NYSF 2017: Chemistry at ANU

Did you know that the level of vitamin C legally defines the difference between a fruit drink and a fruit juice? Well you do now. The purpose of this definition is to prevent manufactures from watering down their juices, and that’s what some of our students investigated first NYSF lab visit at the Research School of Chemistry at ANU.

The students used a technique called a titration to experimentally determine the concentration of vitamin C in a particular orange juice (to keep those sneaky juice manufacturers in check).

The students added an indicator to their sample of orange juice, then very carefully, drop by drop, added another liquid which consumes the vitamin C and causes a colour change. By monitoring how much liquid they add, they can accurately calculate the vitamin C content.

Maths, maths, maths.

Measuring vitamin C is cool, but you can’t have a chemistry lab without some Frankenstein-style experiments. So next our students synthesized some fluorescein – a substance which gives off an eerie green glow when struck with ultraviolet light.

Here the students learned how to use several new pieces of lab equipment, including analytical scales and oil baths used to heat samples to over 200oC. After several involved steps they added the final ingredient and produced a gooey green substance, which after much poking and prodding on the benches and inside the ultraviolet cabinet, they managed to produce several masterpieces:

The “Curie” interest group and their marvelous creation.

Fluorescent NYSF goo under an ultraviolet light.

The students had a blast on the benches and all learned a thing or two about chemistry and skills in the lab. Knowing the concepts and calculations on paper is one thing, but as they found, performing the experiments and learning the ins and out of the laboratory environment is a whole other can of worms.

The demonstrators at the Research School of Chemistry did an incredible job exposing the students to real bench work in a real lab environment, and each of the students came away not only with huge smiles on their faces, but with a new bag of tricks in the lab and some important bricks to add to their wall of knowledge.

But that’s not the end – they even left with buckets of liquid nitrogen ice-cream. How cool is that?

The faster you stir, the better it tastes.

By Jackson Nexhip, NYSF 2017 Session A Communications Intern and NYSF 2013 Alumnus

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!

alex-schumann-gillett-at-nysf-2010

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!

A passion for all things science and engineering – Claire Oakley, NYSF 2011 Alumna

Claire Oakley attended the NYSF in 2011. She is in her final year of studying Chemical Engineering, at Monash University.

“Five years on from my participation in NYSF, it’s an interesting exercise to try and identify all of the ways attending the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) has affected where I am now, and to predict how it will affect me in the future. Currently, I’m a 5th year engineering-commerce student at Monash University, with my engineering major being chemical engineering.

Firstly, NYSF showed me the benefits of attending a Group of Eight university: the ground breaking research opportunities, the benefits to my resume, and the high calibre of both staff and students


claire-oakley-1One of the strongest impacts the NYSF has had on my journey from there to here is my choice in university. I’d known long before NYSF that engineering was what I wanted to do, so the question at that stage was how, not what. Firstly, NYSF showed me the benefits of attending a Group of Eight university: the ground breaking research opportunities, the benefits to my resume from attending a university that is internationally renowned, and the high calibre of both staff and students

Additionally, through connections made at the NYSF, I was able to visit Monash early in year 12, and talk to current students honestly about what life was like in engineering at Monash. But from there, I was sold! The common first year, where I could take a few units from each engineering discipline before deciding what discipline I wanted to major in, the leadership programs available, and the on-campus lifestyle that I’d had a taste of on NYSF were all things that contributed to my decision to apply for Monash.

It was definitely the right choice for me. There have been good moments and bad moments of course, but overall, it’s been a good experience. Starting university, I was convinced that civil engineering was my dream career, but the common first year was enough to convince me that chemical engineering was really what I enjoyed and am good at. I have been fortunate enough to be involved with a fantastic engineering leadership program, which was notable for attracting a curiously high proportion of NYSF alumni in the cohort! I’ve just begun the chemical engineering final year project, where as the leader of a team of seven of my classmates, we have been asked to create a conceptual design for a factory to make methanol from carbon dioxide and waste methane: a sustainable, carbon negative source. This promises to be incredibly challenging and equally rewarding.

