Advocacy work: The key to unlocking change

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Jenna Mewburn is a 3rd year medical student at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney and Secretary of the Australian Medical Student’s Association (AMSA)’s Rural Health Committee. She graduated from the University of Sydney in 2013 with a Bachelor of Medical Science (Physiology), and is a former resident of the Women’s college (2011-2013).

The fields of science and medicine are wide and varied, catering to a diverse range of passions amongst those studying within them. Irrespective of our differences as young scientists and future doctors, one aspect that I believe should be fundamental to our endeavours, particularly as educated young people, is that of advocacy. If we want the fields we have immersed ourselves within to evolve, we must work to encourage the change we would like to see.

Everyone’s passions and interests are different, and advocacy can occur across a range of platforms. I am by no means an old hand at advocacy work, and like most of you reading this article I am pretty fresh to the game. This year however, I have been fortunate to be a part of the AMSA Rural Health Committee. AMSA is the peak representative body for Australian medical students, with advocacy being central to the organisation. Involvement with AMSA rural health has facilitated many opportunities to advocate for rural health on many different levels, including through social media, media campaigns, MP letter writing campaigns and policy writing. This is an organisation run by students, for students, and it has been incredible to see what a group of passionate and driven young people can do when they work together towards a common goal.


Advocacy work can take on many different shapes and forms. At the crux of it however, is simply standing up for what you believe in. So if you’re interested in advocating on an issue that you’re passionate about, here is some advice based on my experiences over the last few years:

  1. Educate yourself – If it’s an issue that you’re passionate about, chances are that you’re already well informed. Even so, strive to know more and remain up to date with current affairs and literature in the field. Why? It is difficult to generate change in a field if you do not understand it and the factors that influence it. Furthermore, there are always going to be people and organisations that disagree with your viewpoints, with this often being the result of the parties being uninformed on the issue. From experience, there is no better contribution to a discussion on the topic than a well-informed and rational one.
  1. Get amongst social media – Social media is an advocacy gold mine. Discussion around a range issues occurs across all platforms, and provides a great opportunity to engage with, learn about, educate on, and discuss your passions. It also allows you to network with key stakeholders, public figures and other likeminded individuals. If you don’t already have twitter, I would strongly encourage you to invest!
  1. Affiliate yourself with an organisation – Not just any organisation, but one that appropriately aligns with your advocacy interests. Whilst not essential, I have found working with an organisation a more successful way to create change, as well as allowing me to up-skill, challenge myself within a supportive environment, and to learn from other like-minded individuals.
  1. Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end – This year I have challenged myself on the advocacy front more than ever, with many advocacy firsts.I’ll be honest with you – more often than not, I felt completely out of my depth.The satisfaction of knowing you have challenged yourself whilst advocating for something that you’re passionate about however, makes it all worthwhile. It keeps the fire burning, and is what has and will continue to drive me to continue my involvement in advocacy.

I would encourage you all to challenge yourself to make a difference. Whether it is through sharing a relevant article on twitter or writing a letter to your local MP. You could start a petition, or volunteer with an organisation relevant to your cause. Without advocacy our professions and fields of interest will remain stagnant, so get amongst it and encourage change you would like to see.



From Code to Cognition: The Computational Future of Neuroscience

Lily Li

Lily Li is a second year BSc (Adv Maths) student at Sydney university and a resident at the Women’s College. She is hoping to pursue a double major in pure mathematics and physics. Meanwhile, she is channeling her passion for science communication to work as a demonstrator for the Kickstart program run by the School of Physics.

Imagine a future where highly accurate and efficient neurological tests can be performed at the comfort of your couch and coffee table, on your trusty 13-inch MacBook Pro. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and neuroscientists over the past few decades, that future is more tangible than ever. Amalgamating knowledge and techniques from this diverse array of scientific disciplines, an emerging field known as “Computational Neuroscience” has come to being.

“How do our brains function?” has been a question of philosophical, theological, and scientific debate over a good chunk of civilised human history. Driven by the fascination with this unanswered question, and the fast-paced advancements in computational technologies, scientists have been looking beyond biochemical orientated areas of study in search for an answer.

