Hidden moss speaks from silent continent
Deep beneath the ice and snow in Antarctica may lie secrets to help understand climate change – and, potentially, how to protect ourselves from the sun’s rays.
These answers could come from studying species of Antarctic moss, some of which grow just millimetres each year.
Melinda Waterman, 29, has just graduated from the University of Wollongong after completing a PhD in biotechnology, focusing on the slow-growing flora of the silent continent.
Dr Waterman has recently returned from more than four months in Antarctica and Chile, where she furthered her study of the plants.
The mosses spend many months of the year underneath snow and ice, meaning they have evolved to cope without water or light for long periods.
“We’re not sure if they’re actually metabolising under the show,” she said. “We think they are.”
But the compounds they produce would offer valuable clues to how they survive. By carbon dating the moss and comparing this with the compounds still within the moss, the scientists can learn about what had happened within the plant’s lifetime.
Given Antarctica’s proximity to the hole in the ozone layer, it can be an ideal place to study how growth patterns have changed. The amount of UV radiation in that environment fluctuates seasonally, but changed since the 1970s.
“We needed to work out what types of compounds they produced, and whether they can produce them in high radiation climates, in order for us to use those compounds as proxies for past climates,” Dr Waterman said.
“Before the 1970s these mosses weren’t actually exposed to high levels of radiation. But because of the ozone hole, those plants experience quite high levels over summer.”
The research established that some mosses produce certain compounds which can survive for decades inside the plant, and which help protect the moss.
“I was able to identify several compounds that are in the cell wall, and these are highly effective absorbing UV radiation,” Dr Waterman said. “They seem to be quite well preserved – even 50 or 100 years [old].”
Perhaps this could aid development of sunscreens we inject into our skin?
“If we were able to inject it into our skin, we’d hope the skin doesn’t just peel off,” Dr Waterman said. “Or it would be all in the dust in our house.”
She worked with Professor Sharon Robinson, whose work with the moss is well established. Previously, moss had shown effects of climate changed caused by nuclear tests in the 1950s and 60s.
Curtin deflated by PhD aged 84
Revered former prime minister John Curtin is lucky he was gone before scholar James Prior got onto him.
Dr Prior’s doctorate, with which he graduated from UoW on Wednesday, argues it’s an error to give Curtin the credit for establishing the Australian-US relationship.
At 84, Dr Prior is the oldest graduate this year, but he isn’t just finishing his degree for the heck of it – oh no.
“He gets much admiration for aspects of the Australian-American relationship which he doesn’t deserve,” Dr Prios said. “There’s a lot of myths.”
He said anyone attempting a PhD needed to understand “you’ve got to dedicate your life to it”.
Dr Prior’s wife Jan and his four children agreed, having supported him through what had been “an obsession”.
Honour for growing achievement
Professor Bob Furbank, a local boy made good, was recognised with an honorary doctorate in science for scholarship in plant biology, and his achievements in agriculture and technology.
Professor Furbank is internationally renowned for his contribution to innovative sustainable agricultural development carbon allocation and transport in crop plants.
The son of a Wollongong steelworker, Bob was the first of his family to complete Year 10 (at Corrimal High) and the first to go to university.
He later graduated with a Bachelor of Science, with Honours, from UoW in 1979.
Spending much of career with the CSIRO, Professor Furbank helped develop the High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre, gaining recognition with his team devising and implementing new techniques to address the approaching global food supply deficit.
He is credited with pioneering the concept of “digital agriculture” - allowing field trials of crop plants to be assessed in new ways.
UoW said that this concept is rapidly transforming the comprehensive monitoring of tens of thousands of crop field trials conducted each year in Australia.
Professor Furbank’s career spans both pure and applied plant biology, with five patents or Plant Breeders Rights attesting to his success in providing practical solutions for modern agriculture.
The citation for his honorary doctorate pays tribute to “his passion to do something translational between the laboratory and the farm that is ‘useful’ for agriculture.
Journalism is Jess’s aim
Berkeley-raised Jessica Allen graduated on Wednesday with a Bachelor of Journalism and Communication & Media Studies.
Ms Allen, 23, may have picked an industry undergoing extraordinary upheaval, but she is optimistic.
“People deserve to know the truth about what’s going on in the world. It’s a real skill to be able to write [this] in a way that’s engaging,” she said.
She has scored a job doing marketing for an IT company.