Celebrating Science Week

Thursday 21 August 2014

National Science Week, held this year from 16 to 24 August, is celebrated at St Catherine’s through the annual Science Assembly, where we mark the achievements of the young scientists at our School.

At this year’s Science Assembly, students presented their involvement in three specific areas:

  • Science Experience – a three-to-four day, hands-on science experience in universities and other tertiary institutions for Year 9 students.
  • Science Students @ Work program – an investigation into the cause of, and care for, those affected by Muscular Dystrophy in order to produce a booklet to entice patients and carers to participate in respite activities offered by Muscular Dystrophy Australia.
  • Astrophysics elective – a pilot program run by Monash University and John Monash Science School: The National Virtual School of Emerging Sciences (NVSES).

The 2014 National Science Week theme for schools is Food for our Future, investigating the question ‘How will science feed the world?’ In order to answer this question, the Science faculty invited Professor Marilyn Anderson from La Trobe University’s Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering, School of Molecular Sciences, Department of Biochemistry, to speak at Science Week Assembly.

Professor Anderson completed a BSc (Hons) at the University of Melbourne and a PhD in Biochemistry at La Trobe University. She spent seven years in the United States working on diabetes and oncogenes, and returned to Australia in 1982 to establish a molecular biology group at the University of Melbourne. In 1995, she moved to the Department of Biochemistry at La Trobe University where she is currently working on defence molecules produced by plants for protection against insect pests and pathogens.

Professor Anderson identified the food for the future being obtainable through genetically modified plants. Global population predictions estimate that the planet will need to feed nine billion people by 2050. Currently half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day, one billion are undernourished and 100 million are starving.

According to Uma Lele, a former senior advisor to the World Bank, “Lifting a billion people out of poverty and feeding an extra 2.3 billion by 2050 will require an increase in cereal production by 70%”[1]. Currently only one month’s supply of grain is in storage, one third of forests have gone, 20% of arable land is lost and cities are expanding in areas of best agricultural productivity. According to British zoologist Charles Godfray, “We have 40 years to radically transform agriculture to work out how to grow more food without exacerbating environmental problems and simultaneously cope with climate change”[2].

Professor Anderson outlined the production of transgenic plants and how this technology has been used to engineer soybean, corn, cotton and canola for resistance to herbicides and insecticides. The benefits of transgenic plants are higher yields, minimum tillage (saves fuel, reduces greenhouse emissions) and no toxic residues in the soil. Genetically modified (GM) crops have been planted commercially for 18 years. In 2013, GM crops covered a global area of 175 million hectares, grown in 27 nations by 18 million farmers. The environmental benefits have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 19 billion kilograms (equivalent to nine million cars in 2010) and chemical insecticide use by 9.1% (equivalent to 443 million kilograms from 2006 to 2010).

Products in the biotech pipeline include rice, wheat and sugar cane, with drought tolerance, high yields, nitrogen utilisation, insect resistance, nematode resistance and herbicide tolerance. GM crops have the potential to contribute to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by optimising crop productivity through drought tolerant corn in North America by 2013 and in Africa by 2017, golden rice in the Philippines by 2014 and insect resistant corn and rice in China.

Professor Anderson’s presentation promoted rich scientific discussions amongst staff and students, prompting many to investigate the food they consume.

Other activities around the School during Science Week included students and staff participating in Science Week Quizzes, where their knowledge of genetically modified food and future resources was tested. Years 9 and 10 students attended a presentation of ‘The Bad Science Show’ and explored suspect science, strange discoveries and weird claims alongside critical and scientific thinking outside the classroom. Meanwhile, Years 7 and 8 students discussed the energy content of food and the energy conversions within the body with Professor Bunsen.

Science Week encourages students to become fascinated by the world they live in and, most importantly, to question the world around them. Being a scientifically literate citizen enables students to change their world not only as a voter but also a consumer.

Ms Vanessa Jackson-McRae
Head of Science

[1] Lele, U. 2010. Food security for a billion poor. Science 326: 1554
[2] Godfray, H C J. 2010. Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science 327: 812.

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