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Shanae King is standing outside with remains of telescopes in the background.
Amanda Cox 28 February 2020
Shanae King is standing outside with remains of telescopes in the background.

Shanae King builds systems that are literally out of this world – or they will be, one day.

As an Instrumentation Engineer with the Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre at the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the electronics and software she’s designing is destined for space.

But right now, her system is a prototype on her lab bench. Ms King points at a circuit board sitting there.

“I have written all the software running on here, but this board is way too big,” she says. “When we go to space, our boards will be only 10 by 10 centimetres.”

In space, it seems, space is at a premium.

Ms King’s hardware will eventually find its way into an infrared telescope called Emu.

At the size of a shoebox, Emu the telescope is much smaller than emu, the bird. It can also fly much higher: if everything goes to plan, it will spend six months attached to the side of the International Space Station looking out into space.  

“As the space station goes around the Earth, it doesn’t go in a straight line, it varies its orbit,” Ms King explains. “We want to use this to our advantage, so Emu will eventually observe most of the sky.

“We hope to be launching in the next two years.”

Shanae King is sitting at her lab bench with a prototype of her electronics system

In space, Emu’s mission will be to detect water in the atmosphere of stars. “This will give us information on how the star formed.”

I ask Ms King what it feels like to know that your work will be orbiting Earth in space one day.

“It’s surreal. I’ve wanted to do this since I was in high school,” she says.

“I had a dream of working on technology like the Mars Rover one day, but never thought that I could do this type of work in Australia.

“Now that the space industry is here, I can help grow it, all while working on something that can help us understand how the universe works.”

She says taking part in Australia’s space industry isn’t just limited to electrical engineers, astronomers and physicists.

“At the conferences I go to, there are also people there from business, health, medicine and law.

“Because the space industry is so new for Australia, you can get involved in any stream that you want.”

Many of the problem-solving skills that Ms King brings to her job stem from her studies in computer science, engineering and physics completed as part of her Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) / Bachelor of Science at ANU.

“Because I work in such a specialist field, I have to solve many of the problems we encounter myself.”

Ms King’s current problem is very similar to one that our cameras have back here on Earth: how to process images quickly and avoid filling up your memory card.

“The space telescope will take images extremely fast, and my software needs to quickly read-in all those images, process and store them.

“It also has to work in a vacuum, and in the extreme temperature and radiation environment of space.”

Ms King says her detector system is flexible enough to be rolled out for future space missions, including the SkyHopper telescope that will help discover potentially habitable Earth-sized exoplanets in our galaxy, and a satellite that will look back at Earth for much needed bushfire predictions.

“This will help us predict how bushfire-prone an area is by measuring the water composition of soil and vegetation.”

Not surprisingly, Ms King is glad she made the decision to move from Townsville to study at ANU. She says the combination of a scholarship, small class sizes, and exposure to space-related industry here in Canberra were instrumental in launching her fulfilling career.

“When I tell people what I do, they do a double take. Then they say, ‘Wait, what? That’s amazing!’

“It’s so unreal. All I can say is I absolutely love what I do.”

If your dream is to work in the space industry, consider studying astronomy, computer science, physics, engineering or even law, health or medicine.

With the combination of flexible and vertical double degrees on offer at ANU, the sky isn’t the limit - the cosmos is.

Career story

For the next rendition of how A Star is Born, ANU is preparing an emu for spaceflight

Shanae King builds systems that are literally out of this world – or they will be, one day.

21 February 2020
Elly Gearing.

Meet Elly Gearing.


We always love hearing about the amazing things our alumni are doing all around the world.

After completing a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) (Honours) alumna Elly Gearing moved to Africa to pursue a career in animal behaviour. She now works as a zoologist and field guide at a nature reserve in the Greater Kruger in Africa.

Elly says her degree allowed her the freedom to explore different areas of biology, until she realised she was "fascinated by animal behaviour and using the scientific method to decipher exactly why animals do what they do".

Between researching big cats, guiding guests through the savanna and working to protect local wildlife, she has taken the time to take us on safari.


