Feature
28 Dec 2015

Science portraits

Three young scientists and what inspires them. By Belinda Smith and Megan Toomey.

Jim Hinkley: solar energy researcher and keen rower.Credit: Cameron Ramsay / Studio Commercial

Jim Hinkley, Research Group Leader, CSIRO

Hundreds of mirrors face upward, tracking the Sun as it moves across the sky and directing sunlight to a solar tower that stands nearby. The mirrors, called heliostats, help scientists such as Jim Hinkley experiment with concentrating solar power.

Hinkley was interested in science as a child, but he didn’t know if he wanted to pursue it as a career when he finished school. He studied chemical engineering at Canterbury University, New Zealand, earned a Masters of Engineering Science from the University of Queensland and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Newcastle, Australia.

After that he found work nearby at two coal preparation plants. But after six years in the coal industry, Jim found himself discontented, concerned about the environmental impact of his work. Hinkley heard that CSIRO Energy Technology was building world-class solar research platforms nearby and joined the solar thermal research team.
His major project investigated the use of solar energy to heat air, which then is used to make electricity in a turbine that operates in a similar way to a jet engine. He says “it’s kind of neat to know that in some small way I am making a difference”.

Jim likes skiing and competing in at masters rowing regattas.
 

Izelle Labuschagne: an oxytocin researcher and self-confessed optimist.Credit: Peter Tarasiuk

Izelle Labuschagne, clinical neuroscientist

They say people resemble their dogs. But can you match a scientist to their research? In the case of oxytocin researcher and self-confessed optimist Izelle Labuschagne, you can. “It’s such a happy, prosocial hormone.”

South Africa-born Labuschagne was drawn to oxytocin – the so-called love drug – when she began a PhD at Monash University in 2007. While oxytocin’s maternal and romantic bonding effects are well known, Labuschagne found it also had profound calming effects in patients with social anxiety disorder.

Now a research fellow at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, she still researches oxytocin as part of her strategy of developing personalised medication plans for people with anxiety disorders.

These disorders can leave sufferers dependent on drugs. But drugs can be a blunt tool. Using brain stimulation and imaging, Labuschagne focuses on the brain to understand how different drugs affect different people, with the aim of helping doctors tailor treatments.
 
“There’s a place for medications, but they shouldn’t be for life,” she says.

Labuschagne herself is every bit the team player.  As a teenager, she competed at hockey meets in South Africa and plays in the Women’s Premier League in Melbourne “You learn about teamwork, being competitive, discipline – and that it’s OK to lose,” she says.
 

Matt Baker: rapper, poet, fencer and biophysicist.Credit: Cameron Ramsay / Studio Commercial

Matt Baker, biophysicist

If variety is the spice of life, Matt Baker is pure chilli powder. The biophysicist at the Victor Chang Institute in Sydney is also a rapper, poet, DJ, fencer – but his fascination with science came first. When he started mucking around with fireworks as a kid in Sydney, he luckily didn’t lose any fingers. He says that fireworks showed him “the power of chemistry”.

Now, Baker’s interests lie in the swimming machinery of bacteria. Like a dinghy with an outboard motor, some bacterial cells including E. coli and Salmonella swim along using long, whip-like propellers called “flagella” that can spin at 100,000 revolutions per minute to push the cell along. To steer, the rotor quickly shifts into reverse gear and spins in the opposite direction, unravelling the propeller into “a big spaghetti mess”, Baker says. The cell tumbles around until it points in the right direction when the rotor starts up again. It might sound haphazard, but this mode of travel is how infections can spread.

Cooling the bacteria slows their rapidly spinning motors, so Baker built high-resolution microscopes capable of working at sub-zero temperatures to study them. He’s now building molecular-scale models of individual motor parts to study how they work – and how they might be jammed, information that could lead to new drugs.

Belinda Smith is deputy editor of Cosmos.

Megan Toomey is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.