Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

What’s the go with ENSO?

The Bureau of Meteorology recently upgraded their El Niño Watch to an El Niño Alert, meaning that there is 70%, or triple the normal likelihood of an El Niño developing in the remainder of this year. It made quite a bit of news, especially as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their 1.5°C report at a similar time. Since then, however, the Royals’ visit has had everyone’s attention, and we’ve all forgotten about the looming possibility of an El Niño.

But what is El Niño and why should we care?

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (pronounced El Neen-yo) is one of the major global climate drivers, influencing regions that surround the Pacific Ocean. It is a system involving changes in the ocean and the atmosphere, and is one of the strongest influences on Australian year-to-year sea surface temperatures and rainfall. According to the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, El Niño and La Niña events occur every 4 to 7 years, meaning that the impacts on the climate of Australia can be seen on ten-year timescales. ENSO events are generally led by changes in the amount of heat in the tropical oceans.

ENSO has three phases: neutral, El Niño, and La Niña.

A neutral phase means there is neither an El Niño, nor a La Niña event. The trade winds that blow from East to West across the Pacific bring warm, moist air across the tropics to Australia, causing average rainfall. The waters off the coast of eastern Australia are warmer than the waters off the coast of western South America, and the temperature of the central Pacific is in between.

The neutral phase of ENSO. // Reproduced with the permission of the Bureau of Meteorology.

La Niña
A La Niña event occurs when the trade winds strengthen, forcing the pool of warmer water near Australia to be confined near the far-western tropical Pacific. This causes the temperature of the water to increase further – which helps rainclouds to form – and there is above average rainfall over eastern and northern Australia.

A typical La Niña phase. The trade winds force the warm pool more into the tropics, making it even warmer. // Reproduced with the permission of the Bureau of Meteorology.

El Niño
An El Niño event is the opposite of a La Niña; the trade winds weaken (and can sometimes reverse!), leading to warmer waters in the eastern Pacific near South America, and cooler waters near Australia. There is then lower-than-average rainfall over eastern Australia, making for dry, drought-like conditions.

A typical El Niño phase. Dry conditions in Australia are brought about through weakened trade winds. // Reproduced with the permission of the Bureau of Meteorology.

What does that mean for us?

An El Niño Alert is big news – it isn’t a guarantee of an El Niño forming, but most criteria have been ticked for one to develop. Model outlooks suggest further warming is likely – as it could affect how this summer plays out, putting questions to fire season preparedness, drought, agriculture, and health.

From the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, the effects of an El Niño can include:

  • Reduced rainfall
  • Warmer temperatures
  • Shift in temperature extremes
  • Increased frost risk
  • Reduced tropical cyclone numbers
  • Later monsoon onset
  • Increased fire danger in southeast Australia
  • Decreased alpine snow depths

This summer, we may also be affected by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole event, as well. This works in a similar way to ENSO – a positive event is where there are cool waters off the coast of western Australia, meaning less rainfall over central and eastern Australia.

When combined, the two systems can amplify each other, increasing the chances for heatwaves, droughts, and bushfire weather.

Unfortunately, this means that our drought-affected regions of NSW and QLD probably won’t get relief any time soon.

To keep an eye on what our scientists predict will happen with ENSO, go to the Bureau of Meteorology’s ENSO Outlook website.

Plastic can actually be delicious

“Yum!” I say as I take a huge bite out of my food wrapping. But there’s something wrong with it. The taste of my meal is a bit lacking- “I’m missing the sriracha, can’t eat my plastic without that!”

My dinner: A glossy chunk of plastic with a side of strawberries. Delicious. Credit: Author’s own

Feeling a little weirded out about that scenario? Thinking that it’s disgusting to pair sriracha with plastic wrap and strawberries? Well in actual fact, that can very much be the future of Australians, and the world (Okay, so maybe not paired with sriracha. But you get the point).

Because guess what? Edible plastic is legitimately a thing!

Although the average plastic has many great benefits to society, plastic is known to last around more than 400 years on earth before saying their final goodbyes to humanity.

Landfills become overflowed with abandoned plastic waste, increasing the risk of it blowing away and littering the faraway homes of oblivious sea creatures. The saddest thing is, sea creatures are clueless about the harm plastic does to them. This is mainly because plastic looks, smells and sounds like normal food to them.

