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National Youth Science Forum 2019

National Youth Science Forum 2019

Author: Gay Ellyett
Author Role: Coordinator: Exceptional Scientists' Program

The National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) is an Australia-wide residential program that brings future scientists from across the country together for two weeks at the Australian National University (ANU). Apart from the program being host to an enormous number of exciting lectures and visits, it is also an excellent opportunity to network and to meet new people.

One obstacle between attendees from Brisbane, and the forum, was a 22-hour long bus ride. If I learnt anything from this, it was that sleeping on buses is impossible. Thankfully, the journey was made much easier by the Rotary clubs of Coonabarabran and Cowra who provided us with homemade lunches and breakfasts and an opportunity to stretch our legs.

On our arrival, we met the student staff members who would be running the program and had the opportunity to catch up with our buddies. My buddy, Parker, was an interesting fellow with an interest in environmental science. He came from Gladstone, home of Queensland’s largest multi-commodity shipping port, and already had an array of work experience in the field of environmental science–ensuring the preservation of rainforest in areas assigned for mining and helping to manage the town’s water supply.

Each of us was assigned an interest group based on our favourite areas of science and career aspirations. These catered to a broad range of topics from computer science to physics, and each group was named after a significant scientist in that field. My interest group, Fenner, was named after the well-known Australian scientist Frank Fenner, who contributed to the eradication of smallpox and was instrumental in introducing diseases to control Australia’s feral rabbit population. Over the next two weeks, we were with our interest groups during lectures, STEM visits and workshops.

After our arrival, we were directed to where we would be based for the next two weeks – the ANU’s Burgmann College. Burgie, despite the 40-degree heat, was not airconditioned. With a campus full of future innovators, this slight obstacle quickly becomes a non-issue. Some used elaborate contraptions of blankets, ice and water bottles, while others used two open windows and a fan to draw night air from outside the room in.

Our first full day opened on a high, with a visit to Parliament House. After a quick opening lecture, we were taken on a tour through the building, including key locations such as the House of Representatives and the Senate. We learned about the rules and regulations that underpin parliament, and we put this into practice during a mock inquiry session and parliament sitting.

One of the first STEM visits we attended was a visit to the ANU’s Biology Teaching and Learning Centre. Here we met the lab techs for the building, who shared their knowledge of DNA and identification, culminating in an experiment where we compared a sample of DNA with DNA from several suspects to determine who committed a crime.

In one of several specialist elective lectures that I attended, we were given an insight into Dr Rose Ahlefeldt’s research into Quantum computing – using crystals in the place of traditional components enabling the computer to perform more complicated calculations.

Rotary, as a founding partner of NYSF, has an integral role in its operation. On Sunday, in the middle of the program, we had a Home Stay where we were able to relax after a busy week, catch up on some much-needed sleep and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Five other boys and I were hosted by local Rotarians, Mark and Anthony. We were provided with three course lunches and dinners as well as morning tea. We also met the Austrian exchange student they were hosting. The visit wouldn’t have been complete without meeting their incredibly fluffy dog, Simba.

NYSF provided many new opportunities. One of these was a visit to ANU’s bioanthropology labs. Pouring rice into a Gorilla’s skull might not sound particularly conducive to learning anything important, but through this and other activities we learnt about the links between humans and our ancestors through skulls. What’s more, we also learnt about the incredible wealth of information bones can hold–everything from age to gender–and we also learnt to discern differences in bone structure that meant a skull might belong to the family Homo erectus, rather than Homo sapiens. We then used what we had learnt to try to identify the age and gender of a model skeleton.

One of my favourite visits was to the Mulloon Institute and creek farms. Here we met Luke Peel who shared with us an incredible wealth of information on the cutting-edge of regenerative farming. Their regeneration project has been running since the early 2000s, where they have transformed an over-farmed and arid piece of land into one of the most arable and fertile farms in the area, with a 65% higher yield than the area’s conventionally farmed average. When the project started in around 2006, there was no grass or creek to be seen, water flow was non-existent, and the area looked more like a desert than a farm. Since then, despite the numerous droughts, green grass now covers the land and the creek is home to some of Australia’s most threatened species–all of whom are thriving. What made this visit so interesting for me, was that it really revealed a cutting-edge side of agriculture and farming that most of us don’t see. After visiting the research part of the farm, we visited the Mulloon Creek’s 20,000 free-range chicken farm–which produces more than 80,000 eggs a week. We were given a tour of the farm’s two new brooding sheds, as well as the fields where the chickens graze.

The Jerrabomberra Wetlands are somewhat of a surprising place due to their proximity to inner-city Canberra. These wetlands have been kept safe due to their proneness to flood–and thank goodness for that, since the wetlands are home to such a diverse array of wildlife. Most of the day was spent bird-watching. We saw the peculiar spoonbill and caught glimpse of the elusive snipe– a migratory bird from Japan. We also had the opportunity to don a pair of waders, and struggle through the mud and water of the wetlands to observe an array of water-born bugs and worms.

