') Research Team she co-leads won the 2017 Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.
She also lectures in environmental management at Macquarie University. And again, another little personal note here, Professor Chris French who is the partner of Dr Richard Major who works here at the museum was Emilie's PhD supervisor, so we are keeping that in the family. Welcome Emilie.
And our third panellist this evening is Dr Bryn Sobott from the FREO2 Foundation. Welcome Bryn. So Bryn completed his PhD in experimental particle physics in 2010 and received the Bragg Medal nomination for the best thesis from the University of Melbourne. Of course you did. He has successfully designed and executed experiments at the SSRL at Stanford, the SLS in Zürich, the Max-Lab in Lund, and the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. He is a core member of the FREO2 Foundation which was awarded the 2017 Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology for its siphon concentrator that produces, stores and delivers medical grade oxygen to critically ill newborn babies without needing a secure source of electricity. Something of course that is in demand in developing countries all the time.
So please again welcome our wonderful three panellists. So of course as you've heard tonight, for those of you who know about this, we are focusing on Science for Humanity tonight, and each of these three panellists is adapting their science for the greater good of the world in which we live, to benefit all of us in fact.
So I want to get to know them a little bit first in our discussion tonight. I'm going to start with you Emilie. You describe yourself as conducting cross cultural ecological research. What does that mean?
Emilie Ens: Okay, cross-cultural ecology. As you saw some of the lovely bright faces of my Aboriginal colleagues in the video earlier, it's where we combine Aboriginal knowledge with western science to create a better understanding of local environments.
Kim McKay: So what are you focusing on at the moment then?
Emilie Ens: More of that, just on a big scale. I work mainly in Arnhem Land with Aboriginal communities in the east of Arnhem Land, over 40,000 square kilometres, doing cross-cultural biodiversity surveys. That's what we mainly like doing, running around catching animals with multiple generations of Aboriginal people, communities, elders, rangers, young people, we take the school out looking for animals and recording knowledge in Aboriginal languages as well as using scientific techniques and knowledge as well.
Kim McKay: So this nexus between science and culture is something that we are very focused on here at the Australian Museum right now, and a little plug, I want to say to everyone, if you haven't seen it yet, come back and on level one visit our Gadi exhibition. Gadigal is the name of the people, which means 'people of the Gadi'. And Gadi is actually the name of the grass tree that grew in proliferation here in Sydney. It's a protected plant that grows in many of the national parks around Sydney, now it takes forever to grow. And it's a very special symbol of Sydney's Aboriginal people. So please pop upstairs to level one for a visit (this is how we get you to come back) and see the Gadi exhibition, because it does explore to a degree this nexus.
And it's something that the Aboriginal staff here at the museum are very interested in. So what sorts of revelations are you coming across by doing this?
Emilie Ens: Too many to mention in a couple of minutes. For me I guess the most amazing thing is learning about Aboriginal culture and language and knowledge about species. I guess I didn't learn much about Aboriginal history when I was at school, and going to Darwin to start my first post doc my eyes were just opened to Aboriginal Australia and I loved it, I wanted to know more, and I think that more Australians need to know more, so that's why we really got into it. I think Aboriginal people, they really enjoy sharing their knowledge, they're so proud of it, and we need to build their confidence in communicating about it as well.
Kim McKay: Well, congratulations on the work you're doing and for your Eureka prize last year. We'll find out some more very soon.
Now, Madhu, your area of expertise is of course wearable technology, and I'm sure a lot of you in the audience tonight may be wearing your Apple watch. Rebecca, I was going to say you did but you don't have it on tonight, you've gone old-school on me. Terrific. I should have checked that one first. Is anyone in the audience wearing a Fitbit tonight? Good, some very healthy people. It's okay, continue drinking your wine, it's great. It should be red wine, it's much better for your heart I believe. But I know that your work seeks to move all of us on beyond these basic applications that we've come to know. Could you tell us about the future that you're involved in with electronic skin patches that can monitor things like pollution in the air and the amount of UV we are exposed to, and how this could potentially change healthcare?
Madhu Bhaskaran: So when we started doing this I think the idea behind it was can we make a phone which is unbreakable, and then we realise it's not as simple as just taking existing materials which make your phone and just putting it on our rubbery stretchy platform, they are technically quite incompatible, and that's where we have to come up with a method by which we can actually combine these very different materials together.
And by way of doing that was when we kind of went into the wearable sensors type of place, and so far what we've done is little patches which can sense the presence of UV, which will tell you how much UV you are actually being exposed to, as well as the similar patches which can also sense the presence of a dangerous gas. The gas you are detecting will change based on the oxide layer which you are actually using to detect that gas. And the third application which is a little more futuristic is probably more towards smart contact lenses. So flat optics where you hopefully won't have the bulky camera lenses and things like that, so that's really futuristic looking.
