Past Events

Date/Time Event
Thursday 13 June, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:15 PM
Can Systems Science Improve Population Health?

Speaker: Dr Alan Shiell, Centre of Excellence in intervention and prevention science (CEIPS)

Internationally, the percentage of people who are overweight or obese is increasing.  As a consequence, the prevalence of many preventable chronic diseases, especially diabetes, is also predicted to rise, reducing life expectancy and quality of life and increasing pressure on already overburdened health care budgets.  Some commentators have even suggested that the current generation of children may be the first not to outlive their parents.

Current public health strategies do not appear to be working and the complexity of the issue is leading some public health agencies to look towards systems science for insights into how to improve population health.

Systems approaches focus on the big picture, on the interconnectedness and relationships among elements, on the dynamic nature of the system and on the propensity for there to be unintended consequences.  Depending on the type of system we work in, there may also be implications for what types of evidence are most pertinent and how one should use the evidence that is available.

These issues and others relating to the application of systems science to build an effective and sustainable prevention system in Victoria will be discussed.

Thursday 27 June, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Victoria: Last Frontier in the Quest for Whale Origins

Speaker: Dr Erich Fitzgerald (Museum Victoria) will present the A W Howitt Lecture

A Joint Lecture with the Geological Society of Australia (Vic)

Stunning fossil discoveries over the last 20 years have made whales poster children of evolution.  Key questions still remain in the quest to unravel the history of these most unlikely of mammals.  New data are needed from unexplored areas on the map.  Of these ‘last frontiers’, Australia presents the greatest potential.  Yet for 175 years, knowledge of our continent’s fossil mammals has halted at the edge of the sea—until now.

Spearheaded by pioneering discoveries in Victoria, we are beginning to uncover the story of whale evolution in Australian seas, as well as the bizarre marine animals that shared their world.  Theirs is an extraordinary tale of shifting fortunes of dwarf whales, shark-toothed dolphins, killer sperm whales, dugongs in Port Phillip and giant penguins, against the backdrop of tectonic shifts, reorganization of the oceans and climatic drivers.  These insights from the past reveal that the diversity and ecology of present-day marine animals are surprisingly recent phenomena that did not evolve synchronously.  Only by heeding this perspective from palaeontology can we begin to comprehend “What is natural?”

Thursday 11 July, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:00 PM
Managing fungal diseases of crops: A genome to paddock approach

Speaker: Professor Barbara Howlett, School of Botany, Melbourne University

Thursday 25 July, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Organic Electronic Materials: A licence to print money

J E Cummins OBE Oration given by Prof Andrew Holmes, Bio 21

Most of us associate polymers (or plastics) with a structural function such as a replacement  material for wood or metals. Plastic is also used as an insulating material to avoid electric shock.  However, in the late 1970s it was discovered that certain kinds of polymers can be “doped” with iodine and these were found to behave as conducting materials, almost as efficient as metallic copper.  The discoverers were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2000.

The emergence of conducting polymers led to a growing fascination in these materials and to the closely related semiconducting polymers that mimic the behaviour of crystalline silicon.  In this lecture the concept of using semiconducting fluorescent polymers as a source of light will be introduced.   Light emitting devices offer a real opportunity for use in flat panel displays and televisions.

The second part of the lecture will summarise the use of organic semiconducting materials in the reverse mode, namely, to harvest energy from the sun’s rays and convert it into electricity.  The talk will describe the efforts of the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium to print low cost lightweight flexible solar cells by a process not dissimilar from that used to produce the Australian polymer banknote.

Thursday 8 August, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Imaging the first breaths after birth using a synchrotron

Prof Stuart Hooper, Monash Institute for Medical Research

The transition to newborn life at birth represents one of the greatest physiological challenges that any human will encounter during their lives. Before birth the fetal lungs are filled with liquid and this liquid must be cleared at birth to allow the entry of air and the start of pulmonary gas exchange. This process of lung aeration is not only critical for the onset of air-breathing, but also triggers major changes in the cardiovascular system. These changes include rapid restructuring of the circulatory system, which transforms it into the adult phenotype that is required for independent life.

