Questions to the scientists

Their lives began similarly: as a single cell. How did these scientists get to where they are today? What do they do in their 24-hour allocations to produce these amazing things? Let’s hear straight from them and look no further than the text below.

What is a fun fact about your science - one you bring out at parties to surprise and inspire!

Kyla Adams (Atoms to Galaxies) – Light can push objects. It sounds a bit counter intuitive when you first hear it, but this fact is the reason behind so much of our everyday world. It is the reason that solar panels work and can even effect how we can detect black holes. Light is made of packets of energy called photons. These photons can impart momentum, that is a push, to objects. Photons from the sun hit electrons in solar panels and generate electricity, they can also cause mirrors to warp when they have a large enough energy (like the 1MW laser in LIGO).

Samara Brown (Beautiful Mind, Our Body) – The brain actually named itself, and I have a freezer full of brains at work.

Dr. John Cook (Beautiful Mind) It’s been so many years since I’ve been to a party, I forget what those are like! Fun fact about my field – if you go to a science communication conference, you’ll find ironically that communication researchers are often not very good communicators!

Dr. Romane Cristescu (Planet Earth) – It always surprises people that as ecologists, we spend so much time talking about animal scats i.e. poo. This is because often animals are not wanting to be found, whether they are hiding from predators or being discreet so they can catch their prey, it makes them difficult to study. When they are rare or cryptic, even more so! And so, looking for signs of their presence is much easier. But it means the glamourous image of ecologists spending lots of time observing wonderful wildlife is often not quite what we do!

Shanette De La Motte (Atoms to Galaxies) – Electrons at Belle II are collided with the energy equivalent to that of ~11 lightning bolts!

Qingqing Fan (Atoms to Galaxies) – The Alzheimer’s disease (AD) drug development failure rates are as high as 99.6%. There are currently no known cures or ways to treat AD. As a result, researchers are trying to develop early detection techniques to hinder the onset of symptoms.

Dr. Elissa Farrow (Beautiful Mind, Tech Me Out) – As a social scientist I love participatory processes with people from all walks of life. At a recent workshop I ran, I asked people to draw images of the future when they thought of Artificial Intelligence influences their job role. The images ranged from pictures of sunshine and hope to images of death and despair. It reflected the optimistic and pessimistic views about AI in the workplace from the end user’s perspective. I also used role play as part of how that image of the future could play out. People were role playing being AI, beeping, interacting with the human on the sun lounge with a cocktail. This could be one of the scenarios of the future of organisations.

Dr. Riana Gardiner (Planet Earth) – We talk about poo on a daily basis, we actually get excited about it.

Dr. Connie Henson & Felicity Chapman (Our Body) Many people are not aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are early adaptors and innovators of social media.  For example, recent research has highlighted how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use social media for empowerment, political purposes and for sharing and gathering health information.

Dr. Rebecca Hodgetts (Atoms to Galaxies) This might not be particularly fun, or even a fact, but the thing I always get asked is “Do [I] think we can do it?” Meaning; do I think we have the capability to slow and even reverse the effects of climate change? The answer to that is, I absolutely do. The only real question is, how long will we have to wait before we truly get started?

Shatabdi Paul (Planet Earth) From my personal observations, I feel that there is climatic variation in parasitism in damselflies. For example, damselflies from northern hemisphere of earth (Bangladesh) have higher parasitism rate compared to the southern hemisphere of earth (Australia).

Dr. Danny Price (Atoms to Galaxies, Planet Earth) – The Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in 1977 and has been speeding out of the Solar system ever since. A few years ago, it officially left the Solar system, crossing through the heliosphere: a bubble created by the Sun that shields us from extragalactic radiation. Voyager 1 is currently travelling at about 60,000 km/h and it takes almost a day for a signal to travel from Voyager to Earth. Remarkably, Voyager 1 is still working and sending back useful science data.

Dr. Alice Twomey (Planet Earth) – In ocean waves, water moves in small circles creating the ‘up and down’ movement of the wave. This means that waves actually transmit energy across the ocean, not water.

Ran Yan (Tina) (Our Body) – What you are after for food might be due to your “gut feeling” – microbes living in your gut, rather than you own brain!

A day in their lives

What does your typical working day look like?

Kyla Adams (Atoms to Galaxies) It depends on the time of year. As we work with schools, I become very busy in the beginning and ending of the school term. At those times I spend my days working with teachers in the schools or having them visit the office during school holidays to training them in modern physics and our new classroom activities. Other days I am experimenting and developing new activities in our open office space. The office is filled with highly sophisticated learning tools, like nerf guns and ping pong balls. Most days though I am working at my desk, reading what other education researchers around the world are doing and working with others in the team to develop our cohesive curriculum.