Dolphin: “Oi, looky ‘ere George. There’s some Jellyfish on me fin! Tonight, dinner’s on me.” Credit: Jedimentat44 via Flickr under the license

In order to combat the devastating effects of plastic, geniuses across the globe have devised all sorts of solutions to the monster of a problem.

One solution being the creation of biodegradable, edible plastics.

Did you say, milk and fruity plastic?!

Yes, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) team lead by Peggy Thomasula has invented food covering made of casein, a type of protein obtained from milk. Citrus pectin extracted from citrus fruits was added to strengthen the casein plastic. The final product was a plastic with tinier pores, thus allowing it to preserve food more effectively, up to 500 times more effective than the usual petroleum wraps.

Can you imagine these as a plastic? Credit: 27707 via Pixabay

The casein, pectin plastic appeared very similar to the usual plastic after a few touch ups. However, it was less malleable than traditional plastic food wrap, better at preserving food and 100% edible. Seems like an acceptable trade off to me!

The USDA has also create food film from their plastic invention. The casein pectin film can drastically lower the amount of traditional plastic used in products such as singly wrapped cheese sticks.

They’ve also made a couple of other improvements to the plastic that you can read up on here.

However, unfortunately there are some cons.

Since Casein is derived from milk, the plastic wouldn’t be suitable for vegans or individuals allergic to milk casein. So it was thought by Thomasula that their wrapping should be limited to products that already contain dairy.

Want dairy free edible plastic? Lucky there are other kelpy alternatives also being made out there.

Can seaweed really kelp us?

An Indonesian company called Evoware has designed food packaging that is seaweed-based. Not only is it good for the environment, it’s also beneficial to us! Seaweed packs quite a punch in the vitamins department. It also contains high amounts of fiber, good for digestion.

Although it’s tasteless (unless you request flavour to be added), if the thought of chewing on seaweed disgusts you, there are other benefits.

The seaweed packaging is zero-waste. It can dissolve in hot water and be distributed around the garden as a fertilizer! Great for the all the gardeners out there. David Christian, the owner of Evoware shows more uses for their seaweed packaging in this video.

This alternative would be perfect for vegans, those allergic to casein and Muslims, as it’s also halal! It’s more inclusive and can help tackle climate change as seaweed alone absorbs carbon dioxide up to 30-60 times the rate of plants grown on land. This macro-algae is truly amazing!

Seaweed is our friend Credit: Anna Barnett via Flickr under license

Unfortunately, despite these wondrous creations, plastic waste is still a growing problem, hurting many sea creatures. Which is why the focus should also be on reducing your current plastic usage, as well as embracing alternative materials to be used in the wider community.

I know it’s both difficult and unrealistic to harm nothing with our plastic waste, but my goal isn’t to make you go anti-plastic. It’s to get you thinking about the impact you have on our ecosystems. It’s to get you to be more conscious of what you’re throwing away and embrace non-traditional plastic alternatives.

Maybe in the near future, we can all snack on our edible, plastic wrapped strawberries together!

Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No, it’s SUPERVOLCANO

Supervolcanoes! It’s the sort of thing that sounds like it should come from some sort of apocalyptic thriller – you know, where the protagonist runs slowly away from lava for 180 minutes. However, there is actually a lot more to the concept of supervolcanoes than a cheesy movie would have you believe.

Lego Superman mini figure on tree trunk
Photo by Esteban Lopez. Taken from Unsplash.

How does an Aspiring Young Volcano Become Known as ‘Super’?

The term ‘supervolcano’ refers to a volcano that is capable of incredibly large eruptions, known as supereruptions.  More technically speaking, these eruptions are considered to have a magnitude of 8 or above on the volcanic explosivity index and eject over 1015kg of magma – that’s the same weight at 7.1 billion blue whales or 600 billion reasonably priced sedans.

Supervolcanoes also don’t tend to look like your typical volcano. When most people picture a volcano, they picture something that looks like a mountain, a mountain that happens to expel lava on occasion. However supervolcanoes are not like this at all, in fact they resemble craters known as calderas. The reason for this seemingly less conventional shape is that supereruptions are so massive that the ground above simply collapses.

Image result for caldera yellowstone
Yellowstone geyser. Photo by James St. John. Taken from Flickr.

