ARC funding success for Faculty of Science

17 October 2008

Researchers from the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney have secured $19.3 million in funding for Discovery Projects and more than $1.78 million in funding for Linkage Projects from the Australian Research Council, for research to begin in 2009.

Announced by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, on 15 October 2008, the funding is part of the Australian Government's national grants scheme, worth over $363 million, for research across disciplines as diverse as science, engineering, arts, medicine, education, law and culture.

"The Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney has done extremely well in the ARC funding, reflecting the quality of the scientific research undertaken by our scientists," said Professor Trevor Hambley, Director of Research in the Faculties of Science.

"The level of funding awarded to the Faculty of Science makes it one of the largest research entities in the country, similar in Discovery grant support to that obtained by the whole of some of the largest universities in Australia."

The Discovery Projects scheme funds excellence in fundamental research, leading to major discoveries and supporting innovative research that will broaden Australia's knowledge base and enhance Australia's international competitiveness.

The Linkage Projects scheme funds collaborative research and development between higher education organisations and other organisations, including industry, government and international organisations.

Some Discovery successes:

Professor Chris Dickman, from the School of Biological Sciences, received the single largest Discovery Project grant within the Faculty of Science in this round of funding for his project titled 'The renaissance predator: complex predator-prey interactions and vertebrate diversity in arid Australia'. The $1.8 million over five years will fund research on how predators influence the ecology and diversity of their prey in Australia's deserts, and thus improve our ability to conserve and manage our iconic but fragile inland landscapes.

The research will increase awareness locally about the richness of desert life and stimulate national and international interest by contributing to emerging debate about how predators influence diversity. It will also establish an unparalleled 24-year time series of ecological data, and thus provide a key resource to chart the biological effects of climate change and assist sustainable management of biodiversity across the continent's vast interior.

A team led by Professor Peter Lay, from the School of Chemistry, will receive $995 000 over five years for research titled 'Microprobe and Nanoprobe Studies on Intracellular Disease Processes and Their Treatment'. The research will use breakthrough microprobe and nanoprobe technologies, involving X-ray, visible and infrared light, to investigate biochemical changes in mammalian cells that occur as disease progresses and during drug treatments. This will provide unprecedented information on where drugs go and how they are transformed inside cells, with the potential to revolutionise the way new drugs are designed, so they have higher specificity and fewer side effects.

Professor Rick Shine and Dr Ben Phillips, from the School of Biological Sciences, secured $900 000 over four years for 'The roles of stress and immunocompetence in biological invasions'. The research will build on recent findings that cane toads at an invasion-front have weakened immune systems, by analysing immune responses in cane toads and native frogs, with the aim of exploiting the toads' immunocompromised state to develop new and more effective control measures. Cane toads are widely viewed as one of the biggest invasive species problems in Australia and pose a major threat to biodiversity. The project will develop a new paradigm about the roles of stress and immunity in biological invasion, applicable to the control of other invasive species.

Dr Shami Chatterjee and Professor Bryan Gaensler, from the School of Physics, will receive $876 000 over the next five years for their Discovery Project titled 'Snap, Crackle, Pop: Opening the Window on the Variable Radio Universe'. They will conduct a comprehensive set of surveys with new radio telescopes and instruments in order to build a full census of bursts, pulses, and flickers in the radio sky. Coupled with rapid follow up observations in the optical, X-ray and gamma-ray bands, these surveys will allow them to probe fundamental physics behind violent and unpredictable behaviour in the Universe.

Professor Simon Ringer and Dr Baptiste Gault, from the Electron Microscope Unit, with Professor Martin Green, from the University of NSW, have obtained $816 000 for research titled 'Structure-Activity Relationships in Silicon-based Photovoltaics Through Atomic Scale Microscopy'. The project aims to develop new design principles for silicon-based photovoltaics through a comprehensive study of atomic-scale structures and phenomena in photovoltaic materials. The development of more efficient photovoltaic materials is of major global importance, given the pressing need for clean and renewable sources of energy. Australia has international leadership in developing solar cell technologies, and the ideal natural environment to exploit these technologies. The fundamental insights derived in this project, such as detailed 3D maps of dopant distributions at the atomic scale, will bolster Australia's international reputation in the field and provide better control in the design of photovoltaic devices.

