NYSF 2017 has fun with physics at ANU

NYSF 2017 physics interest group, Wu was treated to a visit to the Physics Education Centre at the Australian National University. The visit was well received by all the students as they performed experiments about the physics of light and asked thoughtful questions of the physicists.

Led by Mr Andrew Papworth (a long-term and committed NYSF supporter) with a team of postgraduate students, the participants were guided through first and second year university experiments. The participants used a spectrophotometer to investigate the wavelength of light emitted by different elements, using several known sources to find the composition of an unknown lamp. Next was a series of experiments with lasers to learn about the Michelson interferometer and then one to learn about the detection and absorption of gamma rays.

Next was a series of ‘magic tricks’ were the students learnt about resonance tubes, magnetic breaking and the polarisation of light.  A visit to the ANU gravitational wave lab gave the students an inside view of the discovery of gravitational waves, how gravity has been calculated to 19 decimal places and the implications of this research in the real world, in particular in regards to gravity mapping. The participants also asked some meaningful questions about general and special relativity which they found particularly fascinating.

we were shown a variety of actual things which could be implemented into the world

The group left the visit inspired with one participant, Wade Clark, saying that he “really enjoyed that we were shown a variety of actual things which could be implemented into the world rather than just theoretical physics which we find at school. Things that actually will create a difference in the world rather than just sit on a shelf somewhere.”

 

Veronica O’Mara, NYSF 2017 Session C Communications Intern and NYSF 2014 alumnus.

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

“The NYSF is crucial”

Steven Tingay grew up in country Victoria where there were not that many outlets for kids who were mad about science and astronomy from the age of six, even as he progressed through high school. He knew no-ne else as passionate about science as he.

He received his first book about the Universe from his uncle when he was five. A telescope was acquired soon after. “I still remember my first look at the moon through that telescope. My mum also told me that my great-grandmother used to walk me up and down the street at night as a baby, pointing out the constellations. I can’t verify that. Good story if true, however”.

Going to the NYSF in 1987, he was suddenly surrounded by others with the same passion. It made for lots of late nights during the two-week session.

“I remember a lot about the visits to science facilities – the highlight for me was going to Mt Stromlo Observatory. And I remember going to Honeysuckle Creek, where the young guy who gave us a tour opened up his telescope and started burning a hole in his dome via the reflection of the sun off his mirror”.

(Uni of) Melbourne was the natural choice

Steven was the first in his family to study at university. He chose the University of Melbourne for its reputation as one of the best physics departments in the country and it was close to home. “I wanted to do maths and physics as the precursor to a PhD in astrophysics,” says Steven. “So, Melbourne was the natural choice. I chose the Australian National University (ANU) for my PhD because astrophysics was what I wanted to do. Full stop. I did a summer vacation scholarship at Mt Stromlo at the end of second year and loved it. When I got PhD scholarship offers at Melbourne and ANU, I chose ANU. In general, I think it is best to change institutions between undergraduate and postgraduate, to gain some diversity, aside from any other considerations”.

Steven’s career highlights are many but he says the best and most recent is leading the development of a new $50m radio telescope, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). The MWA project is a consortium of 15 institutions from four countries (Australia, USA, New Zealand, India) and has taken many years to develop and build in remote Western Australia. The telescope has been operating for two years and has collected 3 petabytes of data.

Almost every week the MWA team is uncovering something new about our Universe. “Our ultimate goal is to look back 13 billion years to only 1 billion years after the Big Bang, to watch the first stars and galaxies form in the universe. Leading the MWA has been a highlight because going back six years this was a project in big trouble. I took over and applied my astrophysics and engineering knowledge, as well as personnel and project management skills, to lead the project to success”.

The MWA is the only precursor for the low frequency Square Kilometre Array and the first of three SKA precursors to be fully operational. “That turn around over the last five years has been cause for considerable satisfaction, watching a big international team now exploiting the facility for science (and getting my hands on a bit of data myself!).”

For Steven, the NYSF is not just important, it’s more like crucial. “Over my career, I keep coming back to the same set of considerations for success. Having smart people. Occupying a stimulating environment. Taking on big challenges. Physically bringing people together and developing networks.”

“NYSF was, and is still as far as I know, the only national activity doing this for people at a crucial point in forming their thoughts about careers. It was the first step for me in considering science as a human endeavour, rather than a collection of facts, theories, and measurements. This is a crucial realisation that scientists should have early in their careers”.

NYSF … was the first step for me in considering science as a human endeavour

The networking aspect was fantastic. “I’m in my forties now and old NYSF colleagues from 1987 Session B keep popping up in positions of importance and influence. We have quite a club going now.”

Steven also remembers meeting a young lady at the NYSF interested in molecular biology. “We ended up going to The University of Melbourne together. We were married in 1992, have been married for 22 years now, and have two sons. So, aside from the science impact of the NYSF, it has had a fundamental impact on my overall life!”

Professor Steven Tingay attended the NSYF in 1987 (Photo credit to James Campbell)

Professor Steven Tingay attended the NYSF in 1987 (Launch of the Murchison Widefield Array Telescope – Photo credit to James Campbell)

 

From the science forum to science policy

Dr Subho Banerjee attended the NYSF (then known as the National Science Summer School) in Canberra in 1987. Nowadays he is responsible for preparing science policy advice in the Commonwealth Government.

Subho had always had an interest in science through his high school days in Newcastle, including being a national finalist in the BHP Science Prize. So he was very excited to get the chance to attend the NYSF, and it didn’t disappoint.

“Attending the NYSF was an inspirational experience. The program gave us exposure to such a wide range of high-quality science research being done in Canberra, across universities and research agencies. I was blown away by the possibilities.”

“I remember particularly a fantastic talk given to us by a graduate student up at Mt Stromlo Observatory, at the ANU. He really captured how excited he was to be exploring the fundamental questions of the universe – and he made it fun as well.”

“But the best thing was definitely the chance to connect with students from all over Australia who were interested in the same stuff that I was. I made friendships there that I carry forward to today.”

Subho credits his NYSF experience as being crucial in encouraging him to study science at the ANU.   He went on to do a PhD in physics, using lasers to study the structure of the oxygen molecule.

After his PhD, Subho made the decision to move into public policy. He received a Rhodes scholarship to go to the University of Oxford, studying economics and social history, and then environmental policy.

“When I was doing my PhD, I got more and more interested in the interface between science and public policy – so many policy issues are framed by science, but relatively few people with a science background are involved in the policy deliberations.”

Subho joined the Australian Public Service on his return from Oxford. He has since worked across policy issues spanning economic, social and environmental policy, as well as on organisational reform of the public sector itself. In addition to public service roles, he has worked for a not-for-profit Indigenous policy think-tank, and a private sector management consulting firm.

… a grounding in science, such as that provided by the NYSF, is a fantastic foundation. It encourages rigour and clarity in thought

In his current role as a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Industry, Subho is responsible for preparing science policy advice to the Federal government. This spans whole of sector advice on issues such as science funding and infrastructure, as well as policy oversight of Questacon, the National Measurement Institute and the Australian Astronomical Observatory. Subho is also on the board of the international organisation responsible for delivering the Square Kilometre Array – the largest radio telescope in the world.

“I’m really enjoying having a science-based role again. I think a grounding in science, such as that provided by the NYSF, is a fantastic foundation. It encourages rigour and clarity in thought, which makes you better at what you do (whether science-based, or not). But it also encourages enthusiasm about ideas and about the world, which helps you to enjoy doing it.”

Subho Banerjee Siding Springs telescope

Subho Banerjee Siding Spring telescope