Words and photographs by Elly Gearing


A hippo surfaces from underwater, exhaling a burst of spray that catches the sun as it rises in the early morning. This hippo will have returned to the water before sunrise, having spent the night walking through the local area feeding mainly on grass. The reason for their nocturnal activity is two-fold: it is much cooler at night and allows the hippo to avoid the harsh African sun which can burn and dessicate their skin. She will now spend the daylight hours relaxing and sleeping in this aquatic habitat before departing again after sunset.


If you look closely around these waterholes you can spot these masterfully crafted dome nests overhanging the water, resembling decorations adorning a Christmas tree. Here, a female Southern masked weaver hangs from the entrance to a nest that was built by her partner, a bright yellow male who spends up to 5 days collecting grass stems and weaving them into this perfect piece of natural architecture. If a female inspects his creation and is not happy, however, he will pull it apart and start all over again!


The deep, bellowing call of a male lion into the early hours of the morning helps us to locate the pride. We find them resting next to the remains of a zebra they successfully hunted the night before. With night-time vision that is seven times better than our own, lions do most of their hunting after dark when it is cooler and they have a distinct advantage over their prey. With so many mouths to feed, however, their quarry will only keep them satisfied for a few days before they will need to go hunting again.


A guest holds out the pefectly spherical remains of a dung beetle ball that was buried underground with a single egg inside. It is likely that an animal like a honey badger excavated it to feed on the bounty hidden inside. The journey on safari is as much about the big things as it is about the small ones, often by slowing down the pace you begin to notice the intricate web of nature out here in the African bush.


At a nearby waterhole, a conflict has erupted between two predators. A pack of endangered African wild dogs surrounds a lone hyena, nipping at its backside as it turns fractically, teeth bared, trying to defend itself. Meanwhile, the remaining hyenas run off with the carcass of an impala that the wild dogs had just successfully hunted. As one of Africa's most efficient hunters, the wild dogs often draw the attention of the local opportunistic scavengers who are often ready and waiting on the sidelines to rush in and steal their prize. There is a long-standing, competitive relationship between these two evenly-matched predators and interactions like these are not uncommon to witness.


You never know when a group of spectators is quietly surveying you through the bush... Giraffes are generally quite social creatures, preferring the safety afforded by a group in which many eyes can spot more predators. They don't however, have any permanent group structures and are rather social butterflies,  drifting from one group to the next. The strongest bond you will see between giraffe is that of a mother and her calf.


Tracking is a primitive skill and one of the ways in which we locate wildlife in the dense bush. These are the tracks of a big cat, given away by the three lobes at the pack of the pad and the lack of claw marks above the four toes. To keep their claws sharp, lions and leopards will retract the claws into the foot, whereas hyenas and wild dogs do not. Their tracks would only have two lobes on the pad and dots above the toes where the claws have touched the soil.


At the site of a old giraffe carcass, scavengers are collecting to finish of the remains as the sun is setting behind them. Hyenas and vultures are drawn in to consume the leftover rotting meat and bones which other predators prefer not to eat. With extremely powerful jaws and strong stomach acid, hyenas are capable of breaking down bone material and, together with vultures, make up nature's "clean-up crew". In finishing all of the nasty stuff, these animals play an incredibly important role in the ecosystem, helping to prevent the spread of disease.


As night falls and the air temperature gets cooler, the leopard's day is just beginning. She was spotted earlier, dangling from the branches of a large Marula tree in which she had hoisted her most recent kill. Being solitary animals, leopards are prone to having their kills stolen by other, more numerous predators such as hyenas and lions. To reduce this risk, these elusive felines have adapted to pulling their quarry into trees and out of the reach of competitors. She will soon leave to go and find her cub who has been patiently waiting for her to return, and lead her back to the site of the kill where they will feed together.


A short night drive back to the lodge provides the perfect opportunity to spot some of the more nocturnal critters, like this Flap-necked chameleon who emerged to sit on a small branch, waiting for insects to pass by. This tiny reptile can shoot out its sticky tongue as far as the length of its own body and does so at a speed of around three-hundreths of a second! After a quick show-and-tell with our guests, the colourful chameleon is returned to the branch on which we found it.

If you want to walk and talk with the animals, then consider studying animal behaviour as part of a Bachelor of Science at ANU.

Student blog

The circle of life: ANU to Africa

Join ANU alumni Elly Gearing on safari in the Greater Kruger, Africa.

