Cool science, a million times brighter than the sun

Posted on August 28, 2013

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La Trobe offers real-time remote Synchrotron access for Victorian secondary schools

Parade College students control Australian Synchrotron equipment from the La Trobe campus. The Synchrotron work area appears on the front screen while a representation of protein structure based on data gained from experiments is shown on the left.

Parade College students control Australian Synchrotron equipment from the La Trobe campus. The Synchrotron work area appears on the front screen while a representation of protein structure based on data gained from experiments is shown on the left. Image: Tess Flynn

La Trobe University is providing Victorian secondary school students with remote access to one of the nation’s largest and most expensive science facilities, the Australian Synchrotron, so they can conduct their own experiments.

About 60 students from Parade College in Bundoora, William Ruthven Secondary College in Reservoir, and Bendigo Senior Secondary College visited the University yesterday for the official launch of the program.

Physicist Dr David Hoxley and biochemist Dr Marc Kvansakul were two of the program’s co-ordinators who helped run the sessions from the Synchrotron and the Melbourne campus respectively.

Dr Hoxley says La Trobe’s Imax-style physics Visualisation Laboratory (VisLab) is the best and most frequently used facility in Australia allowing control of synchrotron equipment from a remote location.

The Australian Synchrotron is a football-field-size particle accelerator located in Clayton, the only one of its type in the southern hemisphere. It produces light beams a million times brighter than the sun and is usually reserved for high-level science experiments.

Dr Marc Kvansakul, who helped design the experiments,  in his lab at La Trobe's Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS)

Dr Marc Kvansakul, who helped design the experiments, in his lab at La Trobe’s Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS)

Rare opportunity

Synchrotron time, says Dr Hoxley, is very expensive and is therefore carefully rationed out among Australian scientists.

Assisted by leading biotechnologists from the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) who regularly use the Synchrotron for their experiments, the day provided a ‘fantastic and very rare opportunity for keen students to gain first-hand real-time experience in how very high-end interdisciplinary science is conducted,’ says Dr Hoxley.

Outreach staff from the Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering and LIMS previously worked with University physicists and biochemists on two pilot projects for schools and now plan to make this an annual event for secondary schools.

‘Students were not just shown how the Synchrotron works,’ says Dr Hoxley. ‘They were able to control the whole experiment – from robot arm loading of samples to final data analysis once the experiment was completed – via sophisticated software and six giant total immersion screens at our half-a-million-dollar Melbourne Campus VisLab,’ he says.

Students used techniques called laser diffraction and X-ray diffraction to study their own hair and examined the structure of proteins that form the building blocks of our bodies.

Critical to answering the big questions

Postgraduate student Grant Mills points to the microscopic protein crystal held in a loop ready for mounting on the Synchrotron’s experimental platform, behind him, where the sample will be bombarded by a high-power X-ray light beam.

These techniques are critical research tools used in material and chemical science and designing new pharmaceuticals in the fight against disease.

They also help underpin La Trobe’s new Future Ready Research Focus Areas aimed at answering the big questions in health, agricultural and environmental science.

The VisLab screens showed Synchrotron scientists going about their tasks in the beam-line working area while web cams focused on the crystallised proteins and hairs used in the experiments as well as on the data gathering and analysis stages of the process.

‘Students were able to ask questions and at the end they saw the computerised 3D model of their proteins and hair structure,’ says Dr Hoxley. ‘They were guided throughout the session by our postgrad researchers –masters and doctoral students themselves only in their twenties – who love what they do and are passionate about it.

Very authentic experience

The peaks, right, represent the intensity of X-ray scatter points and provide information about the structure of the sample.

The peaks, right, represent the intensity of X-ray scatter points and provide information about the structure of the sample.

‘So it was a very authentic experience, run by young people who explained how the structure of proteins can be modified and how they use the Synchrotron in their own research to try and make better pharmaceuticals.’

Dr Hoxley says La Trobe is a foundation partner and investor in the Australian Synchrotron and makes the event available out of its annual allocation of Synchrotron time used for research and postgraduate teaching.  – Ernest Raetz

Learn more:

About Dr Marc Kvansakul, a former ‘Tall Poppy’ in science, whose laboratory probes the biology of cell death regulation to help develop new anti-cancer drugs and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.

About Dr David Hoxley, his film, Diamonds on the Inside, and his research into the potential of these valuable gems to help cancer patients by eventually reducing their need for in-patient hospital stays.