From bugs to biochem – ARC grants tackle the big issues

Dr Karin Nordström, Senior Lecturer in Human Anatomy, investigates insects life in the Himalayas. Photo courtesy Shannon Olsson

Could insect eyes help us avoid crashing our cars? Could the secrets of the sunken Pilbara coast provide solutions to climate change? And could an ingenious vortex device dramatically reduce waste in manufacturing?

These are just some of the questions that might soon be answered thanks to Flinders University’s successes in the latest round of collaborative Australian Research Council (ARC) grants.

It’s been a particularly strong result for the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Law, which is lead on five of the nine successful ARC grants.

Dr Karin Nordström, from Flinders School of Medicine, will use a $325,000 grant to explore the world of tiny fly eyes to better understand the behavioural, neural, and computational mechanisms underlying the visualisation of moving targets. [The research is in collaboration with Associate Professor Paloma Gonzalez-Billido (Cambridge University)].

“Insects have poorer eyesight and smaller brains than humans, but can chase small targets at high speed,” Dr Nordström says.

“I plan to look at hoverflies, and how their tiny brains are so good at calculating complex challenges so swiftly. It could inform our efforts to in advanced computational optimisation and miniaturisation.

“The project might generate algorithms for rapid and reliable information extraction from large, noisy inputs, useful for developing unmanned vehicles and in Big Data analysis.

“The results could be useful in developing anti-collision control systems in vehicles using less computational power,” she says.

Dr Jonathan Benjamin, from the Department of Archaeology, won a $597,000 grant to investigate the records of the now-submerged Pilbara coast as it was 50,000 to 7000 years ago when nearly one-third of Australia’s land mass was drowned after the last Ice Age, and sea-level change displaced generations of people.

Dr Jonathan Benjamin

Submerged landscape archaeology will help reveal past sea-level rise, population resilience, mobility and diet. This project expects to influence heritage and environmental management and the marine heritage sector.

[Collaborating with researchers at Aarhus University, Denmark; Airborne Research South Australia Ltd;  Curtin University of Technology; James Cook University; The University of Western Australia; and University of York, England].  

Another Flinders invention is Professor Colin Rastons Vortex Fluidic Device – famous for unboiling an egg – and with the potential for much more.Professor Colin Raston and the Vortex Fluidic Device at Flinders.

Professor Raston, from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, has won two ARC grants. The first is $575,000 to improve chemical and biochemical transformations and develop cleaner and faster ways of preparing complex molecules [with Dr Justin Chalker (Flinders), Dr Keith Stubbs (University of  Western Australia) and Professor Gregory Weiss (University of California Irvine)].

“Depending on the VFD’s operating parameters, including applying field effects such as Faraday waves, plasmas and light sources, reactions could have higher yields and selectivity than traditional batch processing – it means better outcomes and less waste in the manufacture of everything from cancer drugs to biofuels, and that’s good news for the environment,” Professor Raston says.

Colin Raston
Professor Colin Raston and his Vortex Fluidic Device

He’s also secured $376,500 to develop continuous flow thin film microfluidic device technology to gain access to nano-carbon material or carbon nano-material.

“Our aim is to boost nanotechnology by improving our ability to accurately cut carbon nano tubes… tiny hollow cylindrical tubes that are 10,000 times smaller than human hair, but stronger than steel and excellent conductors of electricity and heat,” Professor Raston says.

“They could transform aerospace, electronics, medicine, defence, energy, construction and more, if we can consistently cut them for certainty of applications.”

Flinders University Acting Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Robert Saint says it’s research that’s improving people’s lives.

“Who’d have thought a hoverfly might one day prevent a vehicle accident, or that a device that spins fast and uses nothing more than water as a solvent could herald a new wave of cancer treatment? Through this sort of innovative thinking, Flinders is changing lives and changing the world,” Professor Saint says.

Other successful Flinders projects include:


Professor Julian Meyrick, Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders, will use a $465,000 grant to construct a two- and three-dimensional visual interface and digital curatorial space to improve the existing AusStage open-access live performance database, and fostering better understanding of the physical parameters of live performance and improved decision-making for metropolitan and regional communities about managing theatre sites and venues.

The new interface, ‘Phase 6’, will create visualisation infrastructure, map relationships between Australian artists, audiences and venues, and collaborate with leading performing arts collections to foster compatible models and projects.

[Collaborating with the Association of Performing Arts Collections; Deakin University; Edith Cowan University; Griffith University; La Trobe University; Monash University; Performing Arts Heritage Network of Museums Australia; Queensland University of Technology; State Theatre Company of SA; The University of Melbourne;  University of New South Wales; University of Newcastle; University of Queensland; University of Sydney; University of Wollongong; and Victorian Arts Centre Trust].       

Associate Professor Helen Askell-Williams, from the School of Education, will join collaborators from other institutions in a $302,000 investigation of how educational initiatives can be sustained over the long term. Schools and early childhood and care services deliver programs to develop students’ social and emotional wellbeing, promote mental health, prevent bullying and address eating disorders. However, effective initiatives often fade away when start-up resources run out. [Research with Professor Tracey Wade and Professor Lambert Schuwirth (Flinders) and Professor Neil Humphrey (University of Manchester)].

Professor Andrew Goldsmith, from Flinders Law School, received a $296,000 grant to provide a longitudinal criminological study of adolescent Internet use in the world. The Internet is a pervasive influence in young people’s lives and is increasingly viewed as a significant factor in the incidence of criminal activities including cyber-bullying, computer hacking and radicalisation.

Over four years, the project will study how adolescents use the Internet daily, and particularly how this may enable or encourage delinquency on and off-line, with expected benefits to national security, law enforcement and crime prevention and enhanced public safety and social cohesion [with Dr Russell Brewer (Flinders), Dr Jesse Cale (Michigan State University, USA) and Dr Thomas Holt (University of New South Wales)].    

Associate Professor Jane Haggis, from the School of History and International Relations, shares a $333,500 ARC grant to study religion as a dimension of international affairs between 1860 and 1950. It will examine the contribution of faith-based activity, networking and thought to global governance and peace building institutionalised in the United Nations, universal human rights and humanitarianism that shaped the second half of the twentieth century, potentially revealing how secular and inter-faith activisms can produce cosmopolitan visions of practical co-existence. [with Griffith University; Sheffield Hallam University;  and The University of Adelaide].        

Dr Daryl Wesley (Flinders Archaeology) will share a $359,586 grant to work with Aboriginal people to identify fauna in rock art in the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area in the Northern Territory, an area with no Pleistocene palaeontological fauna record. Potential benefits include enhancing international significance of Australia’s rock art and informing debates on megafauna extinctions, climate and environmental change in Australia.




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