11 September 2019

Sophie Lewis, ACT Scientist of the Year and ANU almuni, gives a speech to tomorrow's scientists. It was delivered at Interactive Science at the Shine Dome on the 10th August 2019.

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was 4 years old.

My story began many years ago when my parents took me stargazing as a young child in the hope of glimpsing Halley’s Comet. We trudged for some time through the open grassy fields and then we waited, and we waited. It was a pale, grey night. In our part of the world, thick banks of cloud masked the comet’s voyage across our skies.

There was nothing to be seen that night, but still I was thrilled and became hooked on science.

Over the following years, my family spent a lot of time in the foothills of the Australian Alps. On trips to the country I collected furiously — old bones or teeth, snake skins, tadpoles, feathers, leaves, seed pods, river stones, freshwater yabbies, anything I could get my hands on.

My uncle gave me a microscope and slidemaking kit, and then a few years later, my grandmother gifted me a small telescope. At any moment, a rock might reveal a fossil and a starry night might show me particularly breath-taking meteorite.

At high school I studied as much science and maths as I could. A pocket full of seedpods and beetle casings was replaced by notebook with sketches of Bunsen burners, atomic models and calculus equations.

An honours degree, PhD and postdoc followed. Then another postdoc and a grant to start my own research program.

Looking back on these decades, my journey to scientist seems to make sense. It’s textbook really! I wanted to be a scientist and pursued my goal and here I am at the Shine Dome.

But let me talk you through some of the speed bumps and bunny hops. Or as my wife would call them – Sophie-isms.

In later high school I attended a science camp where a chance meeting shelved my science dreams. Engineering, I decided, that would be for me. It would be just perfect. It’s just like science, except you get a job at the end..….Except its not just science, it turns out engineering is engineering.

I stumbled my way through 18 months – there was the week after week of picking the wrong pencil during drafting classes and getting atrocious marks in return. There was the accident with the hot glue gun building a prototype. And then there was the particularly ill-designed gantry.

Eventually I realised it wasn’t for me and transferred over to science and we are all safer for it.

A few years later, I had my heart set on a particular honours project. My plans were delayed when I suffered a serious bout of flu that left me in bed for over 5 weeks. One morning I woke with a sudden change of heart about my project. A flurry of emails sent from my sickbed, and I took a sharp turn with another supervisor.

After my Honours year, I accepted an offer into a PhD program at ANU. I knew nothing about ANU, I didn’t have a project, or a supervisor lined up, and I knew next to nothing about Canberra.

Unsurprisingly, my PhD research changed directions several times, and my supervisor too in rather difficult circumstances. A misplaced but valuable specimen and a sample sneezed off the high precision scales taught me that lab work wasn’t for me.

But I persisted, found my way through and discovered what I loved and what I didn’t.

At that point, I decided that academia wasn’t for me either. I was weighing up whether I could endure further study or not. I put a few job applications in to hedge my bets.

Professor David Karoly – a treasure of Australian science – saw something special in me. He offered me a research position at Melbourne Uni, and I couldn’t say no.

Professor Karoly offered me the chance to tackle problems around climate change that had been on my mind for over a decade. How are extreme weather and climate events changing and what’s in store for our future?

Once again, all the furniture was packed up and travelled the Hume Highway. It was an exciting time intellectually.

But two years later, when it was clear my partner’s PhD thesis needed to be tackled back in Canberra, the couch got another trip back up the Hume, returning to roost in Lyneham.

We took a gamble that Canberra was the definitive place for us, and our work would work out. It did.

Well mostly. There were times when I felt that I’d made poor decisions about my direction. At one point, I met a careers counsellor, learned to write selection criteria, I bought a snazzy suit and applied for public service roles. I was ready to try something new, something different where I could continue to work on climate change and sustainability.

But just as I was signalling for the off ramp of my scientific career, I got news that I was successful in a highly competitive grant application and would be funded to research Australia’s climate extremes for 3 years. It was an opportunity too rare to turn down. And so, I went on with my research.

And there have been many more times since that I’ve taken off from the traffic lights in the wrong gear, hit the curb or missed a turn off.

Even a textbook career in science is filled with wrong turns and speed bumps, and in my case, I’ll admit the career equivalent of lousy driving.

