Science portraits of 2016, part two
Belinda Smith and Elizabeth Finkel spoke to three young scientists and found out what inspires them.
Thijs Dhollander, neuroscientist
Thijs Dhollander deftly spins a 3-D technicolour jumble of wiry connections on his computer screen. At first glance, it looks something like an electrical circuit diagram, but it’s actually an image of millions of connections in a human brain.
The colourful model is part of a day’s work for Dhollander, a neuroscientist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, who is helping refine a new brain imaging technique called diffusion MRI, or dMRI.
Where fMRI snaps images of blood flow in the brain, the diffusion method tracks water movement inside the cable-like bundles formed by wiry nerve cells.
Dhollander, who holds a PhD in engineering and medical imaging from Belgium’s Leuven University, helped write software that can show a 3-D model of this wiring.
“One really cool use is for pre-surgical preparation,” he says. If a tumour is pressed against a cable, a surgeon might see a kink in the image that helps her decide where to cut. But if a cable appears fuzzy, it may mean a growth has infiltrated the cable, and it may not be safe to remove it.
Dhollander hopes that with the help of his software, dMRI will one day become a standard diagnostic tool.
Nerida Wilson, marine molecular biologist
Nerida Wilson was diving off Victoria’s Mornington Pier when she spied her first nudibranch, “an incredible bright orange creature with blue and pink dots”, she recalls. It was her introduction to some of the most flamboyant animals on the planet – examples of Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful”. She’s dedicated herself to understanding how such diversity evolved in what is basically a sea slug.
For her PhD at the University of Queensland, Wilson explored the nudibranch family tree using the shape of their sperm and DNA sequences to trace relationships between species. Later her interests expanded to Antarctic nudibranchs. She traced their evolutionary relationships through the defensive chemicals they make. Those chemicals, other researchers discovered, could aid development of new leukaemia drugs.
Wilson has held postdoctoral positions around the world, from Auburn University in Alabama to the Western Australian Museum, her current post. Along the way, she has discovered more than 50 new species, the most recent while diving off western Australia’s Pilbara coast.
Nudibranchs, it seems, consume most of her waking hours. “Obsessions are incurable,” she says. “I think that’s clear.”
Enrico Della Gaspera, materials scientist
Like a chef in a kitchen, Enrico Della Gaspera concocts new and interesting creations – but instead of wielding herbs and spices, he works with nanomaterials.
The Italian materials scientist, currently at RMIT University in Melbourne, synthesises minuscule particles called nanocrystals. By deftly combining different sets of ingredients, he can tailor the nanocrystals – metal oxides are one Della Gaspera speciality – for different applications, from medicine to solar energy.
To turn a nanocrystal soup into a useful device, Della Gaspera concentrates the concoction until it can be printed onto different materials, like an ink.
“They’ll be cheap and easy to print on any number of surfaces,” Della Gaspera says. “Imagine printing layers on glass to make a window which can also produce solar power.”
Nanomaterials to his name so far include components of sensors that change colour at the first whiff of toxic gas, thin-film solar cells and coatings that could replace the rare, expensive materials used in electronic devices such as smartphones.
When he’s not in the lab, Della Gaspera enjoys experimenting in the kitchen – unless he’s cooking for guests. “Then I definitely follow the recipe,” he laughs.