As researchers and scientists, one of the most important things that we can do is effectively communicate our work and how it impacts communities, informs decisions, and potentially even changes the way we exist in the world. In particular, the work of early-career researchers is imperative to highlight because it is a window into the next generation of science. Follow the links below to learn about the exciting research being conducted by some of our newest and brightest - from PTSD to climate extremes and rechargeable batteries - there is something for everyone!
Dr Martina Lessio is a Scientia Lecturer in the School of Chemistry. Read on to learn about Dr Lessio’s work, written by Mercedes Ondik from the School of Biological, Earth, and Environment Sciences.
Is academic research in sustainability the perfect job? I got to talk with Dr. Martina Lessio to hear her thoughts on the perfect job, work-life balance, and a career in sustainability, and this is what she shared. Martina is a Scientia Lecturer in the School of Chemistry at UNSW. Her current work addresses the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.
When Martina was young, she wanted to be an explorer. She was curious about the environment, about different cultures, and she craved adventure.
“In being a scientist, you constantly discover new things, but also the academic path allowed me to travel a lot and live in many places.” Just like an explorer.
“Once I started studying chemistry, I realized that every time something related to environmental sustainability would come up, I would get really excited, so then I knew I wanted to do research in that field. It’s weird at the beginning because maybe you can’t even tell exactly what it is that you find fascinating, but you should just go for it.”
Before finding her way home to UNSW in 2020, Martina said, “I was obsessed with finding the perfect job” – perhaps an impossible goal. Then she revealed her secret. “Someone helped me realize that your job is not everything. You can fulfill some of your core values outside of your job, and there are many different opportunities that you can make work for you.”
Today Martina is a lecturer and the head of the Computational Chemistry and Materials Science for Sustainability Applications lab in the School of Chemistry at UNSW. “The main focus of my research group is the use of computational tools to study molecules and materials that can be used for sustainability applications. We are looking to find new materials that can be used to remove heavy metals from water in an efficient and cost-effective way. We’ve also worked quite a lot on techniques for preserving cultural heritage.”
“On a personal level, I’m motivated by working with people. Working really closely with my students, being directly embedded in the research projects, helps me stay confident and inspired. Professionally speaking, I chose this field because it allows me to help the world live in a more sustainable way. I’ve always wanted to do that since I was little. Even if I might not make a big discovery myself, I might inspire one student who goes on to make the next big discovery.”
Moving across the world to establish a research lab at UNSW comes with its own real-life challenges. Martina and her partner have quickly established a home base in Sydney, and live with two adopted cats who they love dearly. Martina also finds time to volunteer in her local community, as well as contributing to chemistry outreach activities as part of her work
When asked what she would do if she wasn’t an academic, Martina said, “I’ve always tried to do volunteer work with young kids in disadvantaged communities. If I could have another career, I would try to start an organization to support young children. It’s shocking how many issues in environmental chemistry disproportionately affect kids.”
What impact can one person really make?
“You can actually make a huge contribution by influencing people around you,” although talking to family and friends who don’t believe in climate change about sustainability can be tricky.
Before working at UNSW, Martina was studying ways to convert atmospheric CO2 to fuels. From the start, she knew this could be a powerful tool to counteract climate change. Over time, she learned an even stronger justification for the project was that we are going to run out of fossil fuels eventually, so we need a sustainable way to produce hydrocarbons for the future. “Making the 2nd point is a lot stronger because so many more people would agree to that.”
Do you have any advice for the next generation?
“Whenever I found a person that I could see as a mentor, I made sure to keep the relationship going, and now I have four or five people that I know that I can count on for support. As soon as you find someone that you find inspirational and feel comfortable talking to, just reach out to this person, and tell them about whatever made you want to connect with them. There are a lot of people around who want to play the role, but they just need to be contacted by us.”
