Uni lures world-class scientists

Monday, 14 February 2005

In luring three of the world's brightest young scientists to its Faculty of Sciences, the University of Adelaide's respected research capabilities have been significantly enhanced.

"We are proud to attract to South Australia brilliant innovative minds that will invigorate our intellectual life and provide leadership in key areas of importance for economic development," said Professor Peter Rathjen, Executive Dean, Faculty of Sciences, University of Adelaide.

The scientists are Professor Tanya Monro, who will focus on photonics research; Professor Diane Mather, a world leader in plant breeding, and Professor Alan Cooper who will bring a biotechnology focus to the evolutionary biology research unit in Adelaide.

Professor Monro, a leading researcher in photonics, particularly in advanced optical 'waveguides', or optical fibres, will help establish a significant photonics research effort in South Australia, involving the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and the University. Considered to be one of the youngest academics to receive a Chair in Physics, Professor Monro, 32, has commenced her position as Chair of Photonics, in the School of Chemistry and Physics at the University of Adelaide.

Professor Mather has joined the School of Agriculture and Wine as a Professorial Research Fellow in the Discipline of Plant and Pest Science and the Molecular Plant Breeding CRC. Professor Mather is a world leader in plant breeding and her research has focussed on mapping genes that affect economically important traits in plants, particularly barley.

Professor Cooper, a Federation Fellow, will link up with the rapidly growing evolutionary biology research unit in Adelaide, which involves the University of Adelaide, and the South Australia Museum. His world-renowned research will utilise techniques in biotechnology to bring a genetic angle to the natural history questions that are being highlighted by current research. He arrives in Adelaide later this year.

After obtaining her PhD from the University of Sydney, Professor Monro has spent the past six years in Southampton, where she and her research team developed new technology for the production of a special type of optical fibre called "holey fibre" or "microstructured fibre".

Holey fibres contain an arrangement of micron-sized air holes that allow the optical properties of the fibre to be tailored in innovative ways. Professor Monro's group were also the first to apply this holey fibre geometry to optical fibres made glasses other than silica.

"Our research in Adelaide will have two main fields of applications. Firstly, to provide novel optical fibres to the DSTO, who fund the Chair of Photonics position, and secondly, to investigate innovative applications for optical fibre technology, such as in the field of bionanophotonics.

"Optical fibres have made a huge impact in the telecommunications industry. One of the aims of our research is to develop new types of optical fibres that can be used for applications in other areas such as industrial processing, displays, biomedical sciences and beyond," Professor Monro said.

Previously a Professor of Plant Science at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, Professor Mather's research has included identifying the regions of chromosomes that encode for traits that affect grain and malt quality.

As a research program leader in the Molecular Plant Breeding CRC, Professor Mather will work with researchers in Adelaide, across Australia and internationally, to develop and apply new technologies for crop improvement.

"Adelaide provides an excellent environment for research in plant genetics and for the application of research outcomes in molecular plant breeding," Professor Mather said.

Professor Cooper obtained his PhD at Victoria University, Wellington, and after briefly working in the U.S., he moved to Oxford University where he has been the Director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre since 1999.

Professor Cooper's research will investigate issues such as environmental change and how this relates to climate and human factors. He will focus on coral reef bleaching, the effects of salinity on plants, the pattern and timing of extinctions, forensics and conservation biology, and long-term records of pathogens in sediments.

"The key idea behind all these studies is to reveal how things have changed over time, so that current variations and events can be properly understood and interpreted.

"For example, by studying the impacts of climate change on animal populations over the past 50,000 years we can much better anticipate what the effects of current climate change will be; allowing better planning and management," Professor Cooper said.

The Federation Fellowship has allowed Professor Cooper and his colleagues to establish an Australian Centre for ancient DNA research at Adelaide, enabling them to access this amazing evolutionary and environmental information.


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