To study the process of lung aeration at birth, we have developed a X-ray imaging technique that uses synchrotron radiation to resolve the air/liquid interfaces in the lung with a high degree of resolution. The technique, called phase contrast X-ray imaging, uses the refractive index difference between air and water to produce contrast of all air/liquid boundaries within the lung. As the lung is liquid-filled before birth it displays no absorption contrast with surrounding tissues and no phase contrast and so is not visible using this technique. However, as air enters the lungs after birth the air-filled airways strongly exhibit contrast and immediately become visible. Consecutive images acquired during this process can be compiled into movies and, as a result, the entry air into the lungs can be visualized allowing the factors that regulate this process to be studied in detail. Using this technique we have identified the primary mechanisms regulating lung aeration at birth, which has overturned almost 40 years of accepted scientific wisdom. Furthermore, based on the concepts derived from this knowledge, we have been able to identify ventilation strategies that assist infants born very premature to aerate their lungs after birth. Premature infants commonly struggle to clear their lungs of liquid and commence effective gas exchange at birth. This can have severe consequences for the infant, including death or severe life-long disability, which requires substantial clinical intervention if it is to be avoided. Our primary research aim is to improve the outcomes for these infants, who are the most vulnerable in our society.

Thursday 22 August, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Breaking the barrier with antibiotic and amyloid peptides

Prof Frances Separovic, School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne

Most of us have felt the effect of a bee sting – but how does it actually work?  The sting contains a peptide toxin, melittin, which kills cells by destroying the cell membrane.  Understanding the mechanism by which melittin and other membrane-active peptides disrupt cell membranes may lead to new disease treatments and antibiotics.  Modern nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques enable in situ study of the structure and dynamics of membrane molecules and the effects of toxins and antibiotics to be unravelled.  Solid-state NMR studies of aligned phospholipid membranes have been used to determine the orientation and location of antimicrobial peptides obtained from Australian tree frogs and amyloid peptides from Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the detailed structure of these peptides in membranes is difficult to determine as they disrupt the membrane bilayer, their three dimensional structure and mechanism of action has been elucidated.  A range of solid-state NMR techniques was used to determine the conformation and mobility of these membrane-active peptides in order to understand how they exert their biological effect that leads to the disruption of bacterial or neuronal membranes.  The effect of the antimicrobial peptides on a variety of model membranes is strongly dependent on the lipid composition of the bilayer and correlates with selectivity for bacterial membranes and antibiotic activity.  Likewise, the membrane interactions and structural changes of amyloid peptides from Alzheimer’s disease depend on the presence of cholesterol and metal ions, which have been implicated in the disease.


Thursday 12 September, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Dating Human Origins in South Africa

Dr Andy Herries, La Trobe University

Our African origin, as opposed to an assumed European origin, was first hinted at in 1924 following the identification of the Taung Child Australopithecus africanus fossil as a human ancestor by Australian anatomist, Raymond Dart. Dart’s discovery put South Africa at the forefront of debates about humanity’s origins as numerous ‘ape-man’ fossils were recovered from South Africa prior to World War II.

Since the discoveries of human ancestors in East Africa in 1959, notably the first specimen attributed to our genus (Homo habilis) in 1960, followed by the discovery of the famous ‘Lucy’ Australopithecus afarensis fossil from Ethiopia in 1974, the East African record has dominated our understanding of the origin of humans. This is in part due to our ability to accurately date the volcanic sequences of East Africa using methods such as Potassium-Argon/Argon-Argon dating, and, until recently, our inability to precisely date the South African fossil record. The proven time depth of hominin fossils in Eastern and central Africa at 7-6 Ma has also been a major factor. However, major advances in multiple geochronological methods (Palaeomagnetism, Electron Spin Resonance, Uranium-series and cosmogenic nuclide dating) in the last 10 years now make the dating of Plio-Pleistocene cave deposits and thus of the South African fossil record a reality.

A renewed interest in South African palaeoanthropology with an amazing rate of discovery of new hominin fossils has developed in tandem with these advances in dating techniques.

Moreover, recent discoveries have shown that the South African record has preserved entire skeletons (adult and juvenile) of these early hominins in a way that is extremely rare in East Africa. This research has shown that South and East Africa are very different regions in which hominins that look similar in many ways and have been classified as the same genera, have adapted to the very different environments in novel ways.

