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The future of research

The National Institutes Grant enables ANU to maintain and further develop the University’s strong focus on research and the educational philosophy that its students are part of a community of scholars.

Co-Lab for national security

A collaboration between the ANU Research School of Computer Science, ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute and the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), ASD–ANU Co-Lab, is bringing together leading ANU academics with ASD analysts and technologists to collaborate on Australia’s national security. This centre of excellence for ground-breaking research is building capacity and nurturing talent for securing national interests. As an incubator for joint research and knowledge transfer, it will identify and nurture talented students for careers with ASD and in other STEM related fields. One aim is to increase the number of domestic students and higher degree graduates in STEM with a particular focus on areas such as cryptography, secure communications, computing, cybersecurity and vulnerability research. Short courses and masterclasses for domestic Australian students, academics and ASD experts will help transfer knowledge and accelerate learning opportunities in related fields. Co-location of the partners in one building is allowing joint research projects to incubate, with lead investigators from both ANU and ASD in the areas of data science, cryptosystems and cybersecurity, and with joint supervision of PhD students. Joint projects are also open to other ANU staff and schools.

ANU & Australian intelligence agencies

A new close partnership of the ANU Research School of Computer Science with two Australian Government intelligence agencies was launched in 2019. It is taking leading-edge ideas from computer science and developing them into practical tools and techniques. The ASD (which collects and communicates signals intelligence and prevents and disrupts offshore cyber-enabled crime) and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) (which uses financial intelligence and regulation to disrupt money laundering, terrorism financing and other serious crime) can use the tools and techniques to protect the people of Australia and their assets while building the skills of researchers and operators in their use. Engagement with agencies has begun in research, education, workforce recruitment and generic STEM outreach activities, with National Institutes Grant funds targeting joint research. Five proposals were funded in the first year of the partnership.

Self-repairing hydrogel skin replacement

ANU scientists have invented a new hydrogel that mimics biological matter such as skin, ligaments and bone, and which is very strong, self-healing and able to change shape. The hydrogel (a gel with high water content used in products such as contact lenses) has dynamic chemical bonds that give it features unlike other materials previously reported. It can repair itself after it has been broken, like human skin. Hydrogels are usually weak, but this material is so strong it could easily lift very heavy objects. It can also change its shape, like human muscles. This makes the hydrogel an ideal material for wearable technology and various other biomedical devices. It would also be suitable for artificial muscles in soft robotics, and could enable a new class of medical implants or artificial muscles for next-generation robots that could one day swim. The team can make the hydrogel with simple and scalable chemistry. They will develop a 3D printable ink based on the hydrogel.

A cleaner, greener fertiliser

A novel (sustainable/environmentally benign/green) bioprocess, developed by ANU researchers in collaboration with CSIRO, converts waste and CO2 into a new (green/natural) fertiliser. In commercial quantities, it could replace widely used chemical fertilisers, such as urea, produced through unsustainable, fossil-fuel reliant industrial processes. The method uses two pervasive pollutants, ammonia and CO2, as renewable feedstock to generate citrulline, a natural substance that is rich in the essential plant nutrient, nitrogen. The sustainable production method employs enzymes – nature’s own catalysts – in water with little energy input and without toxic by-products. Ammonia is found in many wastewater streams, therefore waste from common household sewerage to heavily polluted industrial waste could be used as a source of raw materials, rather than being pollutants. It also means the process could be carried out almost anywhere, removing the carbon footprint and cost of fertiliser importation and transport.

Nature’s endless renewable fuel supplies

Scientists from ANU and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Germany have cracked a key step in nature’s water-splitting recipe, which powers all plant life on Earth. It could be harnessed to make a limitless supply of cheap renewable fuel. During photosynthesis, plants split water and make complex carbohydrates with carbon dioxide – the food for plants to grow and thrive. This process also produces oxygen for animals, including humans, to breathe. Copying this process from nature would lead to an endless supply of cheap hydrogen fuel for transportation, without the carbon emissions that contribute to human-caused climate change.

