Top brains in City of Melville vie for science awards

Dr Wensu Chen, Dr Ravinder Anand and Dr Jun Li are all up for top science accolades. Picture: Martin Kennealey www.communitypix.com.au   d472179
Dr Wensu Chen, Dr Ravinder Anand and Dr Jun Li are all up for top science accolades. Picture: Martin Kennealey www.communitypix.com.au d472179

 

RAVINDER Anand has dedicated more than 30 years to unlocking the secrets lurking beneath the surface of Western Australia’s vast land mass.

Dr Ravinder Anand, nominated for Scientist of the Year

From weathered rocks and iron stones to eucalyptus and acacia leaves and even termite mounds – many materials can provide an insight into what lies underground and Dr Anand has forged a career out of finding them.

A chief research scientist at CSIRO, Dr Anand has helped pioneer new techniques in the field of geoscience and geochemistry that have simultaneously driven down the cost and drive up the probability of success for mining exploration.

Mining remains the primary driver of the WA economy, and Dr Anand’s work has contributed directly to major mineral discoveries worth more than $15 billion, including the Bronzewing, Jundee and Nimary gold mines.

“Our landscapes in Australia are very old and deeply weathered and we have soil and sediment layers tens of metres thick,” he said.

“When companies are looking for mineral deposits like gold or copper they are often sitting tens to hundreds of metres below ground and drilling is quite expensive, so being able to collect samples from the surface that give you an idea of what is beneath is very useful.”

“It’s much cheaper and results in a much higher probability of finding deposits.”

Over the past three decades Dr Anand has gone from mostly examining weathered rocks, laterite (iron-rich weathered soil common in WA) and landscapes to also looking at plant material and termite mounds.

In each case the goal is to find traces of valuable minerals that might point towards a larger ore seam below.

“Vegetation like eucalyptus and acacia can have very deep root systems and so in the summer when they’re looking for water they may also bring metals like gold, copper and arsenic up to the surface which are detectable in their leaves.

“Similarly, termites tunnelling underground can shift particles of soil and gold when building their mounds.”

 

Wensu Chen

AT just 37, Wensu Chen is leading two Australian Research Council (ARC) projects that have the potential to save hundreds of lives and millions of dollars, here in Perth and around the world.

Dr Wensu Chen, nominated for Early Career Scientist of the Year

Dr Chen is developing new techniques to improve the structural protection of infrastructure against both natural and man-made hazards, including accidental or terrorism-related explosions or impacts.

“Whether an accidental blast or a terror attack, either kind of event can cause catastrophic failure of structures and the loss of many lives,” Dr Chen said.

“The two ARC projects that I’m working on are concerned with developing protective structures or techniques that can be used to provide more resilient, sustainable and safer infrastructure in Australia.”

One ARC project involves developing light-weight composite sandwich structures that can be added to existing, acting like an additional layer of armour against blasts or extreme loading.

“Defending against the threat of terrorism is a hot topic right now not just in Australia but also in Europe, the US and around the world,” Dr Chen said.

The second ARC project is using fibre-reinforced polymers to strengthen structures and extend their lifespans.

“I believe both of these projects can bring enormous social, environmental and economic benefits for Western Australia,” Dr Chen said.

Having completed his PhD in structural dynamics and blast impact engineering at UWA in 2013, Dr Chen is now leading a fresh batch of PhD candidates at the School of Civil and Mechanical Engineering in Curtin University.

He is an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow and has already published 50 peer-reviewed papers.

Dr Jun Li

A FINALIST for the second consecutive year, Jun Li is working to connect bricks, steel and mortar to the “internet of things,” creating smarter and safer infrastructure and buildings.

Dr Jun Li, nominated for Early Career Scientist of the Year

Using a range of real-world sensors and emerging data analysis and artificial intelligence techniques, Dr Li is helping to accurately measure and evaluate the condition of complex structures like bridges and high-rise buildings.

“The idea is to install a network of sensors that measure vibrations like acceleration, displacement and strain,” Dr Li said.

“We then collect and analyse all the data, which helps us to keep track of the performance and condition of the structures.”

Dr Li said the ultimate goal was to develop a system that could pinpoint parts of structures that are deteriorating and require maintenance long before they fail or collapse.

The results of Dr Li’s work are on display at the Living Laboratory Project in building 215 at Curtin University, which houses more than 50 sensors collectively generating more than a gigabyte of data every day.

“Currently we are working to understand and analyse the data to build a picture of the impact of different environmental conditions on the building,” he said.

“Last week we had very strong winds and quite cold temperatures. With different conditions we can expect different vibrations and stresses on the structure.”

There are also more than 20 sensors deployed on a bridge in Rockingham that have been collecting data since 2014.

“We have done some preliminary data analysis working with the bridge owner Main Roads WA and our research collaborators, and the condition of the bridge is very good based on that,” Dr Li said.

Dr Li leads a research team of seven PhD students in Curtin University’s Research Centre for Infrastructural Monitoring and Protection.

He has also received a Curtin University Pro Vice-Chancellor Early Career Research Award and a UWA High Achieving Young Investigator Award.

Jessica Kretzmann

JESSICA Kretzmann is at the forefront of research into a promising medical field that appears set to revolutionise the treatment of a myriad of diseases, including cancer.

Jessica Kretzmann, nominated for Student Scientist of the Year

Gene therapy is the introduction of normal, healthy genes into cells in place of missing or defective ones with the aim of correcting genetic disorders.

Research into gene therapy has exploded in the past the decade as improvements to CRISPR technology have allowed researchers to quickly and easily alter DNA sequences, or turn particular genes on and off to reprogram cells.

The challenge now lies in the safe delivery of the healthy genetic material, with modified viral agents the current method of choice in the majority of studies.

Ms Kretzmann, a PhD candidate at UWA, is investigating a different, safer delivery method that has already shown encouraging results in the treatment of breast cancer in mice.

“My PhD comes from the fact that we have these amazing CRISPR technologies that allow us to reprogram cells to either make them healthy again or effectively tell them to kill themselves but we are limited by safe methods don’t have a way to deliver them in clinical trials,” she said.

“Lots of people are looking into the use of viruses but unfortunately even though you are taking out the viral DNA and replacing it you are still left with an active virus which can prompt a bad immune response.

“My focus starts on the chemistry side of things. I’m trying to design and synthesise non-viral agents which when mixed with genetic material interact and condense into a nanoparticle that can be delivered via an intravenous drip.”

“Earlier this year we completed a study on mice with a particular kind of breast cancer.

“By treating the mice with gene therapy delivered by IV we observed long-term tumour suppression and regression, which is very encouraging.”

Ms Kretzmann is due to complete her PhD in January 2019 and hopes to continue her work in non-viral delivery designs for gene therapy, particularly in the field of polymer chemistry.