Overall, reflecting on how far I’ve come in the last five years is a positive experience, and NYSF has definitely been part of that.

claire-oakley-at-winery-2

Claire Oakley (right) on an internship at a winery

Along the way, I’ve also had some fantastic internships and work experience opportunities. After year 12, I was able to set up a position as a lab technologist in a local winery. The work wasn’t exactly glamorous, but it was experience, it was paid, and it was science. After doing that for two summers, I had a unique resume, particularly compared to my fellow engineering students. With opportunities provided through the leadership program, I was able to leverage this experience into an ongoing relationship and industry sponsorship with one of Australia’s largest food manufacturers, Simplot Australia. With them, I’ve worked at several sites across Australia, helping make everything from French Fries to Lean Cuisine frozen meals! Most recently, they became involved with the Monash University Industry Based Learning program, and so I was able to complete the research component of my degree in their company, writing standards for all of their engineering teams across Australia. It was the first time this company had participated in an Industry Based Learning scheme, but the relationship grew to be beneficial for all. I’ve also taken up other opportunities that I’ve come across, most recently working at a bioplastics manufacturing firm.

Overall, reflecting on how far I’ve come in the last five years is a positive experience, and NYSF has definitely been part of that. Not only through the choice of university, but also through providing long lasting friendships and passion for all things science and engineering.”

Rebecca Johns NYSF (NSSS) 1990 alumna – the beginning of a lifetime of science and teaching

Rebecca Johns attended the NYSF (then called National Science Summer School (NSSS)) in January 1990, and was totally inspired by her time. Not only because of the variety of research labs and scientists she visited and learned from, but for the enthusiasm of her fellow students for science in its many forms.

“I came from a small rural high school in Mossman, North Queensland and gained a lot from the opportunity to mix with different people with big dreams. My experiences at the NSSS encouraged me to apply for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Queensland after finishing high school.”

Rebecca also enjoyed studying physics and maths in her first two years of university but found her real passion was for chemistry. “I ended up gaining first class honours after working with Dr Trevor Appleton on cis-platin compounds in my honours year. I also received a scholarship to participate in a summer research session back at The Australian National University (ANU) at the end of my third year, which brought back many memories of my time at the NSSS.”

After completing her honours year, Rebecca wanted to experience something different. She started working as an analytical chemist at an aluminium smelter in Tasmania. “After nearly two years in this position, where I was involved in both regular environmental monitoring processes and quality control of different instruments, I was transferred to the research section working on developing a more effective electrolytic cell design. Not long after my transfer the government cut research and development support. My department lost a number of staff, including me.”  

“It was very exciting to be involved with this world-class facility.”

rj-at-cape-grim-baseline-air-pollution-station

Rebecca Johns at Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station

This sudden change in circumstances prompted her to return to university, after receiving a scholarship to undertake her PhD studies. “My environmental monitoring work at the smelter had sparked my interest in the atmosphere and I was able to immerse myself in a project investigating the effect of non-methane hydrocarbons in baseline air. I worked for the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station and the University of Tasmania. Cape Grim station is located on the western tip of Tasmania and receives the cleanest air in the world. This is where baseline carbon dioxide, methane, and CFCs have been measured for many years and shown to be increasing. It was very exciting to be involved with this world-class facility.”

Rebecca did not complete her thesis as her focus shifted to looking after her young family, but as her youngest approached school age, she returned to university to train as a teacher to pass on her love of science – especially chemistry, to another generation of students.

“I completed my Diploma of Education at La Trobe University in Bendigo and was keen to work at a rural school, given my personal background and current location in a small country town.”

rj-with-lachlan-twigg-at-local-rotary-dinner

Rebecca Johns (right) with Lachlan Twigg (centre) at Rotary dinner

For the last five years she has been teaching maths, science and VCE (year 12) chemistry at East Loddon P-12 College, located in a farming area 40 minutes drive north of Bendigo. “The school teaches 240 students from prep to year 12, with one class of students per year level. This results in some very small VCE classes, with my chemistry classes ranging from one to four students.” 

“I hope to continue encouraging students to attend NYSF as the need for scientists and scientifically literate people continues to be an issue for Australia.”

“One of my students, Lachlan Twigg, was particularly outstanding and I strongly encouraged him to apply for the NYSF. He took on the challenge and ended up attending the NYSF in 2014. He also thoroughly enjoyed the experience and in turn encouraged Sarah Collins to apply. She was selected to attend the New Zealand session in 2015, which was a huge experience for her as she was the first member in her immediate family to board an aeroplane, let alone travel overseas. Sarah also found the experience very inspiring and it encouraged her to not only finish Year 12 but go on to apply for university courses in agricultural science.  Both students said the highlight was definitely meeting other participants who were also passionate about science.”