Interviewer: Mercedes Ondik
There are more people forcibly displaced in the world than ever before. This is occurring in a time of rising global temperatures, more frequent weather disasters, global pandemics and political unrest and conflict. These experiences are leading to the displacement of people, forcing refugees to find new places of safety. It is easy to see the numbers and think: it’s just a statistic, but each individual has their own story of survival and perseverance after fleeing war or seeing a home town destroyed. These types of experiences can have a large impact on a person’s mental health. For refugees, this burden can often go unnoticed. Dr Joel Hoffman, part of UNSW Psychology and the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, focuses on research about refugee mental health, specifically the concept of moral injury in the context of refugee trauma. I had the chance to chat with him about his research, his career path, and the effect of COVID-19 on his research and personal life.
First of all, what is moral injury? Coined in the early 2000s, moral injury can refer to a traumatic event, which Dr Hoffman describes as “damaging not just because our life was threatened, but because the event challenged or violated our deeply held moral beliefs”. Moral injury is associated with a variety of symptoms, such as reactions to trauma that are not fear-based: anger, guilt, shame, loss of meaning and existential crisis, among others. Emotions such as anger can arise in response to moral violations by other people, while feelings of shame or guilt might be related to decisions they have made themselves. Dr Hoffman’s research focuses on how refugees think about these moral violations and how treatments for refugees can be improved for those who have experienced morally injurious events. However, more research is needed to answer the events associated with moral injury, the symptoms that occur as a result, and the driving mechanism that link the events and outcomes. Dr Hoffman says these questions need to be answered before we can find ways of helping people heal from these experiences. “Furthermore, for many, these emotions represent very appropriate responses to extreme situations. Therefore we need to help people recover in a way that is consistent with their cultural and moral values.”
So how did Joel get to where he is now? Graduating with a degree in International Studies from the US, Dr Hoffman worked for different international NGOs Internationally and in Australia. This led him to working in Haiti with a human rights organization in September of 2009. In January of 2010, a devastating earthquake hit the Caribbean nation. Seeing firsthand the devastation of this event and the mental health burden of the community after the earthquake, he decided that he wanted to understand how people recover from these types of unfathomable experiences. He returned to Australia to pursue a Graduate Diploma in Psychology degree from Melbourne University, and a Honours degree in Psychology from the University of Sydney, and then a combined Masters of Clinical Psychology/PhD at UNSW with Professor Angela Nickerson. Initially intending to become solely a practising clinical psychologist, he ended up liking the PhD and research aspects of the degree more than he expected and decided to continue on in a Postdoctoral position. “If you believe the projects that you are working on are meaningful and contributing to the greater good, then writing papers, submitting grant proposals and thinking up new research questions and all the other aspects of academia is actually quite a creative and rewarding process.”
A typical day for Dr Hoffman consists of a mix of clinical and research activities, including meetings with colleagues in Indonesia where he is managing a longitudinal study on the mental health and wellbeing of refugees in a context of sustained displacement. He also sees clients as a clinician on an RCT trialling a novel treatment of PTSD for refugees in Australia. During the lockdown, Dr Hoffman said he kept busy by working in his garden, acquiring 6 chickens and two bunnies. He also had a child during lockdown and he said working from home was nice as it allowed him to be around more for his child’s first year rather than taking a long commute each day from his home near Wollongong to UNSW.
In the next 5-10 years, Dr Hoffman hopes to continue his research in moral injury, hopefully being involved in the development of a novel treatment for moral injury. He also says that he thinks it is important that more people from refugee backgrounds are included in refugee mental health research and play a driving role in future research questions and projects.
Interviewer: Lisa Hua
Dr Rumana Hossain is a researcher at the UNSW SMaRT Centre. Sing-Young Chen, a PhD student in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at UNSW, sat down with Dr Ridder to learn about her research. Read on to find out about how Dr Hossain and researchers at the SMaRT centre are developing technologies to turn waste into high-value products.
In ancient times, alchemists tried to turn base metals into gold. Dr Rumana Hossain is the equivalent of a modern-day alchemist. She transforms complex wastes into useful materials.
Dr Hossain is a postdoctoral researcher who works at the SMaRT Center at UNSW, where she – along with her team and her mentor – develops new methods of recycling problem waste, such as printed circuit boards, shredded automotive waste and lithium-ion batteries.
