Higher education commentators spend a lot of time opining about what universities should, could or ought to do in the relentless drive for change and improvement. This is all legitimate: higher education is our passion – we think it’s great, and we want it to be even better. In fact, HECG’s mission is to help them to improve their operations across various fields.

Sometimes, though, it’s good to pause and smell the roses … and the university bouquet is pleasant indeed. So, today and in future posts, I’m going to celebrate what universities do and are doing every day, from research, to teaching, to student activities.

Day in, day out, year after year, they do a brilliant job. In a world of endless bad news, they are a constant source of good news. And we love them for that.

So here is my first 10 Reasons Why We Love Universities. This one centres on research. Its focus is on Australian universities. There is no complex logic behind the choices. It’s as simple as this – I went to 10 university research websites and picked out the first thing that grabbed my attention.

In no particular order, here they are:

The University of Tasmania. Professor Brad Potts’s research passion is eucalypt genetics. An article on the university website described his role with diverse organisations, from those managing native eucalypt forests for conservation, to those breeding eucalypts for plantations.

Understanding the response of eucalypts to environmental change is a key line of research for both economic and conservation purposes. His applied discoveries help answer questions like how do we improve plantations to produce better paper? How can we optimise the recovery of products such as timber and veneer from a plantation resource instead of using native forests? How do we know which type of tree is best suited to each site?

Professor Potts is currently working with Greening Australia to restore landscapes by establishing trees in harsh, dry conditions.

Charles Sturt University. An international scientific collaboration led by CSU’s Professor Geoff Gurr has found that flowers around rice crops can have a dramatic impact on pest control. According to a report:

Professor Gurr said nectar-producing plants such as sunflower and sesame grown around rice crops in parts of Asia promoted spiders and beneficial insects that controlled serious rice pests such as leafhoppers.

“The levels of pest suppression from ‘flower power’ are so dramatic that the farmers hosting our field experiments applied fewer sprays while rice yields increased by five per cent,” Professor Gurr said.

“This is a double bonus for farmers as they save money on input costs and labour as well as getting extra income from the higher rice yields.”

Farmers were able to harvest the border flower crops for local use or sale, and benefit from fewer sprays with fewer side effects on their chickens and other livestock that are often reared in or around rice fields in Asia.

Curtin University. Researchers are a step closer to establishing a way for people with type-1 diabetes to introduce insulin into the body without the need for injections, through the development of a unique microcapsule, said an article on the university website:

People with type-1 diabetes generally have to inject themselves with insulin daily and test glucose levels multiple times a day. Dr Hani Al-Salami, Curtin’s School of Pharmacy, is leading the collaborative project (with the University of Western Australia) using microencapsulation technologies to design and test whether microcapsules are a viable alternative treatment for people with type-1 diabetes.

“Since 1921, injecting insulin into muscle or fat tissue has been the only treatment option for patients with type-1 diabetes,” Dr Al-Salami said.

“The ideal way to treat the illness, however, would be to have something, like a microcapsule, that stays in the body and works long-term to treat the uncontrolled blood glucose associated with diabetes.”

“We hope the microcapsules might complement or even replace the use of insulin, in the long-term but we are still a way off. Still, the progress is encouraging and quite positive for people with type-1 diabetes.”

University of Technology Sydney: Research from UTS’s ithree institute shows that controlled infection of parasites could be harnessed to prevent the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). A university report said:

Lead researcher Dr Sheila Donnelly said the goal was to develop a treatment, which if delivered at diagnosis would stop or slow down the clinical progression to severe disability that occurs in people with MS. Anecdotal reports over the last 15 years have indicated that countries with greater exposure to parasitic worms have lower rates of autoimmune diseases – including MS – in their populations. This has prompted a growing number of experimental studies which have produced significant evidence to support these claims.

Donnelly and co-investigator Associate Professor Judith Greer from the University of Queensland used this evidence as the basis for their research.

“People who are actively infected with these worms don’t seem to suffer as much from the autoimmune diseases that are so prominent in the western world,” says Donnelly.

“To prevent tissue damage as they migrate through their human hosts, parasitic worms secrete molecules which dampen excessive inflammation,” says Donnelly. “We are using those same molecules to switch off the inflammatory response that mediates diseases like MS.” 

University of Newcastle. A breakthrough new microscope, two decades in the making, is set to open up a new window into the scientific world, according to the university.

