The spectacular variety of science was no better demonstrated than our offering for National Science Week this year. Whether in-person or online, live streams or burbling ones, there was something for everyone. If you missed out on any events, this is the best place to catch up.

‘Addicting to Dopamine’ a discussion with Anna Lembke | Monday 15 August

Psychiatrist Dr Anna Lembke joined ABC’s Sana Qadar to discuss the neuroscience of dopamine, addiction and modernity’s role in enmeshing the two.

Dr Lembke defines dopamine as one of the brain’s neurotransmitters, “…the molecule that bridges the gap between neurons that is important for fine-tuning those electrical circuits that make up our brain and who we are.”

Describing homeostasis, Dr Lembke said that “for every pleasure we pay a price, and that price is a transient experience of pain”.

“When we’re not using [our dopamine-stimulating drug or activity of choice], we’re experiencing the universal symptoms of withdrawal: anxiety, irritability, dysphoria, craving, inattention, and we lose the ability to take pleasure in more modest rewards.”

In terms of solutions, Dr Lembke had some propositions.

“Try to limit your children’s exposure [before they’re teenagers!] to devices and screens: monitor their use, limit its quantity and frequency, and talk a lot about this problem – the pros and cons of this incredible technology. Encourage [your children] to develop coping strategies and ways of socialising, entertaining themselves and dealing with boredom that don’t involve a screen.”

For curbing an addiction to dopamine, Dr Lembke’s first recommendation is “abstinence for long enough for your brain to reset baseline dopamine firing.” In Dr Lembke’s experience of people who are addicted, it takes 30 days for the pathways to reset. “The first two weeks feel awful, because we’re in withdrawal, but by weeks three and four we feel better.”

“Create self-binding strategies, to create metacognitive and literal barriers between ourselves and our drug of choice. With digital content, that might mean using your phone only during discrete hours of the day.”

‘For the Love of Birds’ a panel discussion | Tuesday 16 August

Hosted by ABC’s Ann Jones, ‘For the Love of Birds’ was a live panel discussion that brought together writer and birdwatcher Sean Dooley, UNSW ecologist Richard Kingsford and author Charlotte McConaghy to talk about their love for birds, what they mean and how COVID-19 may have brought us closer.

Author Charlotte McConaghy, said: “I think we have a really profound connection with birds, they're both alien to us in the way that they live and exist in the world and yet they're very very familiar to us as well. They're perhaps the wildest creature that we share spaces with on a day to day basis and we imbue them with so much meaning.”

If you missed this Centre For Ideas talk, you can listen to the whole thing ‘For the love of birds’.

‘Is RNA the answer to cancer’ a live-stream | Wednesday 17 August

On Wednesday night, the topic of RNA therapeutics as a treatment for hard-to-treat cancers was discussed by Professor Palli Thordarson and Conjoint Professor Maria Kavallaris AM, facilitated by ABC’s Tegan Taylor.

Responding to the need for RNA in cancer treatment, Prof. Kavallaris explained that “30 per cent of child cancer patients, [those] with the worst prognoses, are given therapy with sometimes severe consequences. RNA treatments can be combined with conventional chemotherapy, with high efficacy.

“Cancer is a complex disease. It’s not a single disease but over 200. Tumours on different body parts can have different genetic drivers. Just as we’ve packaged a variety of compounds within RNA vaccines, so too, could we tailor cancer treatment.

“One of the areas that we’re working on,” said Prof. Kavallaris, "along with Josh McCarroll, is to use short interfering RNA, which we can design to target very specific cancer genes, to stop the growth of the cancer cells."

And regarding the unknown aspects of RNA therapy, Prof. Kavallaris clarified, “based on the siRNA therapeutics that have been approved for clinical trials, there are few side-effects. Like any formulation, there are very high standards and rigour during clinical testing”.

“For personalised medicine, RNA is ideal,” added Prof. Thordarson. “It is an informational drug. For personalised medicine to really work, we want to have the drug ready within weeks of diagnostics. And RNA has that ability.”

