Paleoanthropologist Dr Rachel Wood speaks about human development research

This year, NYSF 2017 participants were able to attend one of three specialist lectures which catered to their personal interests in STEM. Students with an interest in anthropology and biology attended a lecture presented by Dr Rachel Wood. Dr Wood completed her master’s degree in archaeological science at the University of Oxford, she then worked at the Salisbury Museum before returning to Oxford to complete a PhD in radiocarbon dating. In 2011 Dr Wood moved to the ANU as part of a research offer, before joining the ANU as a post-doctoral fellow in 2015.

Dr Rachel Wood is a paleoanthropologist, which is the study of the formation and development of characteristics possessed by modern humans. “It’s time to solve old mysteries,” said Dr Wood. She is dedicated to studying the dispersal of humans and the last Neanderthals. Palaeoanthropology is a mixing pot that combines nuclear physics, engineering, anthropology, chemistry and biology into one discipline, which means that palaeoanthropology projects require a team of scientists with a diverse range of skills.

“It’s time to solve old mysteries.”

Homo Neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) originated in Eurasia approximately 300,000 years ago, Dr Wood explained, and Homo Sapiens originated in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago. “Neanderthals aren’t brutes, they weren’t savages,” Dr Wood said in regards to the common portrayal of Neanderthals. Dr Wood explained that genetic research showed that modern humans and Neanderthals interbreeded, and that approximately 2% of the DNA of modern humans comes directly from Neanderthals.

Dr Rachel Wood speaking about biological samples from Neanderthals

There are many methods of dating archaeological samples, but radiocarbon dating is the most accepted. Carbon isotopes with six (12C) or seven (13C) neutrons are stable, that is, they don’t decay into any other atom. The carbon isotope with eight neutrons (14C) decays slowly, at a rate such that after 5,730 years, half of the carbon would have turned into nitrogen. Therefore, by measuring the amount of 14C in bone samples, paleoanthropologists can accurately determine the age of the samples. Due to the timescale of 14C decay, radiocarbon dating only works reliably for samples that are less than 50,000 years old.

Dr Wood focuses on cleaning and pretreating samples before they are dated. “Contamination often causes older samples to appear erroneously young,” Dr Wood explained, which is why effective management of samples prior to radiocarbon dating is imperative.

Spain is an area of interest for Dr Wood, because it is a region where modern humans and Neanderthals appeared to live next door to each other approximately forty to fifty thousand years ago. Detailed investigations have determined that there was likely an overlap period of 2500 to 4600 years where modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted in the region.

To find out more about Dr Rachel Wood and her research, click here.

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

Professor Brian Schmidt on a life in science … and the future of the universe: NYSF2017

NYSF 2017 Session A students were treated to a lecture presented by Professor Brian Schmidt, Nobel Laureate and now Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University.

Along with Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter, Professor Schmidt was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt (Source:

Professor Schmidt’s work has revolutionised the way we think about our universe, but the building blocks for his research were established over a hundred years ago when Einstein watched a man fall from a roof. From this, Einstein postulated the theory of general relativity, which brought him into the public eye.

It’s important to understand the past to know our future. If the gravitational forces in the universe became more powerful than its expansion, the universe would contract into an event that Professor Schmidt referred to as the ‘gnaB giB’, which is the Big Bang backwards. Professor Schmidt was determined to figure out the fate of our universe, so in 1994 he formed the High-Z team.

Picture of the High-Z team, who discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe (Source:

The search then began. “I had two things, unbridled enthusiasm and 100% of my time. That’s something you all have, it’s how the world goes round,” Professor Schmidt said to the Session A cohort. The High-Z team discovered that distant supernova were moving away from us more slowly than closer supernova. This was the opposite of what the High-Z team was expecting to find, so they started to doubt their method.

“I had two things, unbridled enthusiasm and 100% of my time. That’s something you all have, it’s how the world goes round.”

