Young Scientist Research Prizes 2022
This article recaps the Young Scientist Research Prizes competition, which was held at The Royal Society of Victoria on 10th November, 2022 and livestreamed by YouTube.
Every year, final year PhD candidates present their doctoral studies to the Royal Society of Victoria, competing for four Prizes that recognise excellence in Victoria’s early career scientists. Eight finalists present under the four categories: Biological Sciences, Biomedical & Health Sciences, Earth Sciences, and Physical Sciences.
We congratulate all our finalists, with particular acknowledgement of Pui Kwan Cheung, Michelle Xu, Mahshid Sadeghpour and Daniel Urrutia Cabrera, the first prize winners of their respective categories. The rationale for each presentation is provided below; short articles on the work of our first prize winners will be released in the coming weeks, along with video presentations from all finalists.
First Prize: Michelle Xu, STEM College, RMIT University
Protective cultures as natural antimicrobials for fresh meat shelf‐life extension: their application and consumer acceptance
Protective cultures are microorganisms that have the ability to inhibit certain other microorganisms by competing for space and nutrients, producing antimicrobial compounds, or a combination of these. Protective cultures have been investigated in a number of studies for microbial control in fresh meat and meat products and achieved great success.
To date, most studies have focused on evaluating the effects of protective cultures against pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella spp. and Listeria monocytogenes, since these bacteria are associated with health risks. Spoilage bacteria generally do not cause illness and have received much less attention; however, they are responsible for meat spoilage and limit product shelf‐life, leading to food waste, economic losses, and environmental impacts. Michelle’s work was conducted to evaluate the potential of protective cultures for extending fresh meat shelf‐life from both the practical application and consumer acceptance perspectives.
When used with vacuum packaging, the culture containing L. sakei and the one containing S. carnosus and L. sakei showed strong inhibitory effects against spoilage bacteria in both lamb and beef and intact cuts and comminuted products. However, fat may be a factor limiting the application of protective cultures to lean or low‐fat fresh meat products. In addition to laboratory studies showing the potential of protective cultures in the technical application aspect, the online consumer survey revealed that consumer acceptance would unlikely be an issue for adding protective cultures to fresh meat products for shelf‐life extension.
Second Prize: Linda Riquelme, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne
Measuring grass from space: estimating understorey biomass using remote sensing in semi‐arid woodlands of south‐eastern Australia
Ongoing grazing is inhibiting regeneration in several semi‐arid woodland communities in south‐eastern Australia, including the nationally endangered Buloke Woodlands of the Riverina and Murray‐Darling Depression Bioregions. Western grey kangaroos are thought to switch from grass to lower‐quality browse, including tree seedlings, when grass biomass falls below a purported threshold.
Land managers are interested in using forage availability to inform cull targets for kangaroos, to minimise the risk that browsing poses to regeneration in these woodland communities when forage is low. They want to monitor grass biomass without the need for field data collection, which is costly and time‐consuming. Remote sensing allows for frequent observations over broad spatial scales. Linda’s work examined the ability of satellite‐derived vegetation indices (VIs) to estimate understorey biomass in semi‐arid woodlands in north‐western Victoria.
Linda found that satellite-derived VIs are promising as an easily‐available source of vegetation information; however, this study shows that VIs alone are not able to predict grass biomass to new areas. Additional landscape‐scale data (such as satellite‐derived soil moisture and tree cover) can greatly improve model performance, providing managers with a more cost‐efficient method of estimating grass biomass for herbivore management for woodland restoration in this semi‐arid landscape.
Biomedical and Health Sciences
First Prize: Daniel Urrutia Cabrera, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, The University of Melbourne
Using Cellular Reprogramming and CRISPR Technologies to Regenerate the Retina and Treat Vision Loss
Modern societies are predominantly built around visual cues, meaning patients living with visual impairment and blindness face major challenges that can severely impact their quality of life. Vision relies on a complex network of different neuronal subtypes that extend from the retina to the visual cortex. The photoreceptors begin the visual pathway in the retina by detecting and transforming the light from the environment into electrical signals that are later relayed to the brain.