Dr. Rebecca Hodgetts (Atoms to Galaxies) Generally, I have two kinds of workdays: planning or processing days. On planning days, I assess the data I have gathered, compare it to literature and decide which experiments to do next. On lab days, I spend my time entirely in the lab, cleaning preparing and running experiments to ensure high quality data is collected.

Dr. John Cook (Beautiful Mind) I don’t really have a typical working day. Sometimes my day starts very early (e.g., from 6 a.m.) when meeting with American scientists that I’m collaborating with. My workday tends to be defined by what deadline is looming, whether it be writing a research paper, analysing data, peer-reviewing a paper, preparing to give a presentation, or preparing for a meeting. Sometimes my days end late in the evening, meeting with researchers in the UK or Europe. Particularly painful days are when I have to start early with Americans then end late with Europeans.

Dr. Connie Henson (Our Body) – Most of my days are spent talking with citizen-scientists, reading and writing.

Dr. Riana Gardiner (Planet Earth) If we are in the field, we pack up the car, dog and or drone and we survey most of the day in the bush looking for evidence of koalas, and end the day with a curry, or pizza and drink. In the lab, we are chopping up and analysing koala scats. In the office, we are managing our research and consultancy projects, while the dogs lay at our feet. I take numerous breaks cuddling them, it’s very therapeutic.

When you aren’t in your research rabbit hole, what do you do to switch off in your spare time?

Qingqing Fan (Atoms to Galaxies) – I am in love with playing basketball and boxing. I joined a women basketball club, and we have a game night once a week for fun. I am also a fan of video games.

Samara Brown (Beautiful Mind, Our Body) – I love being by the beach, spending my days outside walking with plenty of coffee catchups with friends. I also play soccer which keeps me busy on the weekends.

Ran Yan (Tina) (Our Body) Charging myself by dancing waacking or hip-hop style I’d say. Learning Salsa, swimming, bike riding or out to grocery shopping.

Shatabdi Paul (Planet Earth) I love to travel, take images of flowers and insects and very fond of cooking. In my spare time, I always try to do all these things.

Dr. Riana Gardiner (Planet Earth) Play futsal, go to the beach, grab a croissant and coffee from the bakery. Fit in a hike if I can.

Journey through science

How did your journey begin? What got you interested in science and your research field?

Dr. Danny Price (Atoms to Galaxies, Planet Earth) I was a bit of a daydreamer as a kid, so it took my teachers a while to realise that I had a knack for science. But I’ve always loved dreaming toward the stars that we have an amazing view of from here in WA. As a kid, my parents read me a book called “My Place in Space” which had great illustrations and quickly became my favourite. In high school, I enjoyed physics and music, and decided that astronomy or a being a guitarist would be an amazing job. Astronomy won, and by the time I finished my science degree at UWA, the Square Kilometre Array telescope was just getting started. So, I enrolled in a PhD to learn how to build help build it.

Dr. John Cook (Beautiful Mind) I’ve always been interested in science, having done a physics degree coming straight out of high school. But I left academia for over a decade, and it was getting into arguments with my father-in-law about climate change that got me interested in climate science and eventually pulled me back into a scientific career.

Dr. Connie Henson (Our Body) I started out as a health psychologist, took a detour into business where I helped businesses and individuals adapt to shifts in technology and ultimately become stronger through change. Seeing the potential for technology to fundamentally transform health care and public health inspired me to return to my research roots. I’m privileged to now have the opportunity to work alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to conduct translational health research. I am keen to help people and systems make necessary changes. I believe that the introduction of digital health technologies creates the perfect opportunity to make changes in our health system to improve equity and access for people for who have historically been marginalised and whose culture and perspectives have not been incorporated into the design of the system.

Dr. Romane Cristescu (Planet Earth) – As a child I always was an animal lover – rescuing and raising any orphans I found from birds to moles – but I was also very worried about the health of the planet. My favourite book was Greenpeace’s “A ma Mer”, which is a call to respect and protect Oceans and the Earth. So, I knew from very young I wanted to be involved in wildlife conservation. I trained as a vet, then did a Masters in conservation genetics and a PhD in ecology. One thing led to another, and I became a full-time researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Dr. Alice Twomey (Planet Earth) – Straight after high-school, I studied Environmental Engineering because I wanted to design sustainable solutions to current environmental problems but working as a Water Resources Engineer in a consultancy, I didn’t really get that opportunity. As a researcher, I might not be able to change the whole world, but I hope to use my research to develop best practice guidelines for designing and restoring coastal wetlands. One wetland at a time, I’ll see how much of the world I can get through.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Shanette De La Motte (Atoms to Galaxies) – I like the idea that I’m contributing to the greater body of scientific knowledge. The day I can open up the particle-phonebook and see my last name with a result will be a dream come true.