“Sometimes in science, the accepted idea of what the universe or world is doing is wrong. Proving this idea wrong is how science advances,” Professor Schmidt says. The team’s results were indeed correct, and were corroborated by the results of Saul Perlmutter’s team at the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor Schmidt’s presentation to the NYSF then transitioned into a discussion of the unknown, in particular the fate and composition of our universe. Only 4.9% of the universe consists of matter made from atoms, the other 95.1% is a composition of dark matter and dark energy. We know that dark matter has to exist, but we don’t know what it is, “I fear I may die, not knowing what’s there,” Professor Schmidt said in reference to dark matter. “The universe is approximately 25% dark matter and 70% dark energy. These numbers have predicted, in advance, every single calculation we’ve made on our universe,” Professor Schmidt said.

As the universe expands, the density of conventional matter decreases, whereas the pushing force of dark energy only grows stronger over time. “Dark energy has won the battle for the universe,” Professor Schmidt explained. That is, the universe is likely to continue expanding at an accelerating rate until the eventual heat death of the universe.

Students of the session A cohort were captivated by Professor Schmidt’s presentation (image Jackson Nexhip)

Professor Schmidt concluded his presentation by providing some pertinent advice for the Session A cohort. “Ask yourself, after every year, is this where I want to be?” Professor Schmidt said, emphasising the importance of being happy with your work, career, and life.

“It’s not the really big things that matter the most. It’s the little things that add up which make you happy.”

To also succeed as a scientist, Professor Schmidt emphasised that it is more important that you are happy. In response to a question regarding how he felt receiving his Nobel Prize, Professor Schmidt said, “It was a day, but it was just that, a day. It’s not the really big things that matter the most in life. It’s the little things that add up which make you happy.”

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

NYSF 2017 Session A: This is CERN calling – come in Canberra

One of the unique experiences of the NYSF program is a live video conference with Dr Rolf Landua, the head of the CERN education outreach group. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is a research organisation that employs 13,000 scientists, engineers and IT specialists. They also operate the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. Students were able to ask Dr Landua questions about CERN, particle physics, and his general advice for those interested in pursuing STEM careers.

Live Video Conference with Dr Rolf Landua

The Session A conference  began with a presentation from Aqeel Akber, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s department of nuclear science. Aqeel’s PhD research focuses on nuclear structures, in particular the structure of heavy ions. He has always looked at the world with a scientific eye, pondering the underlying physics. “Physics is absolutely a part of my identity,” he says.

Aqeel’s presentation personified particles, making particle physics more accessible for students who had limited background knowledge on the subject. “Particles are the fundamental requisite for [understanding] the greater,” he says, but he emphasised that it’s important to remember that particle physics is “not yet a theory of everything,” and that more research is required.

“Particles are the fundamental requisite for the greater.”

This is where CERN excels, with their 27 kilometre long circuit of superconductive magnets, they are able to accelerate protons to 99.9999991% the speed of light. You may have heard of the LHC through CERN’s observation of the Higgs boson in 2013. A beam in the LHC consists of around 300 trillion protons, which may sound like a lot, but if these protons were stationary they’d only weigh a billionth of a gram. Due to their immense velocity, a beam of protons in the LHC is more energetic than a million speeding bullets. When two beams collide, scientists are given a brief opportunity to gaze upon the fundamental building blocks of our universe.

At 8:00PM in Canberra, or 10:00AM in Geneva, two hundred excited students were met by Dr Rolf Landua through Skype. Dr Landua has been working at CERN for 35 years, initially working on antimatter but more recently focusing on education outreach.

“We all work together in a constructive way, it’s a really nice place to be. It’s what the world should be like in a hundred years.”

When asked about what it’s like to be part of such a dynamic organisation, Dr Landua said he was “really impressed by the diversity. For every question relevant to your research, you find someone who is an expert in it. We all work together in a constructive way, it’s a really nice place to be. It’s what the world should be like in a hundred years.”