Human vision largely depends on cone photoreceptors, as they mediate our vision during daylight and the detection of colour. Photoreceptor loss is one of the main causes of blindness and visual impairment. Notably, the damages caused by the death of photoreceptors are irreversible and there are currently no effective treatments to restore vision once they are lost.
Daniel’s project aims to stimulate the reprogramming of a supporting cell type of the retina, called Müller glia, into becoming novel cone photoreceptors to regenerate the damaged retina and reverse visual impairment. He uses in vitro models to optimise a protocol to reprogram Müller glia into cones. Subsequently, he employs a rat model with photoreceptor degeneration to assess the feasibility of translating his research team’s reprogramming protocol into a regenerative therapy to treat vision loss. This is the first study to pursue cone regeneration using cellular reprogramming technologies.
Second Prize: Aung Zaw Zaw Phyo, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University
Health-Related Quality of Life in Later Life: Predictors, Trajectories, and Health Outcomes
Given that older individuals are at a higher risk of adverse health outcomes, the rapid growth in the global ageing population is accompanied by an increase in years of life lived with disability or in poor health. Identifying older individuals most at risk of developing agerelated diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and dementia, would support the implementation of preventive interventions to reduce the associated socioeconomic burden on society and increase years lived without disability. In contemporary healthcare, integrating patients’ views into clinical practice has been increasingly considered as an essential aspiration. Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL) is the self-reported measure that assesses an individual’s perception of their health status. Lower HRQoL has been shown to predict rehospitalisation and subsequent mortality in patient populations; and has the potential to predict future health outcomes in the general community.
Aung and colleagues investigated whether the physical (PCS) or mental component score (MCS) of HRQoL predict incident CVD, cognitive decline, dementia, and all-cause mortality among community-dwelling older individuals from Australians and the United States, enrolled in the ASPirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly (ASPREE) study. Based on the findings, the research group then identified trajectories of PCS over 5-years and examined whether these PCS trajectories predict subsequent risk of fatal and non-fatal CVD, and all-cause mortality in this cohort. Finally, they explored whether economic factors, social health or stressful life events impact PCS trajectories among older Australians. The research team’s results demonstrate the predictive power of HRQoL for the risk of health outcome; a new, much needed and overlooked perspective in the multidimensional approach to chronic disease prevention in older individuals, suggesting that HRQoL could complement traditional objective measures (e.g., blood pressure, body mass index, and lipid levels) during standard outpatient health risk assessment in primary care as a means of reducing future disease risk. This suggestion is also consistent with recommendations of the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care to incorporate HRQoL into the health system as a policy goal.
First Prize: Pui Kwan Cheung, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne
Measuring the micro-climactic impacts of turf irrigation in a temperate summer season
Backyards are an important space for individual households because they provide a private and safe green space for social interactions, exposure to greenery, relaxation, gardening and children’s activities. People’s willingness to use backyards are dependent upon the thermal stress (measured in Universal Thermal Climate Index, UTCI) of the space. Turf is a common surface type in backyards but unirrigated turf can be as warm as pavement, bringing thermal discomfort and discouraging people from using them. Under certain conditions turf irrigation provides an opportunity to reduce thermal stress by increasing evapotranspiration. Most studies in the literature modelled the impacts of irrigation on microclimate and a strong cooling effect was often predicted. However, such impacts are rarely measured in the real-world environment. Experimental studies are needed to verify the thermal benefits of turf irrigation.
Pui Kwan’s research provided empirical evidence to verify the potential of applying irrigation to cool the urban environment. The future climate is likely to become warmer in many parts of the world due to climate change. Mitigation strategies are needed to reduce heat stress in cities because strong heat stress can lead to higher heat-related morbidity and mortality. Heat stress also reduces people’s willingness to visit urban green space to engage in physical and social activities, which can reduce people’s quality of life and their perceived mental and physical health. Irrigation is a novel idea to reduce urban heat stress in additional to other existing heat mitigation strategies such as tree planting and the use of reflective materials. The findings from this research provided a proof-of-concept for application and laid a solid foundation for further research on the cooling potential of irrigation at a larger scale.
