Straight from The Heart

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Matisse Fox is a Medical Science student currently completing her honours thesis with the Molecular Cardiology Group of the Centenary Institute, University of Sydney.

My Honours thesis focuses on an inherited cardiomyopathy called Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC). The prevalence of ARVC is estimated as 1 in 5000 and is one of the leading causes of arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death in the young, particularly athletes.

My project has 3 facets: analysing the clinical characteristics of our patients, pursuing gene discovery on genetically unexplained ARVC families and developing a stem cell line to explore the phenotype of disease. The most exciting, hands-on part of my work is the cellular aspect. We took blood from an affected patient and reprogrammed their cells to turn them into stem cells. We are able to turn those stem cells into any type we like such as bone, skin or heart cells. Once the stem cells are differentiated into cardiomyocytes, they beat like a heart in the dish. Before starting my project, I had never read a cardiac MRI or post mortem report, assessed the pathogenicity of a variant or used an electronic pipette. Now these are everyday tasks that form the foundation for larger and more stimulating investigations.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to learn from a diverse group that includes cardiologists, genetic counsellors, post-doctoral researchers, PhD and Masters students, and have found a mentor that I look up to both professionally and personally. Though we work long hours (the majority of which I’ve spent completely confused!), we can see the translation of our research into clinical practice when we tell a family which gene caused the sudden death of their 15 year old son, or when we can release a family from lifelong disease screening. These results for our patients make everything we do worthwhile.

A Summer Researching Nanoparticles

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Lauren Minne is a Third Year Chemical Engineering/Science Student who recently completed a Summer scholarship with the school of Chemistry at the University of Sydney.

Over the summer of 2016-2017, I was involved in a supervised research project based around the synthesis of polymer nanoparticles, the like of which are currently being investigated for their use in drug delivery to tumours. This opportunity came in the form of a Summer Research Scholarship within Dr Markus Muellner’s Polymer Nanostructures group. My experience as a Summer Scholar was excellent, and offered fantastic insight into the world of scientific research.

Over the course of the project, I benefitted from academic support and guidance from my supervisor, as well as other PHD and Masters students within my research group, whilst also enjoying a level of independence in my daily lab work. I was included in decisions about the direction of the research I was undertaking, mostly in the form of constantly modified and refined experimental methods, responding to favourable (and unfavourable) results.

As a Summer Scholar, I had access to advanced analysis equipment, such as the HNMR and GPC (Gel Permeation Chromatography) technologies, allowing me to develop lab skills not generally utilised by second year chemistry students. I was also able to observe and interact with full-time researchers, and gained a better understanding of what a career in scientific research entails.

Overall, this project provided a fulfilling, productive and enjoyable way to spend a part of my summer vacation, and enabled my general lab skills and understanding of science to grow immensely.

The journey from Science to Medicine

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Maryam Eghtedari is a first year medical student at the University of Sydney. Maryam graduated from Bachelor of Science (Advanced) with majors in Anatomy and Neuroscience in 2016.

Studying at Sydney Science was full of invaluable academic and personal experiences. It feels as though it was very recently when I started my first year at university with subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and biology. The first year of science at Sydney is mainly focused on making the transition to university studies and getting an idea about the scientific areas that students are interested in. There is a wide range of interesting subjects offered in second year, which makes choosing amongst them pleasantly difficult! I chose topics such as anatomy, biochemistry and physiology and a Talented Student Program (TSP) project in cardiology at the Charles Perkins Centre. I profoundly enjoy learning about the human anatomy and the complexity of our brain, and therefore completed a double major in neuroscience and anatomy in my third year, which included TSP projects at the Save Sight Institute and the Brain and Mind Centre.

Being a resident at The Women’s College during my university education has been a great privilege – I have benefited from a fantastic network of mentors and friends who have supported me in my academic and extracurricular activities. Getting involved in clubs and societies at university and college is a great way to learn about service and leadership in our community and has certainly helped me develop important skills, which are crucial for effective communication and teamwork on the wards in medicine.