Supervolcanoes, Living in a Town Near You

While there is debate over the exact number of supervolcanoes in existence, they are scattered all over the globe. The largest, and arguably the most famous, of the supervolcanoes can be found at Yellowstone National Park, USA with a hotspot spanning a 600km wide region. The Yellowstone caldera (supervolcano) has been the study of scientists for many a decade as they attempt to access the risk of a supereruptions and the potential fallout. However, the best supereruption is no supereruption at all.

Closer to home, there is a supervolcano just across the pond from in Taupo, New Zealand. In fact, the Taupo supervolcano was the most recent supervolcano to erupt, just a short 26,000 years ago.

Image result for lake taupo flickr
Lake Taupo, in the Taupo region, New Zealand. Picture by Stave Mclellan. Taken from Flickr.

Is it the End of the World as We Know it?

It goes without saying, massive volcanic eruptions pose a lot of dangers to us humans, they’re called natural disasters for a reason. Expelled lava can cause injury and property damage, ash clouds would block out sunlight and halt air travel, and mass amounts sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere could alter our climate of at least a decade.

Despite the potential catastrophe that may come with a supereruptions, forecasts predict that it will not mark the end of human civilization, not even close. Furthermore, the likelihood of a supereruption occurring within this century is quite low. Statistically, supervolcanoes have been known to erupt every 100,000 years or so – and if this trend holds, we’re not due for another one for a while yet.

So is it the end of the world as we know it? I feel fine.

An unlikely winner of the age-old debate?

It’s something that crosses everyone’s mind at least a few times in their life. What’s best to cook with: gas or electric cook tops? Now we could run through the pros and cons of each, like worrying about an open flame in the house or taking forever to boil water. But I have a wild card entry that I think takes the cake, the induction cook top. It wins in the heavily weighted category of scientific brilliance, which easily secures the overall win!

Induction cook top. Credit: anamoly23 via Flickr.

What makes them so great? Well they are about 25 – 50 % faster than traditional cookers and about 13% more energy efficient. This improved efficiency is mostly because the cooker does not actually heat up, only the pan! Now you might have heard about them, but what do you know about how they work?

I’m willing to guess not much, so I’ll try to step you through.

It all starts with magnets and electricity. Just stay with me for a bit and I promise it will all come together. The first thing you need to know about is eddy currents.

Eddy currents were first discovered by the 25th Prime Minister of France, François Arago (1786 – 1853), who was also a renowned scientist. He discovered that, if you take a magnet and its associated magnetic field (which causes things to be attracted to it), and you move this magnet in front of a conductive material, then the changing magnetic field will cause a current to flow in the conductor.

They’re called eddy currents, not because Eddy invented them, but because they move in circles!

Now if we look at this image below, we have a magnet that is moving with the green lines being the magnetic field. This moving magnet then causes little eddy currents to flow, which are the red circles below.

Eddy current diagram. Credit: Chetvorno via Wikimedia Commons

Whenever there is a closed loop of electricity, like in the eddies above, we know that all the electrical energy needs to go somewhere. Usually in the circuit, there is something like a light bulb that takes up all the energy. But in this case, it’s turned into heat – ideal for cooking!

Does that mean I have moving bar magnets in my kitchen?

Not quite. Under the cooktop are a bunch of coils, with electricity running through them. These produce magnetic fields, exactly like a bar magnet would, because of the relationship between electricity and magnetism. But since they are connected to AC power, the direction of the current keeps changing, which means so too does the magnetic field (the north and south poles flip).

When you place an induction pan on the cooktop, this changing magnetic field generates eddy currents in the base of the pan. All the electrical energy that is in the eddy currents is then dissipated as heat, just like how any of your electronics get hot. Except eddy currents are very inefficient, so they generate A LOT of heat. Which is what makes them so great to cook your food with!

You won’t just find eddy currents in the kitchen!

If you’ve ever taken the Inter-City Express or the Japanese Shinkansen trains, they use eddy currents to slow down! This is great since it requires no mechanical contact and lowers wear and tear. The same applies if you recently rode on a roller-coaster, the only reason you are alive today is because eddy currents slowed you down!

Japanese Shinkansen bullet train. Credit: Fikri Rasyid via Unsplash

But how do they slow you down?