In the late 1940’s Alan Turing investigated what were called “unorganised networks”, and sought to simulate neural networks with a digital computer. Since Turing’s time, scientists have come to the realisation that the computer’s ability to perform detailed calculations on a large scale renders it the most powerful tool for studying systems that can’t be explained by a unifying general principle. Complex biological systems like the brain would be considered such a system.

Luckily, many biomolecular mechanisms in the nervous system can be approximated with mathematical equations. Once we map out some of these basic mechanisms for neuronal behaviour, we can piece them together to form a network. This network can then model a region, or even the entirety of the brain. In the past few years, several networks that model roughly as many neurons as that of a real mammalian brain have been published.

In the second semester of 2015, I was lucky enough to take part in a research project in the field of computational neuroscience, as a part of the School of Physics’ Talented Student Program. My project focused on manipulating a “simple” network of a few thousand neurons that were able to recreate brain waves characteristic of Parkinson’s Disease, and looked at how we could utilise this neural network in conjunction with a computerised arm model in order to simulate physical movement.

To initiate the perpetuation of interactions between neurons, the network requires input from “other parts of the brain”. Our project took advantage of this very particular aspect of neural network modelling, by investigating the way our model responded to changes in the background input. This allowed us to implement background activity modelled on a Parkinson’s affected brain, and to compare the sensorimotor outputs (e.g. movements created by the arm models) to that of a network driven by healthy activity.

Naturally, there are many ways to form a neural network, by choosing different connection metrics or with different sets of approximation equations. This means that an important theme underpinning all research in the field is the continuous search for models that are more computationally efficient and biologically realistic. The study of computational neuroscience is a reflection of everything we know behind the intricate workings of the complex machinery that is our brain. Apart from creating the opportunity for a non-invasive, cost-efficient future of neurological studies, the billions of tiny circuits and transistors allowing you to read this article might soon shed some light on the very nature of cognition.


Beethoven vs. Einstein: The balancing act of two crazy-haired careers


Chelsea Witham is a second year Bachelor of Psychology student at The University of Sydney, and intends to complete post-graduate qualifications in Clinical Psychology. She has previously completed her Bachelor of Music majoring in Flute Performance at the Conservatorium of Sydney, and continues to perform regularly as a casual musician with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. She is currently a Resident Assistant at The Women’s College.

Upon leaving school, I never imagined I would study anything but music. Although I had considered pursuing a health-related discipline while at school, my dream of becoming a classical musician always seemed to crowd out everything else. After successfully auditioning to study at the Conservatorium of Music, I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to becoming an orchestral flautist.

In my third year of study, I successfully auditioned to be part of the Sydney Symphony Fellowship program. Through this opportunity I was lucky enough to perform as a professional flautist with the orchestra. My first ever performance was playing Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony in the Opera House as second flute, which will forever remain as one of the most incredible experiences of my life!

After playing in a few concerts with the SSO I started to gain a feel for what kind of life I would have as an orchestral musician. Despite loving every minute, I have always also been incredibly passionate about medicine and health, and began to feel that that limiting myself to only being a musician was not what I wanted for my life. I was equally excited to gain expertise in a health-related field where I could expand my knowledge, my opportunities for work, and ability to undertake research. After speaking to various medical and psychology professionals, I fell in love with the idea of becoming a psychologist.

Upon the completion of my music degree, I applied to study psychology at Sydney University and was overjoyed to be accepted into my second Bachelor degree. The transition to Psychology from music certainly hasn’t been easy. The performance-based nature of my previous study meant that I was not used to writing essays or studying in the traditional sense. Additionally, I was starting study in a field I had absolutely no experience in! Science was very foreign to me, and the introduction of statistics, validity, experiments and report writing was quite overwhelming at first. However, I remained positive and asked questions wherever I could, and am now very comfortable studying a science degree.