So as you can see a lot of my focus has been more external, so it's about detecting external gases, the presence of UV, more external things, but a lot of research is happening elsewhere in the world, and my research could also go in the same direction in terms of applying these electronics more skin deep, so putting these on the body or within the body to detect things which are happening, physiological changes.
Kim McKay: So when you say 'within the body', how do you do that?
Madhu Bhaskaran: It could take various forms, it could be a capsule which you swallow and you pass out after a few days when it's done its job, or it could be when you are actually having surgery, having something implanted inside your body for whatever reasons. That could be, again, something temporary, so there are people who are developing electronics which after a few days dissolves basically like a vitamin capsule, or something which needs to be there for much longer.
Kim McKay: So the opportunity is vast with this, isn't it, because I was just thinking when you were speaking, I mean, one of the problems we have in Australia now because we've all been educated to wear sunscreen is a lot of older Australians are lacking in vitamin D, so a patch like this could tell us maybe if you not getting enough vitamin D.
Madhu Bhaskaran: Exactly, so instead of having a colour changing patch which basically changes colour which tells you, okay, you've had enough vitamin D, go inside, or you've had too much UV, go inside, this is something which could track the amount of UV you've had and yes, like you were saying, long term you could trace it back and see if it ties back to vitamin D production.
Kim McKay: And could it work if you met somebody in a bar and to see if your chemistry matches? She doesn't know the answer to that. You could make more money out of that though, you know.
Madhu Bhaskaran: You know, it's hilarious, every time I put out a media release I get these out-of-the-way questions like this and that's what makes me think about my next work, so it helps.
Kim McKay: That's good.
Now, Bryn, wow, you're a physicist who is tackling head-on the number one killer of children worldwide, which I was so surprised to hear is pneumonia. Can you tell us about how this project occurred, because you sort of did a bit of a dog's leg left turn to get there, didn't you.
Bryn Sobott: Yes, so about the time I was finishing my PhD between the University of Melbourne and Zürich on semiconductors, I sat in a presentation…actually no, it was a no-limit symposium, so there were four medical doctors who presented problems they'd faced when working in developing countries. And I learnt two things that day, one, that pneumonia is the biggest infectious killer of children in the world, more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined, and secondly that oxygen is a proven life-saving medicine. So I was sort of sitting there thinking, wow, so these children are dying and the medicine is literally floating around them, so surely we can do better than that.
I was just starting a post doc at the University of Melbourne, and so during the day we had our day jobs and at night time and weekends we started…I guess you could call it tinkering with ways of concentrating oxygen without electricity, because most of the children who die are in rural areas in low to middle income countries. So progress was steady but slow.
Fortuitously I grew up on a farm two hours east of Melbourne in Gippsland, which backs onto a national forest, so we used Mum and Dad's as a place to build prototypes and test them on the weekends. And then we actually after…a colleague is an accelerator physicist, and so he would monopolise a whole Australian synchrotron to do his experiments.
Kim McKay: Not a bad connection.
Bryn Sobott: Which meant that we had to work from two in the morning until six in the morning when no one else wanted to work. And so after working one night we got into the lab and there was a request for applications from the Saving Lives at Birth partners. So USAID, Grande Challenges Canada, UK, Norway, Korean governments and the Gates Foundation who recognise that women are 136 times more likely to die in labour in a developing country.
And so we put together a two-page proposal in a few hours and sent it off and then went home to bed and forgot about it, and then they wrote back and said we'd like to fly one of you to Washington for an interview. And we actually debated about taking the $5,000 and not going, because we've been spending our own money, if we needed a shifter we had to pay for it and whatnot. Luckily we didn't take that option. So I guess obviously we were successful that year, which really sped up the progress and enabled us to start working on it during the daytime.
And then the actual innovation is an electricity-free oxygen concentrator. So the literature showed that pneumonia incidents spike during the rainy season, so we use the energy in flowing water to pass through a pipe to create a vacuum, and then we apply that vacuum to a clay-like material that the chemical engineers invented 50 or 60 years ago that can separate air into nitrogen and oxygen. We throw away the nitrogen, give the oxygen to the sick child, it keeps them alive. But really importantly that molecular sieve is not consumed in the process, so it just sits there, keeping four babies alive.
Kim McKay: Wow, congratulations. Which is a great segue back to our theme of Science for Humanity because you are really on the ground and I think it's clear from listening to our three panellists tonight that there is a motivator about changing human lives to better humanity through your science. And Bryn, I'll start with you because the public don't normally think of scientists as humanitarians in this way. And we know certainly when we encounter medical science and we go to a hospital and we are awed by the machinery around us and the technology that's employed, but we sometimes forget the amount of hours and effort it has taken, and also the entrepreneurial thinking that's gone into this, which obviously your mum and dad's farm provided a great original platform for. But when you are in the field, and perhaps you could tell us about some of those developing countries you have been to where you've seen your invention in action in this way, what does it feel like, and what do you need to do to make it work there?
