UNSW research expertise in marine ecology, materials science, mental health and nutrition has been showcased in the inaugural BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney.

Billed as a “thought-provoking exploration of how technology, science and health will transform the human experience”, the Australia-first Summit brought together “some of the smartest minds working in science, health and technology” including BBC TV Presenter Michael Mosley and NASA astronaut Andy Thomas.

Showcasing UNSW’s leading research were marine ecologist Emma Johnston, materials scientist Veena Sahajwalla and mental health expert Helen Christensen.

One tonne of iPhones would deliver 300 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore and 6.5 times more silver than a tonne of silver ore.

Scientia Professor Sahajwalla, director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at UNSW, is best known for her work in waste plastics, where she has invented an environmentally friendly technology to recycle rubber tyres in steelmaking. Sahajwalla spoke about the next stage of her research: the rise of local ‘microfactories’ that could transform how we recycle, by helping to extract valuable metals from discarded electronics like smartphones and at the same time reduce our exposure to the harmful toxins they contain.

“One tonne of iPhones would deliver 300 times more gold than a tonne of gold ore and 6.5 times more silver than a tonne of silver ore,” Sahajwalla told the audience, adding that use of drones to sort the discarded waste minimised human contact with the more dangerous materials. 


Professor Emma Johnston. Photo Dan White

Professor Johnston, UNSW’s incoming Dean of Science, and inaugural director of the Sydney Harbour Research Program at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, spoke about how human activities were increasingly impacting on our coastal ecosystems. “We’re loving our oceans to death,” Johnston said. “Seventy percent of the world’s mega-cities are built on the coast, and we even fantasise about living under the sea, yet we’ve not been thinking about design of structures with respect to ecology.”

As a fierce proponent of improving universal access to quality mental health care, Scientia Professor Christensen, the chief scientist at UNSW’s Black Dog Institute, discussed new ways technology can be used to detect mental health issues and to deliver therapies. Websites, apps, sensors, social media and smartphone tools all can be used as large-scale prevention and intervention programs for anxiety, depression and suicide, she said.


Scientia Professor Helen Christensen. Photo: Quentin Jones

Also speaking at the BBC Summit was UNSW Medicine Visiting Fellow, nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, who outlined the future of healthy eating, including insights from the latest food science and the grand challenge of tackling the obesity epidemic. 

Read more about BBC Future and the World-Changing Ideas Summit.

Learn more about the research of Professors Sahajwalla, Johnston and Christensen in Research@UNSW 15 women changing our world.