Students and teachers lining up to ask Dr Landua a question, while the rest of the Session A cohort watches on

Dr Landua believes that effective communication of science to taxpayers is of paramount importance. “They pay for our research, they’re basically our employers,” he stated.  A common question, Dr Landua says, is “what is particle physics good for?” Dr Landua and a large number of scientists are committed to researching particle physics to satisfy their innate curiosity, but the technological advances that have been made possible by their research are immense. The World Wide Web, Wi-Fi, and digital photography are all physical manifestations of man’s endeavour to satisfy our curiosity.

Find out more about Dr Rolf Landua’s previous research here

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute: Gravity, String, and Infinity

Students in the Lovelace interest group for NYSF 2017 Session A were treated to a captivating mathematics lecture, presented by three members of the Mathematical Sciences Institute at the Australian National University.

The first presenter, Chaitanya (Chenni) Oehmigara is a PhD student at the ANU. Chenni is a computational mathematician, she is currently working on modelling gravitational waves that are produced by binary black hole systems – which is where two black holes orbit each other. You can find out more about gravitational waves here.

Chaitanya Oehmigara lecturing the Lovelace interest group about gravitational waves

Modelling binary black holes requires eight parameters, so any attempt to solve this problem by brute force computation is very difficult. Chenni is trying to solve this problem in her research by using mathematical techniques to determine ranges for these parameters, thereby reducing computation time significantly.

Chenni’s research is applicable to other scenarios, such as modelling of flash floods and in mining resource predictions.

Dr Joan Licata’s research takes the age-old adage “how long is a piece of string” to the next level. Her presentation focused on knot theory, the most basic form of which is the study of one-dimensional floppy string loops in three dimensional space. Knot theory in three dimensional space has many applications, including the unscrambling of DNA strands and potentially string theory.

Dr Joan Licata teaching students about three-dimensional knot theory

Joan’s presentation focused on proving similarities and differences between knots, and the concept of rational knots. Joan provided the students with their own knots to investigate and determine whether two knots were different, identical, or reflections of each other.

She then demonstrated how you can make your own knot based on a simple fraction, using turns and rotations to construct a complex structure.

If you want to find out more about Dr Licata’s past and present research, click here.

The lecture was concluded with a presentation by Dr Brett Parker, who is interested in mathematical physics, geometry, topology, and string theory. His part of the presentation focused on contemplating infinity. Brett used the famous Hilbert’s Hotel paradox as inspiration.

Picture this, a hotel with a countably infinite number of rooms, where each room has an occupant. The question is, can Hilbert fit another guest into his hotel?

Brett then extended the paradox. A bus of infinite length with a countably infinite number of passengers arrives at the hotel, can Hilbert assign a room to each passenger? Can Hilbert find rooms for a countably infinite number of infinitely long buses each full with a countably infinite number of passengers?

The answer to the above three questions is, surprisingly, yes. An explanation is provided in this video.

Find out more about Dr Parker’s past and present research here.

The students in the Lovelace interest group were absolutely fascinated by the lecture, and after the lecture finished they seemed to have infinitely many questions for the three presenters.

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

Session A students visit ANU biology and medicine teaching laboratories

NYSF 2017 students in the Session A health and medical sciences interest groups had an eventful series of lab visits last week.

On Thursday, the students participated in a hands-on laboratory demonstration run by Dr Andras Keszei, the first year coordinator for biology at the Australian National University.

Dr Andras Keszei speaking to NYSF 2017 Session A students

Andras has been involved with the NYSF for the past five years. He thinks that the motivation and enthusiasm of the NYSF student groups is remarkable, and it’s these qualities that fuel his passion to host lab visits for the NYSF students.

The students were introduced to biology equipment used in ANU’s first year biology labs and given a general preparation for laboratory assessment at university.

Andras then presented an interactive activity focused on genetics, in particular dominant and recessive genes. Genetics, Andras believes, is one of the fields that will result in some of the most important biological research in the future.

“We can sequence a genome, but we can’t really fully understand all of the data yet.”

“We can sequence a genome, but we can’t really fully understand all of the data yet.”

Andras’ advice for the 2017 NYSF students who are considering STEM degrees is to not underestimate just how important it is to talk to people.

