$200m Synchrotron wows regional students

Fifty students from three regional high schools have conducted an experiment at the $200 million Australian Synchrotron in metropolitan Melbourne from a computer laboratory on La Trobe University’s Mildura campus.

The students from Victoria and New South Wales became beamline scientists as part of La Trobe University’s two-day Science Outreach workshop in Mildura on Tuesday and Wednesday. The students accessed and remotely controlled a robotic arm on a beamline at the Synchrotron to analyse the structure of a protein crystal.

Guided by scientists at both sites, students grew their own protein crystal, then remotely controlled the robotic arm to move and analyse a similar crystal using the Protein Crystallography beamline at the Synchrotron, 560 kilometres away.

The crystal was bombarded with powerful X-rays to reveal the atomic structure of the protein. Synchrotron scientist Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies explained the process to students via a video-link to the Mildura lab.

Jointly developed by scientists from the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) and the Synchrotron, the remote experiment introduced students to the science of Protein Crystallography at its most sophisticated.

They learnt how scientists use the techniques of X-ray diffraction to examine the structure of proteins, and why such techniques are critical research tools in the pursuit of new and better pharmaceuticals to fight disease.

La Trobe University physicist Dr David Hoxley, one of the co-founders of the pioneering Synchrotron Program on La Trobe’s Melbourne campus, says Synchrotron time is very expensive and carefully rationed out among Australian scientists.

“This was a fantastic and very rare opportunity for keen regional students to gain first-hand real-time experience in how very high-end interdisciplinary science is conducted,” Dr Hoxley said.

The Synchrotron is the only research facility of its kind in Australia, and one of only 70 such facilities internationally.

La Trobe University biochemist and Synchrotron Program co-founder and coordinator Dr Marc Kvansakul says the students not only experienced the Synchrotron science research environment but also gained a real understanding of the practical applications of Synchrotron research.

“The Synchrotron brings together scientists from many disciplines, including physicists, biologists and material scientists, as well as professionals from the humanities and medicine. It has been a catalyst for astonishing insights in biomedicine, physics, chemistry, material sciences, archaeology, forensic science and art history,” Dr Kvansakul said.

“Via Science Outreach we are attempting to harness the power of the Synchrotron to inspire the next generation of scientists in our schools.”

As St Joseph’s College student Ellie Fumberger said: “I’m interested in studying Chemistry at Uni. It’s always been a love of mine, figuring out how things work. Today has been really interesting because it shows you what it takes to have a career in Chemistry or Physics.”

La Trobe University Science Outreach Program Manager Francesca Calati says the University is committed to ensuring all regional students with a real interest in science are given the same opportunities as metropolitan students.

“Many of those future scientists go to regional schools, which have suffered in the past from the tyranny of distance from the metropolis,” she said. “That’s why we’ve developed the Science Outreach Roadshow, to take our metropolitan Outreach Program to regional students who might otherwise miss out.”

Now in its second year, the Roadshow takes the Science Outreach workshops to La Trobe’s regional campuses in Albury-Wodonga, Mildura, Bendigo and Shepparton.

The workshops in Mildura for more than 500 students from seven regional high schools also covered the scientific disciplines of Engineering (Curiosity Bot), Psychology (Reading Minds and Detecting Lies), Biotechnology (Get into Genes) and Information and Communication Technology (It’s a Small World with Big Possibilities).

Schools attending were Red Cliffs Secondary College, Chaffey Secondary College, Merbein P10 College, Irymple Secondary College, St Joseph’s College and Mildura Christian College (Victoria) and Coomealla High School (New South Wales).

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Media Contact: Tim Newhouse – t.newhouse@latrobe.edu.au – 9479 2315 / 0416306759