Spirit of inquiry

The second in our round-up of innovative research being carried out at the University.


Professor Maschmeyer, refinable bio-oil

Professor Maschmeyer, refinable bio-oil

Professor Glenda Sluga, Professor of International History, is directing a five-year project investigating the historical legacy of internationalism. The origin of globalisation is one of the most important debates in the social sciences, yet we still understand it as mainly an abstract force. Professor Sluga will map the changing course of international life since the early 19th century, providing a genealogy of how economics and politics intersected to construct the modern global world.

Professor Elspeth Probyn, Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies, leads a three-year project that analyses the crucial role of fish and fishing in feeding a growing global population. This project will provide the first in-depth cultural account of the complex entanglement of the economy, the environment and the humans involved in fish and fishing. The project addresses changing consumer tastes, new State, Commonwealth and international regimes of marine governance, and adapting fishing communities to new forms of livelihood.

Dr Agnieszka Tymula is investigating whether and how the observed behavioural differences in behaviour relate to structural changes in neuroanatomy. Her recent work has examined how aging affects individuals’ rationality and consistency in choice, as well as preferences for known and unknown risk. Her ultimate goal is to relate the insights from her research to organisational and incentives design, policy interventions, finance, political economics, and marketing.

Associate Professor Liam Semler, from the English Department, leads a study to find out how 21st century school students cope with more imaginative approaches to the 16th century writings of Shakespeare
Dr Laura Beth Bugg is examining controversies over proposals to set up Islamic schools and a Hindu temple in three largely Anglo-Australian residential areas of Sydney. These proposals were eventually refused because they were allegedly not compatible with rural character, landscape or land uses. Dr Bugg has conducted interviews with urban planners, residents and members of the immigrant groups, and an analysis of planning frameworks. She argues that citizenship does not guarantee belonging at the neighbourhood level, and that planning controls reinforce particular understandings of who belongs and who does not.


Herding cattle with an agricultural robot

Herding cattle with an agricultural robot

Unlike other resources such as gas, water and food, electricity cannot easily be stored. Professor Tony Vassallo, from the School of Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering, is conducting research as part of Future Grid Cluster, a major recent initiative with CSIRO which aims to improve our ability to store electricity. Professor Vassallo will lead a team to further our understanding of the impacts of different loads, generation sources and energy storage on system security.

PhD candidate Ali Fathi specialises in chemical and biomolecular engineering. Under the supervision of Associate Professor Fariba Dehghani, Ali’s research involves collaborating with a team of experts from molecular bioscience, pharmacy, medicine and engineering on the regeneration of cartilage in knee joints. They have engineered and synthesised a multi-block polymer that can chemically bond with natural proteins. The polymer works as a cell carrier system to deliver native cartilage cells to defective sites through injection.

A team led by Dr Alistair McEwan, from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, has developed a process called sonification, which converts electroencephalogram (EEG) brain wave signals of people living with epilepsy into sound. The team’s audio method enables the non-expert to distinguish between seizures and some common sounds with a high level of accuracy after only several hours of training. This offers an exciting possibility for a person living with epilepsy or their carer to collect information about their condition. Dr McEwan and his team hope to eventually develop a portable EEG system.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh, from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, is investigating how robots can be used to autonomously gather information about objects in outdoor environments. “The robots can collect vital information, estimate yield and identify pests, weeds and diseases. They can be controlled or monitored remotely by farmers using an iPad or phone,” he says. The research team is refining the ability of robots to perform tasks such as applying fertilisers and pesticides, watering, sweeping and mowing.

Dr Luming Shen, senior lecturer in the School of Civil Engineering, is leading a study to develop mathematical models that can help in reducing rock fracturing and soil liquefaction caused by natural or man-made disasters. Dr Shen says the study is breaking new ground in the field of geotechnical earthquake engineering and could hold the key to solving a number of issues associated with seismic damage of underground structures.


Dr Liz Abbey and Dr Jody Webster, from the School of Geosciences, have led the first deepwater fossil study on the Great Barrier Reef. The team is the first in the world to document and analyse the response of a deepwater reef community to millennial scale environmental impacts, and examine how the reef responds to global sea-level rise and environmental changes.

Professor Chris Dickman, from the School of Biological Sciences, is researching wildfires that deplete food and shelter resources for many native vertebrates, exposing them to invasive predators such as the red fox and feral cat. Focusing on the fire-prone spinifex grasslands of central Australia, this project identifies the role of specific refuge habitats that provide native species with protection after fires, and then proposes an experimental program to quantify and mitigate predator impacts.

Rusts significantly reduce crop yields and, in the case of stem rust, can destroy entire crops causing food supply disasters. For the past 24 years Professor Robert Park has conducted research to find genetic solutions to rust control in cereals. His research has made major impacts on understanding genetic variability in all cereal rust pathogens. He is also involved in the global effort to tackle a new race of stem rust in eastern Africa.

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, from the School of Chemistry, has started a company which focuses on the conversion of biomass to refinable bio-oil and renewable chemicals. It is currently engaged in an engineering design study as a precursor to a biocrude plant with 125,000 barrels per year capacity. The technology now has a commercial demonstration plant at Somersby in NSW, producing oil from brown coal and woody waste at scale – a world first.

Researchers at the Soil Security Laboratory have developed the soil carbon bench, which can determine carbon levels from much larger samples, with greater accuracy and lower cost, than any existing technology. The first results were presented a year ago at the International Union of Soil Sciences Workshop in Wisconsin. The research team consists of Robert Pallasser, Associate Professor Budiman Minasny and Professor Alex McBratney.

The University is leading an attempt to sequence the DNA of Phar Lap. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which has the horse’s skeleton, has agreed to allow a 60mg piece of tooth come to Sydney to unravel his genetic history, says team leader Dr Natasha Hamilton. Professor Claire Wade will be in charge of the genetic analysis, which will be performed at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, at the University of Adelaide, before being analysed at the University of Sydney. “The DNA sequence will tell us if Phar Lap’s genetic make-up looks like star racehorses of today, including whether he is a sprinter or a stayer (genetically better suited to running long distances),” Dr Hamilton said.