Conventional recycling plants rely on large amounts of the same kind of waste material, such as plastic or glass. But many wastes contain a mixture of different materials, which cannot be separated effectively and ultimately end up in landfill.
“If you look at a circuit board, for example, it is not only plastic, it is not only metal, it is not only glass. In such a small device, you get all kinds of materials. You cannot pile up this kind of waste in giant machine and expect a new circuit board to come out.”
Dr Hossain develops new technologies to separate the different components of this type of mixed waste. These technologies are implemented at the UNSW MICROfactorie where the individual components of these wastes are extracted and turned into useful materials in a process called Microrecycling. Batteries and e-waste are particularly challenging, because they often contain toxic materials that need to be separated safely.
Dr Hossain’s work has been able to transform these problem wastes into high-quality ceramics and activated carbon, which is a critical material required in high-tech energy storage applications. This type of recycling is a key contribution towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
It’s the real-world applications of her work that really ignite Dr Hossain’s passion. She loves working so closely with industry and seeing her work being applied to solve very real problems.
She’s also adamant that community engagement is critical for good research.
“When talking to the general public, you will gain a lot of ideas. You learn what their problems are, and often they have a very practical vision. So to know those kinds of things is very important to become a good researcher.”
Dr Hossain was recently inspired by the maturity and enthusiasm year 5 and 6 students at Bannister Creek Public School in Western Australia, where she gave a talk about her work.
“They understood everything! They understood what metals are, that we’re getting metal alloys from circuit boards. When I told them what a MICROfactorie is, their question was ‘how many MICROfactories are in Australia?’”
One of the other questions posed by the students was whether she was particularly inspired by anyone. Dr Hossain acknowledges both her parents and her mentor, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, who is a pioneer in the field and provided her with opportunities to explore many kinds of waste materials.
I wanted to know about Dr Hossain’s motivations in choosing this career path. When asked why she chose a career in science, Dr Hossain looked at me as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Science is the basis of everything.”
And she’s right – every aspect of our lives is governed by science. Science is why we have food on our tables and lights in our homes. It’s the reason you can read these very words as tiny pixels stitched together on a screen.
It’s also, in part, the reason why we have so much waste. After all, it was the advancement of technology and manufacturing that enabled our modern-day consumer culture. But science is also the solution, and Dr Hossain wants us to change the way we think about waste.
“We should not treat waste as waste. We have this ‘throw away’ mentality. We should not think about waste as something that we need to dump or stockpile or transfer to some developing country. We should think about this problem as an opportunity.”
She hopes that her work will encourage industries to seeing that ‘mining waste’ rather than mining the Earth is highly lucrative.
“For example, in a printed circuit board, the concentration of copper is approximately 20-30%. In copper ore, it is often less than 3-5%. Why are we extracting valuable materials from the Earth? We don’t need to. Our waste is a resource for us – we can have a lot of materials that can be used again and again in energy storage, water purification, in all sorts of applications.”
Dr Hossain’s philosophy of listening to the community and seeing problems as opportunities are valuable lessons for any budding scientist. Perhaps one day, her modern-day alchemy will pave the way for a new world where waste becomes treasure, mining sites become obsolete, and landfill becomes an ancient concept that is taught to students in history class.
Interviewer: Sing-Young Chen
Dr Nina Ridder is a researcher at the UNSW ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. Sing-Young Chen, a PhD student in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at UNSW, sat down with Dr Ridder to learn about her research. Read on to learn more.
In Australia, we live in a beautiful sunburnt country. But our droughts and flooding rains are becoming not only more frequent, but also more intense. We’re seeing droughts partnering up with heatwaves, and flooding rains joining forces with heavy winds. When two or more extreme weather events co-occur and interact, they result in what is known as a compound event.
Dr Nina Ridder studies these compound events at the UNSW ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. Compound events are particularly dangerous because extreme weather events influence and amplify the impact of each other.
“If we have rain and wind at the same time – even if the rain is not that extreme or the wind is not that extreme – the wind is pushing the rain so you see a lot more damage.”