Professor Peter Waterhouse, from the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, will receive $720 000 over three years for 'Regulation of Plant Development by Small RNAs'. Understanding the roles of small RNAs and their pathways is a new field of research that is giving, and will continue to give profound insights into how multicellular organisms regulate gene expression at a genomic level. Research in this area has already led to RNA interference technology, by which almost any gene can be switched off, and there is considerable potential for other gene silencing and trait modification technologies to emerge. The project will yield insights into fundamental biological processes which are expected to engender applications in agriculture and biotechnology.

Professor Iain McGregor, from the School of Psychology, has secured $694 000 for his project titled 'Models of adolescent drug use and its consequences'. The research will use animal models to characterise substance abuse during the adolescent period and to investigate its effects on brain and behaviour. The results will help understand the impact of drug abuse - particularly binge drinking, inhalant abuse and cannabis use - on the mental health of adolescents. Early drug use is associated with mental health problems, but the mechanisms involved are not well characterised.

Dr Dean Rickles, from the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, has obtained $617 500 for 'The Development of Quantum Gravity'. The research will be the first large-scale effort to unpack and make sense of the development of quantum gravity. Given the pressing nature of this problem and its importance for our worldview, this study will be of great benefit to several sectors of the academic community. By giving a global perspective of the field from its origins, those outside the field will be able to appreciate its importance and its place in contemporary physics. Quantum gravity researchers will be able to see how their preferred approach fits into the web of research programs, thus opening the door for greater collaboration between the various approaches. This research will greatly enhance Australia's position in this breakthrough science.

Associate Professor Ruibin Zhang, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, will receive $450 000 over five years for 'Noncommutative geometry in representation theory and quantum physics'. One of the most important problems in natural science is to understand the structure of spacetime at the Planck scale. Mathematical investigations in recent years have predicted that at this scale, spacetime becomes noncommutative. Taking this noncommutativity into account, the project brings together geometry, algebra and quantum mechanics to develop new mathematical theories required for addressing the problem. It promises to make fundamental contributions to both mathematics and theoretical physics.

Associate Professor Dietmar Muller and Dr Maria Sdrolias, from the School of Geosciences, with Dr Michael Gurnis and Professor Trond Torsvik, have secured $310 000 over four years for 'The Subduction Reference Framework: unravelling the causes of long-term sea-level change'. Long-term global sea level fluctuations have been a driving force of biogeography, climate change and organic evolution. The project will assimilate images of subducted tectonic plates in the Earth's mantle into geodynamic models to establish a novel Subduction Reference Frame for the past 200 million years. This will form the basis for unravelling the effects of subduction on surface topography and sea-level change. The project outcomes will include predictive models of sedimentation and erosion in continental interiors, and will transform knowledge about the nature and magnitude of natural planetary change.

Some Linkage successes:

The largest Linkage Project grant within the Faculty of Science in this round of funding, was obtained by Associate Professor Dietmar Muller, from the School of Geosciences, with Dr Giampiero Iaffaldano and Dr Christian Heine, who will join the School of Geosciences in 2009, with industry partners Dr Patrick Unternehr, from Total, and Dr Malcolm Ross, from Shell International Exploration and Production. The group will receive $525 000 over three years to work on 'Integrating deep-earth and surface processes for frontier-basin exploration'. It is well known that mantle convection has a profound influence on basin evolution, and the next step will be to quantify this relationship and provide the science that will make these concepts applicable to exploration. The project will develop a workflow to link plate-reconstruction software with the mantle convection modelling to link plate motions, mantle convection and the history of sedimentation systematically for the first time for frontier basin-scale applications. These emerging technologies will be applied to the evolution of basins in the Arctic borderlands frontier for resource exploration and on the Australian continent.

Dr Greg Sword and Professor Steve Simpson, from the School of Biological Sciences, with Associate Professor Salah Sukkarieh and Dr Graham Brooker, from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney, and Peter Spurgin, from the Australian Plague Locust Commission, will receive $340 000 over three years to work on 'Autonomous tracking and predictive modelling of Australian plague locust migratory band movement'. The project will use advances in robotics, engineering, mathematics and biology to develop a new computer model for the control of one of the world's most damaging pest insects: locusts. Autonomous aerial robotic systems will be used to collect data on Australian plague locusts travelling in devastating migratory bands. These data on band movement and the behaviour of individual locusts within the band will be used to develop a particle physics-inspired predictive model of migratory band movement, which will be used to optimise locust control operations. Economic, environmental and social benefits will arise through reductions in the amount of time, money, manpower and insecticides necessary to combat locust outbreaks.

See every ARC Discovery Project funded at:

See every ARC Linkage Project funded at:

Contact: Katynna Gill

Phone: 02 9351 6997

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