Bryn Sobott: There's a lot.
First, the mindset is a battle within our heads because we are nuclear physicists, so we are used to working on $200 million facilities, and now the budget per child per year in Mozambique I think is a few dollars, so the first challenge is the mindset. I guess another challenge, still in the head, I've got two young children now, so it's very difficult going to the paediatric wards, trying to do what I'm there to do…and I've forgotten your question, can you remind me please?
Kim McKay: It's okay, you sort of did answer it anyway, because what I'm interested in is that very question of taking yourself out of your comfort zone and working in the lab and going into a developing country and trying to deal with the complexities of that and the challenges that are presented.
Bryn Sobott: Okay, so the innovations are aimed at being sustainable. So the idea is if the innovations break we can fix them there. But the real challenge for us is the data acquisition because we need that data to inform ourselves for fundraising in the future. So coming up with data acquisition systems where if a part breaks we can't just go down the road and buy it is really challenging. And probably the most frustrating is actually not a science or a technical problem, it's committees and boards that you get the impression…
Kim McKay: Oh I've had a few of those.
Bryn Sobott: You get the impression that they are just trying to protect their backsides, not get more oxygen to more children. That's probably the single biggest frustration.
Kim McKay: So, given that is your sole mission out there—get more oxygen to more children who need it—so is that something that you keep front of mind when you're in these different negotiations or when you encounter problems?
Bryn Sobott: Yes, definitely.
It's been such a long journey. We are literally standing in mud in winter in Victoria on the farm, and then a week later you're dealing with IP lawyers. I prefer the mud actually. So I don't like public speaking really.
Kim McKay: You're doing okay at it, don't worry.
Bryn Sobott: Thank you. Let me know at the end of the night actually. So it's a constant…I guess it's both tiring and it's good professionally to be pushed all the time. But you're right, the Eureka prize is the perfect example, getting called up on stage was amazing. But it's getting oxygen up children's noses that we are doing it for. So we actually fly out tomorrow morning to Uganda to start two clinical trials.
Kim McKay: Sorry, where are you going?
Bryn Sobott: To Western Uganda, so to a regional referral hospital to test out…to start a clinical trial for our low-pressure oxygen store, so that's aimed at where there is intermittent power. And then on to the misery mountains near the Congo to demonstrate the electricity-free oxygen concentrator in a clinic that services 60,000 people.
Kim McKay: And what is the reaction of the local people to you? Not necessarily in Uganda but in other places that you've worked to date?
Bryn Sobott: It's generally positive. I travel a lot with medical doctors. We are collaborating with Harvard in Mbarara at the moment. I guess I just feel I have a role to play within the team. So it's positive. But there the healthcare workers are so overworked that there's not a lot of time for platitudes and all that.
So far so good. In two weeks when we are back from the demonstration, that will be a really big step forward because we want the device to be sustainable. So if our plane crashes on the way home, we want the device to keep working, so we are installing it with young local technicians. We really want the technology to enable local people to save local children, not us flying in and taking phone calls and feeling good about ourselves. Hopefully it scales because of that.
Kim McKay: Bryn, I can't think of anyone I've ever met who has demonstrated more the power of science for humanity than what you're doing, congratulations, it's phenomenal.
So one of the questions I have you, Emilie, is what direct benefits have you seen in the communities you're working with? We saw some comments from some of the local people from Arnhem Land who are obviously thrilled to be part of the project. But what are the other benefits that you've seen?
Emilie Ens: I guess I went to Arnhem Land as an ecologist, as an environmental scientist, and now I feel like I'm hardly even doing environmental science but really focusing so much more on social issues, cultural issues, education, psychological, political, economic issues, so those other things that we have to deal with and have become more and more important, especially with regard to youth, again. I guess I started working with a range of groups in Arnhem Land, thinking that we could create some collaborative environmental monitoring tools that would help them better understand their environments and how to manage them. But I increasingly realise that we need to focus on young people and get young people going to schools, staying in school, thinking about their health and their futures because they are the future leaders and decision makers of those parts of Australia.
And I guess I came to realise that so much of Australia is being handed back to Aboriginal people. Currently around a third of Australia is legally owned by Aboriginal people, so one-third of Australia is a massive part of the country, yet Australia's Aboriginal population is 3% of the total. So 3% of our population managing a third of our massive country is huge, and a lot of the Aboriginal people in remote places are not finishing school, they can't read and write, even young people, so I feel like that's the big issue that I needed to address. So I am increasingly working with young people.