My experiences in undergraduate years provided me with a great foundation to embark my medical career upon this year. It has been very challenging but also incredibly rewarding to be a medical student at Sydney University. We have five blocks during an academic calendar in year 1 and 2, each of which covers the clinical manifestations and pathophysiology of a different body system; for example the remaining blocks for the year are haematology and cardiology. I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn from expert clinicians and to speak with kind-hearted patients who generously donate their time for us to learn. It is also a highlight of the course to study alongside peers who come from all walks of life, and have backgrounds in various areas including arts, health policy, philosophy, law, music and research to name a few.

I am thrilled for the future of my degree – to study clinical medicine and to learn about ways that we can reduce the burden of diseases in our community. It has also been a pleasure to learn about the experiences and aspirations of my peers in the National Science Week blog this year. It is fascinating that we have all taken unique paths in our STEMM careers, which is a reflection of the breadth of opportunities available in science and the diversity of the future scientists of our country. I hope that through these blog series, we have played some small part in showcasing a portion of what this amazing discipline has to offer.

 

 

Get to know a future Chemical Engineer

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Sophie Driver (left) and Lauren Minne (right).

Sophie Driver Political, Economic and Social Science student interviews Lauren Minne, second year Chemical Engineering/Science student for our National Science Week Blog. Both Sophie and Lauren are residents at The Women’s College. 

Sophie: Why did you choose engineering as a degree?

Lauren: I quite liked chemistry in school, as well as maths, and felt that this degree combined them nicely. I also felt that chemical engineering, combined with science, would allow me to work in a few different industries, so I wouldn’t be limited once I graduated.

Sophie: What is a normal day like in your degree?

Lauren: I have uni 4 days a week, for a total of around 20 hours, so my days generally start at 8 am with a lecture. After this I have a combination of lectures, tutorials and practicals, with a lunch break in the middle of the day.

Sophie: Did you do maths and science in high school? Is there a lot of maths and physics in engineering?

Lauren: I studied maths and chemistry in school, but never took physics (ancient history looked more interesting to me!). The maths in chemical engineering has been pretty straight forward so far, but the physics components have been a bit of a challenge this semester.

Sophie: What is the best part of your degree?

Lauren: I really enjoy that I’ve been able to get to know some of the other people in my course, as all chemical engineers have to do several core subjects. I also find the content of the degree quite interesting, and really appreciate that I haven’t had to write an essay since high school! The way my subjects are taught, with lectures to introduce the content, and then tutorials to consolidate the concepts suits me well, although I still find the large lecture sizes less effective compared to the small classes in high school.

Sophie: What’s the most challenging part of your degree?

Lauren: The high amount of contact hours mean subjects are quite dense and fast paced. Four hour practicals can feel quite lengthy on a Friday afternoon! I have found the increased group work this year a bit of a challenge, but also appreciate that this is preparing me for the way work is conducted in industry (or so I’m told!).

Sophie: What field would you like to work in when you finish uni? What is your dream career?

Lauren: I’m still pretty open as to which field I’d like to work in, but at the moment I’m quite interested in the pharmaceutical industry.

Sophie: What internship opportunities are available for chemical engineering students?

Lauren: Most internships are available at the end of third year. Chemical engineering also offers the MIPPS (Major Industrial Project Placement Scholarship) program, where students spend the first semester of their fourth year working in the industry. For students studying a combined degree with science, there’s also the Summer Research Scholarship program, which I’m hoping to partake in at the end of the year.

Sophie: How have you found the transition from first year to second year?

Lauren: The content of first year chemical engineering subjects was quite general as there was a mix of civil, mechanical and biomedical engineering students, as well as first year science students. Second year subjects include more group work tasks, with the content being more challenging and unique to chemical engineering students.

Sophie: If you weren’t doing an engineering degree, what would you study?

Lauren: I would probably have chosen a psychology, marketing or history degree.

Sophie: And finally, what would you say are the most important things to remember as an engineering student?

Lauren: Stay on top of your lectures, ask for help if you’re not understanding something, and eventually, hard work will always be rewarded. Also, Bernoulli’s equation is pretty important, but hopefully you’ll get that on a formula sheet!

Mental as Anything

 

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Emma Castle is a second year Bachelor of Science student and an aspiring Neuroscientist.