Despite its challenges, I wouldn’t change my decision for anything. I have also never felt that I couldn’t pursue both of my careers simultaneously – one certainly doesn’t cancel out the other. In my first year of studying Psychology I also auditioned successfully for a casual position with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, which has meant that I still can perform professionally while I study.

My advice is not to let people tell you how you should structure your life, because only you can make those decisions for yourself. Ask questions, pursue opportunities, and don’t be afraid to back yourself. If you’re passionate enough, you can make it work – even from one crazy-haired career to another!

Freefalling into First Year


Angie Lu is a 1st year student completing a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts. With aspirations to teach high school students and explore the education system, she loves residing at the Women’s College and constantly learning from others.

My transition into university was a freefall into an abyss of newfound responsibilities and academic experiences. Never would I have anticipated such a steep learning curve but I couldn’t be more inspired by what’s happened so far.

The structure of my double Arts/Science degree means my first year timetable is mostly comprised of science units. Introductory mathematics courses are compulsory. However, by virtue of this fact (and the abundance of science students), you’ll never fail to find a study buddy or friend to bemoan the horrors of differential calculus. This kind of bonding and solidarity spawned relationships and academic experiences I now value very highly.

I was relieved upon discovering that 45% of the people in my biology lecture hadn’t completed a HSC Biology equivalent either. Thus, the beauty of first year biology is two fold. Firstly, the department constructs the course knowing exactly this fact. Secondly, the subject still accommodates for a spread of student abilities with challenging and achievable assessments. My academic results benefited from these understandings as well as the fantastic extra tutorials provided at the Women’s College.

I also had the opportunity to enroll in a unit of bioethics and was excited to explore the morality of scientific research and procedures. I utilised literacy skills even though thought processes were firmly grounded within the logic and factual realms of science. Structuring essays from this perspective was eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable.

I’ve continued my mathematics and biology for semester 2 but have replaced bioethics with a unit of logic. Studying the laws of truth is looking promising with unusual but interesting content. However, being able to complete another philosophy perfectly marries my love for the arts and sciences. In particular, the sciences at The University of Sydney reiterate the importance of discipline and hard work. The support I’ve received from the Women’s College has provided both balance and guidance. This made it possible for me to push myself but enjoy my first year so far. As such, I genuinely look forward to the challenges and experiences to come.

Myths and legends: In defence of general chemistry



Elisabeth Tondl is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sydney, investigating selective delivery of chemotherapeutics to prostate cancer. She holds two Teaching Fellowships, at The University of Sydney and The Women’s College, and is insatiably curious about the world.

There are some pretty crazy ideas on the interwebs about chemicals and how they can make you (and the environment) sick. So, as a researcher in chemistry, I’m going to contribute my 2 cents’ worth by combating some common misconceptions.
“Pure H2O is the healthiest”

This attractive legend is thoroughly undermined by an understanding of osmotic pressure. In our blood, we have lots of different molecules – proteins, sugars, enzymes and so on. For every litre of our blood, there’s a certain amount of those molecules in there (known as concentration), just as the liquid in our cells has a certain concentration.
The principles of osmotic flow tell us that water flows towards the region of highest concentration – this means, if we dilute our blood by drinking pure H2O, water will rush from our watered down blood into our very concentrated cells. Such a sudden influx causes the cells to burst and die. Next time you buy bottled water, take a look at the label telling you how much magnesium, chloride and other stuff there is in your H2O, and be glad to have averted the slaughter of your cells.
“Natural sugars are better than synthetic sugars”

This myth springs from a misunderstanding of the chemical structures of sugars, which are short-chain carbohydrates. There are lots of different kinds of sugars in our bodies and in our environment, and you’re most probably familiar with glucose (diabetics have harmfully high levels in their blood) and sucrose (edible table sugar). The point is, these sugar molecules have defined chemical structures – sucrose is the same, whether you get it from a plant, or eat it in a muffin.
Given that the chemical structures are the same, it’s really not logical to claim that “natural sucrose” from plants is any different to the white crystalline sugar you buy from the shops, or the sucrose I can make in the lab. The only difference is in whatever accompanies the sucrose molecules – other molecules that are removed in the refining process, to give you pure sucrose to stir in your coffee or tea.
“I have a chemical-free diet”

No, you don’t, unless you are living in a vacuum and never breathing, eating, or drinking anything at all (and then your body would still be making chemicals, until you died, and then it would make some more chemicals when your body decomposed). When people say this, they commonly mean that they are avoiding preservatives or foods containing compounds they know to have been synthesised in a lab (see comments on the previous myth). But I just had to mention this misconception, because as a chemist it hurts me physically to hear it, and I will go about contradicting it until I die and decompose.