And just last year we had two people from Ngukurr community…don't cry…this is where I start crying! Actually coming to Macquarie Uni, which is just the most amazing thing, and giving young people in their committee hopes they can go on to do something and do something for their future and their country.
Kim McKay: It's really a different approach to science that then does meld into social science in that way. But also using citizen science by having people participate in the discovery is incredibly powerful. And Rebecca mentioned the citizen science centre that we've started here at the museum, I'm a great believer in the power of individuals to change things. And our Frog ID project just has taken off using technology. Do you use any technology up in Arnhem Land in your project?
Emilie Ens: We sure do, yep, kids love it, we need to use it. That's one of the big hooks, we grabbed the kids and use tablets and videos and computers and YouTube, Facebook. I communicate…I never was on Facebook until I started working with all these young people, and now the phone's ringing all the time.
The kids are contacting me, they're finding animals, families, you know, what's this little gecko, blah, blah, blah, and starting up conversations. They've really engaged in the project. And through that engagement they've become empowered to stay at school, to talk to their elders, to find out cultural stories about different species and places from elders. So it's like reconnecting the generations and hopefully strengthening cultural knowledge out in remote parts of the country.
Kim McKay: So where do you go from here with your projects?
Emilie Ens: So where are we going now? Well, we have a couple of kids at Macquarie Uni from [unclear] community, one very small community in Arnhem Land. But we would like to see more kids from remote Australia going to uni. For some reason they are not going to Charles Darwin Uni, even though you might think that's the obvious choice. Why aren't they going to Darwin, to CDU? But it's too close to home for some of them, they can't stay there, which is quite ironic. So they are actually making it in Sydney. So we would like to see more kids come down, but also we are talking to people at Macquarie University about creating a satellite campus in Arnhem Land, so instead of kids coming down to Sydney, how about we take some lecturers up to Sydney and expose people to what university is, they'll have a real understanding, and then just try and encourage people that way as well.
Kim McKay: I love what you're doing because it demonstrates how science has changed in its practical application instead of looking at these communities as objects of study, actually people being integrated and learning from them, and we have so much, as you said earlier, to learn from our local Indigenous people who have been doing science a lot longer than we have. And if we open our mind to it, we can discover all sorts of things, so I think the study of that in parallel. I mentioned to you before back in 1948 the Australian Museum partnered with the Smithsonian and National Geographic to conduct an expedition into Arnhem Land, which was pretty significant at the time.
Not many people had been through there and certainly I know the museum here collected well over 4,000 different specimens, different fauna, flora was collected at the same time, and also of course Aboriginal artefacts were collected too at that time. And I think what you are describing just demonstrates the entire shift that has happened in science from the way it's been approached working with Indigenous communities.
Emilie Ens: Yes, absolutely. If any scientists want to come out with me, right up front I usually give them a bit of a lecture about how we can't just take things, and even going in and collecting…it might be…with frogs, like a bit of toe or something for genetic research, we might think that that's nothing, but for Aboriginal people if that's their totem animal, they take it very seriously. They do not want you to take that toe out of their country because it has connection to their country, their family, their past, their future. So there's a whole depth of knowledge that I had no idea about before, but just so important.
Kim McKay: And you hadn't actually worked with Aboriginal people prior to this whole experience, had you.
Emilie Ens: No, not at all. But after I did my PhD with Chris French (thanks Chris for helping me through all that!) I really wanted to go and spread my wings. I went to Darwin and my eyes were opened to Aboriginal Australia, I'd just really couldn't believe that I didn't know all that much about it, but I just saw massive opportunities for us working together. It doesn't have to be rocket science, we are just keeping it simple and learning from each other, respecting each other and learning together, because at the end of the day environmental decisions come from people. It doesn't matter how much science we know about that place, if the people, the landowners and the managers aren't on board, the science may never be implemented. So we need to work together to empower people to make better decisions.
Kim McKay: Absolutely. Well, it's just extraordinary work. I'm very keen to know a lot more about it and how the museum can help with that as well. Thank you so much.
Now, one of the things that you told us about before is not just the wearable technology and patches. Can you tell us little bit more about the lenses for your eyes, what that means?
Madhu Bhaskaran: It's a similar kind of technology, but it can take various forms and shapes, a smart contact lens. It could be as simple as something which can analyse your tears because actually what people are finding is, more than sweat, tears actually have quite a lot of information about your body, so glucose levels, certain other parameters inside the body, tears could give you that information. So it could be as simple as using it as a tear sensor in some forms.
Kim McKay: My goodness. So when you're working on developing these technologies and you're thinking about the end user, I would imagine, and how it could change their life, did you have any idea that your engineering skills could be utilised in this way, to change how people live and how they can enjoy their lives and live a better life?
