education.govt.nz

That Eureka moment

Issue: Volume 94, Number 6

Posted: 20 April 2015
Reference #: 1H9cqu

Blue light bulb

Scientists are passionate about their vocation because it affects us all, and being able to communicate great ideas is essential to the success of game-changing innovation.

Nurturing and supporting the ability to communicate the excitement that scientists have for their work is supported from an early age by the Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka Awards, held yearly. The programme’s website encapsulates the awards’ reason for being:

“Investment in science, technology, engineering, maths, and innovation results from champions who can communicate their knowledge and their passion to non-scientists. Our future Rutherfords, Wilkins, MacDiarmids and Callaghans are the young scientists of today.”

It starts with an idea: any senior secondary or junior tertiary student who thinks they’ve got one can enter. Students – and teachers – can then attend a number of workshops designed to help get their idea down on paper and out to the world.

Regional competitions are then held, with the finalists going on to the final round of presentations, held this year in Wellington in October.

Lifting achievement for dumb computers

Hadleigh Frost of Christchurch is a remarkable achiever whichever way you look at it. That’s amply demonstrated by the fact that at 20 years of age, he has a BSc with honours behind him. He’s also about to attend – on a Rhodes Scholarship no less – one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the storied Oxford University. Hadleigh starts a short Master’s programme in September this year, and from there intends to pursue a thorny mathematical problem within theoretical physics – attempting to grasp the rudiments of which induced heart palpitations and rising panic in this reporter, unfortunately. You’ll have to wait until Hadleigh solves the problem, then turns his attention to the even trickier matter of explaining what it’s all about.

Hadleigh entered the Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka Awards programme in 2012, the first year it was held. He describes the awards programme as learning to ‘pitch’ one’s idea to a sceptical public; clearly a great skill to have when chasing research funding.

Hadleigh’s big idea was to exploit our knowledge of the human brain for the purpose of making computers and software more intelligent, allowing for an explosion in the ways we can use data.

Computers, says Hadleigh, are, among many other failings, really bad at recognising things.

Hadleigh Frost“Computers work in a serial fashion. What happens is you have instructions come into your processor and you perform operations on them according to a computer programme which is pre-written, and stays pretty much the same. The programme tells the computer what to do.

“A computer isn’t able to generalise, it’s not able to say ‘well, that input and this input are much the same thing, I can categorise them together.’ It’s very hard to code for the sort of nuance that the brain deals with all the time.

“In my speech I proposed that we create ways of representing information in certain brain-like structures. There are already ways to programme these structures that are inspired by the brain. Hopefully, by doing this, we would be able to create programmes which respond to similar inputs in similar ways, and learn how to recognise those things again.”

Real-world applications of this sort of adaptable brain-like computer include recycling, says Hadleigh. Christchurch has a really good recycling programme, he says, but it could be so much more efficient if a computer was able to sort the valuable stuff from the junk.

At the moment, if you showed a computer a picture of a green glass bottle, the best it can do is identify other bottles that are exactly the same. It would ignore a green glass jar, for example, and might accept a green plastic bottle. Whereas, says Hadleigh, a computer modelled on the human brain would be able to get to the very human conclusion that for the purposes of recycling, the green bottle and jar are one and the same.

Tough interviews

Hadleigh says he owes a lot to the Eureka programme already. After all, he’s already – very successfully – come through the full glare of interviews with those who decide who gets into both a Rhodes Scholarship and Oxford University, and there aren’t too many more exclusive clubs in the world. The key thing is that he was able to communicate his erudition and enthusiasm for science to people he’d never met before.

“Oxford University gives me access to some amazing research groups. There are researchers there who are leading the world in my field. So by being part of the Oxford community, I have access to those researchers, as well as access to a lot of support, so that I can make the most of my time.

“I’m very lucky, and I think Eureka really helped me. I think the programme helps young scientists to be able to communicate and talk about their excitement to other people. I’ve met some great people at Eureka events, but also a big message to me and the other competitors, is that communicating what we’re doing is important, and that if we’re excited then there will be other people who want to hear from us. That was an amazing message for me. I’m going to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship: that meant I had to communicate to these people exactly why I want to work on these big problems. So I think that’s a really important thing that Eureka does.”

The sound of inspiration

Lara Sweetapple

Lara Sweetapple is on a mission.

Her own experience of hearing loss–and desire to improve the lot of those suffering from the condition–is the driving force in her education and career choices to date, and she now plans to change direction.

Lara is working as a research assistant at Canterbury University. She entered the Eureka Awards programme in 2013, making it all the way to the national final, where the likes of radio personality Kim Hill took in her presentation, and then questioned her on it.

Lara’s big idea is that we should take our cue from frogs and birds when attempting to restore hearing loss.

“I have always been interested in the treatment of hearing loss. Currently, we use assisted hearing devices, which essentially just turn up the volume. Although that can provide benefits for many, it’s very limited. I’ve had personal experience with this myself, because I have a hearing loss. I’ve used many different types of hearing devices, and I’ve always had issues with them. I’ve also worked in an audiology clinic and found that everyone else who has hearing aids has the same issues. So my experience is very much something which has driven me to want to improve the standard.

“It’s something I’ve always had in the back of my mind, that’s driven me in my education, and has driven my career choices. I felt that this [the Eureka awards] was a logical place for me to start sharing my aspirations.”

Issues that pervade the current crop of hearing assistance devices stem from the fact that we’ve yet to figure out how to mimic the human ear with an electronic device, to even the most rudimentary degree. This leads to myriad complications for the user: whistling; itchiness; discomfort; headaches; back ground noise overpowering that which the user actually wants to listen to. And of course there’s a perceived stigma, Lara believes, that unfortunately still clings to the wearer of a hearing aid. Trying to artificially reconstruct the human ear isn’t the way to go, says Lara, so rather we should be taking our cue from animals out there that appear to have their own inbuilt repair mechanisms.

“It comes down to the fact that the ear is such a unique organ in our bodies, one that’s just amazingly fine-tuned. If you think about the difference between adjacent notes on a keyboard: the human ear is capable of distinguishing something like 60 points of gradation between them.

“My idea is, overall, to try to fix the ear by fixing the root of the problem, rather than to use assisted devices. That means targeting the sensory hair cells in the inner ear, which get damaged during hearing loss. The problem is that once these cells are damaged, they don’t repair themselves; they never grow back.”

These hair cells are the fundamental mechanism of hearing, intertwined with nervous system and neural connections.

It turns out that this inability of sensory hair cells is quite unusual: most types of cells are able to repair themselves, and do so regularly. Some animals however, such as birds and frogs, are able to repair their own hearing. This leads to Lara’s hunch that these humble vertebrates could potentially show us the way to a era of treatment for hearing loss in the not too distant future.

“I think we should focus our study on these kinds of species, to work out how they do it. If we know enough about it, perhaps some kind of gene therapy treatment could emerge.”

Lara says she considers herself lucky to be able to combine her passion and her career aspirations into such a worthwhile goal. And if she can convince Kim Hill that she’s on the right track, nothing will stand in her way.

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 5:55 pm, 20 April 2015

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