The scanning helium microscope (SHeM), developed by a team at the University of Newcastle (UON), led by Professor Paul Dastoor in collaboration with researchers from the University of Cambridge (UK), uses neutrally charged helium instead of light – which can destroy certain samples due to its electric charge, to allow delicate materials to be accurately imaged for the first time.

University of South Australia. A research project is aimed at promoting literacy in young children. Developed in partnership with United Way South Australia, the United We Read Radio Story-time program is providing free books for parents to share with their children, supported by a regular story-time radio show to help boost literacy levels:

Radio presenter/producer and UniSA Journalism Lecturer, Dr Heather Anderson, says the shows are part of a broader research project exploring how radio can add value to the United We Read early intervention book reading program currently underway in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

“What we’re investigating in this research is how radio can further engage children in their love of reading and assist parents’ involvement, regardless of their own levels of literacy.”

Queensland University of Technology. QUT has developed a new blackspot identification method that offers an unbiased prediction of crash counts and allows a more accurate way to identify high-risk crash sites, says a university media release.

Amir Pooyan Afghari, from QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, said the blackspot program aimed to reduce crashes by targeting high-risk locations and funding remedial works such as re-aligning the geometry or widening the shoulder of the road.

As part of Mr Afghari’s study, crash data from Queensland’s state-controlled roads were run through the QUT blackspot identification model known as the Bayesian latent class model.

“Instead of considering a single crash risk, the QUT model analysed multiple crash risk processes and the result was the identification of an additional 321 crash counts in the top 20 high-risk sites,” he said.

University of Melbourne. Researchers are at work in a new field of research, crowd dynamics – examining how to prevent crowd crush fatalities and improve the safety of buildings and transport hubs.

According to a university report, Professor Majid Sarvi, from the School of Engineering’s Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety, is using virtual reality and crowd modelling with insects and mice to gather information about how crowds react when they’re in an emergency.

The team is analysing Melbourne’s railway stations as a model for how transport users might behave in situations of panic such as terrorist attacks. This information will improve the design of current and future transport infrastructure so that crowds can evacuate quickly and safely.

Working with Dr Korosh Khoshelham and Dr Mohsen Kalantari, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, Professor Sarvi has built a detailed virtual reality model of Melbourne’s Parliament Station, using a high-resolution 3D laser scan of the station and over 400-high definition photos.

Working with ants, woodlice and mice, Professor Sarvi and his team have been able to establish the optimum design for exits in buildings and infrastructure to enable safe and fast emergency evacuations.

Professor Sarvi says one of the reasons there is not a wealth of data around crowd behaviour in disasters is that you cannot put human subjects through genuine emergency conditions in order to test their responses.

“So we decided to use animals as proxy model. It was quite novel, but the hypothesis was there should be some similarity in group behaviour between animals and humans,” he says.

University of Adelaide. Dr Cris Birzer of the Humanitarian Research Group focuses on the fundamental scientific understanding, engineering design, and development of humanitarian technologies for resource-constrained countries and regions to help raise the quality of life and reduce preventable deaths.
This report tells of his cookstove research, which aims to design new cookstoves with increased fuel-efficiency and reduced harmful emissions production.

Cris and his team work with non-Government organisations to develop and implement their cookstove products made from scrap material at minimal cost. They are also working to make essential knowledge regarding the designs available so they can be replicated within the communities that need them the most.

University of Wollongong. Researchers at UOW are creating custom-designed 3D printed surfboard fins that allow surfers to improve their performance in the water.

According to this report, the project, part of UOW’s Global Challenges program, aims to rethink current surf fin designs and manufacturing techniques to create new shapes, sizes and materials that are more efficient and tailored to the individual surfer’s needs and the waves they ride.

“We want to come up with new, more efficient fins that can be bespokely designed for a particular surfer and a particular wave,” Project leader Professor in het Panhuis said.

“Most current techniques involve moulds that are expensive to make and hence, are harder to customise based on individual surfer’s needs. In contrast, 3D printing is a process that allows for rapid prototyping and rapid optimisation of designs for individual surfers.” 

To compile data on fin and surfing performance, Professor in het Panhuis has been using a small GPS tracking device that is fitted to the nose of the boards of an intermediate surfer and a talented club rider. The data is compared to that of a pro rider on the world tour circuit who has been surfing with a similar tracking device.