Madhu Bhaskaran: It's funny because when I did the entire research my entire focus was just having oxide coatings and having them on a stretchable polymer substrate, that was my entire focus. And then I did this, I published it, and usually when we publish something, our research group, we always put out a media release around it, more because we've always had Australian Research Council funding. So it's more to tell taxpayers this is what your money is actually being used to fund, and also a bit of education segment in some forms. And almost always as a result industry or somebody coming back to me and saying, oh, but can you use this for this or use that for that. So now I am a little more aware, for sure, about I'm doing this but I cannot even imagine what kind of applications this might have.
Kim McKay: Madhu, did you come to Australia particularly to advance your engineering and scientific studies?
Madhu Bhaskaran: I came here in 2004 and that was just to do a masters in microelectronic engineering, and my idea was to do a masters and then go back to India. But then I stayed on because at RMIT we had clean rooms. Clean rooms are literally, as the name suggests, rooms which are very, very clean, and they are clean because you need to be making really, really tiny devices in there. So contrary to the usual labs where you are wearing a lab coat because you are protecting yourself from what you are working with, this is the opposite. You are the contaminant. So you are protecting the lab from you. So you are wearing these full-length body suits and making devices and that really, really interested me, and that's why I just stayed on to do a PhD and then stayed on and stayed on.
Kim McKay: And I hope you're staying on and on.
Madhu Bhaskaran: I hope so too.
Kim McKay: Okay, so let's think big here. What's your goal? How do you want to impact humanity through your work? Is there something you're working on, top-secret now, that you can tell us?
Madhu Bhaskaran: I don't think anyone from the IP team is over here. They really hit on me for things which I say and things like this, and they're like, my God, you gave away precious IP. Like I said, the possibilities are endless, and so to see any of that out there in real life would be really, really nice. We've had these in the labs for so long, to actually make that actually have the translation to go from the lab to out there into society, I know it will take a while, but anything is actually worthwhile.
Kim McKay: So how do you create that…or don't you, does the line blur between science and technology, or do you look at them separately?
Madhu Bhaskaran: I'm an engineer, so when I apply for all these science…they always told me it's easier for me, for a scientist to sell science to an engineer rather than the other way around for some reason.
But here I am, I call myself a material scientist/engineer, so I don't think I really see it as two separate things. For me, almost technology and science kind of go in a loop. There are a lot of things which we don't discover with fundamental science which we now know only because technology has advanced that far. Take, for instance, microscopes. Their magnification power is so much more now than it was, say, 20 or 30 years back, so it allows you to know much more about science. For me it's a loop. Having fundamental science feeds you to build better technology and that better technology helps you understand fundamental science more.
Kim McKay: So I think Madhu is just doing absolutely extraordinary and mind blowing work. Thank you so much Madhu for sharing that.
Now Bryn, I've got a bit of a political question for you, and then we'll have a few more comments and then I'm going to open it to questions from the audience. So Bryn, we're in an interesting place in Australia at the moment. Since the 1930s we've always had a Minister for Science who was in Cabinet. Just now for the second time in our history we haven't, it's been relegated to a junior minister outside of the Cabinet process. Our Prime Minister announced that at the end of last year, and the only time before that was during the Abbott government. So do you see this as a diminution of science in Australia and its status, or do you think it's just a bump along the way?
Bryn Sobott: In 2016 we won our second Saving Lives at Birth award, so it's in the Ronald Reagan building next door to the White House, it's a very American.
So there were 12 winners that year, and I went and looked around at the other 11 people on stage, there were three other Australian groups, and I remember thinking, wow, that's amazing. And I later did the maths and it's equivalent to winning 78 gold medals at the Olympics. And I was up there thinking, wow, go Australia! And then while I was still on stage I started to think, hang on a minute, maybe this is…I mean, yes, we are doing great work, there are lots of reviews to get to that stage, but maybe it's more of a consequence or it indicates how far we have to go to get funding. So yes, I do think it is a major problem for science in Australia. I don't know the cause necessarily. I think that maybe we scientists over the years, we'd probably rather be working in the lab right now. We've undervalued the importance of communicating science and value back to the taxpayer. We actually just love working and we want to improve the world, and I think it's part of the consequence of that, and I don't think science wins votes. Jobs wins votes. And probably the most visible science at the moment arguably is climate scientists, and that is seen by many to be in direct competition with economic growth. So yes, they are dark times for all science in Australia.
Kim McKay: That's not very good is it.
Bryn Sobott: No, it's not very positive, no, it's not.
Kim McKay: No, not when you're doing such amazing work.
Emilie, when you won the Eureka prize, what did it feel like?