In 2008, the discovery of a new hominin species Australopithecus sediba, dated by Prof Herries and other Australian colleagues, again raised the question of whether South Africa, rather than East Africa, could be the origin of humans in terms of our Genus, Homo. However, a new fossil discovered by Prof Herries and his colleagues and dated just this year may show that our genus was living in South Africa contemporaneously with Au. sediba. These debates have begun to raise questions about how we define our Genus and they are beginning to show that the period between 3 and 2 million years ago, when more ape-like species (Australopithecus) gave rise to the first of our Genus (Homo ergaster), was extremely complex.

Prof Herries’ talk will examine these debates and outline the current methods and strategies for accurately excavating, analysing and dating the complex palaeocaves that contain the vast majority of human fossils from southern Africa.


Thursday 26 September, 2013
6:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Young Scientist Research Prize presentations

From around 40 applications a shortlist of six doctoral students from the fields of Biological Sciences (non-human), Biomedical & Health Sciences and Physical Sciences will each make a 15 minute oral presentation of their cutting edge research.

Only one application was received in the Earth Sciences category this year. In the absence of competition, no Earth Science award will be made.

There is a $1,000 cash prize in each of the Biological Sciences (non-human), Biomedical & Health Sciences and Physical Sciences categories for the best presentation.  There is also a prize for the runners up.

Biological Sciences (non-human)

Katrin Hug

Microbial arsenic resistance in Champagne Pool, New Zealand

Niharika Sharma

Exploring Marchantia transcriptome to identify genes contributing to sexual reproduction using mRNA-SEQ

Biomedical & Health Sciences

Katie Ardipraja

Imaging vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques with radiolabelled single chain antibodies

Annie McAuley

Novel proteomic biomarkers in diabetic retinopathy

Physical Sciences

Hua Zhou

Super durable, robust super hydrophobic fabrics

Liyu Jin

Plastic crystals for future batteries

The announcement of the winners with the presentation of Prizes is scheduled for approximately 9.00pm.  Refreshments will be provided afterwards.

The order of presentations will be chosen on the night by ballot

Thursday 10 October, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Burning the bush and biodiversity

Understanding fire and fauna in the Mallee: It’s not rocket science, it’s more complicated than that.

Prof Michael Clarke, Dept of Zoology, La Trobe University

Ecological fire management in Australia is often built on a basic assumption that if one aims for a mosaic of different vegetation types and seral stages in a landscape, the needs of animals will be met. However, this assumption has rarely been tested and there is little evidence to define the characteristics of desirable or undesirable mosaics. We undertook a multidisciplinary study of the responses of a range of taxa (birds, mammals, reptiles, plants and key invertebrates) to fire in the Murray Mallee region of SA, NSW and Victoria. We compared the animal diversity of 28 landscapes (each 12.6 km2  in area) exhibiting differing levels of pyrodiversity at a range of spatial scales. This required sampling fauna, flora, habitat characteristics and fire history at both the landscape and the site level (n = 280 pitfall lines, 560 bird survey points) over a period of two years. Our large scale space-for-time substitution approach enabled us to identify and compare the habitat characteristics and fauna at sites spanning a century-long post-fire time-frame. We found no evidence of increased faunal diversity being associated with an increased diversity of fire age classes at the scale of our landscapes, although heterogeneity of fire ages at a regional or landscape management unit scale may be important. We did find that several taxonomic groups exhibited increased diversity as the proportion of the landscape that had not been burnt for at least 35 years increased. Our study has generated region-wide vegetation and fire history mapping, a new method for aging mallee and predictions regarding the likely consequences of increased fire frequency for fauna and key habitat features (e.g. hollow-bearing trees). Such insights will inform the management of mallee ecosystems in southern Australia for the future.


Wednesday 23 October, 2013
6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Victoria's Energy Future Public Forum

Tony Woods (Grattan Institute, Melbourne),  Mike Sandiford (Melbourne Energy Institute) and Simon Holmes-a-Court (Director of Embark Project)  will speak on global / national / local energy issues, followed by a panel discussion chaired by Rob Gell.


Thursday 24 October, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
X-rays, lungs and breathing at birth

Phillip Law Postdoctoral Prize in the Physical Sciences

The winner of the 2013 Phillip Law Prize, Dr Marcus Kitchen from the School of Physics at Monash, will speak about his cutting edge work on imaging: Seeing the lungs in a new light.