Taking some time to stop and look back on what worked and what didn’t, it turns out, in my experience at least, that a career in science involves a lot of the same scientific thinking needed to do the research itself.

Let me talk you through what I mean by this and what worked for me.


Firstly, I want to discuss trial and error.

It took me some time to find out what I loved and what I didn’t, what I was good at and what I clearly wasn’t. It took some testing to work out my values and my ambitions.

Just like a scientific hypothesis requires testing, so did my career.

My advice is we can’t be frightened to make mistakes. Every time I’ve had a failure, or made a mistake, I’ve found myself grateful a few years later. And in many cases, the more catastrophic the failure, the greater the gratitude. And sometimes I had to wait years until I was grateful, but it happened.

Most times in our careers, a u-turn can be made, a decision unmade, a trajectory reversed, if we are simply brave enough to try.


Secondly, luck.

Luck is critical in science – paying attention to the right data at the right time, selecting the right sample during field work, or beating another group to publish a snazzy result.

Luck has defined my career. I am lucky to receive this award, knowing the immense quality of scientific research undertaken here in Canberra. I was lucky to get grants, and to get jobs, including that job with Professor Karoly.

More than my career luck, I’ve had a lot of luck in life. Parents and educators who loved me and encouraged my passions. And then luckiest of all, I was lucky to be invited by a friend to a random house party, that turned out to be a birthday party for my future wife. She has supported me through tough times, boring times and good times.


Thirdly, I want to discuss principles.

Just like scientists follow key scientific principles about reproducibility and testability of our data, principals are important for our careers.

I found that I must abide by my principles in the work I do. I always try to act with integrity in the science I do and the way I relate to others.

There are many great scientific minds, and hundreds here in Canberra alone. But it can be hard sometimes to be a good scientist and a good person.

Science is not always kind, welcoming or accessible for everyone. We must strive to do better to provide pathways to all for rewarding and challenging scientific careers.

My guiding principles include kindness and generosity in our work practices. I don’t always get it right, but I try to build others up and I try to give my time to everyone – the public, students and other researchers.


Lastly I want to emphasise passion.

Just like any aspect of our lives, without passion in for our work, we can’t persist, and we won’t be there for the luck.

So that leads me to now. Where am I now? Nearly 2 years ago we were lucky enough to become parents to a loving, feisty, angry, happy, sassy kid. She has focused my work and passion intently on issues of the environment and sustainability.

In the 2 years since my daughter was born, literally hundreds of temperature records have been broken in Australia.

Over the last 150 years or so, we’ve experienced about 1 degree of global warming. 1 degree of global temperature increases doesn’t sound like much when the weather changes by 5, 10 or even 20 degrees from day to day.

But that 1 degree of global warming has a very large impact on weather and climate extremes in particular locations. And it’s these extremes that are the part of the climate system that we – our health, infrastructure, industries and ecosystems – are most vulnerable to.

Global warming doesn’t mean more BBQs and beers on warm summer evenings and trips to the beach. This excess heat has a very nasty sting.

It is heatwaves, not bushfires or floods, that are Australia’s most deadly disasters. Extreme heat pushes our ability to cope, leading to increased hospital admissions and deaths. Extreme heat pushes our agricultural and manufacturing industries and stresses our native ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef. Extreme heat also occurs with enhanced bushfire and drought risks, that compound impacts.

Before my daughter was born, I was working on a paper with a group of fairly young scientists and a co-author was also expecting her first daughter. She made a note in the margins of the draft, saying “Oh f***”.

What was scientifically interesting was personally shocking. This is our children’s future. What we are obfuscating about now is their lives.

By necessity, my daughter gives me great optimism about our future and a way to see through this grief. We must do better for her. At the same time, our children are demanding we do so, empowering themselves to take on their extreme climate futures.

When my partner and I decided Canberra would be our home, we found also found a home leader in climate action. Canberra has ambitious targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and improve our natural environment for all.

It is a great privilege to have received this award from the ACT. I will use this award to build on our reputation as a climate leader. By working with our passionate, engaged and capable school children, I plan to spend the next year helping our school kids establish a youth climate network to develop and share their skills.

So thank you again for this recognition and enjoy the week of science!

Career story

My science journey and where I am now

Sophie Lewis, 2019 ACT Scientist of the Year and ANU alumni, delivers a speech to tomorrow's scientists.