“I hope to continue encouraging students to attend NYSF as the need for scientists and scientifically literate people continues to be an issue for Australia.”

Say yes to opportunity

If you’d told young Liesl Folks at the 1984 inaugural NSSS (National Science Summer School) that one day she’d be the Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences at a major American university she wouldn’t have believed you. It certainly wasn’t part of the plan. There wasn’t one. “I’ve never had plans or expectations. I live in the moment. I have this mantra. You have to remember to say ‘yes’ to opportunity.”

Before I went to the Summer School I’d been thinking about doing chemistry but seeing the accelerator changed my mind. 

Portrait of Engineering Dean Liesl Folks Photograph: Douglas Levere

  Liesl Folks
Photograph: Douglas Levere

 

When Liesl was headhunted for the top job in engineering at the University at Buffalo (UB) it was a real surprise. “I kept saying you’re crazy. Why would they even want me?”

There were many good reasons. It wasn’t just her international reputation in the fields of nanotech and magnetism that elevated her above nearly 60 other candidates from around the world. Over time Liesl has acquired a diverse mix of industry and academic experience and built wide-ranging connections through government agencies, advisory panels and educational initiatives.

Her present trajectory actually began years before at the NSSS when the Perth native came to Canberra and visited the nuclear accelerator at the Australian National University (ANU). “Before I went to the Summer School I’d been thinking about doing chemistry but seeing the accelerator changed my mind.” She was staggered not only by the raw power of the machine but also by the possibility of experimenting with sub-atomic forces.

Liesl went on to study physics (with honours) at the University of Western Australia and then completed a PhD there on permanent magnetic materials because “she had no other plans”. She credits her supervisor, Prof Robert Street AO, with providing tremendous guidance at this time that still resonates for her decades later. When she was invited to work on nanoparticle arrays at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in California in 1998 she thought it would be just a two-year stint. She ended up staying in Silicon Valley for 15 years working in the hard disc drive business with both giants of the industry, IBM and Hitachi.

The industry is marked by being incredibly multi-disciplinary. You can’t make a hard disc drive unless you’ve got physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and computer engineering all lined up

“The industry is marked by being incredibly multi-disciplinary. You can’t make a hard disc drive unless you’ve got physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and computer engineering all lined up. The complexity of the technology is keeping other players from entering the game. It’s a very thrilling industry in terms of how fast the technology evolves and the many different disciplines that have to be at the table to make products that work.”

After six highly productive years as a researcher with IBM, in 2008 Liesl moved to Hitachi and led the development and delivery to the marketplace of advanced new media technologies. Today she holds 14 US patents and is the frequently cited author of dozens of peer-reviewed research papers.

Her academic position in Engineering and Applied Sciences at UB does mean leaving all those bright, shiny machines behind, but it sounds as if Buffalo has plenty to offer. The historic city is going through something of a boom with millions invested and generous tax benefits for new start-up companies within a mile of the university. And with Niagara Falls hydro just up the road energy is cheap. The University has had a huge uptake in students wanting a place in its Engineering program. Liesl has a new set of goals and top of the list is increasing the percentage of women studying engineering. It’s currently hovering around the 20 per cent mark.

“It’s infuriating,” she says, “because every employer I talk to is desperate to improve their diversity statistics but they can’t actually get their claws into enough people to hire. There’s no issue with aptitude. It’s all about culture. Somehow, culturally within the US it’s just not acceptable for women who are bright and otherwise talented to do engineering. It’s the same in Australia.”

But Liesl has a plan to market engineering differentially. She’s currently trialling two streams of promotional information at a Buffalo high school and is hopeful that one of these will create more interest among females. She’s also a strong advocate of girls-only schools such as Penrhos Ladies College in Perth that she attended. “I think they offer girls a huge advantage,” she says “No one’s going to dissuade them from doing physics, chemistry, and maths because somebody has to be in those classes with those teachers.”

She also sees the role of programs like the NYSF where students get to see an engineering operation or meet a scientist in the laboratory as absolutely critical. “I think it’s almost a universal truth that no one ends up in engineering without having one of those experiences. If you don’t open those labs up, and get those students in there to see what you’re doing you won’t get them to follow that trajectory”

As for this latest twist in her own life Liesl now seems right in her element.