Collaborating on the Giant Magellan Telescope

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), being constructed in the mountains of Chile, sits at the forefront of the next generation of giant ground-based telescopes. The telescope’s resolving power will be 10 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope and four times greater than its planned successor, the new James Webb Space Telescope to be launched next year. It will see fainter objects in greater detail than any telescope ever built, pushing our knowledge of the Universe further out in space and back in time. ANU is leading Australia’s involvement in the GMT and, with Astronomy Australia Limited, makes up 10 per cent of the international consortium of research and technology organisations designing and building the telescope, which will be completed in 2027. The Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics is designing and building one of the telescope’s first instruments, the GMT Integral-Field Spectrograph. This near-infrared imager and integral-field spectrograph will be able to take the highest resolution images of distant galaxies and obtain spectra from across a continuous region of sky. The first phase of the instrument’s preliminary design study has been completed and passed review in March 2019. Completion of the second phase will increase Australia’s share of the GMT. Australian instrument scientists at ANU are also developing and building key elements of the crucial, and technically challenging, adaptive optics system. The research school is directly collaborating with other consortium members on various aspects of the telescope systems and instruments for the GMT, and its astronomers are serving on the GMT Science Advisory Committee.

Capabilities in transformative meta-optical systems

The long-term commitment of National Institutes Grant funding to fundamental physics research has culminated in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems, launched in October 2019. Decades of research uncovered the deep physics that underpins this new centre – research that could have been sustained only with the support of the National Institutes Grant. The centre of excellence will drive research to develop smart and miniaturised optical devices that link the digital and physical worlds through light. It will lead to smaller, smarter, faster and cheaper wearable optical sensors to better monitor our health. The ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems will be led by ANU, and partner with the University of Melbourne, University of Technology Sydney, RMIT University and University of Western Australia, as well as industry and universities across six other countries.

Capabilities in transformative meta-optical systems
Professor Dragomir Neshev and Professor Chennupati Jagadish AC from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems, ANU Research School of Physics.

Fostering the next generation

ANU has a proud history as a high-quality training ground for future research and academic leaders, supporting the next generation to realise nationally significant outcomes in their academic careers. Here are just three of them.

Lithin Louis
At the John Curtin School of Medical Research, Lithin Louis is focusing his PhD research on the interactions between a protein found in heart cells, SERCA (sarco/endoplasmic reticulum calcium ATPase) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), the genetic biomolecule that manifests the information present in DNA. SERCA moves the calcium ions within heart muscle cells, allowing them to contract to cause the heartbeat. When SERCA fails to move the calcium, the heart stops beating. ANU researchers discovered that SERCA interacts with RNA, which could regulate the function of SERCA. Mr Louis’s research is about trying to understand which RNA interacts with SERCA, and its functional relevance. The research has widespread importance for humans across the globe: understanding these biomolecular interactions could unlock secrets for treating heart disease. Mr Louise’s presentation won silver at the 2019 Asia-Pacific Three Minute Thesis competition.

Veronica Koman
Veronica Koman, who graduated with a Master of Laws from ANU in July 2019, is an Indonesian human rights lawyer. She has exposed human rights abuses in West Papua, an Indonesian territory for which she is advocating self-determination. Verified information from West Papua is scarce, and press restrictions and internet blackouts are common. Ms Koman has been charged under Indonesia’s electronic and transactions law for sharing eyewitness accounts, photos and videos of protests from West Papua on social media. For her advocacy, Ms Koman was awarded the 2019 Sir Ronald Wilson Human Rights Award for an individual or organisation who has made an outstanding contribution to advancing human rights. The Australian Council for International Development makes the award. She credits her studies at ANU College of Law for giving her the knowledge and skills to work with international institutions and their legal frameworks.

Karlie Alinta Noon
Karlie Alinta Noon, who is studying her Master of Astronomy and Astrophysics at ANU, has an interest in the connections between astronomy and her Indigenous heritage. Her research explores the sophisticated astronomic knowledge deeply embedded within Indigenous culture. Ms Noon’s Masters is focused on gas clouds outside the Milky Way and how to determine their distance from Earth. She is also examining moon haloes – rings around the moon formed by ice crystals, which are part of Indigenous traditional weather prediction – and exploring how they correlate to physical systems in the lower atmosphere. In 2019, Ms Noon was a finalist in the 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science and made the honour roll for Australian of the Year. She works to open the doors to STEM for people from minorities and inspire children, particularly girls, to engage in STEM.