27 July 2019

Kristi Lee, a Githabul Bundjalung woman and ANU graduate, has received the ‘Caring for Country’ award at the 2019 ACT NAIDOC Awards.

Kristi meets me among the bunya pine trees at the National Botanic Gardens, just opposite the ANU campus. She tells me that in her Country, west of Byron Bay, the Githabul people would gather with neighbouring tribes for a feast on the huge pine cones from these trees. This, she points out, is similar to the gathering for bogong moth ceremonies in Ngunnawal Country.

Kristi’s journey of study, work and culture is largely defined by these two places—Ngunnawal Country and Githabul Country—making these gardens a fitting place to talk about her relationship to the land.

Kristi grew up in Canberra, away from Githabul Country, where her Pa is from. All her life she would ask him about her culture, desperate to learn stories, language and history. Her Pa grew up in a time when practicing Indigenous culture was discouraged, and language was not allowed to be spoken, which meant that much was lost between generations.

Kristi with her Pa, brother and Dad near Tidbinbilla in Canberra, 2004

Kristi with her Pa, brother and Dad near Tidbinbilla in Canberra, 2004


Her Pa’s experience was different to her own. Kristi was “loud and proud about being Aboriginal” in primary school, where kids accepted her for who she was. However, when she got to high school, kids started to judge her and other Indigenous students.

“They would say things like ‘But you don’t look Aboriginal’, or ‘What percentage are you?’ I started thinking their perception might be the right perception — maybe I’m an imposter?”

These experiences compelled Kristi to hide her identity from classmates and shook her confidence in her Aboriginality.

Kristi Lee looks up at a bunya pine tree

Kristi beneath the bunya pines


It was Kristi’s love of nature that led her to ANU, where she studied ecology and conservation at the Research School of Biology and Fenner School of Society and Environment. Kristi was fascinated by wildlife conservation management, but it wasn’t until she studied two Fenner School courses that she realised she could bring together her love of wildlife ecology with her cultural identity.

“I did a class which was all about combining cultural knowledge and biodiversity management, and how you would engage with Traditional Custodians when managing landscapes and reserves.

“Another course that made an impact on me was Fire in the Environment. As well as talking about the western systems of fire management, we talked about traditional knowledge and cultural burning, acknowledging that fire management is something that has been practiced for thousands of years by Aboriginal people.”

Kristi describes a day that was pivotal for her.

“We did a field trip with the Murumbung Rangers. They are the ACT Parks and Conservation Indigenous team who work across Canberra’s reserves. I met them and I said, ‘I want to do what they do.’”

Kristi Lee holding a quolla at Mulligans Flat Sanctuary

Monitoring quolls at Mulligans Flat Sanctuary. Photo: Swimming Wombat Photographics


And so she did. A year later, Kristi was working with the same Murumbung Rangers at the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust, an NGO that looks after Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary and Jerrabomberra Wetlands in Canberra. Initially working as a guide, sharing stories of wildlife conservation with the community, Kristi worked hard to incorporate cultural knowledge into her tours and activities. She went on to run Reconciliation Day events at the wetlands with local Indigenous businesses; to collaborate with ACT Parks in preparing habitat for threatened bettongs and quolls; and to consult with the local Ngunnawal community on conservation projects. Kristi even got to work with David Attenborough’s film crew capturing footage of a Bundjalung totem animal, the echidna (bunninj).

Kristi says she’s grateful to the many people who shared their cultural knowledge, language and stories with her on her journey to receiving the NAIDOC award, especially as she was so far away from her mob and Country.

“Even though I’m not on my ancestral lands, it still brings a sense of identity, belonging and connection to culture, and it has driven me to want to learn more about my own mob, too.”

Kristi Lee

Career story

Finding her way to care for Country

Kristi Lee, a Githabul Bundjalung woman and ANU graduate, has received the ‘Caring for Country’ award at the 2019 ACT NAIDOC Awards.

Tabitha Carvan 19 July 2019
PhD student, Rajika Kuruwita

PhD student, Rajika Kuruwita


“You’ve watched Star Wars, right?”

That’s how Rajika Kuruwita begins when explaining her PhD thesis. Despite what you may think, she does not study sci-fi films.