Damage to infrastructure is not the only risk posed by compound events. They can also create environments that are dangerous for human health and may threaten food supplies.
“Heatwaves are very bad for health, especially for older people. If they co-occur with drought and dry conditions, they can also influence crop growth and the yield of fields.”
Standard statistical models are able to forecast single extreme events but fall short when predicting more complex compound events. Dr Ridder uses novel statistical tools to build models that will be able to predict compound events before they occur – a climate scientist’s version of a fortune-telling crystal ball.
“At the moment we are not 100% sure what drives compound events. We have to know that before we can start predicting. So we have to test our models, understand what is observed in real life and see if our models can get it right.”
If we have models that can predict compound events, then individuals can benefit from early warning systems that would allow them to protect life and property. Over the longer term, predictive models would help governments make important decisions to minimise losses to food production and infrastructure.
“For example, the government may wish to build in a certain area. If you only look into precipitation, it might never flood. If you only look into river discharge, it might never flood. But if you look at both of them together, we will actually have a problem.”
Dr Ridder’s work makes key contributions to several UN Sustainable Development goals, including SDG2 (Zero Hunger) by protecting food security, SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being) by ensuring human health and safety, SDG13 (Climate action) by informing national policies and strategies, and SDG15 (Life on land) by advising the safest use of land.
But why are we seeing more and more of these compound events in the first place? Dr Ridder is clear that the strongest driver comes from rising global temperatures, which are the result of the human activity leading to increased atmospheric carbon emissions.
“If we can limit global mean temperature rise, it’s very likely that we can prevent compound events from escalating. It will not make them disappear entirely as they are naturally occurring, but it will likely make them less extreme and less frequent.”
What can we do to avoid compound weather events?
As individuals, we can help the cause by minimising our carbon footprints. However, as it’s the government that has the greatest power to reduce carbon emissions on a large scale, Dr Ridder also encourages us to be politically aware and encourage our representatives to take strong action, and soon.
“We as the people, so to speak, have to make clear that we need action now.”
In addition to her research, Dr Ridder is a passionate advocate for stronger partnerships between researchers and stakeholders. In 2022, Dr Ridder will run a workshop to connect climate scientists with industry and government representatives. She hopes that this will enable scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the most important problems faced by industry and government, and that this in turn will allow science to better inform policy decisions.
Interestingly, Dr Ridder hasn’t always been a climate scientist; she’s also lived past lives as an astrophysicist and an oceanographer. But these wildly different fields have one thing in common: they satisfy her insatiable curiosity. For Dr Ridder, this has always been the appeal of science.
“There’s this saying in German that doesn’t really translate, but it’s from a really famous book. There’s a line that basically says: ‘I just want to understand what holds the world together.’ And to me, that really resonated.”
She also loves the nature of work that she performs every day. In her opinion, research offers the perfect balance between individual focus and collaborative teamwork, and she finds the scientific process perfectly delightful.
“It’s like a puzzle. You just start to put the pieces together and then you see the whole picture and that’s just incredibly exciting.”
Dr Ridder’s inclination towards a broad range of interests also applies to her life outside science. She’s a motorcycle enthusiast who, in pre-COVID times, often went riding with an all-female group. She also loves spending time with her friends, reading crime novels and watching the dogs at the park.
You can learn more about Dr Ridder and her work on her UNSW profile. [https://www.unsw.edu.au/research/ccrc/staff/nina-ridder]
And you can learn about the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes here: https://climateextremes.org.au/
Interviewer: Sing-Young Chen
Earth’s history is replete with examples of how small climate changes have rapidly grown in magnitude – a runaway process leading to catastrophic impacts and extinction-level events. Why does this happen? When does a gradual change become unstoppable? Dr Zoë Thomas’ work looks to answer these questions. Dr Thomas explores how the history of the world’s climate can help us to predict its future, and how we can understand and identify the tipping points – the points of no return – for the climate. I sat down with Dr Thomas to learn more about her story and her research.
Originally from England, Dr Thomas moved to Sydney for a postdoctoral research position at UNSW. Now, 7 years later, she holds an ARC-funded Discovery Early Career Researcher Award and is one of UNSW’s inspiring early career researchers.
