Posts Tagged ‘Thursday’

Day 270. Australian dinosaurs

In May 2013 on May 10, 2013 at 12:52 pm


Queensland. Beautiful one day, perfect the next…or so they say.

It’s been the site of several disappointing school holidays for me – poor weather and childhood illnesses managed to collide not just once but twice – but now I have a new reason to visit.

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History.

Located in the town of Winton in outback Queensland, the museum sits in the heart of a district inhabited by very large plant eaters about 95 million years ago, and has the world’s largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils.

It’s even been listed in Lonely Planet’s top ten global places to hunt for treasure. Yes, members of the public can actually participate in digging for bones in Winton! It’s not cheap, but the entire week-long package does include accommodation, meals, facilities and a few tours.

This experience is now placed firmly on my bucket list.

Thanks to Richard Fidler’s In Conversation chat with farmer-turned-paleotologist David Elliot for alerting me to this amazing museum.

[image thanks to ashleigh290 on flickr]


Day 256. ANZACs and Double Helices

In April 2013 on April 25, 2013 at 8:10 pm

tim hudson

Today has been a poignant day for many Australians and New Zealanders, with 25th April marking ANZAC Day. On this day in 1915 allied forces landed on Gallipoli; now we use the occasion to remember all men and women who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

The photograph above shows my great Uncle Robert Douglas “Tim” Clarke (1913-1942), a member of the RAAF Beaufighter squadron in Darwin. He died in action off Timor in November 1942.

Today also marks 60 years since the publication of the double-helix structure of DNA by Watson and Cricks, a discovery which changed the face of science.

Adam Rutherford – editor at the journal Nature – has written a lovely article about the discovery and its publication:

“our understanding of life was changed forever that day, and the modern era of biology began.”

[image courtesy of Russell Hudson, Perth, WA]

Day 249. Bedlam in April

In April 2013 on April 19, 2013 at 1:02 pm


Adelaide is famous for Mad March; for me, April is usually even more hectic.

It’s like all the gradual build up of work and well-intentioned commitments from the start of the year hits full tilt by the fourth month.

I’m feeling extremely fortunate to have a lot of work on my plate at the moment, including:

Combined with school holidays and lots of visiting family from overseas and interstate, it’s hectic!

Wouldn’t have it any other way.

[image thanks to madaboutasia on flickr]

Day 242. Extreme science

In April 2013 on April 11, 2013 at 7:52 pm

great white

Today I watched a summary of a scientific paper.

Yes, that’s right; I watched it.

It’s probably obvious that this is not the normal method for sharing cutting edge science. Most scientists do their research, perform analysis and interpretation of the results, and then submit it to a relevant journal. If a panel of experts in their field (often referred to as peers) find the results and conclusions reasonable and well-argued, the paper is published and available to the broader scientific community. Usually, these are written documents supported by images and graphs, with a summary at the start referred to as an abstract.

This paper was different.

For a start, the subject matter is extreme: White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) Scavenging on Whales and Its Potential Role in Further Shaping the Ecology of an Apex Predator. It’s freely available if you want to check out the full article.

If you don’t have the time or inclination, then perhaps the visual abstract will suffice.

The visual abstract is a video presentation, comprised of images – not all moving ones, don’t panic – and an aural summary of the paper’s main findings. The main points are clearly made, and emphasised with text and simple diagrams.

I simply loved it; needless to say I made my family watch it too. Perhaps they weren’t quite as passionate as me, but still made sense of the data.

The presentation was put together by the R.J.Dunlop Marine Conservation Program, whose mission is:

“to advance ocean conservation and scientific literacy by conducting cutting edge scientific research and providing innovative and meaningful outreach opportunities for students through exhilarating hands-on research and virtual learning experiences in marine biology”.

[image thanks to James Mostert on flickr]

Day 221. Hello….and goodbye

In March 2013 on March 21, 2013 at 10:28 am


Two hours ago I listened to an incredible story on ABC 891 Adelaide.

The story was of Tully, a baby boy born to Adelaide couple Sarah and Mat, also twin brother to Ruby and younger brother to four other siblings.

Tully only lived for two days. He was taken home to die, and spend time – yes, even after death – with his family. While this offered Tully’s family the chance to love him a few extra days before saying their final goodbyes, it did present a practical difficulty in that his deceased body needed to be kept cool.

As a result, Tully’s family started a campaign to raise funds to purchase items called Cold Cots. Cold Cots offer parents a practical way to keep their baby cool after death, thus extending the time before their child needs to be sent to the mortuary. Fundraising through the website MumsLikeMe, Sarah and Mat have now raised enough money to purchase nine Cold Cots.