Rajika, known as Reggie, is an astronomer. Her PhD is on a subject which very much exists IRL, but is actually best known from fiction, so that’s where she always starts. Literally: her thesis opens with a quote from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“You know in Star Wars, the planet Tatooine?” she goes on. “Can you tell me something strange about Tatooine?”

Tatooine has two suns, as does Douglas Adams’ planet Magrathea, and Doctor Who’s Gallifrey, and so many other sci-fi planets that there’s actually a Wikipedia page called “Binary stars in fiction”. But when astronomers think about planet formation, they’re not as imaginative as sci-fi writers.

“Usually astronomers think about planets being formed around one sun - because we have one sun and that’s the easiest case to consider,” Reggie says. “We’ve never really thought very much about binary systems or more complicated systems like three or four stars.”

“The thing is, we’ve discovered planets in systems with multiple suns. They exist, they have names, but we don’t know much about their formation. So my thesis is looking at how easy, or difficult, it is for planets to form in these binary systems.

“Basically, I want to know: how likely is Tatooine?”

Through observational work using the 2.2-metre telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, and theoretical work using the computational power of NCI, she says she “pecked away at an answer.”

“The research hints that maybe the ingredients to make planets live for just as long around binary stars as they do around single stars. So what that could mean is, it’s just as likely to make planets around binary stars as it is around single stars.

“The conclusion is we should look at binary stars to find more planets. We’ve sort of ignored them for a while just because they’re hard.”

Reggie received a job offer right after submitting her thesis and is now working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen. It’s the next step on a journey she started a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

“Astronomy is pretty much what I wanted to do from the very beginning. I always attribute it to my Grade 3 primary school teacher teaching us about the solar system. It blew my mind that there were planets in the solar system so different to Earth, like Venus with its acidic rain and gas giants like Jupiter.

“At that moment, my whole perception of the universe got really big.”

Relative to the universe, the distance between Copenhagen and Canberra doesn’t seem too far, and Reggie says she definitely would not miss the chance to return for her graduation.

“I love this place. I’m sure I’ll always come back, and bring with me lots of connections from around the world.”

Find out how an astronomy degree from ANU can expand your universe.

Student profile

Dawn of a new era for PhD grad – now featuring twice as many suns

Rajika Kuruwita is an astronomer. Her PhD is on a subject which very much exists IRL but is actually best known from fiction, so that’s where she always starts.

26 June 2019
Photo of Dr Bradford and Sir Mark Oliphant

Dr Bradford and Sir Mark Oliphant. Credit: Rare Books & Special Collections, The University of Adelaide Library


When Elizabeth Bradford was completing her PhD in theoretical physics at ANU, the view from the Oliphant Building wasn’t of Lake Burley Griffin, but a grassy race track. Her PhD came before the water.

It was 1962 when Dr Bradford graduated, the same year that the Research School of Physical Sciences got its first computer, the IBM 1620. Dr Bradford’s graduation marked another first for the school: she was the first female student to receive a PhD in physics.

Dr Bradford came to ANU after completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours in physics and mathematics at the University of Queensland. While she was originally interested in astronomy, she didn’t like the idea of staying up all night completing observations, so instead moved into theoretical physics.

Supervised by Dr Fred Barker, Dr Bradford’s thesis was on proton reactions in light nuclei. While she was the only female PhD student, there were already other women working at the research school as computer operators and ‘calculators’. This was a critical function which many women held within physics at the time, including thousands who served at Bletchley Park - where the newly arrived Head of Theoretical Physics ANU, Kenneth Le Couteur had worked during the war.

Now in her eighties and living in Wellington, New Zealand, Dr Bradford says she has fond memories of ANU from the 1960s.

“I enjoyed my time at ANU. I didn’t face difficulties being a female student – rather I was given positive support.”

Professor Brian Robson, who collaborated with Dr Bradford on two papers and remembers her as a “self-assured student”, says that in many ways, she benefited from being the first.

“There were no other female students, so no-one thought to treat her differently.”

After graduating, Dr Bradford received a scholarship to travel to Copenhagen and Brighton, where her thesis examiners were located, and later spent three years at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, UK, before returning to work for several years at the CSIRO in the Division of Plant Industry.