Before a baby is born, its lungs are filled with the same amniotic fluid that it floats in during pregnancy.  The fluid provides nutrition, protection and absorbed oxygen.  At birth, this fluid must be cleared rapidly from the lungs before the new-born can begin to breath gaseous oxygen.  These first minutes are critical to the baby’s survival but, because the lungs are so delicate and of such low density, they are among the most difficult organs to image.  As a result, until now, we have known very little about what happens and why things sometimes go wrong.

Recent major advances in X-ray imaging, using “phase contrast” techniques, have made it possible to see even the smallest airways of the lung in a single image.  Using impressive two-dimensional (2D) X-ray images to measure changes in regional lung air volumes – a feat normally only possible using 3D datasets – this technology can now reveal the complex process of lung aeration at birth that enables gas exchange to occur.  Equally importantly, the doses of ionising x-radiation currently associated with X-ray tomography can be reduced by a factor of 10 to greatly reduce cancer risks.

Building on this ground-breaking research, methods are now being developed to measure the size of the gas exchanging airways in vivo from single 2D phase contrast images.  As a result, we expect that we will soon be able to detect changes associated with neonatal lung pathology and, hopefully, save babies lives.

Friday 25 October, 2013 - Saturday 26 October, 2013
8:45 AM - 1:00 PM
Symposium: Victoria's Energy Future

Victoria’s Energy Future: Prospects and Challenges

The Royal Society of Victoria’s annual symposium. For more details of the program and speakers, click here.

Thursday 14 November, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Role of scientific analysis in the archaeology of a Hellenistic site in Syria

Dr Heather Jackson, School of Historical & Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

Jebel Khalid lies on the west bank of the Euphrates in North Syria, about 60 kilometres south of the Turkish border. It has been excavated by an Australian team from Melbourne and Canberra since 1985 and excavation would be ongoing were it not for the current political turmoil. It is a beautiful site on a limestone plateau high above the river, where it must have dominated the landscape for both land and river travellers. It was probably founded in the early 3rd century BC by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s generals,  as a garrison town guarding the river. Within the fortified walls a large building on the Acropolis, a whole block of houses, a temple, a palaistra and possibly a commercial centre have been excavated. The site was abandoned in the late 70’s BC and for some reason the incoming Romans did not settle on it, making it uniquely and purely Hellenistic.

In spite of the fact that the inhabitants left little behind of value when they abandoned the site, the coins, lamps, tonnes of pottery, figurines, metal and glass artefacts and fragments of wall-painting have told us a great deal about the inhabitants of the site, both Greek and Syrian. This research has been greatly aided and enhanced by scientific analyses of the materials used: clay, marble, glazes, pigments and glass being among them.

Thursday 28 November, 2013
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Learning from Indigenous Knowledge: Climate change & water management in the Barmah-Millewa

Prof David Griggs, Climate Works Australia

The presentation will focus on a project that investigated how the deep knowledge of the Yorta Yorta people can be used to strengthen their participation and influence in the complex national and regional processes that determine how their traditional lands are managed, leading to improved adaptation decisions both for the Yorta Yorta and the wider community.

The approach used was to develop a Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping framework containing both Yorta Yorta knowledge and more conventional knowledge allowing both forms of knowledge to be integrated and used for decision making. The project also raised community awareness and knowledge and energised the Yorta Yorta youth to take an interest in their history and culture, and in the climate challenges facing their community.

Thursday 12 December, 2013
7:00 PM - 7:45 PM
Confidence, scientific judgment and the intelligence game

Lecture presented by the  2013 Royal Society of Victoria Research Medalist, Professor Mark Burgman FAA, School of Botany at the University of Melbourne

Because they lie at the interface of science and public policy, environmental decisions often depend on the preferences of vocal stakeholders and opinion makers. In highly charged political and social debates, scientists provide the technical understanding, data, expert judgments and prediction of outcomes for alternative scenarios. Inevitably, differences of opinion arise among experts when they estimate facts or make predictions.

However, expert judgments are essential when time and resources are stretched or when we face novel dilemmas requiring fast solutions. In conservation biology, despite being well served by models for assessing the viability of populations and optimal strategies for reserve design, a range of expert judgments remains pervasive.

Typically, experts are defined by their qualifications, track record and experience. The social expectation hypothesis argues that more highly regarded, better-credentialed and more experienced experts give better advice. We know from cognitive psychology, however, that expert judgments are coloured by personal idiosyncrasies, perceptual illusions and context. Values and personal ambitions lead to motivational biases in expert judgment, even when the experts are unaware of them.