Emilie Ens: Yeah, it was a huge shock, I literally felt like I'd jumped out of my skin, I've never felt like that before, it was crazy, it was awesome.
And just to be there with my three young Aboriginal colleagues, it was just really emotional and really exciting for them, they were just blown out of their mind. It had ramifications back in the community, they all started coming to work. We have a project up there where kids come to work when they feel like it, but they were coming every day after that, they were so excited and proud and talking about the award and they all wanted to come down to Sydney and do something with their lives, so it had a huge impact for us, really big.
Kim McKay: That's fantastic. And do you see that impact continuing in the future?
Emilie Ens: Yes, definitely. I hope that we get more students coming to uni and taking their education more seriously, and that we can learn more from Aboriginal people as well, that's our dream, is to have a two-way university. So we are learning from Indigenous elders, and Aboriginal people learning from us as well.
Kim McKay: Madhu, as a Eureka prize winner, we love the word Eureka in Australia, that moment of discovery. I imagine really you don't have those moments too often, that it's more just a long hard slog, is it, to get the result?
Madhu Bhaskaran: We actually kind of had one for this particular one because we just…I think one of our students, when we actually started developing this entire process of trying to combine oxide materials with the stretchy contact lens type material, he was trying to put it on platinum thin films, and platinum generally does not stick to silicon, you always need to have some kind of an additional layer in between. And he kind of forgot to put the additional layer on, and he put the platinum on silicon and then he ended up spin coating this entire polymer layer and then peeling it off and he realised the whole thing comes off beautifully. And that's what actually helped us build our entire transfer process, because we realised as long as it's sitting on top of platinum, it comes off.
Kim McKay: Isn't that great, a mistake actually led to a better result.
Madhu Bhaskaran: I know! So I remember scolding him for it and then thinking, oh my God…
Kim McKay: I wouldn't want to be scolded by you. I think that's fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing that with us and for all of your views.
Now I'm happy to open up our wonderful panellists (who just love public speaking so much) to you all for some questions. We've learned about three very diverse areas of study and achievement, so I know we must have some good questions out there. Yes, right up the back?
Audience member 1: First of all, you guys are better than Netflix.
Kim McKay: Well, that's good.
Audience member 1: Do you have to deal more and more with questions about big data, that kind of thing?
Madhu Bhaskaran: I think with these sensors, for me a lot of these are just novelty products. Sometimes I develop a sensor and I'm thinking who cares for this, but then you see industry jumping up and down for it sometimes. But yes, do you need all those sensors and do you need that large volume of data which is generating…it seems to be the case, obviously it seems to be, yes. So there are people who are looking quite actively into understanding and imagining that privacy is something which you definitely want protected. And I'm looking at more environmental factors, but when you start tapping into the body and start collecting data about yourself, you definitely don't want people reading into that or hacking into it and things like that. There is definitely a lot of research going on into that. So, for instance, the sensors which I make I'm trying to use more NFC technology, so more similar to the technology in your credit cards. You all have credit cards but you are not reading off each other's numbers, so obviously it's communicating at a wavelength or at a frequency which does not interfere and it's not easy to hack into. And there are other people out there obviously who are trying to see if…there are different other forms of communication you can use that it's not that easy to hack in to. But yes, there are definitely concerns, and that's why there's so much research happening there too.
Kim McKay: Thank you. Another question?
Audience member 2: Hi Emilie, I've always been gobsmacked by this 60,000+ years of continuous culture with the Aboriginal people.
But I've always been always really confused about how they've managed to achieve that. These are the true masters of sustainability, it's without peer in the history of humanity. Are you getting insights into how that has actually been achieved, insights into the philosophy around sustainability?
Emilie Ens: It's absolutely amazing, we can definitely learn something. I guess people…I'd probably get slapped if I called them nomads or hunter gatherers. But people moved around, when they'd used one part of the land they moved on to the next, they had full respect for all the different species. And with the yams, for example, didn't take the whole thing, left some for next year. I just think they are that mindset and that simple living with the land, with respect and with your families, it's just definitely something we can learn from, absolute respect. I don't know what else I can say. We should all learn more, go to promote Australia and learn more about it.
Kim McKay: And not even just promote Australia, I mean, just here in Sydney there's been some great revelations recently about looking after the waterways and fishing practices.
Emilie Ens: Yeah, Aboriginal people everywhere.
Kim McKay: Very good.
Emilie Ens: I've got to be careful, it's being recorded.
Audience member 3: Congratulations, all three of you, it was beautiful to just listen to what you're working on. My question is to Bryn. Bryn, your work, the [unclear] of your work is probably more in developing countries than in Australia, though I understand your research is based here in Australia. Where is your funding coming from? Do you find your funding here or do you have to go to international bodies?
