Biologists awarded ARC Fellowships

1 August 2012

In recent days the School of Biological Sciences has been awarded four Australian Research Council (ARC) grants - three Future Fellowships and one Laureate Fellowship. These highly sought after and prestigious grants will enable our scientists to fund their research for the next five years.

Professor Rick Shine and Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman celebrating their fellowships
Professor Rick Shine and Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman celebrating their fellowships

And the winners are:

ARC Laureate Fellowship

Professor Rick Shine- using biological invasions to understand evolutionary processes ($2,175,454)

The Laureate Fellowship scheme is designed to support excellence in research by attracting world-class researchers and research leaders to key positions and by creating new rewards and incentives for the application of their talents in Australia.

Professor Rick Shinewill use his fellowship to follow up exciting results from his recent research, also funded by the ARC. "In particular, my work has shown that invasive species such as cane toads evolve so rapidly, due to the new challenges they face, that we can actually study evolution in real time," Rick said. One of Rick's proudest achievements is that his research has been able to translate pure science results into effective conservation for Australian wildlife. His recent work has been pivotal in the development of policy to mitigate the impact of cane toads, and this project will consider how the invasion of cane toads through Australia has been devastating for many native species, but has also created opportunities for other species.

ARC Future Fellowships:

Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman- social insects as model systems in complexity science ($820,180)

Dr Gregory Brown- integrating ecoimmunology and population ecology to understand how tropical reptiles deal with novel changes ($702,528)

Associate Professor Min Chen- biosynthetic and evolutionary pathways of red-shifted chlorophylls ($822,056)

The Future Fellowships scheme began in 2009, to increase the opportunities for outstanding mid-career researchers to continue working in Australia. In 2012 the University of Sydney received 22 of these fellowships, the largest single cohort of any institution. The three awarded to School of Biological Sciences members will be used on diverse projects, reflecting the broad nature of biological research within the School.

Associate Professor Madeleine Beekman is interested in how societies of insects are capable of performing collective behaviour. Individual insects may not be well informed but, as a collective, they are excellent at finding the best food and building elaborate thermo-regulated nests. "In my Future Fellowship I will study honeybees and Argentine ants to determine how behaviour at the level of the individual insects affects the behaviour of the group as a whole," said Madeleine. "The most difficult experiments will probably be those on honeybees. We want to manipulate the amount of information available to the bees when they fly towards a new nest site." Her aim is to test experimentally how many informed individuals are necessary to guide a group. "For modellers this is an easy question, but to test this experimentally is quite a challenge." Madeleine has been funded as an ARC Queen Elizabeth II fellow since 2003 and now looks forward to the future as a Future fellow.

Dr Greg Brown will use his fellowship to build on fourteen years worth of data on the ecology of two tropical snake species. Over the years, Greg has captured, measured, marked, released, recaptured and remeasured thousands of snakes, both wild-caught and lab-incubated. "The great thing about the babies [from the lab-incubated litters] is we know so much about them," said Greg. "We know the conditions they were incubated under as eggs, their exact age and who their mother and siblings are. And we can determine their rates of growth, survival etc." The Future Fellowship will fund a project that will add a new layer of information on top of this ecological framework. Greg, who is based at the Tropical Ecology Research Facility NT, plans to assess the snake's level of stress and its ability to detect and react to pathogens. He can then determine how similar these measures are among relatives, how they change among season, years, sexes, and so on. When asked about receiving the news of the fellowship, Greg said he felt, "a big desire to get things started; to get things in place to transform a conjecture into an operation."

Associate Professor Min Chen's Future Fellowship project aims to understand the evolution and biochemical formation of red-shifted chlorophylls. "By studying the molecular mechanism of biosynthesis of red-shifted chlorophylls I can understand how small changes in the structure of chlorophylls affect properties and functions in photosynthesis," said Min. Red-shifted chlorophylls were recently discovered and characterised by Min from cyanobacteria. The potential to capture light energy from a wider portion of the spectrum has excited industries related to agriculture, biofuels and solar cells. Min Chen predicts that the research done with her Future Fellowship"may be able to point out a new strategy for developing new technology in artificial photosynthesis."