What matters to you?

6 August 2012

Do you care about the lack of housing affordability in Australia? Does it matter to you that for the first time in human history more people are suffering from over-nutrition than under-nutrition? Should high school completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students be higher on the national agenda?

Five of the University of Sydney's academics and alumni have shared what matters most to them in the fifth month of our What Matters campaign. Now the University is calling on members of the public to cast their votes to find out what matters most to them.

Each month, five new 'Leading Lights' from the University of Sydney community talk about how their work has made a difference to the world.

Leading Lights for August include:

Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director, Charles Perkins Centre: Controlling our weight

"Now, for the first time in human history, more people on the planet are suffering the diseases of over-nutrition than are suffering the problems of under-nutrition. So it's estimated 1.6 billion people are either overweight or obese, with associated health consequences."

For Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences, an initial interest in locust swarms led to a fascination for human nutrition.

"The locust knows what it needs and eats what it needs. We found that actually locusts, and it transpired all other animals that we've studied, have separate appetites for protein, fat, carbohydrate and they can respond with really quite sophisticated nutritional wisdom," Professor Simpson says.

"We then addressed the question; well why is it that humans seem to have such a lack of nutritional wisdom?"

His current research investigates why people eat what they do and how our modern nutritional environment may circumvent basic nutritional wisdom.

Professor Simpson has found that protein has both the power to drive obesity and also to ameliorate it, with many of us eating our way through too much fatty and starchy food to get the proteins our bodies really want.

Associate Professor Nicole Gurran, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning: Affordable housing

Affordable housing is a constant battle for Sydneysiders and residents of big cities all over the world.

Associate Professor Nicole Gurran's research looks at ways in which government policy can help close the gap between the cost at which developers can deliver housing and the price people can afford.

"Anyone who has ever tried to make their first step on the housing ladder, perhaps out there trying to rent a home or trying to buy their first home, will really appreciate that housing affordability is one of the biggest issues facing Australia at the moment," Associate Professor Gurran says.

For urban planners like Associate Professor Gurran, one of the greatest challenges is to keep up with the changing needs of city dwellers.

"People's housing needs have changed and their preferences have changed as well," says Associate Professor Gurran.

"So we've had much greater interest in living near the city, living near services, living near transportation. At the same time we've also had a whole lot of environmental problems that have shown that we can't keep our cities expanding the way they have done in the past."

Associate Professor Hala Zreiqat, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies: Achieving medical breakthroughs

Bone defects can be congenital or a result of accidents or diseases, but they are also a major problem for ageing societies. Recent studies indicate that one in every two women and one in every three men over 60 are prone to osteoporotic factors.

Dr Hala Zreiqat and her team in the Tissue Engineering and Biomaterials Research Unit at the University of Sydney are now producing ceramic materials that can fix damaged or broken bones, revolutionising bone repairs and replacements.

"We look at the nature and structure of bones, and we try to imitate that in the lab without using any biological material," says Dr Zreiqat.

The team were the first to heal large bone defects with the use of a purely synthetic material, without the addition of cells or growth factors. Their method can regenerate these large bone defects within a very short period of time.

"If you place a titanium implant in your body, which is what is now used for hip and knee replacements, they stay there forever. And with the increase of the ageing population, within eight to 10 years or maybe 15 years at maximum, doctors need to go in and replace that metal."

"What we are developing is something that will negate the use of these metal implants. So hopefully one day we can produce a total hip replacement from our biodegradable material, which means it will go in the body, trigger the formation of new bone and as new bone is formed, the material will disappear. At the end of the life cycle of that regeneration of the bone, what you'll be left with is totally new bone."

Professor Ben Eggleton, Director of the Centre for Ultra-high Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS): Faster internet speed

Professor Ben Eggleton and his team at CUDOS work in the field of photonics, the science and technology of controlling photons, the building blocks of light that form the backbone of the internet.

Along with environmental science, astronomy, health and defence, photonics is making a serious impact on telecommunications, with the National Broadband Network based on photonics.

The focus of Professor Eggleton's research is on building photonic circuits and chips, which use photonic wires to guide and transport photons at the speed of light.

"The reason that photonics and photonic circuits are so exciting is that the information processing that we can achieve from photonic chips is much faster than traditional processes associated with electronics. When I say faster, I'm talking about a thousand times faster," says Professor Eggleton.

"Potentially it could be more energy efficient and the impact of the photonic circuit then is to enable traditional communications systems to go to the next level. We're talking about more data, more bandwidth, no additional costs, and potentially more energy efficient information processing."

Jack Manning Bancroft, founder and CEO of Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME): Supporting Indigenous students

When University of Sydney graduate Jack Manning Bancroft launched the AIME mentoring program four years ago, it had just 25 participating students. Today, the program mentors close to 1000 students across Australia's east coast.

The AIME program partners Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students with university students with the aim of lifting high school completion rates in line with the national average.

AIME has so far been extraordinarily successful, with 62.7 percent of students in the program finishing year 12 - double the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander average of 32.4 percent and approaching the national non-Indigenous average of 75.2 percent.

"What drives me is that there is a group of Australian kids at the moment who aren't getting the same chances that most Australian kids do," says Manning Bancroft.
"There's an amazingly talented batch of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people coming through that can really enrich the country."

"When I think about what it means to be Australian, I'm challenged to think that we can be richer and better and stronger and have a deeper connection to our Australian identity. Aboriginal Australia has a part to play in that."

"This is something that should excite all Australians, because at the moment we have this huge rich potential of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and knowledge just sitting there waiting. If we can engage that, and engage with a whole sense of Australian identity, we're going to have a much stronger country," Manning Bancroft says.

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