SciMed Scientific Writing Workshop 2016

We are incredibly excited to announce our 2016 science writing workshop with the multi-award winner scientist Dr Danny Liu! Women’s College students across all stages and degrees are welcome to attend the workshop.

Dr Danny Liu is Senior Teaching Fellow at the Department of Science and Engineering at Macquarie University, and until 2014, he was a lecturer at Sydney Uni’s Faculty of Science. This is the second year running that Danny will be kindly presenting a writing workshop to SciMed – his presentation last year received excellent feedback! Having taught the notorious MBLG1X01 units, among many other undergraduate courses at Sydney, Danny knows the skills needed for students to succeed. He has received many teaching awards including Office of Learning and Teaching Award for Teaching Excellence and Vice Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching.

The workshop will involve:
– Danny’s presentation
– Danny helping with students’ own writings
– Q & A with Danny on life as a scientist

Tuesday 5 April, 5 – 6pm

Main Common Room, The Women’s College

Your own drafts along with marking/assignment guidelines (if available)


Please find Danny’s presentation slides from last year here:

Click to access scimed-scientific-writing-by-dr-liu.pdf


Summer Holidays in the School of Chemistry


Charlotte Fletcher is about to venture into her third year of a Bachelor of Science (Medicinal Chemistry and Neuroscience). After coming from a small town in NSW she has loved being a Wizzie in the big city.

One morning as I stumbled into an 8am chemistry lecture I sat next to a friend, slightly blurry eyed, when they whispered to me ‘hey, have you applied for a Summer Scholarship yet?’ I had heard of these, but hadn’t really looked into them. So that afternoon I sat in my window seat overlooking the Menzies Courtyard at Women’s and researched all about Summer Scholarships. I was amazed and completely sold about applying. There were so many areas to work in, with some amazing scientists doing innovative and developing research. To possibly be an undergraduate who had real world research experience was an opportunity too good to let pass by. After much encouragement and help from my wonderful college tutor, I began writing my application. I didn’t realise how difficult this task would be, and constantly asked myself why I was good enough to deserve this Scholarship? Upon much self-reflection, friendly advice and some serious editing, I handed my application in with enthusiasm and hope.


The project I ended up working on was investigating the link between neurodegeneration and heavy metal accumulation in various parts of the brain.

The Brain and Mind Research Institute was collaborating with The School of Chemistry, who in turn had to work with people at the Synchrotron, in both Australia and overseas. It was incredible to see how many people worked together to create ideas and then carry out research. Prior to my arrival the team had gathered X-Ray Fluorescence Microscopy images of brain sections from patients with MS to determine the elemental mapping and concentrations of metal within the brain. I learned how to use the program that generated images from the raw Synchrotron data that allowed for analysis. I also learned how to use a Fourier Transform Infrared Microscope, which is used to gather information about the organic composition of a sample by analysing the absorbance of infrared light. This technique was used to determine if the presence of metal and inorganic elements correlated with any changes in organic structure, such as proteins and lipids. As these two organic components are extremely vital in the human body, any changes would be seen as significant. I was very sad to leave this project, but I am looking forward to seeing what this exciting research discovers.


I am so happy that I applied to do a Summer Research Scholarship, and grateful that I got to work with a team of dedicated, incredibly intelligent and, most importantly, fun people. I learnt so much and am so thankful for the amazing opportunity, and would encourage anyone to apply for similar experiences. My six weeks has not only solidified my love for chemistry and neuroscience, but also my desire to enter the field of research. I can’t wait to see where this future leads.