Frontiers of Science Forum

L-R: Dr Fred Osman; Prof Judith Dawes; Dr Daniel Mansfield; Ian Woolf; Prof Antoine van Oijen; Dr Cathy Foley and Dr Markus Müllner

Recording of event available here:

Exploring major discoveries and theories in physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry at this year’s combined Australian Institute of Physics, The Teachers’ Guild of NSW and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute meeting

Ever since the Copernicun revolution in the 15th century science has been progressing at an exponential rate. Major discoveries and theories in physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry, have shaped and continue to grow at an exponential rate. The evening provided a wonderful engaging series of presentations on the latest future developments on exploring major discoveries and theories in physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry at this year’s combined Australian Institute of Physics (AIP); The Teachers’ Guild of New South Wales (TGNSW); and Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) joint meeting. The topics on the evening included:

Dr Cathy Foley AO PSM

Back to the Future: work

Dr Cathy Foley commenced as Australia’s ninth Chief Scientist in January 2021. Dr Foley was appointed to the role after a lengthy career at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO; she was appointed as the agency’s Chief Scientist in August 2018, the second woman to hold that role. Dr Foley’s career in physics began with her PhD at Macquarie University on the semiconductor indium nitride. She and her colleagues were one of the first groups to carry out pioneering research that examined the properties of indium nitride in light-sensitive devices, the best-known application being white light emitting diodes used for household low energy lighting.

Professor Judith Dawes

Sensing with nanoparticles and random lasers

The sensitive and quantitative detection of trace amounts of specific molecules is important in areas such as biomedical diagnosis. Nanoparticles can be readily introduced into various solutions and tissue samples to enable sensitive detection, and can be located and observed with light. We have investigated the collective phenomena that arise in random lasers consisting of nanoparticles mixed with various optical gain materials. The laser action amplifies the optical response, leading to improved detection of trace molecules in solution. Judith Dawes is Professor of Physics at Macquarie University and Director of MQ Photonics Research Centre. She is Treasurer for Science and Technology Australia and she is a former President of the Australian Optical Society. She is active in promoting Women in STEM and is a Fellow of SPIE and OSA, major international Optics societies. She graduated with a BSc (Hons) and PhD from the University of Sydney, and has worked in the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, University of Rochester, NY, USA, and at the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, before returning to Australia to take up a position at Macquarie University.

Dr Daniel Mansfield

New Arithmetic from Ancient Mesopotamia

Mathematics is said to have begun long ago in ancient Mesopotamia, also known as the cradle of civilization. This culture had slipped into legend until the late 19th century when archaeologists uncovered thousands upon thousands of clay documents from lost cities such as Sippar, Lasa, and Babylon. Amongst these were mathematical and geometric texts, many are yet to be translated and some are surprisingly advanced. This talk introduced new discoveries regarding their unique form of base-60 arithmetic.

Dr Daniel Mansfield has been lecturing in the UNSW School of Mathematics and Statistics since 2015. His particular interest is in how to best use technology to enhance learning and teaching. He is an inspiring educator who has received many teaching awards, such as the KPMG Inspiring Teacher Award in 2017 and the AustMS Teaching Excellence Award (Early Career) in 2018. He is notable for his research with prof. Norman Wildberger on the famous Plimpton 322 tablet, and more recently for his work on Mesopotamian geometry and land measurement.

Professor Antoine van Oijen

Microbes, microscopes, and molecules: the molecular machines of life under the magnifying glass

All living organisms are made up of cells, the tiny building blocks that each themselves consist of a mix of biological molecules, such as proteins, DNA and lipids. The organisation and housekeeping of a cell is controlled by proteins, little machines that coordinate thousands of specialized tasks at the microscopic level. What seemed to be science fiction a few decades ago has become reality: using powerful microscopes with lasers and ultrasensitive cameras we are now able to visualise individual proteins and watch them do their various jobs. The presentation described how we use these so-called ‘single-molecule’ techniques to visualize one of the processes fundamental to life: the copying of DNA. Further, this talk showed how we use these tools to visualise how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and how we developed approaches to deal with this rapidly growing health crisis.

Professor Antoine van Oijen obtained his BSc and PhD degrees in the Netherlands, where he was trained as a physicist. After having established research labs at Harvard Medical School in the USA and Groningen University in the Netherlands, he moved to the University of Wollongong (UOW) in 2014. He was awarded a prestigious Laureate Fellowship by the Australian Research Council to develop powerful microscopes that can make movies of the molecular processes that define life, down to the level of single molecules. As the driver behind UOW’s newly established Molecular Horizons institute, he is bringing together researchers from various disciplines to transform our approach to understanding and tackling disease.

Dr Markus Müllner

Architects at the nanoscale – how modern polymer chemistry advances technology

The year 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the first scientific publication on polymerisation (the synthesis of polymers). Polymers have since become irreplaceable in our daily lives. While many commodity polymers (think plastics) haven’t changed much since their discovery almost a century ago, modern day polymers are fast becoming integral components for revolutionary advances in health and energy. The ability to precisely tune polymer composition and architecture allows researchers to progress the frontiers of personalised medicine, batteries and sustainability. This talk highlighted recent progress in these areas and shared some of our own research findings to provide an outlook on the future of the polymer field.

Dr Markus Müllner received his PhD in polymer chemistry at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Markus is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemistry at The University of Sydney and heads the Polymer Nanostructures Group (@PolymerNano on Twitter) within the Key Centre for Polymers and Colloids. He currently holds a prestigious Future Fellowship by the Australian Research Council, serves on the international advisory boards of leading publications in his fields of research and is regularly invited to speak at international chemistry conferences. Since 2019, he is the Chair of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s NSW Polymer Group and part of the steering committee for the annual Australasian Polymer Summer School.

Collage of Photos from 2021 Frontiers of Science evening


President | The Teachers’ Guild of New South Wales

Secretary | NSW Branch Australian Institute of Physics

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