Second Prize: Hoseong Lim, School of Earth, Atmosphere & Environment, Monash University
Timescales of granite infancy: Advances in granite geochronology
Granite is a rock type that makes up ~70% of Earth’s continents, and is therefore an important study for understanding the history of the Earth’s crust. We can obtain the absolute age of granite by using radiometric dating techniques on a specific mineral contained in a granite rock sample, then assume that the age of the mineral is equivalent to the age of the rock. While the dating of granite is commonly derived from measuring the mineral zircon, grains of this mineral yield are found to return large age spans over tens of millions of years. Accordingly, Hoseong and colleagues have challenged the suitability of zircon for granite dating, while attempting to improve on this widely used technique. They found apatite and titanite to have great potential, as their general compositions are suitable as both age dating and environment indicators.
Most of the granite ages from Victoria reported in the literature are biotite or hornblende ages. However, zircon ages and corresponding apatite and titanite ages in this study are consistently around 20 Myrs older than the previous biotite/hornblende ages. These age differences may also occur in other granite bodies. Hoseong’s study shows fluid-mobile elements collection in addition to radiometric dating is significantly important to improve age reliability.
Zircon dating is the dominant technique in geosciences, and this fluid-mobile element quality control process may enhance reliability of the huge amount of zircon age data currently generated in geological research. The final implication of the study is the potential of apatite and titanite ages for use as alternative granite age indicators. Although more studies are required, these dating techniques can support zircon age dating and might even substitute the current zircon dating technique.
First Prize: Mahshid Sadeghpour, School of Mathematical Sciences, College of STEM, RMIT University
Developing a Privacy-preserving Retinal Biometric Recognition System
Biometrics are physiological traits of individuals that are unique to them, e.g., fingerprints or the eye’s retina. Biometrics, although convenient for the purpose of human recognition, contain sensitive personal information about individuals, such as their ethnicity and health conditions. It is imperative to protect the private information in biometrics.
Because biometric data is “fuzzy,” it cannot be protected using conventional encryption methods. Biometric systems extract features from the biometric traits of the users and store them inside their databases as “biometric templates.” Even though the retina is the most accurate biometric characteristic known and is currently used for high-security identity verification, there exists no retinal recognition system that protects retinal templates. Mahshid and her colleagues are working to fill this gap, designing a retinal recognition system that protects the private information of its users. To achieve this aim, the biometric templates stored in the system’s database should be irreversible and unlinkable.
The research team developed a software system that can recognise individuals with high accuracy using their retinal images while protecting biometric information from privacy-invasion threats. Machine learning methods were applied to evaluate the system’s accuracy and the level of privacy protection; these evaluations demonstrated the proposed system achieves high recognition accuracy, resulting in a user-friendly system secure against hacking and identity theft.
Second Prize: Yongqiang Wang, School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, The University of Melbourne
Solar-driven CO2 capture and production from the air
Direct Air Capture (DAC), a negative emission technology for direct extraction of CO2 from ambient air, has garnered interest for its potential in helping nations achieve their long-term climate targets set under the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, the regeneration of the adsorbent materials used for DAC is energy-intensive and usually powered by electrical energy or thermal energy provided by natural gas, which in turn greatly increases the CO2 emissions of the DAC process. Therefore, the application of renewable energy to the adsorbent regeneration process is crucial for DAC. Photothermal conversion, which converts solar to thermal energy, is an efficient method with high energy conversion efficiencies (>60%). If only thermal energy is required for the desorption process of DAC, then the integration of DAC and photothermal system to current measures would be a promising approach to realising negative carbon emissions.
Yongqiang and his colleagues designed a proof-of-concept DAC system for producing high-purity CO2 from the air based on a synergistic desorption technology without the use of electricity for regeneration. The system was successfully realised by applying water adsorbents to the DAC system for harvesting atmospheric water and regenerating CO2 adsorbents through purging effects of the desorbed water vapor. Photothermal conversion was also integrated with the DAC system, and the received thermal energy was sufficient for releasing H2O and CO2 from the adsorbents, even when the solar intensity was moderate.