To predict the future we need to understand the past. For Dr Thomas, the insights come from so-called “core samples” collected from beneath the Earth’s surface – like using an apple corer to remove the core of an apple, but on a much bigger scale! The result is a cylinder of material – the uppermost parts recent, and deepest providing a window to Earth’s past. Dr Thomas’ search for important pieces of the story has taken her pretty far afield: she has collected samples from the New Zealand Subantarctic and more recently the Falkland Islands! Core samples can be retrieved from ice sheets, the seafloor, and from peat bogs, and Dr Thomas’ research looks at information from these ancient ice, marine, and peat cores - the latter made up of decomposed plant matter.
“There is a lot of climate information stored in these sediments that we can analyse and that can then give us a picture of what the climate and the environment was like thousands of years ago. So they are really, really valuable archives.”
You may be wondering how a “slice of dirt” can be an archive – well, here is what happens with one of these samples:
“One of the first things I do is take it to ANSTO in Lucas Heights. They have a core scanner which uses a laser to measure the elemental composition of the core sample. Looking at the different elements in the core can tell us all sorts of things about how the climate and environment has changed over time. And it can do that at very high, submillimeter, resolution.”
Back in the lab the core is chopped up into half centimetre sections and the age of each slice identified using radiocarbon dating, at the Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility at UNSW. From all of this data, Dr Thomas can track how the climate has changed over thousands of years.
The second important part of Dr Thomas’ research is studying how, and why, climate change can go past the point of no return – the tipping point. For example, if we experience significant polar melting, what are the likely consequences, and when do the consequences become irreversible?
Dr Thomas stresses that we are, right now, at a “social tipping point” when it comes to fighting the climate crisis. We are at a point where we can choose to take concrete actions to improve the world’s climate outlook. Or we can side with inaction, and experience potentially catastrophic climate consequences.
“We don’t have time for the next generation to become policy makers. The changes that are going to happen are going to happen in the next couple of decades and they will be irreversible.”
But Dr Thomas is optimistic: she is clear that we have all the knowledge we need to implement these changes.
“I think there is a lot of misinformation about the cost of action and not really enough about the cost of inaction. It is important to understand that change is going to happen and it is under our terms how we facilitate that in the best way.”
So the message is clear: we have the skills and opportunity to steer the climate away from a crisis – we just need to seize the change. With Dr Thomas’ passion for all things climate it will probably come as no surprise that she has a love for the outdoors and a great appreciation for nature! You’ll find her playing hockey and tennis to give her brain a little break from climate science.
Learn more about Dr Thomas’ research here https://www.unsw.edu.au/staff/zoe-thomas.html
Interviewer: Laura Wimberger
Batteries are proving more and more essential to the energy revolution: from grid-linked batteries to electric vehicles, to the mobile phones we all carry – batteries are key to future energy economies. I had the opportunity to chat with Dr Dong Jun (DJ) Kim, a lecturer in the School of Chemistry, UNSW Sydney about his work on rechargeable batteries.
DJ grew up in South Korea, where he completed his bachelor’s and PhD in Material Sciences and Engineering. Both his parents were academics, and this influenced his decision to pursue a career in science. While doing his PhD, his research group had collaborated with Prof. Fraser Stoddart’s group at Northwestern University. Upon completing his PhD, he joined this group as a post-doctoral researcher where he worked on the development of new materials for rechargeable batteries. “This was probably the biggest turning point in my career so far.”, remarks DJ, for whom working with Fraser and other talented group members were a dream come true.
While completing his post-doctoral position, DJ started looking for permanent positions. One of the reasons that pushed DJ to consider Sydney was that it had a direct flight to Seoul! Coming to UNSW for his interview was the first time he travelled to the southern hemisphere. After a successful interview, he took up the lecturer position at UNSW and began doing research on rechargeable batteries. DJ loves working with talented students at UNSW and says their enthusiasm drives his excitement in his work. “The fact that as a scientist, you are always on the brink of discovering something for the first time, inspires me to do my daily work”, says DJ.