At this point in her career, she says she realised that theoretical nuclear physics was not her interest, and instead moved to the Applied Mathematics Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in New Zealand, where she stayed until the early 1990s, when DSIR was split into several standalone parts.

“Then I got a job in Fisheries analysing fisheries data, which I enjoyed,” Dr Bradford says. “The part of Fisheries where I was working soon got merged into the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA). By the time I reached 65, I knew that if I was to progress, I would have to do some formal statistical study or retire.”

Dr Bradford opted to retire and study other interests. “I found out more about New Zealand, mainly flora and fauna, and I did courses on classical Greece and Rome.”

Over a cup of coffee at University House, Professor Robson recalls his years working with Dr Bradford. He has been a member of University House for almost 60 years, starting from when he used to live here. He remembers when Canberra’s first traffic lights were installed, and he remembers the lake being filled with water.

It’s tempting to add Dr Bradford’s graduation to a list of these historic moments, but it doesn’t feel like a notch on a timeline, fixed in the past. It feels more fluid than that, like that water rushing into the lake. She set in motion the circumstances for other female physicists to graduate after her, and for a previously closed-off future to open up.

“What she achieved was important,” Professor Robson says. “She showed it could be done.”

The ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering is celebrating its 70th anniversary on October 25, 2019. For more information, please email:

Career story

Celebrating Dr Elizabeth Bradford: the first woman to receive a PhD in physics from ANU

When Elizabeth Bradford was completing her PhD, the view from the Oliphant Building wasn’t of Lake Burley Griffin, but a grassy race track.

13 June 2019
Vanessa PIrotta with a waterproof drone

Vanessa PIrotta with the waterproof drone.


The best known research of Dr Vanessa Pirotta, BSc ’10, is the use of drones to collect whale snot for an assessment of whale health.

I recently participated in the online 10-year challenge. This is where you post a photo of yourself doing something 10 years ago next to a current photo.

Vanessa PIrotta dissecting a squid

I posted a photo of myself during an undergraduate biology course as part of my Bachelor of Science degree at the Australian National University. The older photo is of me conducting a squid dissection during camp at the ANU Kioloa coastal campus.

This was so much fun, especially for a science student in Canberra, having grown up on a farm and with dreams of one day being a marine biologist. Forward 10 years to 2019 and I’m still involved with animal dissections but of the larger variety – working with whales and dolphins.

I have since followed my passion to become a marine biologist and moved to Sydney where I completed a Master of Research at Macquarie University in 2014.

I worked on a project looking at ways to prevent whale entanglement in fishing gear using acoustic alarms. These are small devices placed on nets which send out a tone to acoustically alert whales to fishing gear presence.

Then I went on to a PhD looking at conceptual and practical approaches for cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) conservation. During this time, I led the development of waterproof drones for collecting health information from whales remotely (drones and whale snot), collaborated with road ecologists to create frameworks to protect whales and sharks from global shipping impacts and worked with dedicated whale volunteers as part of a citizen science study focused on migrating humpback whales off Sydney.

I also discovered my passion for science communication and won a national science communication competition called Famelab. I went on to represent Australia in the international finals in the UK where I placed global runner-up.

My time at ANU definitely helped shape my career path. My undergraduate degree provided me with the starting tools for my academic career.

I remember my very first lectures on campus and that invigorating feeling of being able to focus on subjects that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was like year 11 and 12 biology class was every day!

I was able to take classes in real laboratories and was taught by quirky lecturers who made science fun. The campus was also beautiful. I’d often walk around and enjoy the trees when I needed a break.

The benefits of my time at ANU continue through today. For example, I’m often asked about my academic career path, where I refer back to my time at ANU. This is often met with a positive comment about the University.

In addition to my academic foundations, I also made some great friends along the way, many of whom I keep in contact with today. ANU holds a special place in my scientific career and I’ll continue to look back on my time there with fond memories.

Career story

From campus to whale snot

The best known research of Dr Vanessa Pirotta, BSc ’10, is the use of drones to collect whale snot for an assessment of whale health.

22 May 2019

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) have, for the first time, demonstrated the maximum potential of ultra-thin 2D materials to generate electricity using sunlight.

2D materials could one day revolutionise technology like solar cells, mobile phones and sensing devices.