Bryn Sobott: Yes, definitely international, and that's partly why the Eureka prize meant so much to the team, it's the first recognition we've got in Australia. So we are primarily funded through the Saving Lives at Birth partners, so Canada, USAID, UK, Norwegian, Korean governments, and the Gates Foundation. So I guess the downside is we don't have job security. We've done very well winning these highly competitive grants, but if we miss them in a row, the whole…all of what we are doing is really put at risk. And yes, the applicability to Australia is very limited. The Pacific Rim though, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands we have huge pneumonia load burdens. But the technology might find application in Australia around aquaculture. So the problem with growing fish more quickly as the water warms up is the amount of oxygen it holds drops, and so the fish grow more slowly, they're more likely to get sick and whatnot. So we are investigating applicability to aquaculture with the hope that we can use that to cross subsidise the medical stuff. So that would be for-profit to subsidise the medical stuff which we can't see a way to make money out of.
Audience member 4: Scientists are under a lot of pressure in all sorts of ways, so for each of you, what are maybe one or two things that you would change if you could about the way science is practiced in Australia or in your field in particular?
Madhu Bhaskaran: I think for me as I'm trying to take my research from the lab out into the real world, what I'm finding is industry, business, university, we all operate in silos.
Australia has never had an electronics industry, and that could be some of the reasons why, but I find it's quite hard for me to convince industry of the importance of research and to actually invest in something like this. A lot of people obviously don't employ PhDs, and with my other hat on as Associate Dean for higher degrees by research, it's sometimes hard to convince students. You know, you need to tell them you need to do a PhD because of this, but then there's no real industry jobs in certain fields out here. That is something which definitely has to change. I think that value which we add by actually doing this research, and for people to actually appreciate that it takes that long and that amount of research to actually get a good product out there, I think that's something which definitely has to change.
The other thing which I think is well known is obviously the fact that career stability is definitely a problem for most of us. We come out fresh from our PhD is, most of our jobs are based on contracts. And for women, needless to say, it's also time when you take a break to have a family, so you have a career interruption also thrown into the mix, so too many things happening at the same time. So anything which creates a more stable environment at that point in career will definitely help a long way.
Emilie Ens: I think in our field of ecology, fieldwork has been more and more restricted over time, and I feel like that is a massive shame, especially in a country like Australia, we need more young people to get out and see what Australia is all about, the diversity of environments and climates and different interactions people have with the environment. So I think the funding cuts, restricting people to field science close to town in urban regional areas, we are really missing a big part of Australia. And with that I guess not understanding what the threats are. So, for example, like feral cats. The cat was out of the bag for a long time before we even really realised the impact that it was having on small mammals.
So we really need to reconnect with all those parts of Australia. I guess needless to say I wish that there was more acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledge in our teaching of science of all ages.
Bryn Sobott: So, in short, job security. So too much of our little team's time is spent fundraising. We've probably spent 20%, 25% of the time trying to bring in more funds to keep it going, when we just want to do the work. It just feels really…it's frustrating because it slows it down. So from a personal view, my personal view really would be job security, which I think Madhu said.
Looking further ahead, my sense is that…I went through the public education system from primary school right through high school, so I feel I owe…basically my problem-solving skills have been honed and paid for by the Australian taxpayer. So actually look forward to using the skills to try and improve the world. I sense that the Australian education system is becoming less egalitarian I think unfortunately it's more and more important how wealthy your parents are when you are born. And I fear that young people coming through, a young brilliant scientist, she might decide that she doesn't have that sense of obligation to improve the world. I wouldn't be critical, it's a reasonable view for this hypothetical young lady to come to. And secondly, even if she does want to improve the world, the debt that you've accumulated to be educated now, you might not have the capacity to take on the career risks that a few of the young people in our team have done.
So that really worries me because…so that worries me. And going back to the job security, a friend of mine who is a much better physicist than I am has gone to work in finance, and I went to meet him for lunch in the city and he said the big difference is he knows if he turns up and does his job he's got a job, whereas in academia, that's not the case. If you don't win the grants, you're out and you're on your own. I was really negative again, wasn't I.
Kim McKay: No, no, Bryn, I like it because I think it's really important that people understand that it's a struggle. It's a struggle to do good. You've got your eye on the big game but to get there…they say anything worth doing is a struggle, but boy, you are obviously feeling it, all of you, in terms of trying to achieve. I wish I could wave my wand for you tonight and the money would rain down because the work you're doing is so important, but just keep at it, yeah? So on that basis, just to finish tonight, what advice, Bryn, would you have for somebody who's thinking of entering the Eureka prizes this year?
