Making a difference offshore

18 September 2015

Did you know the department has an international network of staff in embassies around the globe – in Washington DC, Brussels, Beijing and New Dehli?  

The department’s International Counsellor Network is responsible for maintaining Australia’s bilateral and multilateral science and research relationships, boosting our international reputation, and building better linkages between Australia and international organisations.

This month, our Washington office has been working with two Australian scientists who are visiting the US to talk about an exciting, world-first discovery.

Professor Steven Tingay, head of the Murchison Widefield Array (part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project) and Ms Cleo Loi, University of Sydney graduate, went to the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency recently to present Ms Loi’s work on a new window on the skies of Planet Earth.

While still an undergraduate, Ms Loi proved the existence of huge plasma tubes in Earth’s atmosphere after inventing a new way to use radio telescopes.

The breakthrough discovery was initially met with considerable scepticism, but Ms Loi, 23, has not only proven that the phenomenon exists but also successfully convinced the rest of the scientific community!

The breakthrough came when Ms Loi used the Murchison Widefield Array to map large patches of upper atmosphere in a new way.  Ms Loi found that the plasma (charged particles) in the ionosphere (60 to 1,000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface) are quite structured.  The particles flow in tubular structures that are aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field and yet can move of their own accord.

This discovery is important because these structures cause signal distortions that can affect civilian and military satellite based communications and navigation systems.  Understanding the plasma tubes will help manage disruptions to satellite services and minimise the adverse effects.

For more information about this research, go to the University of Sydney website.

Cleo and Steven have also visited NASA to talk about this discovery, in a visit coordinated by the science counsellor’s staff in the Australian Embassy in Washington. The new Counsellor, Anthony Murfett, will take up the post in the next few weeks. From November 2015 the website and newsletter will feature regular updates from Anthony and the rest of the International Counsellor Network.

Ms Loi’s discovery is a wonderful example of a breakthrough in basic research that has unexpected real-world applications. The continued global interest in her discovery offers an opportunity to build and develop international science linkages and showcase the quality of Australian research.

Shyeh Tjing (Cleo) Loi

Shyeh Tjing (Cleo) Loi graduated from James Ruse Agricultural High School in 2009 and completed a Bachelor's degree in Advanced Science at the University of Sydney in 2014, majoring in physics and mathematics. She was awarded First Class Honors in Physics and a University Medal, receiving the Australian Institute of Physics NSW Branch Prize for Physics Honors and the Astronomical Society of Australia Bok Prize for her undergraduate thesis work. Cleo has produced nine peer-reviewed journal publications (five first-authored) to date, in a range of physical science disciplines including materials science, brain dynamics, solar physics, astrophysics and geospace physics. She will begin her postgraduate studies in 2015 with the Astrophysics group from the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, supported by the Cambridge Australia McCrum Scholarship.

Professor Steven Tingay

Professor Steven Tingay is a Western Australian Premier's Research Fellow, Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, Deputy Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, and Director of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) project. Steven has authored or co-authored over 130 papers in international refereed journals and has attracted over $80m of research funding over the last decade. His main interests are in radio astronomy and astrophysics, and he has been an active contributor to the international SKA project for the last decade.  He has been responsible for the development of instrumentation and software that is now used around the world. Steven currently leads the MWA project, a $50m international radio telescope recently completed and brought into its operational phase in the remote Murchison region of Western Australia. The MWA is the low frequency precursor for the multi-billion dollar SKA Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Steven is an alumnus of the University of Melbourne and of the Australian National University.

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