Tweets from Synchrotron – with Dr Helen Maynard-Casely

We are delighted to be hosting Dr Helen Maynard-Casely on Real Scientists this week.  Helen is a planetary scientist working on modelling planet formation using a combination of complex advanced chemistry, crystallography and X-ray diffraction. With her tweeting stint looming, I visited Helen at her work place – the Australian Synchrotron. Let’s face it, I hardly needed an excuse.  We sat down over a cup of [preferred caffeinated beverage] to talk about her work as a scientist and as a communicator at the Royal Institution, London.


Helen has a PhD in Physics, from the University of Edinburgh and a degree in Planetary Science from University College London. Despite this, or maybe because of it, she is still aiming to be an astronaut when she grows up. Not only loving doing science, Helen also likes to share what she’s up to.  She writes the ‘Shores of Titan’ Column for The Conversationand can often be spotted at science festivals. For the other 51 weeks of the year she tweets at @Dr_HelenMC.

Helen is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Synchrotron where she’s been for the last year and a half.  Her research interests centre about considering simple molecules as planetary-forming materials (as they are in the solar system at Jupiter and beyond); where she seeks to extract fundamental physical parameters from diffraction data. What does this mean? Diffraction is a way of playing with light. When you see the iridescence of butterflies and feathers, that’s diffraction in action.  It’s using grooves in a material to fractionate the light, as it were. Collecting and interpreting diffraction patterns enables us to figure out the properties of the object in question. The same principle is used to underpin a broad range of techniques in science, such as methods used for determining the structure of biological molecules like proteins, which keeps many of the Synchrotron’s beamlines and busy beavering biologists busy.

As you may gather, it’s somewhat difficult to get billowing exploding masses of distant star stuff into Clayton in Melbourne to point a Synchrotron beamline at – there’s not much parking on site due to construction work, for starters – so much of Helen’s work revolves around recreating the extreme conditions of heat, cold and pressure of these alien environments in situ to investigate the structural goings on. One thing that particularly motivates her is changes in crystal structure that occur as you delve deeper into a planets interior.  Her current work is leading to a greater understanding of the geology of the outer solar system, and then examining how these results can be applied here on Earth.

Before moving to Australia she worked in the UK at the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the Christmas Lecturer’s researcher, helping plan and design experiments for the Lectures.  Here she learned, among many things, how to fill a balloon with 10 kg of jelly, how to look after a colony of leaf cutter ants, and how to train a flea.

I asked Helen about her time as a flea wrangler.

“Fleas haven’t been on television for forty years,” she said. “I had to hunt down the last person known to be able to wrangle fleas – a guy who was a student at Cambridge.”

That’s right. There are trained flea circus directors. So if you’ve got a scientific itch to scratch, be sure to follow Helen’s week on RealScientists.

What you tweetin’ bout Willis

A great big RealScientists thanks and farewell to Dr Paul Willis of RiAus for his week curating the @RealScientists account. We hope you found Paul’s tweets about science communication, science funding and science policy (not to mention science moobs) as interesting and engaging as we did. Paul’s time with us saw an array of milestones, including the arrival of our thousandth follower (rewarded with a 20 million year old crocodile tooth as a lucky door prize… you just don’t get that sort of thing from @Sweden, folks) and ABC radio interviews with both Paul and our Fearless Leader Upulie. We didn’t even seem to lose followers when Paul started talking about his big bone.

For those who missed any of Paul’s curation of the account, catch up via ScienceSarah’s Storification of Paul’s tweetery:

Next up on RealScientists is Dr Helen Maynard-Casely of the Australian Synchrotron. Which apparently we’re giving away to our 100,000th follower, probably to the dismay of the people who work there. However I read it on Twitter so it must be true. More about @Dr_HelenMC in our next post. Thanks for reading, and keep following!