To explore these issues experimentally in a range of conservation biology and biosecurity contexts, we addressed several specific questions including: Can frailties in judgement be counteracted with better question design? and, Can experts predict how they will perform, and how their peers will perform, on specified sets of relevant questions?

The insights gained from these experiments helped us to design and test a set of protocols for eliciting expert judgments about facts. An opportunity arose to validate the protocols in a comparative test of their performance against alternative tools including formal statistical models, prediction markets and other recently developed prediction and estimation tools. The validations were devised and managed by the US Office for National Security in a ‘tournament’ known as ‘the intelligence game’.

This presentation outlines the evolution of thinking about expert judgment from its use in species conservation, to its wider use in bio-security. It shows the results of experiments and tests which lead to the proposition that we should treat expert judgment with the same reverence as we treat data. That is, we should deploy tools to collect expert judgments in repeatable and transparent ways, we should validate the estimates with data, and we should invest in tools that improve the accuracy and calibration of expert judgments, improving their performance over time. Reducing the current divergence in expert scientific judgements will improve the certainty of advice we offer to politically and economically constrained policy makers while increasing public confidence in our capacity to make a difference.

Thursday 13 February, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
A light touch: Optics in medicine and biology

Assoc Prof Paul Stoddart

Faculty of Engineering & Industrial Science, Swinburne University of Technology


Applying interdisciplinary concepts and techniques from physics (optics, mechanics) and chemistry (spectroscopy, colloids, biochemistry) to address problems in biology can have a direct impact on many of our lives.  This talk will review some of the novel ways in which we use optics, in particular, to address some of the big issues in medicine and biology.

From a physicist’s point of view, biological systems are generally quite delicate so monitoring their behaviour at a cellular level is really challenging. However, light can be well-suited to the non-destructive evaluation of these systems.

Early stage Alzheimer’s disease has no clear signs or symptoms and clinical studies have shown that sufferers can lose up to 60% of their neuronal cells before a conventional diagnosis is achieved.  However, we have recently shown that the light scattering properties of gold nanoparticles can be used for sensitive detection of trace levels of biological compounds such as the amyloid-β oligomers that have been proposed as an early stage marker of Alzheimer’s disease.  This work may lead to a significant diagnostic tool.

Cancer is another major health challenge where improvements in diagnostic methods are of significant interest.  We are developing an optical fibre sensor for enhanced endoscopic detection of tumours, based on changes in the tissue stiffness.  More generally, an improved understanding of the viscoelastic properties of tissues might help to predict and avoid other conditions, such as fluid retention in intensive care.

In another line of research, we have discovered that laser-exposed gold nanoparticles can be used to stimulate electrical activity in sensory nerves. This has exciting implications for future bionic devices such as a new generation of the bionic eye.  We are also trying to understand how this laser-evoked neural stimulation works at the membrane level.

Thursday 13 March, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Curing plant blindness and illiteracy

Dr Tim Entwisle
CEO and Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

Thursday 27 March, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Picturing Kimberley’s Past: Megafauna, Boat People and Changing Economies

Dr June Ross
Adjunct Professor, Dept Archaeology & Palaeoanthropology, University of New England

Thursday 10 April, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Medical Bionics: Engineering solutions for damaged nerves

Prof Rob Shepherd
Director, Bionics Institute University of Melbourne

Thursday 24 April, 2014
6:30 PM - 7:30 PM
Annual General Meeting

Please note earlier start time

Thursday 8 May, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
A very little brain: The Pooh Bear factor and animal behaviour

Prof David Macmillan
Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne

Thursday 22 May, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Bonding in the world of minerals: It's crystal clear

Dr Suart Mills
Geosciences Senior Curator, Museum Victoria

Thursday 12 June, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Supersizing humans, downsizing life: Why is everything getting smaller except us?

Professor Steven Chown
Head School of Biological Sciences, Monash University

Thursday 26 June, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Gluten, wheat & coeliac disease: dissecting the facts from the fad

Dr Jason Tye-din
Head, Coeliac Research at Walter & Eliza Hall Institute

Thursday 10 July, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
The bugs bite back: Bacterial resistance and superbugs

Dr Rosemary Lester
Chief Heath Officer, Department of Health

Thursday 24 July, 2014
7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Phillip Law Postdoctoral Award

2014 winner Dr Madhu Bhaskaran will present her research