Seven researchers receive ARC Future Fellowship funding

15 September 2022
$6.5m awarded to Sydney researchers
Researchers from engineering, health, science, music, and media and communications have been announced as ARC Future Fellows, receiving a combined funding amount of $6.5 million to forward impactful research.

From quantum computing and chemical engineering through to neurology and the impact of the digital gaming on children, University of Sydney researchers have been awarded over $6.5 million by the Australian Research Council in its first round of 2022 ARC Future Fellowship funding.

The scheme funds mid-career researchers who are focused on finding solutions to key industry challenges and training the next generation of researchers under the ARC Future Fellowships scheme.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Emma Johnston said: “I congratulate our seven new Future Fellows who will lead research into quantum computing, ‘green’ chemical engineering, neurology, machine learning, geometry, the impact of the digital gaming on children, and understanding Australia’s cultural past. It is fantastic to see the innovative work of our outstanding mid-career researchers recognized with these extremely competitive fellowships.

“The research of our new cohort of Future Fellows covers a wonderful breadth of disciplines and has the potential to change lives for the better. I am confident we will see even more success in this scheme in future years as we focus on providing the very best environment to support our early- and mid-career researchers to excel as part of our new University strategy."

Ms Judi Zielke PSM, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Australian Research Council (ARC), said: “The ARC Future Fellowships scheme attracts and helps retain the best and brightest mid-career researchers, as they undertake research in areas of national importance.

“These new Future Fellowships are awarded to outstanding mid-career researchers, who will receive funding support for the next four years to undertake innovative research in many exciting areas, with many potential benefits for Australians.”

Research to look into function of brain’s membrane proteins

A project led by Professor Renae Ryan from the Faculty of Medicine and Health, which has received almost $1.45 million from the ARC – the largest amount received by any recipient in this year’s cohort – will look into how membrane proteins transport chemical messengers in the brain.

Cells from all life forms have a barrier membrane containing nanoscale machines that control what moves in and out of cells. These machines are vital for many processes including how cells talk to each other in the brain, and how cells absorb nutrients.

Disrupted cellular communication can lead to diseases such as epilepsy, while cancer cells use these machines to scavenge nutrients to fuel their rapid growth. The project will generate new knowledge of how these nanoscale machines work that will ultimately help Australian researchers and our pharmaceutical industry better understand the mechanisms of cellular communication and design new drugs to treat epilepsy and cancer.

The project will provide training in the use of cutting-edge infrastructure and innovative scientific techniques that are needed for jobs in drug discovery across Australia’s higher education and pharmaceutical sectors.

Producing high-value chemicals from renewable biomass resources

Professor Jun Huang from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has received over $1 million to forward the production of high-value chemicals from renewable alternatives, including biomass resources such as sawdust and agricultural waste.

Professor Huang will develop a unique nano-engineering approach to design ‘hierarchical’ catalysts for the selective conversion of biomass into tailor-made products, such as confectionery sweetener and chewing gum and dispersing agents for pharmaceuticals and xylitol – a key ingredient for vitamin C synthesis, with a total global market of over 300 million metric tonnes per year.

Hierarchical catalysts are like multifunctional nanoreactors in that they can complete multi-step reactions in the one catalyst, raising process and economic efficiency, unlike regular catalysts which can only produce a ‘one step’ reaction.

Advanced in situ spectroscopic techniques, which allow the investigation of various media at the atomic scale, will be employed to establish the catalysts. The knowledge gained through this process will be crucial for the optimisation of processes and resources in the biorefining industry and Australia’s nascent ‘green’ chemical engineering economy. 

Understanding how digital gaming monetises children

Dr Marcus Carter from the Discipline of Media and Communications in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has been awarded over $900,000 to conduct research to understand the monetisation of children in the digital games industry with the hope of benefitting children, parents and game developers through improvements to the design of games for children.

Based in the Sydney Games and Play Lab, Dr Carter will study children’s experiences in “freemium” games (those which are free of charge, but money is charged for additional features, services, or virtual or physical goods); parental attitudes and strategies; participatory research with game developers; and an examination of the platform and regulatory environment that shapes game monetisation.

Dr Carter hopes to use his research to develop guidelines and recommendations for parents seeking to negotiate children’s digital play, new ethical frameworks for the design and implementation of digital games for children, and actionable advice for policymakers and practitioners.

Advancing the atom-based quantum computer and quantum clock

Quantum physicist Dr Ting Rei Tan at the Quantum Control Laboratory (QCL) in the Faculty of Science will lead a project enabling new technological capabilities to overcome challenges in scaling up quantum computation and advancing quantum clocks.

Dr Tan, who was awarded $824,000, aims to develop a versatile dual-species atomic instrumentation paired with precision laser systems. The advanced technological platform will be augmented by an extensive toolbox of quantum control engineering protocols to perform error-robust quantum operations for fault-tolerant quantum computation and high-precision spectroscopy.

The expected outcomes will also benefit other disciplines: advanced quantum simulations for chemical dynamics, precision spectroscopy for astronomy, next-generation lasers, tests of fundamental physics, and quantum-enhanced positioning, navigation, and timing.

Music to unlock Australia’s cultural past

Dr Amanda Harris from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has received over $950,000 for her research into the musical encounters of Australia’s past. Focusing on the century from 1888-1988 – a key period of contestation over Australia’s national identity – it will explore how musical encounters can inform new understandings of culture, place, networks of people, and policy in recent Australian history.

Dr Harris‘s research will apply collaborative, intercultural and interdisciplinary approaches, drawing on historical, musicological and ethnographic methods.

Situating histories of musical encounter in Australia’s Oceanic location and colonial history, the project will also build a research team of postdoctoral and HDR scholars, generating new knowledge about Australian musical institutions, sites and intercultural encounters. It aims to have benefits for the diversification of curricula, as well as implications for Australian cultural policy.

Machine learning to develop cyber-armour

Dr Tongliang Liu, Director of the Sydney Artificial Intelligence Centre and Director of the Trustworthy Machine Learning Lab in the School of Computer Science will lead research to defend devices from adversarial attacks using advances in AI and machine learning. 

Dr Liu, who received almost $765,000, hopes to contribute to the next leap in artificial intelligence by exploring methods of developing robust, high-performing AI and machine learning tools using low-quality data. Previously, when training data was of low-quality, trained models or tools would underperform. 

Expected outcomes of this project include theoretical foundations for modelling adversarial noise and the next generation of intelligent systems to accommodate data in a noisy and hostile environment. In autonomous driving systems, for instance, adversarial patches can lead to a car misjudging the colour of a traffic light or treat a stop sign as a high-speed sign.

Broad-based mathematics to lead to long-term applications

Associate Professor Kevin Coulembier from the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science was granted almost $900,000 to forward research in algebra and geometry.

The funding will allow him to construct geometric theories based on newly discovered tensor categories to solve open problems in representation theory, algebra and category theory, and to establish profitable new connections between the influential theories of affine group schemes and classifying spaces.

The geometric theories will be developed universally, generalising both classical algebraic geometry and super geometry from physics. Associate Professor Coulembier hopes this universal approach will ensure a broad basis for long term applications of geometry in numerous areas of science, as well as collaboration between scientific disciplines.

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