“It’s been quite the change but in a good way. I love the fact that I go from working with a fantastic faculty, dealing with marvellous students, and hearing from alumni who all have these interesting stories and have grown great businesses. And just being back in a university community is fabulous too. You know you’re interacting all the time with humanities, social sciences, medical sciences, whatever… just the diversity of things I get to do every day is very stimulating. I’m very happy.”

Story by Geoff Burchfield

Liesl Folks

Liesl Folks

“NYSF is a four letter word!”

This January, Session C will hear from NYSF alumni and academic Dr Neeraj Sharma from the University of New South Wales during Partners’ Day.  Here’s a bit about Neeraj…

Neeraj

“Summer of 2001 was when I discovered that scientists are very cool – they get to discover completely new things and play with complicated and funky pieces of equipment. Most importantly, they were others like me who loved science and loved finding out about how things work (and making them better). People often ask me what got me into science and I would say two things – my high school science teacher and the four letter word, NYSF!

People often ask me what got me into science and I would say two things – my high school science teacher and the four letter word, NYSF!

After attending NYSF in 2001 (and while being a Staffie in 2002), I studied a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney and spent a year on exchange at Uppsala University in Sweden – study abroad is an awesome experience that I would recommend to all. I continued on to do Honours and a PhD at the same institution working on new materials for solid oxide fuel cell applications and ones that show weird-types of magnetism. Then I moved to ANSTO as a post-doctoral fellow, essentially irradiating batteries with neutrons and trying to figure out how to make better batteries – so our phones can last longer and we can all drive around in electric vehicles. Now I am a lecturer in Chemistry at UNSW, teaching, making new materials and trying to make new and better batteries. I also dabble in making materials that contract when heated and room temperature superconductors (I wish).

Neeraj Sharma

Neeraj Sharma

One thing NYSF has instilled into me is the need to communicate the science that I do – so I am involved in a number of outreach activities. I also enjoy making science fun and exciting and am often amazed at the types of questions I get from audiences! All in all, NYSF was an eye-opener and I am so glad to be a part of it from the scientists’ perspective now – to encourage students to do what they love (or at least appreciate what they love even if they end up elsewhere).

So if you’re an NSYF-er and find yourself at UNSW, pop by my office for a coffee =). Did I mention I met my wife at NYSF 2001?”

“… by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science”

Seven years ago I was lucky enough to go to NYSF, Session B, 2006. What followed was a two week blur of science, chanting, laughter, confidence building, friendship and that inevitable final day when you realise you have to go back home.

I was in Rutherford, being a chemistry enthusiast at the time, and wore a postcard sized golden-yellow nametag around my neck. The name on my golden-yellow nametag was Nicholas Blackburn and funnily enough that still is the name on the tag around my neck right now, except that it’s an ID and access card attached to a red lanyard that indicates the research institute I study in. I’m a PhD student in Hobart, Tasmania at the Menzies Research Institute. My area is human genetics / bioinformatics and I work on a large blood cancer project where we conduct whole genome sequencing of related blood cancer cases.

Before NYSF, I had been pretty keen on studying music at university but by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science. Being in that NYSF environment with all these other young science enthusiasts really showed me how much fun science can be. 

 by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science 

So fast forward a few years, I graduated from UTAS with a Bachelor of Science in 2009 with a Biochemistry major and then completed an honours research year in 2010 in Neuroscience. In my undergraduate degree I worked with a research group at Menzies for the second and third years of my degree, which really exposed me to the world of medical research and drove my passion to work in that field. After the end of honours I began a PhD in Cancer Genetics in 2011. My PhD project started off in the lab at the bench but over the last few years it’s transformed into a more computationally based bioinformatics research project as I trawl my way through whole genome sequences to identify inherited mutations contributing to disease. I am working at the ‘cutting edge’ of research in a rapidly expanding genomics field. It’s damn exciting stuff, and a bit overwhelming at times.

Nick Blackburn NYSF 2006

So, seven years on from NYSF, what are the key influences I still draw on?

I was a bit of an introvert pre-NYSF. Admittedly I still am and I’m cool with that. But NYSF developed within me a level of comfort in my own skin that enabled me to step forward more, take more opportunities and speak up for myself. It took a number of months for me to grow into this new confidence but I use it every day now as a researcher, be it throwing my hand up to ask a question at a seminar (you’d be surprised at how many PhD students where I’m from don’t), talking for an hour in front of my group about my research, speaking off the cuff to community groups that tour our institute, as well as regularly visiting high schools and primary schools to get my science out there.