You can read more about Tully’s legacy in an article written by ABC 891 Adelaide journalist Matthew Abraham.

The article, interview and related clips are thoroughly heart-wrenching. But they leave me so full of admiration for a couple who were determined to do their best to know and love their son, and give other bereaved new parents the same opportunity.

To Sarah, Mat, and Tully’s siblings I say bravo, and strength.

[image thanks to ninefish on flickr]

Day 214. Eight years

In March 2013 on March 14, 2013 at 11:11 am


On this day eight years ago I was 42 weeks pregnant, and finally resigned to the fact that I was about to undergo my second caesarian delivery.

A beautiful – and enormous! phew, dodged a bullet there – baby girl arrived at 5pm.

I recall many conversations my husband and I had with our obstetrician, a gentle and very experienced man aged about 60 years old. He knew I was a scientist, and so gave me plenty of good, factual information throughout the pregnancy. It was clinical care with data, if you will.

As we passed week 41 (most pregnancies are of about 40 weeks duration), we were still waiting for a natural labour to kick off but starting to feel a little stressed about the numbers. The graph showing fetal death rates plotted against weeks of gestation does a little jump up around 42 weeks. Eventually this, combined with the fact that I wanted to reacquaint myself with my toenails, lead us to surgery the following week and a fantastic outcome.

We were lucky to be able to weigh up risks and make an informed decision about when to have our baby. Natural delivery was the planned outcome; the plan was changed; healthy baby delivered.

But what if the numbers aren’t played to you straight?

A recent Guardian newspaper article by science engagement expert Alice Roberts shows how data about childbirth can be juggled according to political agendas. Referring to a Birthplace in England research project involving 65,000 women with births planned to take place at home, in midwife-led units and in hospital, Alice discussed the basic data, and then showed how different groups had presented the numbers.

Basic Data: 

  • For first-time mums, the risk of a poor birth outcome was higher in home births compared with hospitals (death or injury of the child occurred in about 9 per 1,000 births at home compared with about 5 per 1,000 births in hospital);
  • For women having 2nd or subsequent babies,  there was no difference in risk of a poor birth outcome in home births compared to hospital births.
  • For first-time mums, about four in 10 who had planned a home birth or birth in a midwife-led unit had to be transferred to hospital during labour;
  • For women having 2nd or subsequent babies, about one in 10 who had planned a home birth or birth in a midwife-led unit were transferred to hospital during labour.

Same data, presented by The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, in this order:

  • There is a relatively higher risk of poor outcomes for the baby in first-time mums giving birth at home;
  • There is a 45% transfer rate to hospital for home-birthing first-time mums and 12% transfer rate for subsequent pregnancies;
  • There is a lower intervention rates in home births.

Same data, presented by the National Childbirth Trust website, in this order:

  • Women having a home birth are more likely to have a “normal birth” without intervention;
  • Home births are safe for women having a second or subsequent baby;
  • Home birth increases the risk to the baby for first-time mums.

The obstetricians highlight the risk of home birth. The home birth supporters highlight the normal and safe aspects of home birth.

So what is the average pregnant woman to do? Who can she trust to tell her the right thing? I don’t know the answer to that. But I think a comment by Alice’s towards the end of her article is worth highlighting:

” We should be celebrating the success of our multidisciplinary teams – including midwives, obstetricians and neonatologists – which means this (safe delivery) is the outcome for the vast majority of mums and babies.”

Using the multidisciplinary approach to combine expertise and introduce flexibility in birth options is surely what we’re after.

[image thanks to lrargerich on flickr]

Day 206. DNA ain’t DNA

In March 2013 on March 6, 2013 at 9:52 pm


As divine as they generally are, my kids are at their most annoying when they remind me of me.

One lies awake in bed at night, over-thinking everything. Another has a foul temper and can snap with no warning. The third can’t even wait the few seconds it takes for a new YouTube clip to load.

“Just relax! Stay calm! Be patient!”

I yell, knowing full well that with my genes firmly encased in every single living cell of their bodies they don’t have a hope in hell.

That was until yesterday…when I learnt something new about DNA.

The lesson came in the form of a podcast – a brilliant one called Inheritance made by my good friends* at RadioLab.

The general understanding about DNA – the stuff genes are made from – is that it’s an inherited template used to make proteins. According to this way of thinking, if one section of your Mum’s DNA codes for proteins which promote a short emotional fuse, and you inherit that DNA from her, chances are you’ll snap into cranky mode relatively quickly.