“You can sit in a room, read books, and get smart. But you really need to talk to people. It’s really understated just how important it is to talk to people. Talking to your peers and lecturers can really help you get a foot in the door for undergraduate research.”

“Talking to your peers and lecturers can really help you get a foot in the door for undergraduate research.”

You can find out more about Dr Andras Keszei and his research here.

On Friday, the students talked to five postgraduate ANU medicine students about the process of becoming a medicine graduate. The postgraduate students identified the hard work and determination that is required, and also praised the ANU’s medicine program, stating that the program was like being a member of a large family.

Afterwards, two representatives from the ACT Ambulance Service provided a brief overview of what it’s like to be a paramedic. Ben is an intensive care paramedic while Quentin teaches intensive care paramedics in his role as a clinical educator. Being a paramedic is certainly no easy job, Ben emphasised, the alternating 10 hour day shifts and 14 hour night shifts makes paramedicine a challenging career.

Despite the demanding hours, Ben and Quentin love their jobs and thrive on the challenges it presents.

Ben and Quentin pictured with their ACT ambulance

The lab visit was concluded with a tour of a standard ACT ambulance, including their lifelike practice mannequin which can hear, speak, and even has a simulated pulse.

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

NYSF 2015 alumni assisting on NYSF 2017 science visits at ANU Physics

Matthew Goh attended the NYSF in 2015 and was awarded the Love scholarship to study at the Australian National University in 2016, where he is currently enrolled in the PhB Science program. Matt was one of two Australian students chosen to represent Australia at the 2016 International Science Summer Institute, held at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Adrian Hindes is also a 2015 NYSF alumnus, and an alumnus of the 2015 Research Science Institute program at MIT – one of the NYSF international programs. He is a PhB Science student at the ANU and is passionate about plasma physics research. He’s also an avid fencer in his free time, representing ANU in the 2016 Uni Games.

As part of a summer research course, Adrian and Matt are working with the “Advancing Science Education through Learning in the Laboratory” (ASELL) schools project which aims to use hands-on workshops to teach high school and university students about the scientific method. That’s why they are on hand to talk with NYSF 2017 students this year.

Matthew Goh (left) and Adrian Hindes (right) teaching NYSF students about the scientific method in one of ANU’s physics laboratories.

“The ASELL project is designed to show high school and university students what investigation in science really means,” says Adrian, “the process of it – which is both rigorous in the experimental sense – and inherently curious and open. Students in our workshops form their own questions using some materials and a fun science-y thing to work with (such as making plastic from milk, or bouncing balls), and from there they design the experiment and go through the whole scientific method with as little supervision and hand-holding as possible.”

Matt says that being involved in the ASELL program has given him the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills.

“I wouldn’t be able to list them all. After a year of rigidly defined university classes, I’ve jumped into the deep end to join ‘the real world’. From awareness of educational needs, to working effectively with a multi-disciplinary research team, to quantitative data analysis, to planning and logistical thinking, the number of skills I’ve learned on the job has been incredible. Planning, implementing and retroactively analysing a workshop might sound like a simple workflow – but in the real world, countless details have to be accounted for.”

Students producing pseudo-quantum “walker” droplets during the ASELL lab visit.

Adrian says his key message is one of impact. “You’ve heard all the usual advice before, let me tell you something else. Do not discount how much impact you, as an individual, can have in the world. Once you come to terms with that, the next thing you should think about is how incredible things can be achieved by inspired groups of people. One smart person can do a lot; but a group of intelligent, passionate and driven individuals can truly change the world. Also, branch out your interests and don’t forget about politics, philosophy and arts too – we have to all work together!”

“Do not discount how much impact you, as an individual, can have in the world.”

Matt says that attending the NYSF significantly influenced his tertiary education decisions. “The NYSF was critical in getting me to think outside of the bubble I lived in. The experience of interacting with young scientists from around the country and the globe made me far more comfortable with travelling to study – and, liking what I saw on session, I decided to come to ANU. Since then, my wonderful NYSF experience prompted me to take things further, leading me to represent Australia in a similar program held in Israel at the Weizmann Institute of Science.”