When you feel sick you go to a doctor, right? But what do you do when are feeling ‘mentally unwell’? With the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) estimating 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their life time and only 35% of those suffering access treatment. This issue was recently brought to my attention after friends of mine began to share photos of themselves and information about the high suicide rates in men under 45 with #ITSOKAYTOTALK. I really believe this is a great initiative to encourage dialogue between people about mental health, as often people are too scared to talk about it. In my life I have had exposure to a variety of mental illnesses and how it affects people in so many different ways. Mental health should be considered as important as physical health and conditions such as depression and anxiety should be viewed in a similar light as any other physical health condition.

It is often difficult for people talk about their mental health, many feel judged as a result of the stigma associated with mental disorders. This comes around because of many misconceptions about mental illness so here are some common mental health myths or so called facts I would like to debunk

  1. Mental illnesses are incurable.

This is totally wrong, just like the common cold you can be cured. The treatments associated with mental illness may be different and take longer than a course of antibiotics but it does not mean they are incurable.

  1. People with mental illnesses can ‘snap out of it’.

Again totally wrong, this perception is often a view about individuals with depression. Depression is not a personal weakness or a character flaw, it is a condition caused by many different factors such as genetic, biological, social and environmental.

  1. Taking anti-depressants is a cop-out.

No way! Many of these illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, by taking these drugs it can fix this imbalance and help to manage their condition.

  1. I can do nothing to help someone suffering from mental illness.

Absolutely wrong! The best thing for someone suffering from a mental illness is to have a strong support network. Talk to them, let them know you are there to listen and support them!

I’m not Neil Armstrong but I hope it this is a step in the right direction in order to one day make a giant leap in combatting mental illness stigma. I would like to encourage you to keep an eye on your friends and family. For further information about mental health check out the following links.

Beyond Blue

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

University of Sydney Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

http://sydney.edu.au/current_students/counselling/

Headspace

http://www.headspace.org.au

The Black Dog Institute

www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

Gender Centre

http://www.gendercentre.org.au

Imandari Counselling

http://www.imanadari.com

References:

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0) Canberra: ABS.

Government of Western Australia: Mental Health Commission: http://www.mentalhealth.wa.gov.au/mental_illness_and_health/Myths_mental_illness.aspx

 

 

 

Can exercise tracker devices help increase physical activity?

Lucy

Lucy Corbett is in the fifth year of her B Science/ B Education at the University of Sydney and is completing her honours in Education. Lucy’s thesis aims to explore the potential motivational impact wearable activity trackers have on adolescent’s motivation for physical activity.

Fitbit, Garmin, Misfit, Jawbone. Recently there has been a proliferation of physical activity trackers marketed for commercial use. Television advertising campaigns for these devices, such as Fitbit’s “Find your fit”, and widespread availability of these devices signify the integration of activity trackers into the mainstream consumer market.

Physical activity trackers offer an interactive analysis of health measures such as steps, caloric expenditure and active minutes. Physical activity monitoring is important beyond the benefits to an individual user. Data and motivational properties can be used in the development of company or school policies and programs to increase an individual’s physical activity levels and reduce the problem of non-communicable diseases. Wearable activity trackers such as Fitbits have the potential to create widespread practical application due to their low cost and ease of use. Despite these benefits, there is currently limited research focused on these devices and whether they influence an individual’s motivation for physical activity or if they are simply another gimmick in the “fitness fashion trend” that is taking over the world? The aim of my thesis is to determine the effect physical activity trackers have on the motivation of adolescent girls for physical activity.

Physical inactivity is a major problem in today’s society and is now identified as the fourth leading cause of mortality worldwide. Inactivity is a major contributor to the increasing prevalence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, type II diabetes and cancer. Inactivity levels are rising with major correlations to the rise of non-communicable diseases and the general health of the population. Positive physical activity behaviour developed in childhood correlates with higher levels of physical activity in adulthood. Therefore, it is important for young people to maintain a healthy level of physical activity in school years. Currently, within Australia, approximately only 60% of adolescents achieve the recommended amount of activity. As individuals progress from adolescence into adulthood, the level and intensity of activity decreases with age. As a nation we need to become more physically active. If wearable activity trackers effectively increase motivation and can be used in activity programs or for the development of broader social policies, they will be. We just need to determine whether they work as a motivational tool.

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

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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

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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.