Big on research, cutting-edge technology

SWINBURNE is big on research, which is considered a cricital component of its development as a premier university. 

Its research profile is concentrated inemerging and niche areas and a number ofcurrent research developments are at the fore-front of the world ’s most exciting and relevant technological advancements. 

Swinburne Vice Chancellor,Prof Ian Young,had this to say:“Through developing a cultureof enquiry and exploration,Swinburne ’s aim is to become an innovative institution,different from the others.We want to be at the forefrontof making things happen and we want to pro-duce people who are innovative in all fields.” 

Assoc Prof Stephen Clarke, who teaches probability in Math, has built up a reputation as an Australian Football League tipping guru.

He added that Swinburne would continuewith its expansion programme to providequality education in countries like Malaysia. Another look at soapy water  

How many of us taking a shower would actually think of uses for the soapy residue flowing down the bathroom pipes? Or who would ever think that plants could help stem the “runs” we suffer after a meal of curry laksa laced with e-coli bacteria? 

Well, the research team at Swinburne’s Environment and Biotechnology Centre (EBC) prides itself on being at the forefront of biotech research to find the answers. 

Dr Enzo Palombo, a senior lecturer at the centre, explained the need for a dry country like Australia to constantly think of the best use of water, especially in times of drought. 

“We need to study how to regulate the usage of water in the cities and to come up with ways to safely re-use domestic water or what we call grey water research,” said Dr Palombo of the water produced when we bathe or do our laundry. 

“We are carrying out research that will make the water safe for garden use and our research has shown that by manipulating micro-organisms like bacteria, fungi or other biological material, we can remove dangerous elements such as heavy metals in contaminated water,” he explained. 

Although many people have the misconception that biotechnology is all about cloning and producing genetically modified food, the EBC team at Swinburne has the task of educating the community that there are other non-controversial ways that biotech can be used for society’s good. 

Senior lecturer Dr Enzo Palombo is doing research on finding a scietific basis for traditional medicinal uses of plants.

Medical research undertaken by the EBC includes the testing of extracts from exotic mushrooms for their anti-microbial and medicinal properties. 

Dr Palombo is on the team researching plant species, such as Nepalese mushrooms, for a cure for cancer. PhD students from China and Nepal are identifying which parts of the mushroom have anti-viral or anti-cancer qualities, so that genes can be manipulated or developed for such a purpose. 

“The Himalayas have a lot of potential as there is an abundance of plants there,” said Dr Palombo, adding that plant species in the rainforests of South-East Asia were also being studied, as were traditional Australian medicinal plants used by the country’s aborigines. 

“Ultimately, the research is about finding a scientific basis for traditional medicinal uses of plants, and so far we’ve found that they’re not all old wives’ tales,” he said. 

Besides the medical aspect of biotechnological research, the EBC has been a research partner in the Cooperative Research Centre for International Food Manufacture and Packaging Science, to develop an environmental-friendly plastic substitute product made predominantly from cornstarch.  

The product looks, feels and performs like plastic, but breaks down when exposed to water. It will be suitable for applications, including perishable and non-perishable food packaging, agricultural uses and non-food packaging. 

What are the pre-requisites for students thinking of going into biotechnology? 

“You must have a good grounding in Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics,” said Dr Palombo, adding that biotech students could also gain a double degree in communications and media, so that research findings could be conveyed in a better way for the general public to understand. 

“You can also study for the double degrees of Bachelor of Engineering (Biotechnology)/ Bachelor of Business or the Bachelor of Engineering (Biotechnology)/Bachelor of Science (Biotechnology) which takes five years,” he explained. 

The former is aimed at developing the full range of skills associated with chemical and biotechnological engineering, as well as helping students gain an understanding of the local and global business environment. 

The latter provides studies in biotechnological and chemical engineering, plus more in-depth studies of the scientific principles of biotechnology. Students will apply their knowledge to the creation of commercial products, processes and services.  

When Math and sport go together 

Gambling should be regarded as an enjoyment and not as a means to get an income, for one can never hope to beat the odds. So says Assoc Prof Stephen Clarke, who teaches Mathematics at Swinburne. 

For the past 21 years, Clarke has built a reputation as an Australian Football League tipping guru. His weekly tips have been sought after by media outlets and the ordinary man in the street. Australians are known to be mad about sport, be it tennis, Formula One racing or yachting. 

What Clarke does is feed basic information into the computer, including the scores of the previous week’s matches and where the games are being played. The computer does the rest, providing the winning predictions for the week. The system, which has averaged a 65% to 70% success rate since it was formulated, is also used to predict margins, chances of winning, and where a team will finish on the ladder at the end of the season.  

Despite having appeared in newspapers and on popular television and radio shows, Clarke keeps a level head, joking that his work is “all in a good cause” – to promote mathematics and statistics and how they can be related to everyday life. Students can gain a career in the gaming industry or they could design games that use mathematical principles. 

“We can follow the mathematical principles of chance and probability to predict the outcome of any kind of sports, whether it is Australian Rules Football, tennis or golf,” he explained, adding that those who gamble in huge amounts should understand the maths behind the gambling, or they could end up with big losses. 

Clarke uses a poker machine to teach probability. Studying chance and gaming teaches us a better way to predict results, he said.  

Among Clarke’s PhD students are a bookmaker, a professional gambler and a teacher. Aside from research-based projects, the School of Mathematics services the other courses, that is, it augments the teaching of other subjects, such as Biology, Science and Psychology. 

Putting their noses to the test 

The sensory neurosciences lab was abuzz with the chatter of 20 students bent over the dissected leg of a cane toad, the muscle of which had been wired up to gauge nerve conduction and any subsequent contraction.  

They were looking at how drugs affected the toad’s sensory and motor systems, resulting in effects such as paralyses.  

Besides cane toads, the lab has also done research on humans, with Swinburne students being willing guinea pigs, volunteering their noses for research. 

“The lab has been set up to research into various aspects of human sensory function, with an emphasis on smell and taste, food and drinks, visual and eye movement,” said Prof John Patterson.  

“Most research in the last few years has been on ways of recording people’s sense of smell and the body’s reaction to smell, as people don’t really know how to describe smells in precise words,” he explained. 

The students would record brain waves resulting from the smelling of odours such as wine and cheese. Brain waves indicated if respondents liked or disliked a certain odour. 

“The good aspect is we’ll be able measure their responses and predict results fast through these experiments without having to rely on language to express their reactions,” said Prof Patterson. 

“The findings will be an invaluable tool to the huge food industry where it is so important to come up with new flavours and products every now and then,” he said, adding that this area of R & D is especially important for Australia with its vibrant dairy and wine industries.  

Another research area is the effect of vibrations on the tiredness levels of humans as well as what kinds of movements make a person relax.  

“Our task is to record the brain waves when we are performing certain tasks and, more specifically, to see if there are correlations between tiredness and the vibrations encountered in trucks, buses, and trains,” said Patterson. 

“If there are correlations, it may mean re-designing trucks, buses and trains so that long-distance drivers will not be fatigued.”  


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