Hands-on lab visit to RSB at ANU for Session C

With food security a global issue, investment in primary research into plant research has never been more important.

Session C’s food, agriculture, and animal and plant biology group “Fenner” headed to the Research School of Biology to look at some of the latest in plant science research at the ANU.

The entire session was spent in the lab, run by Alisha Duncan, the education and events officer, supported by a team of PhD students and researchers. They work on improving plant photosynthesis, which can improve the yield of staple food crops; the Fenner group’s activity was a simple photosynthesis experiment.

The participants started by making a red cabbage pH indicator. The chemical anthocyanin in the cabbage naturally changes colour, based on the acidity of its environment. After creating this, they used a variety of substances to create a scale, such as bi-carb soda and egg whites.

PH can be used to measure photosynthesis by the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) present in a solution. In this particular cabbage solution, it is purple when neutral, which also equates to atmospheric CO2. The higher the CO2, the more acidic it becomes, and the solution turns pink. The lower the CO2, the more basic it becomes, and it turns blue-green, or even yellow. When CO2 is high in a plant, it indicates that respiration is happening at a faster rate than photosynthesis, therefore the solution will turn pink. When C02 is low, it indicates photosynthesis is at a faster rate than respiration, and the solution turns blue-green/ yellow.

The group were testing photosynthesis of algae, so next had to make algae balls. This is done by suspending many single-celled algae in a jelly-like substance, each with equal amounts of photosynthetic material. After measuring the algae, the participants discussed possible variables that would affect the photosynthesis rate. Each person was given a tube of algae balls and a tube of indicator to test this variable at home.

Participants with their take-home pH indicator and algae balls


Being able to have such a hands-on activity at their last lab visit for Session C was fun, and helped to ensure there’s more science to come!

Meg Stegeman, Communications Intern NYSF 2017 Session C and NYSF Alumna 2014

Alex Schumann-Gillett, NYSF 2010 Alumna

Alex Schumann-Gillett attended NYSF in 2010.

“Growing up, I always had a keen interest in science and was extremely excited when I attended Session C of the NYSF 2010 in Canberra (I’m in the front row with the white t-shirt in the picture below). Attending NYSF really transformed my interest in science into a passion for it. After NYSF, I returned to my high school (Moreton Bay College in East Brisbane) so excited to start university that I wished I could fast forward through year 12 and start doing the science that NYSF had given me a taste of.

In 2011, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at the University of Queensland (UQ), and chose to major in biophysics. After completing my BSc in mid-2015 I enrolled in Honours at UQ. My project was at the interface of computational chemistry and structural biology. I used computer simulations to characterise the interactions between a protein on the surface of pneumonia-causing bacteria and a protein on the surface of human throat cells. After completing my honours project in mid-2015, I moved to Canberra to work as a research assistant at the Australian National University (ANU)—where I had attended NYSF five years earlier!


NYSF 2010

In January this year, I commenced PhD studies in computational chemistry at ANU. In my PhD project, I am using computer simulations to explore the effect that different types of molecules, like fats and proteins, have on the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Coincidentally, the supercomputer used to run my honours and PhD simulations is one that I visited during NYSF.

What my NYSF experience taught me is to get amongst it, put myself out there and to not be scared to ask questions. 

I loved the experience that I had at the NYSF, which opened my eyes to what really doing science was like. Consequently, it was a major driver in the path I’ve taken. Now I get to do science every day, and I love it!

Alex Schumann-Gillett in her office at ANU

Alex Schumann-Gillett in her office at ANU

What my NYSF experience taught me is to get amongst it, put myself out there and to not be scared to ask questions. Because of that, I have been fortunate enough to receive several awards and scholarships for my work. These include a Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship to support my PhD work and the UQ Biochemistry Alumni Prize 3 2016. These are humbling accolades, but they show that if you back yourself and can articulate your belief in what you’re doing, others are more likely to back you too. So I encourage you to get amongst it, learn about the world you live in and enjoy exploring!