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Cool Careers

Cool Careers column

Learning about Life from Waves

By Stephen Luntz

Nail Akhmediev believes that the creation of rogue waves at sea could be a useful template for the conditions that gave rise to life on Earth.

In February this year a rogue wave hit the giant cruise ship Marco Polo in the English Channel, killing a passenger and injuring another. As tragic as the event was, it represented a vindication for Prof Nail Akhmediev who has spent years studying these sorts of waves, which were once thought not to exist. Now, however, Akhmediev is pushing into more metaphorically choppy waters, using waves to model the origins of life.

Circuits for Satellites

By Stephen Luntz

For a wide brown land, the prospect of finding water has always been tantalising. Now a final-year engineering student has found a way to contribute to this quest, winning a scholarship to attend the NASA Academy in the process.

The proposed Garada project will bounce L-band radar signals off the land below to study 300 km-wide strips of soil for water content. The system relies on rapid switching between broadcast and receiving mode. However, the challenge that was set to Cooney was to slow down the frequency with which pulses would need to be sent out.

“If you reduce pulse repetition frequency you can improve the images that are returned, and the demand on other parts of the system is less high,” Cooney says. “You can spend less money on equipment and get the same quality images.”

Underwater Acid Lab

By Stephen Luntz

The discovery of carbon dioxide seeps surrounded by coral reefs has given Dr Katharina Fabricius a chance to investigate our oceanic future. The news is not good.

Ocean acidification is gaining a profile as the second major danger from our fossil fuel addiction. Many marine species depend on seawater that is slightly alkaline, and carbon dioxide makes water acidic. Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide therefore makes the ocean less alkaline.

The Hunt for the Higgs Boson

By Stephen Luntz

Elisabetta Barberio spent the past two decades designing and carrying out experiments that helped to find the Higgs boson.

When the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Prof Peter Higgs and Prof Francois Englert it was widely seen to be also recognising the work of the 3000 scientists who collaborated to find the Higgs boson.

Is it possible to add statistics to science? You can count on it

By Terry Speed

The 2013 winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, Terry Speed, reflects on the factors that influenced his career.

I grew up near Merri Creek in Melbourne. In my early life I was interested in trees, leaves, clouds, rocks, yabbies, tadpoles, frogs, earthworms, amoebas, creek and pond water. Later we moved to live near the Elwood canal and Port Philip Bay, and I added sea, sand, shells, seaweed, fish, eels, stingrays, moulds and fossils to my interests.

But with all of them, and much else (books, music, sport), my interests were transient, unfocused and undisciplined – as described by one of my high school report cards, circa 1956:

Chronology from the Depths

By Stephen Luntz

Aimee Komugabe has abandoned a career in finance to examine deep water corals for evidence of climate change 4000 years ago.

Aimee Komugabe couldn’t decide whether she wanted to work in biotechnology or banking. She evaded that unusual choice by doing a PhD in which she dated climate shifts to help us understand the future for Australia and the South Pacific.

Hazardous Outreach

By Stephen Luntz

Bob Muir is taking chemistry to the public but says safety regulations prevent him from doing the sorts of things he would really like.

Chemistry is not the easiest field of science to promote. It lacks zoology’s cute animals, and astronomy’s stunning photographs and mindblowing scale. Science show demonstrations are usually mostly physics. However, Dr Bob Muir says Western Australia’s ChemCentre, an analytical chemistry facility, has “a fantastic outreach program” so when he was offered the chance to talk to school students he jumped at it.

Stars Above, Energy Below

By Stephen Luntz

Outside her research on the birth of the first stars, Rachel Webster is working on the use of geothermal energy in Victoria’s coal fields and running programs to support women in science.

Prof Rachel Webster is a leading figure in Australian astronomy research. However, her latest work sees her seeking clean energy sources beneath our feet.

Webster says she was “always interested in science” and decided at 7 or 8 she would become a physicist. At 17 she went on a science camp. “There was a guy lecturing on cosmology and I thought, ‘Yep, that’s what I will do’,” she says. A degree in pure maths from Monash was followed by a Masters at Sussex University and a doctorate at Cambridge.

Bringing Science to Afghan Women

By Stephen Luntz

In her spare time, cancer researcher Nouria Salehi runs an Afghan restaurant as well as programs to teach science to the women of Afghanistan.

Some scientists may feel burdened as they race to discover the cure for a disease or reveal a threat to the planet. However, few can compare with Dr Nouria Salehi, who is trying to find better ways to diagnose cancer while also changing the fortunes of perhaps the world’s most suffering nation.

From Vitamins to Solar

By Stephen Luntz

It is not an obvious path from Prof Andrew Holmes’ PhD on the synthesis of vitamin B12 to the next generation of solar cells, but it has now led him back to the University of Melbourne where he completed his undergraduate degree.

Holmes’ doctorate was at University College London, where Franz Sondheimer was making large molecules called annulenes. He then joined Albert Eschenmoser in Zurich. “B12 was the most complex naturally occurring small molecule (i.e. not a protein) known at the time, so it was a sort of Everest,” he says.

It is not an obvious path from Prof Andrew Holmes’ PhD on the synthesis of vitamin B12 to the next generation of solar cells, but it has now led him back to the University of Melbourne where he completed his undergraduate degree.