What matters to you?

5 July 2012

The University of Sydney is calling on members of the public in Australia and around the world to vote for what matters most to them, with five new topics this month ranging from human rights to robotics to identifying athletic genes.

July is the fourth month of What Matters, a community engagement campaign that asks members of the public to cast their votes each month on what matters to them.

Almost 14,000 votes have been cast for 20 different topics, with more than 49,000 unique visitors to the site from 140 countries.

Topics on sustainability have so far trended the highest with voters, with 'solving climate change for future generations' proving to be the most popular followed by 'reducing our environmental footprint' and 'meeting global food demand'.

Leading Lights for July include:

Professor Louise Baur, Obesity Theme Leader, Charles Perkins Centre: Reducing childhood obesity

Having seen a dramatic increase in the occurrence of childhood obesity during her career, Professor Louise Baur sees the issue as more than just a health problem.

"Obesity isn't just a health issue. It's an issue that strikes at the heart of how we function in society," she says.

As a result, she and her team at the Charles Perkins Centre are researching the issue from a range of different angles, including food marketing, availability of low-cost foods, urban planning and public transport.

"Even if obesity isn't an issue directly for you, it is very likely to be an issue for your children, your grandchildren, other family members, and certainly members in your close community. It is already affecting them," Professor Baur says.

Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer, Director of the Asia Pacific Master of Human Rights and Democratisation: Preventing human rights abuses

Using insights gained from her research on torture, Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer is developing more effective ways to prevent other human rights violations in areas such as domestic violence and sexual abuse.

"Even though we have now a whole body of formal international law and a rhetorical nodding towards the importance of human rights, the actual implementation and the way that people live their lives remains hugely disparate from what we say we're on about," she says.

Associate Professor Celermajer's research brings together an international team of researchers to gather information about how torture occurs and what keeps it in place around the world.

"What we're really trying to do is to think about prevention of human rights violations in a different way … in areas where what seems to be the case is that people are responsible for human rights violations based on some understanding of the world that they have," she says.

Associate Professor Jingdong Yuan, Acting Director and Associate Professor, Centre for International Security Studies: Averting global conflict

Associate Professor Jingdong Yuan, a specialist on Asia-Pacific security, Chinese defence and foreign policy, global and regional arms control and non-proliferation issues, believes there will always be security issues around the world.

"There will always be conflict. There will always be dispute, simply because of different levels of development, because of history, because of experience and geography," he says.

Associate Professor Yuan works in traditional and emerging security issues, from the military balance of international powers to public health, food, disease, terrorism and piracy. He sees cyber security as one of the most pressing threats to national security.

"Cyber security is one of the threats that is difficult to defend against but increasingly it's the most pernicious threat out there. If your defence policy, your security and high ranking discussion, the defence apparatus, if that network has been hacked it can create serious problems."

Professor Eduardo Nebot, Director of the Australian Centre for Field Robotics: Using robotics to improve safety

The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney has been working for the past 15 years in automation, applying automated technologies in industries such as mining, stevedoring, defence, agriculture and marine science.

"We are applying safety systems all around the world in mining," says Professor Nebot.

"If we can translate this to the things we do every day, like driving to work, and we make this absolutely safe, this is going to be one of the biggest contributions of this centre to society."

For example, the technology already exists to allow vehicles to see through dust or fog when human vision fails, but it has yet to be implemented on a large scale.

"Imagine that you're going to press a button with a destination and then read a magazine. We are achieving this today, but unfortunately not with robust enough integrity that we wish in order to be able to deploy it at the massive scale in a city like Sydney. But this is definitely going to happen."

Professor Kathryn North, Douglas Burrows Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health and Head of the Institute for Neuroscience and Muscle Research: Identifying athletic genes

While studying the gene alpha actinin 3, a potential contributor to muscular dystrophy, Professor Kathryn North uncovered a surprising fact - the gene has a significant influence on athletic performance at an elite level.

While they didn't find a connection between alpha actinin 3, affectionately dubbed the 'gene for speed', and muscle disease, Professor North and her team found that one in five people in the general population are deficient in the gene.

"Rather than pursuing it in muscle disease, we thought we would look and see if it influenced human muscle performance and studied the other end of the spectrum, which is the elite athlete," Professor North says.

"What we found was that whether or not you have alpha actinin 3 really influences whether you are going to be better at being a specialised spring athlete or a specialised endurance athlete."

Armed with the knowledge that the presence or absence of the gene influences muscle performance in elite athletes, Professor North is turning her attention back to muscle disease at the other end of the spectrum.

"Our studies in mice and humans have shown that whether or not you have alpha actinin 3 influences disease severity. Now that we understand the molecular mechanisms involved, we can start to harness that in terms of directing future therapies," she says.

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