I think in many ways, my love of science communication also began at NYSF. Seeing people passionate about science has made me want to inspire that passion in others. And let me tell you, explaining your work to early primary school kids, at their level, and seeing them excited about science is a truly rewarding experience.

Also embedded within me from NYSF is this feeling of whatever I do and wherever I go in science I should be excited and passionate about what I am doing. If I don’t, it’s time to figure out why not and consider that I may need to move into a different area and re-spark my imagination. Thankfully, as a third year PhD student I still get excited about my project, it gets me up and going in the morning and keeps me up late at night.

A final piece of NYSF I still carry with me is the amazing network of fellow NYSFers we all possess. As well as keeping in touch by social media, occasionally you’ll see someone in a crowded room of scientists and think to yourself ‘wow, you look so familiar’ and then it’ll click and you’ll soon be reminiscing and catching up as if no time at all has passed. I look forward to the day when I bump into a fellow NYSFer in my field of research (any other geneticists / bioinformaticians out there?).

For me, right now, I’m past the half way mark of my PhD and heading towards the end of it. My work has recently taken me to San Antonio, Texas to work with colleagues for a month. Then I’ll be thrown into the midst of an American Society of Human Genetics’ conference in Boston alongside thousands of other researchers. After that, sometime next year I’ll finish this PhD and head off into the big wide research world as a postdoctoral researcher. Who knows, maybe I’ll bump into a few NYSFers along the way.

ANU features NYSF alumna in video on studying science

NYSF student Claire Taylor and her family from Guyra in New South Wales were recently featured in this video about studying science at the Australian National University, “Making a move”.

Sam Hutton, former president of the Rotary Club of Guyra, which supported Claire’s application to attend the NYSF says, “Claire’s big shift was going to the National Youth Science Forum.”

NYSF International Program helps direct career plans

Sydney NYSF student Jonathan Li attended the Research Science Institute (RSI) in Boston as part of the National Youth Science Forum’s International Program in July this year.

Selected from 112 competitive applicants for the International Program drawn from NYSF’s January Sessions in 2013, Jonathan says, “I couldn’t believe my luck when I was offered the chance to go to Boston.”

Jonathan conducted a research project in computational biophysics, researching RecA, a recombinase protein that assists in DNA repair.  His work at Harvard was supervised by Professor Mara Prentiss and Dr Claudia Danilowicz.

Jonathan Li (r) with fellow student, Stephen Ban (l) from Utah in the US

“I was applying force across DNA strands and observing the binding/unbinding rates of RecA from the DNA in different conditions. During this research, I discovered that the homology search for DNA repair sequences occurred faster in adenosine diphosphate due to a structural change provided in ATP hydrolysis. This information helps us to understand how DNA repair and meiosis occurs on a basic level in the human body. From these results, I was able to put together a scientific paper and present it to scientists from nineteen different countries.”

“I didn’t think I would be able to top the NYSF January experience as it allowed me to form incredible bonds with the other students.  Attending RSI in Boston just extended the opportunity for me.

Being involved in both programs confirmed my interest in pursuing physics and biology

“Being involved in both programs confirmed my interest in pursuing physics and biology studies, and I hope my career will continue in these fields. I have also realised the importance of skills in computational science and mathematics in this area, and I will be pursuing these subjects in college.”

Jonathan’s attendance at the Research Science Institute in Boston was supported by NYSF Partner, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Next Step … Perth hosted at Water Corporation

Water Corporation hosted students at Perth Next Step 2013

Water Corporation hosted students at              Perth Next Step 2013

Water Corporation (Western Australia)  again hosted a session of the NYSF Next Step program in Perth in July.

Human Resources Manager Jenny Thornton welcomed the group of 15 students and shared her own career journey. Her best advice? Always keep an open mind and seize the opportunities that come your way.

Water Corporation graduates in Civil, Electrical, Mechanical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and Chemistry all talked with the students on the day. They shared what attracted them to their field of study, what a typical day of work is like and what they enjoy most about what they do.

Graduate Electrical engineer, Eirene Conocono explained the complexity of her field of work and the safety requirements that needed to be followed.

Environmental Engineer Cheng Zhu was able to take the students for a tour of the Operations Centre as part of the visit, showing them the breadth of Water Corporation’s activities.

Besides being a positive learning experience for the visiting students, the graduates were pleased that they could share their experiences and encourage the young visitors to study and work towards a meaningful career.