But now, according to the podcast, a new bit of knowledge is changing the way scientists think DNA works.

Turns out that just ’cause you have a certain section of DNA, it won’t necessarily be used to make protein. If a small sticky molecule known as a methyl group attaches itself in the right spot, that bit of DNA is blocked from the production line.

What this means is that even if you happen to have inherited your Mum’s genetic propensity towards a short temper, if you have a methyl group attached to the relevant bit of DNA you could actually end up being reasonably calm.

I should point out this temper example was entirely fabricated to make my point: the actual data on DNA and methyl groups came from studying maternal behaviour in rats.

It’s really exciting from a scientific point of view. Why? Because it means there is flexibility in the system: certain characteristics which are inherited at the level of DNA may or may not end up being displayed by your kids. This is a new way of thinking about DNA.

If I could just add or subtract a few methyl groups in my own kids, I’d be in business…

*may or may not be actual friends in real life

Day 200. Nano-art

In february 2013 on February 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm


I have a post-card version of this painting by Del Kathryn Barton blue-tacked onto the side of my book shelf; I can see it when I work.

Entitled You are what is my beautiful about me, it depicts Del with her two children.

I saw the original in Sydney in 2008, the year it won The Archibald Prize.

It was memorising. And not just because the subject matter resonates with me, not just because I love the beautiful eyes, skin and hands of the subjects, not just because it features the beautiful Sturt’s Desert Pea.

Because it made me think about science. Nanotechnology in particular. The very, very finely-painted green, mottled background is reminiscent of tiny structures in gecko skin, in lotus leaves, in carbon nanotubes.

Strangely enough, it also reminds me of blue-green algae.

Day 193. 2050

In february 2013 on February 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm


In the year 2050 I will turn 78 years old.

I hope to be in good health, still physically active, of sound intellect and with family and friends a strong focus of my daily life. If I’m lucky, all those options will still be within my grasp, accessed via my personal choices.

But will these choices be available to me by then? What sort of external challenges will I face in my world by 2050? What will the main economic drivers? How will people live together, communicate, work stuff out? What environmental pressures will we feel – will land, water, green space, clean air, fresh food be plentiful or only available to some?

These are all important questions, and the subject of a new book launched today from The Australian Academy of Science.

Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 proposes tools and approaches to ensure Australia’s social, economic and environmental sustainability to 2050 and beyond. The book sets out approaches for the whole of society to work together to determine what a future Australia will look like, and how to get there. It includes tools for approaching sustainability from a range of perspectives, including:

  • Resilience in the face of shocks;
  • Climate change and energy pressures;
  • Population issues;
  • Economic uncertainties; and
  • Social justice and equity.

Futurist and Bridge8 Founder/Managing Director Kristin Alford – with whom I used to work and enjoy many a morning coffee – was lead author on Chapter 3: Social perspectives on sustainability and equity in Australia (available for download here).

I asked Kristin why the release of this book was so exciting. Her answer suggested that a consideration of the future required starting with thinking about the present:

“We need to have a conversation about the future for Australia.

This book draws on an considerable effort by cross-disciplinary researchers to map out the present, and to think about how we might find pathways to a desired future.

It kicks off a conversation that we need to have – how do we live? How do we create environmentally sustainable and socially equitable futures?”

How do you think about your future? Will it be just an older you, living in the same world you see now? If you think not, perhaps you could play a role in creating, or at the very least anticipating, the kind of future which is most likely.  The book, and its companion volume, are available for free here.

Day 186. Valentines Day

In february 2013 on February 14, 2013 at 9:48 pm


If you studied science at school or Uni, you may have been talked through the different anatomical features and functions of a heart.

If not, here’s a quick run through:

Ventricle: a big pumping muscular chamber – the left one pumps to send oxygen-rich blood around your body; the right one pumps to send oxygen-poor blood to the lungs for an oxygen ‘refill’.

Atrium: a smaller chamber which acts like a receiving vessel before transferring blood on to the relevant ventricle; the left atrium receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs, the right atrium receives oxygen-poor blood from the body.

Aorta: the main artery leaving the left ventricle, which later branches to form other arteries to deliver oxygen-rich blood around the body.

Inferior and superior vena cavae: the main veins which are the final vessels collecting oxygen-depleted blood from the veins around your body before delivery it to the right atrium.

Pulmonary trunk and arteries: carries oxgen-poor blood from the right ventricle to the lungs

Pulmonary veins: transfer oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the left atrium

Happy Valentine’s Day.

[image from here]