While scientists have been researching these materials for some time, their potential for applications such as solar cells and light detectors has been difficult to quantify.

The research team, led by Dr Hieu Nguyen, used an innovative approach to show the maximum voltage achievable through light absorption for the single-atom-thin materials.

“These monolayers are hundreds of thousands times thinner than a human hair. If they were coated on your car windows, cell phone screen, or even your watch, you would barely see them,” Dr Nguyen said.

“One day a car window or a cell phone screen could harvest sunlight to help power itself.”

The ANU researchers used sticky tape and a spectroscopic microscope to calculate the technology’s maximum potential.

“We started with a big material and just used the tape to ‘exfoliate’ layer by layer, until only a single layer of atoms remained,” PhD candidate Mike Tebyetekerwa said.

“This gives us the most pristine form of the material, allowing us to truly understand its real potential.”


The team then studied the light emitted from the various materials using a microscope equipped with a sensitive camera and detector.

“This way we can just ‘look’ at the materials, and predict their potential performance based on the properties of the detected light,” Mr Tebyetekerwa said.

The results show ultra-thin, extremely lightweight, transparent monolayers should be suitable for high-voltage solar cells.

According to Dr Nguyen, they could provide a voltage of more than 1V – as powerful as established solar technologies.

“This is important as it gives scientists a target to work towards in terms of electrical output. We cross-validated our calculations using other bulk semiconductor materials,” Dr Nguyen said.

“It is exciting that something almost invisible to the naked eye can still absorb sunlight and efficiently convert it into electricity.”

This research was funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP).

The research paper has been published in Advanced Materials


For interview:

Dr Hieu Nguyen 
Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering
ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science
+61 (0) 424 711 703

Mr Mike Tebyetekerwa
Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering
ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science
+61 (0) 432 990 215

For media assistance, contact the ANU media hotline on 02 6125 7979 or email


ANU scientists help unlock the potential of ultra-thin 2D materials

Scientists from ANU demonstrate maximum potential of ultra-thin 2D materials to generate electricity with sunlight.

11 February 2019

Ms Thi Dieu My Pham is the Director of the Centre for Social Research and Development (CSRD) in Hue, Vietnam.  She was awarded an Australian Scholarship to complete a Master’s Degree in Natural Hazards and Disasters at ANU. 

Receiving a scholarship to study at ANU was a life-changing experience for My. Not only did she adapt to life in a new country with a new language, her entire approach to research shifted.

“The diversified study fields expanded my horizons and this really helps with my current work. We deal with several issues that require a holistic approach and critical analysis of different natural and social perspectives to provide effective interventions.”

Since returning to Vietnam, My has worked hard to put the skills she gained at ANU into practice. 

“I live in one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, where economic development is heavily affected by natural hazard impacts. I believe that natural disaster mitigation and risk management carried out by researchers, practitioners and communities will help mitigate the impact of climate change and contribute to the economic development of Vietnam.”

My looks back on her time at ANU with affection for both the people and landscape of Canberra.

“It’s true when people say that Canberra is the “bush” capital. I love the way they protect the environment and landscape.”

But there is one Canberra quirk she recalls with some bemusement.

“I was surprised to see people cycling with weird bicycle hats to avoid bird attacks!”

Such quirks aside, My is especially complimentary about the “erudite and friendly professors and lecturers”. She says that they helped her feel more confident and gave her the motivation to overcome language and culture barriers.

Two people in particular stand out as significant mentors both during her studies and in her professional life.

“The first is my former director and the founder of CSRD, Ms Lam Thi Thu Suu. She also graduated from Australia and motivated me to work in development to support disadvantaged people.

“The second is Dr Doracie Zoleta Nantes, the ANU course convenor of the Master of Natural Hazards and Disasters. She strongly influenced my academic life and showed me that there are no limits to women spending their life in academia.”

Written by Eva Medcalf

Student profile

Protecting vulnerable regions from climate change

Ms Thi Dieu My Pham is the Director of the Centre for Social Research and Development (CSRD) in Hue, Vietnam. She was awarded an Australian Scholarship to complete a Master’s Degree in Natural Hazards and Disasters at ANU.

25 January 2019

Career story

Protecting Australia's endangered species

Dr Kate Grarock is a nominee for the 2019 ACT Australian of the year.