“The NYSF experience of interacting with young scientists from around the country and the globe made me far more comfortable with travelling to study.” 

You can find out more about the ASELL schools project here.

Adrian Hindes will be present at the speed date a scientist event to talk to the Session A students about ASELL and his passion for nuclear fusion.

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

NYSF 2017 hears from ACT Scientist of the Year 2016

The ACT’s Scientist of the Year for 2016, Dr Ceridwen Fraser, spoke to the NYSF 2017 Session A participants this week.

Dr Ceridwen Fraser (Source:

Dr Fraser is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU. Her broad interests lie in the influence of environmental conditions, including past and future environmental change, on global patterns of biodiversity.

Dr Fraser has completed two undergraduate degrees at various institutions around Australia. After several years of undergraduate study she says she was hesitant to jump straight into a PhD program because she was also interested in travelling. “Fortune favours travellers,” Dr Fraser told the NYSF students.

“Fortune favours travellers”

She told the students that this was when she discovered biogeography, which has allowed her to travel while conducting amazing research into the intricate relationships between life and land. After completing her PhD at the University of Otago in New Zealand, Dr Fraser set her sights on researching how biological dispersal drives evolution.

Dr Fraser emphasised the distinction between beliefs and evidence based knowledge, telling the students to use and develop their critical thinking skills. She also acknowledged the difficulties associated with pursuing a STEM degree and left the Session A cohort with some pertinent advice, “Never pick the easy option.”

“Never pick the easy option.”

Find out more about Dr Fraser’s research here.

About the ACT Scientist of the Year Award

The ACT Scientist of the Year Award celebrates excellence in scientific research and innovation in the ACT. The winner also receives a $30,000 prize to support their future research endeavours.

The Award is a demonstration of the ACT Government’s commitment to growing science understanding and engagement in our community. It is a fantastic opportunity to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the ACT, as well as showcasing the contributions our local scientists are making both nationally and internationally to this very important global brain trust.

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.

NYSF Veteran at the ANU: Dr Greg Lane

You could call Dr Greg Lane a veteran of the NYSF; he attended the National Science Summer School in 1986 and has been involved extensively with the NYSF during his time as an academic at The Australian National University (ANU). Greg is a researcher at the ANU Department of Nuclear Physics, a senior fellow of the ANU, and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow.

Dr Greg Lane with the control panel of ANU’s particle accelerator

“The reason I ended up doing what I’m doing today is because I attended the NSSS,” says Dr Lane.  “Initially, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but after the NSSS I realised the scope of careers available in science and studied a Bachelor of Science at the Australian National University.”

He says it’s really important that students study what interests them, rather than what is expected of them.

“If you follow what you’re interested in, the opportunities will follow.”

“If you follow what you’re interested in, the opportunities will follow.”

With so many young people interested in physics, Greg says it is important that they be prepared to move, this is particularly true for nuclear science.

“If you want to do nuclear science, it’s an international endeavour. And there’s no other pure experimental nuclear research in Australia,” he adds. “The only place is here [ANU].”

While nuclear physics is a mature field of research, Greg believes there are still enormous global efforts today. “The applications are becoming more and more numerous. I think nuclear power overseas will become larger over time.”

“Our department is currently in the early stages of a project which aims to join the global search for dark matter, as well as research on nuclear shapes with electron gamma spectroscopy, and a range of other projects.”

Dr Greg Lane during the NYSF’s lab visit to the Research School of Physics and Engineering

After hearing about the Parliamentary Education Office’s Senate Inquiry Session that the NYSF students participated in, Greg emphasised the importance of scientists communicating with politicians and the wider community about their research and its benefits. He is currently trying to make an isotope of Europium more accessible for demonstrations, as he believes that it would be an important educational tool for his workshops.

“You don’t have to look very far to find NYSF alumni at the ANU.”

Greg ended his part of the tour by encouraging students to consider studying at the Australian National University. “You don’t have to look very far to find NYSF alumni at the ANU,” he said.

Find out more about Dr Greg Lane and his research here.

By Daniel Lawson, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2015 Alumnus.