Bryn Sobott: It's not enough to do good science, it's got to be seen, we need to show the taxpayer that we work hard and work on weekends, we don't get overtime and X,Y, Z. So the Eureka prizes is probably the pre-eminent way of doing that. I mean, it's presented in a Logie-like format that grandparents and cousins understand. But I wouldn't stop applying for and even winning a Eureka prize. At barbecues, on the plane, at the football, communicate to the people around you why you're doing what you're doing.
You actually want to improve the world, you're not there to line your own pockets, you actually want to improve the world. And I think if perhaps more of Australia understood and accepted that, maybe science would start to win votes and our politicians would…we would have a minister in the Cabinet and Bill Shorten would be boring us ad nauseam with science and growth or something, I don't know what he'd come up with.
Kim McKay: Let's hope…we could encourage him to…and what about from your point of view Emilie, what advice would you give to Eureka prize entrants this year?
Emilie Ens: I guess for citizen science it's awesome to acknowledge all the amazing people that we work with and for all of us to get up on stage and share the limelight, so I definitely encourage all people that work on citizen science projects to give it a go because it's such an important part, an emerging part of Australian science, getting more people involved and empowered in understanding what's going on around us.
Kim McKay: Terrific. And what about you Madhu? What advice would you give?
Madhu Bhaskaran: If you're looking to apply I'd say go for it. But I think one thing which I did learn is, as you said, you learn how to communicate your science and you learn how to… writing journal articles and things like that, you learn how to write it in a completely different style, and that's definitely a useful skill to have.
Kim McKay: Great. Well, there's some good advice. Is there anyone in the audience here who is going to enter the awards this year? Don't let on, don't share it, keep it secret. That's all right. Well, we know there are lots of entries already. I just want to say congratulations to the three of you, thank you for sharing the evening with us and sharing your insights, you are amazing people, thanks so much.
And before I throw back to Rebecca I just also want to thank our Eureka team here too, which I am sure you're probably going to do, to Cara and Kate down the front here and Jacinta too, thank you so much for all you do to make the Eureka prizes so special.
Now you know your purpose as well because it's reflected in these people here, so thank you so much. And I can think of no better reason of why you shouldn't be doing the science to benefit humanity exemplified tonight. So thank you so much for joining us and thank you Rebecca, back to you.
Rebecca Johnson: Thank you so much Kim. Firstly, Bryn, a nuclear physicist who saves babies, that's pretty extraordinary. And Emilie, an incredible scientist who has engaged Australia's first scientists who have been doing it for at least 60,000 years, absolutely extraordinary. And I understand that you were recently offered a permanent job, did I hear that? Yay! So that's pretty exciting. And what you just described as mentoring and psychology and all of those things, welcome to senior leadership and less science. That's senior leadership.
And Madhu, extraordinary wearable technology and you're sitting next to the most entrepreneurial woman on the planet. I look forward to your new dating technology, I look forward to that application and that collaborative project between you and our extraordinary CEO and director Kim McKay. So please join me in thanking them again.
So definitely better than Netflix. I encourage you if you are having an irritating moment in the next coming days and coming months, think of these guys, these guys can top up your energy when you think about what they do.
They have such an extraordinary impact through science, and it is most definitely benefiting humanity so broadly. So thank you so much for your time. I would also like to echo Kim's thoughts thanking the Eureka team. Those three people sitting there in the front row, these are the guys that put on the prizes. They are a small but powerful team, so thank you Cara and Kate and Jacinta for your amazing leadership of putting on the Eureka prizes every year, and recognising…thank you Bryn for calling them the Logies of Australian science.
So, important facts to remember, the prizes are open for the next seven and a half weeks. So there's plenty of time to prepare your entries and nominations. All of the women scientists and communicators out there, you guys are always underrepresented in nominations, so please, please, please make sure that you put in a nomination, or put one in for your amazing colleagues. Entries close at 7pm on Friday, 4 May. And just to remind you, there are 16 prizes across the areas of research, innovation, leadership, science engagement and school science. And the total prize pool is $160,000, which to the Logies is not very much but to us that is huge. There's a lot of money behind the Logies, but for us that is huge, and to see the benefits that come out of winning a Eureka prize and potentially we are looking at future Australians of the Year right now.
Can I reinforce how important it is to put in an application because you might very well win. Again, I would like to thank our prize sponsors and supporters who make it possible, and I would like to thank all of you so much for coming along tonight and sharing our vision and passion for awarding Australian science. It's not over, you know the Australian Museum is well known for throwing great parties, so I would like now to invite you to join us back in the Long Gallery where we will continue our refreshments and nibbles. And if you can't stay, then please see our amazing team because they can give you a pass to come back later. We can't guarantee that that will be with refreshments and nibbles but you can come back and see our amazing Treasures Gallery then. And I look forward to catching up with many of you at the Eureka prizes dinner in August. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. Good evening.