The exciting opportunities kept coming. There was a video conference from Dr Michael Doser who works at CERN. We had the opportunity to ask him about CERN and the kind of experiments and projects they are currently involved in, including the Future Circular Collider, designed to outperform the Hadron collider and bring us closer in the search for dark matter and energy.

Partners Day was an excellent opportunity to make connections and to get an idea of the people and companies that make programs like the NYSF possible. It also had the added benefit of highlighting job prospects that many of us may not have heard of and familiarising us with some of the big names in science and education.

One aspect of science that is often overlooked is that of communication. Having the ideas is all well and good, but an inability to communicate them means they will be of little use to anyone else. During a lecture on Data visualisation, we heard from an editor specialising in the editing and publishing of reports, statistics and other science related media.

One of the final workshops I attended was the STEM+ agriculture workshop. We met Olympia Yarger, the Managing Director of Goterra, a small company specialising in the farming of bugs, in particular, black soldier fly larvae and mealworms. I was surprised at the broad range of applications that these insects had, including cattle feed and human consumption for those who are brave enough. Most impressive though, was the sheer amount of food waste that these swarms of insects can consume. The operation is rapidly expanding, and it was exciting to learn about a company that is leading the charge in revolutionising agriculture by allowing farmers to move away from traditional cattle feed, and in combatting food waste. The workshop also taught us how to start a compact meal worm farm of our own, and how to sell and breed the worms within.

NYSF is an experience that escapes words–no matter how many of them you use. It’s difficult to measure or generalise the impact it has on a person since for most it is incredibly unique and different from what another person might experience. Whether it broadened someone’s horizons for a future career or re-kindled someone’s interest in science, or was even just a great opportunity to meet a whole lot of like-minded people, the event’s influence is undeniable. What you learn is incredible and all of it is on the very cutting-edge of science. It’s incredibly exciting to see the kinds of discoveries and opportunities that await us. Before attending I thought that describing the event as life-changing might be a hyperbolic, but having come away from it I can attest to the accuracy of this description–I do not know a single person who did not develop in some way through their participation in the Forum.

I would encourage anyone currently in Year 11 with an interest in science or a STEM related career to consider applying for the program. Expressions of interest will be open for the month of March.

Daniel Roy, Year 12

During the Christmas holidays, Daniel Roy, Oliver Lindsay and I attended the National Youth Science Forum. This was a ten-day event, based at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. Each day was filled with exciting STEM activities and awesome opportunities.

During the session, I was part of a Chemistry group. As part of this group, we went on many chemistry-related lab visits, including going to the ANU chemistry labs. Here, we experienced working in university labs and completed a titration to determine the amount of Vitamin C in orange juice–as well as made slime and ice cream, which we all joked about, hoping that university chemistry really does involve making food every lesson.

Another one of the highlights of NYSF was the Science Dinner, which was held at the National Museum. NYSF Alumni, scientists from our STEM visits, special guests, Rotarians, members of the NYSF corporate team, staffies and students all attended the event. There was an opportunity for us before the dinner to mingle and work on our networking skills, as well as learn about the interesting lives and careers of the many guests.

This was followed by a formal dinner, during which we heard from a few different speakers, including Alan Finkel who is the Chief Scientist of Australia. He talked about his personal life as well as where he sees the future of science. Fortunately, I was seated at Alan’s table for the dinner, meaning I had the privilege of speaking with him personally about spinal reconstruction over dinner, which was very, very cool. I also sat next to the CEO of Lockheed Martin, a major sponsor of the NYSF program, as well as the deputy chair of NYSF. They were both very interesting to talk to.

The highlight of the camp for me was meeting some truly amazing students. It was so interesting to meet people from all different walks of life, some from rural Australia or even from overseas, who were all united by their passion for science. I really enjoyed talking to people about their lives–where they live, what they do in their spare time, and of course, their passion for science and plans for the future.

Overall, NYSF was one of the best experiences of my life. I would highly recommend NYSF to current Year 11 students who are passionate about science.

Izzy Tame, Year 12

During January, I went down to Canberra for the NYSF. For the duration of the two-week forum, we were given countless opportunities that were completely inspiring as someone who is interested in STEM.

The diversity of science topics that we covered was one of the things that struck me the most. In the morning, we would be going to a lab visit and learn how to sequence DNA, and by the evening we were being lectured to about particle physics before video calling CERN–the home of the Large Hadron Collider.

It wasn’t, however, all lab visits and lectures. We made friends from across Australia and talked with people who work in industries that we’re interested in. Hearing from passionate researchers and post-graduate students about the fields that they are dedicating a chunk of their daily lives to is something that I believe is completely unparalleled.

I took so much away from NSYF, and everything that it offered me made it an experience that I believe has shaped my future. I could not recommend strongly enough to any Year 11 students who are interested in STEM to consider NYSF when applications open on 1 March.

Oliver Lindsay, Year 12