Though Associate Professor Joshua McCarroll was unable to attend the evening’s panel, a Q&A with A/Prof. McCarroll and Prof. Thordarson can be read, here: ‘Is RNA the answer to cancer?’.

Watch the full discussion, below.

‘Regenerating Australia’ a film screening and panel discussion | Thursday 18 August

Regenerating Australia – a documentary from film-maker Damon Gameau projecting the steps needed for a sustainable future – screened at the Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, on Thursday night.

Following the screening was a discussion between researchers, including UNSW Psychology’s Professor Ben Newell and Aaron Eger. Asked ‘What’s one more thing people can do [for the environment]?’ by the audience, Aaron Eger suggested: “Eat more sea urchins”. Thorny dietary questions, and crowd-laughter aside, “Eating sea urchins would actually help kelp forest restoration”.

The panel, including founder of Plastic Free July’s Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, also discussed the UN Treaty to ban plastics and the potential for an immense zeitgeist shift towards plastic. “Just do one thing,” Rebecca suggested, responding to personal environmental action. Whatever that means for you, do it.

In the community and beyond: More National Science Week events

There were many, many more events hosted and participated in by UNSW for National Science Week, activities in the park, swampland, Powerhouse Museum and even underwater! Here’s a brief re-cap:

Through the Looking Glass was the event hosted by Dr Sarah Jane Moore, from UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES), in which visitors were invited to observe her Artist in Residence works – including a graffitied lab wall – which interweave art with science and indigenous knowledge.

On Sunday 14 Professor Veena Sahajwalla delivered the keynote address at the Powerhouse Museum, taking the audience through the innovations of the UNSW SMaRT Centre, how we might reform waste into resources for future products and materials. The audience was varied, from young children and students, to the elderly – all curious, though, with “a genuine sense of optimism”, says an attendee. Questions came thick and fast at the event’s close. 

Prof. Sahajwalla described the process of microrecycling, how discarded materials can ‘at the macro level’ be functionally useless but have properties at the microscopic level, which are very much functional – valuable in fact. Taking glass as an example, a window may have shattered and thereby lost its function, but the glass pieces – at closer inspection – retain their properties: scratch-resistant, inert, robust, all properties that can be requisitioned to form other still yet valuable materials. 

Over two weekends, UNSW Physics held stalls for Science in the Scrub (or Swamp), taking place in Western Sydney Parklands and Centennial Park, respectively. Visitors to the stalls will have been met with family-friendly activities such as observing the Sun through a Coronado, a filter that allows safe Sun viewing through a telescope. Kate Jackson, one of the events’ hosts and organisers said “that families were really into the demonstrations, and that kids, in particular, were laughing and jumping up and down during the demonstrations. All in all, it was a fantastic day”. 

A curious landmark along the Sydney Science Trail 2022, organised by the Australian Museum, was the superconducting mobius strip hosted by FLEET UNSW Science. The stall, at the museum, was run by Karina Hudson, Jack Engdahl and Vivasha Govinden who set up a superconducting mobius track with an incredibly cool (-196oC) puck to demonstrate forces of cool-induced superconductivity and internal magnetic fields

Biomaterials and polymer expert Dr Vipul Agarwal also appeared at the Powerhouse Museum’s family day as part of ‘Meet a Scientist’, in which Dr Agarwal described his current work, developing implants to reverse paralysis in injured spinal cord patients. 

Diving underwater, Operation Posidonia and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science took...marine science to Sydneysiders with their National Science Week event, Gardening below the surface. Kids and families were taught the value of our precious seagrasses, while enjoying science-meets-art activities, drawing and painting their way through marine fauna. 

Finally, we have Centre for Ideas’ What Comes Next? A five-part series of talks on the path to be forged towards the future: magic mushrooms, Zoom for healthcare, and unleashing solar energy.