DJ’s research specifically looks at the development of new materials for use in batteries. A typical coin-sized battery consists of a cathode, an anode and an electrolyte. DJ’s lab makes new materials for the cathode and electrolyte in the lab and then he measures the battery’s capacity and cycling behaviour (i.e., how many times can you charge and discharge it?) are recorded on the computer. The real challenge with battery research lies in the limited selection of electronic materials. “This is why we don’t have an iPhone battery that will last a week”, says DJ. With better materials we could hope to see improved energy density which means an end to the familiar situation of running out of battery just as you need to show your vaccination certificate; and reduced range anxiety in electric vehicles.
DJ’s work on rechargeable batteries aligns with SDG7 - Affordable and Clean Energy. With climate extremes becoming more frequent, DJ believes that it is important to focus on sustainability. From a personal point of view, the birth of DJ’s daughter motivated him to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. “I realized that the world has to be better for her to grow up in and I recognized the role I had to play”, he says. This has led him to better practices at home such as recycling.
Currently, battery engineers/battery companies are good at producing small scale batteries. However, there are unexpected challenges such as safety issues when trying to build these batteries at a bigger scale. With increasing demand for electric vehicles and grid scale energy storage (i.e storing energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind), there is more money being invested in battery research. Therefore, DJ is confident that these issues will be soon resolved and batteries with better storage capacities will soon be manufactured.
Interviewer: Charuni Pathmeswaran
Think of a scientist and you might think of a chemist making new drugs, a biologist in the jungle looking for new species, or a psychologist running experiments on rats – not many people think of the data scientists, crunching the statistics to model various processes occurring on Earth. These people are just as vital; indeed, a lot of the more “experimental” scientists are incorporating an aspect of modelling in their results to explain phenomena. If I told you a skill set of ecological and paleontological modelling could take you to both the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington D.C. and Antarctica (albeit virtually for the moment), I’m sure you would agree that the opportunities as a data scientist are just as varied as an experimental scientist. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Aniko Toth from UNSW BEES who models Antarctic ecosystems, with the outcome of this modelling likely to impact the future of the Antarctic treaty.
Dr Toth’s current work focuses on developing a classification system for ice-free ecosystems in Antarctica using modelling. Her work wants to find out “What organisms are there? Why are those organisms there? How are these systems unique across the different ice-free areas of Antarctica?” With Antarctica being “one of the last wild, untouched areas” of the world, the continent is relatively poorly understood. Dr Toth’s work starts with the ice-free ecosystems, as these ecosystems currently have the most data available for modelling, but she aims to expand her research into near-shore environments.. In particular, the dry valleys in Antarctica are a particularly interesting area as they have many different ecosystems. It’s not just “all ice, and some rocks sticking out” instead Dr Toth remarks “There is a huge variety of different types of substrates that make this a very vibrant continent, with a full range of ecosystem types that can be distinguished from one another quite readily.”
Growing up in the USA, Dr Toth’s first exposure to research was completing a summer internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in paleontology. Being offered to stay on part-time, she learnt the skills of coding modelling data. After five years, she moved to Sydney to complete her PhD at Macquarie University, where she worked between the fields of planetology and ecology. Currently, she works as a postdoc with Prof. David Keith at UNSW. All these positions are “slightly distantly related, but all the skills are the same, so to get to where I am, I think I just built that skill base”, which is great advice for future STEM students to consider. But balance is also important: in her spare time, Dr Toth likes to ice skate and paint, balancing the heavily analytical computational work she does with her artistic flair.
In the future, she hopes the fields of ecology and paleontology will start to weave their research conclusions into a cohesive story. At the moment, Dr Toth remarks: “all of those different threads of research and all those different lines of inquiry are not unified in any way. We’re all still working to bridge the gaps and try filling in holes and understanding how we can fit it all together into a bigger picture.” Ultimately, she would like to preserve the “absolute wonder that people feel when they learn about, or even visit, Antarctica. I want our kids, grandkids to experience that feeling, even if it is just that small thing.”
Interviewer: Lisa Hua