A (Live-Tweeted) Week In Science with Dr Paul Willis

Paul Willis RiAus 3

This week, RealScientists are thrilled to welcome Dr Paul Willis, Director of RiAus. Paul is well-known in Australia as a science broadcaster with the ABC, presenting and producing on science shows such as Quantum and Catalyst. His passion for science and science communication has seen him curating museum specimens in Sydney, measuring dead crocodiles in Germany, shivering on Antarctic expeditions and touring Australian schools with a life-sized inflatable dinosaur, which instantly makes him Our Kind Of Guy. Amongst all of that, he still found time to be a leading researcher in vertebrate paleontology with a strong record of publication in both academic and popular science. Paul’s passion for informing, educating and amusing people of all ages and backgrounds about science has now taken him to the Royal Institute of Australia (RiAus), based in Adelaide, whose mission is to bring science to people, and people to science.  Paul usually tweets at @Fossilcrox. He also presents a weekly video wrap of the latest and greatest in science, The Week In Science, every Friday on the RiAus website.

It Came From The Swamp, And Tweeted About Science…

A massive thank-you to medical entomologist extraordinaire Dr Cameron Webb aka @MozzieBites for his superb stint on RealScientists this week, tweeting from the swamps of the ACT about his research into mosquito populations in natural and man-made wetlands. We’ve been hugely impressed by the interest in Cameron’s work from scientists and non-scientists alike. We hope you’ve all found out the answers to your queries as to why you and not your friends or partner gets monstered by mosquitoes at barbeques. But if not, be sure to keep following Cameron at his personal account.

UPDATE: The fabulous ScienceSarah has Storified Cameron’s time and tweets on the account, and it’s definitely worth a read if you missed any of the conversation:


We’ve also been blown away by the interest in @RealScientists in just its first week. From everyone behind the account, a great big family-sized bag of gratitude from us to everyone who followed, tweeted, re-tweeted, commented or lurked. In the words of the great HG Nelson, thanks for taking an interest. We have some tremendous voices coming up on the account over the next few months, and also have some big plans for this here blog as well, so stay tuned!

Introducing Dr Cameron Webb, Live From Swamp Land

When I spoke to Cameron about signing up, he told me that he would be wandering around NSW and the ACT looking for mosquitos this week, did I think anyone would want to hear about it? So of course we had to hear from him live from the swamps, giving us an insight into how he uses his research to further public health policies and goals.

Here’s some background on Dr Webb:



Dr Cameron Webb has worked in the field of Medical Entomology for over 15 years and currently works in the Department of Medical Entomology at Westmead Hospital (Pathology West) with a teaching role with the University of Sydney.  His major research interest is understanding the public health risks of mosquito populations associated with constructed and rehabilitated wetlands. This information has been used to develop regionally specific mosquito-borne disease awareness and management strategies for the Hunter, Central Coast and Far North Coast regions of NSW.

Cameron’s PhD research focused on the management of the pest mosquitoes associated with the wetlands surrounding Sydney Olympic Park. The findings of his work assisted in the rehabilitation of many degraded mangrove areas where mosquitoes were identified as symptomatic of degraded environments. Restoring tidal flushing to these areas has assisted in reducing mosquito populations while also improving overall wetland health.

Another area of interest is improvement in public health communication, particularly focusing on the personal protection strategies against nuisance-biting mosquitoes. Cameron has undertaken considerable field and laboratory investigations of insect repellents and takes an active role in the dissemination of their appropriate use to the general public. In this role, Cameron is regularly called upon to communicate current scientific research findings, and often in response to public health warnings issued by NSW Health, with print, radio, television and online media outlets.

Cameron continues to publish the findings of research in international peer reviewed scientific journals as well as books, book chapters, non-peer reviewed journals, magazines and trade bulletins as well as workshop notes and other teaching materials. He also provides professional advice on a consultancy basis to local, state and federal governments, wetland management authorities, engineers, developers and private industry regarding mosquito management strategies. He has also supervised a range of post-graduate research students with the University of Sydney, Australian Catholic University and University of Western Sydney.

Cameron tweets about medical entomology and wetland rehabilitation at @mozziebites  and at his blog:

Farewell and thanks, Dr Rachael Dunlop

We’ve been privileged to launch @realscientists with Dr Rachael Dunlop, who’s taken us through the world of toxins, cell culture and paper reviews. Rachael’s posted many excellent photographs live from the “MacGyver lab”  – the dodgy oven, the silicon chips, the intersection between physics and medical research. We wish her well and bid a fond farewell – and we may hear from Rachael again later in the year.

Next up? Dr Cameron Webb, medical entomologist.