Well just like how the coil of electricity formed an electromagnet in the cooktop, eddy currents also have their own magnetic field, because they are circular. Think about it as if you had two magnets, you keep one fixed to a table and you try to slide the other one past. The result is that the moving magnet is attracted to the fixed one and slowed to a halt when they stick together!

This is the same idea behind how the fast trains and rollercoasters can slow themselves down, using magnets and eddy currents! In fact, the very power tools that built the building you’re sitting in today, probably used eddy currents to slow their motor when turned off.

So, what can we take away from today? (1) Induction cookers are indeed the coolest thing you could possibly put in your kitchen (2) François Arago was one multi-talented Prime Minister of France.

3 Things I wish I knew before I started my masters. (Biomedical research)

Exactly 2 years ago from today, I was coming to the end of my gap year and was looking into research labs in physiology, specifically labs that researched the heart and diabetes. I had approached multiple lab heads, emailed them my expression of interest for their projects. But as with many experiences with applications in the past, all I got was silence, no responses, and rejections – a big blow to my self-esteem.

As I persisted with yet more expression of interest emails, finally, a response! A positive one too! So I quickly sent over my CV and my embarrassing undergraduate transcript and miraculously, scored an interview with my supervisor 2 weeks later. In December 2016, I was offered a paid internship in the lab prior to commencing Master of Biomedical Science in Jan 2017.

I was excited to start my masters because in my head…

EXPECTATION: Doing research on something I enjoyed, come and go into the lab as needed, doing some coursework and enjoying the relaxing student life for 2017-2018.

  REALITY: RESEARCH IS HARD WORK. There was always something to do in the lab as part of my project and it’s basically like a job.

Looking back to 2 years ago, I wish I had known a couple of things to help smoothen my transition.

  1. Research requires LONG HOURS
    Weekend work is normal –  especially if you’re working with cell cultures.
    Cells culture work. Image by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr

    This was difficult for me, physically, I did casual weekend work and that meant almost no time for myself to reset each week. But you learn to fit little tasks here and there to make things work. I’d come in the mornings during weekends for some experimental work and go on to work for 8 hours after.On top of that, it meant that taking time to socialize my friends was hard too, so constant bailing on my friends were a norm.

    What I’ve learned from this: Time is precious and time is needed for valuable research. I’ve learned to prioritize what is most important and what can be rescheduled and most importantly, look after myself first. Your friends and family will understand and will still be there for you.

  2. Failure is inevitable with experiments
    and it’s not always your fault  Did this cat just fail? Image by Lori Erickson via Flickr I remember having trouble with some of my experiments for over 5 months and to no avail, I changed everything hoping to find that one root cause that was ruining all my results. Nothing helped, and at a point, I felt like quitting because I felt that it was my fault and that I wasn’t good enough. But I knew I was good in the lab and was always careful to not make mistakes, unsuccessful experiments, tend to dampen one’s self-esteem but it’s important to take a step back and realize that it’s not always your fault.Funnily enough, it was a really simple error out of my control discovered from a bit of fiddling around with my supervisor.

    What I’ve learned from this: I’ve learned to doubt myself less, and not let failures set me back. Instead of doubting yourself first, think about what could have gone wrong and what you can do to fix it. Keep on going because you can do it!! Add oil!!

  3. Your lab members are your harshest critics but also your strongest support pillars
    Lab members are your support pillars. Derived version of an image by Andrew and Annemarie via Flickr

    Being in a lab where everyone is probably one of the few experts in the world in what they do, I feel, warrants you to be of high quality too.Whenever anyone has a public talk coming up, our lab will go through lots of practice talks and questions to prepare you for it.

    And when they ask questions, it’s the worst and the hardest questions to answer, critique your slides down to every last detail … all to prepare for the worst so you can do your best.

    The ongoing support from my fellow lab members is what has kept me sane for the last 2 years.

    What I’ve learned from this: Appreciate your lab mates!!!! and that feedback is a good and fast way to learn/improve, a tough but necessary learning curve for you to do your best.

I hope that maybe one day when the time machine is invented, I’ll come back read this post, but probably still relearn all of this anyway during my master but hopefully learn to relax more and know that everything will be ok!

To current and past grad students, even though our projects would have been dramatically different, maybe you would’ve pulled some parallels with the struggles we go through.

To some future grad students, I hope this has given you a taste of what’s to come. I hope that you too will enjoy a research master as much as I have and just enjoy the ride and learning experience.



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