Dr. Elissa Farrow (Beautiful Mind, Tech Me Out) – As an extroverted futurist and social scientist I love working with people in both the design and delivery. I love standing up in front of groups and seeing the energy fly around the room and the insights grow.

Ran Yan (Tina) (Our Body) The ECU environment, my supervisors. They are supportive all the time which I’m really grateful for. 

Felicity Chapman (Our Body) – Learning what excites and inspires people, seeing the difference that cultural creative expression makes to improving health outcomes for mob.

Dr. Alice Twomey (Planet Earth) The day-to-day variety! I enjoy fieldwork in mangroves, seagrass, and saltmarsh and love spending time reading and building upon the latest work by other researchers in my field around the world. I don’t have one specific set of skills, I learn new skills constantly depending on what problem I’m trying to solve, whether it be a new GIS software, a new programming language or working out how I can measure the depth of tidal creeks when there are crocodiles in them!

What do you find most challenging about your work?

Shanette De La Motte (Atoms to Galaxies) – Being a good research scientist requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades. You’ll have a sound knowledge of the Physics theory from coursework, but it’s also expected you develop other skills you weren’t necessarily trained for in your degree. This can include knowledge of statistics, so you can verify your research, as well as good speaking and writing skills, so you can accurately share your work with collaborators. Moreover, working with an international collaboration means a number of meetings are on European time – staying up late is hard when you love sleep as much as I do!

Dr. Rebecca Hodgetts (Atoms to Galaxies) There is so much to do and seemingly so little time. Choosing which projects to follow to ensure the greatest likelihood of success is challenging, getting this decision wrong and finding out your project that you have worked hard on isn’t as ground-breaking as what you originally thought can be very tough.

Dr. Elissa Farrow (Beautiful Mind, Tech Me Out) Sometimes it is the people stuff – those who are quite aggressively resistant in an adaptation process. This is challenging in both a good way – for me it inspires me to keep on working with organisations to shift their cultures and leaders to shift some of their practices, but also challenges me to still see aggression in workplaces despite years of WHS policies. I have worked in domestic and family violence sectors and to see these sorts of behaviours in the workplace (bullying, harassment, violence (passive or aggressive) is something I am very keen to shift or remove from all contexts.

Felicity Chapman (Our Body) – Government & Funding Bodies obsession with the deficit discourse language, rather than focussing on a strengths-based approach and allowing community to design, lead and implement solutions.

Dr. Romane Cristescu (Planet Earth) I find it really hard that we cannot all work together for the common good. That’s my biggest challenge: as time is running out, how to cope with the fact we are not all focussed on conservation outcomes.

What’s next? Do you have any burning research questions or dream projects?

Dr. Danny Price (Atoms to Galaxies, Planet Earth) I want to know if we are alone in the Universe, or if there is life out there somewhere. When we look up at the stars, is there anyone looking back? I want to keep trying to answer this question, even if it takes a lifetime.

Samara Brown (Beautiful Mind, Our Body) – I’m planning on finishing my PhD within the next year and then hopefully I will be able to continue working on my projects. My dream projects are to continue working on postmortem tissue (as I love working on the brain) but to combine this with a clinical study where we can track changes in the blood during different periods of depression (acute, current episodes, remission) and how this relates to changes we have found in the brain. For my PhD I have only focussed on one brain region, so it would be great to extend this research to include some other key regions in the brain that we know are implicated in depression, such as, the hippocampus (the brains memory centre).

Dr. Connie Henson & Felicity Chapman (Our Body) – We are keen to expand our partnerships – bringing together experts from academia, health, community, and industry to design translational research that can help shape the emerging field of digital health such that we incorporate and build on the many strengths inherent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to improve health outcomes.

Ran Yan (Tina) (Our Body) – I would be super delighted if my study can make a tiny progress to help patients. [I felt] the inner joy from the bottom of my heart and achievement when I got an email from one of my participants one night when I was struggling with data analysis. She told me the fibre supplement boosted her bowel movement heaps, and she has been “normal” in the toilet for 7 days in a row which never happened many, many years before!

Shatabdi Paul (Planet Earth) – I intend to continue my research adventure to better understand how host-parasite interacts under climate change. In future, I will try to address how behavioural, nutritional, or immunological variations interplay with climatic condition and shapes parasitism.