ATA Scientific would like to thank all those that participated in our March 2020 Encouragement Award promotion.

The topic of our latest competition asked the question “Should intelligent robots have the same rights and freedoms that we have?”  As robots develop more advanced artificial intelligence empowering them to think and act like humans, do our legal standards need to change? Some of our participants argued that only those who have living and independently viable human bodies are worthy of moral consideration. Others raised concerns with the advent of ‘deep learning’ and the use of algorithms by their creators as a covert way to absolve themselves of responsibility. Some believe a potential AI takeover is imminent where robots will become “an existential threat” to humans – just like in the movies I,Robot and The Terminator. So, by giving AI full human rights, are we quite literally handing AI the key to our own doom? Only the future holds the answers.…


Three entries were selected to receive our award– first prize at $1500 and 2 runners up at $600 each.

Congratulations to our first prize winner, Xavier John Reid, PhD student at the University of Sydney, School of Life and Environmental Sciences working under the supervision of Prof. Joel Mackay.

“I would like to be able to contribute to society as much as possible, and for me the way of doing this that makes the most sense is through research”.

The broad focus of Xavier’s project involves looking into how chromatin remodelling leads to certain genes being turned on or off. In particular, how chromatin remodelling complexes like the Nucleosome Remodelling and Deacetylase complex achieve substrate specificity through a combination of switching out paralogous subunits, and recognition of particular post translational modifications on histone proteins. Ultimately this will allow better understanding of how aberrant behaviour of these complexes leads to a variety of diseases.

Xavier plans to use his prize to attend either Lorne Proteins 2021 or ComBio 2022 depending on the COVID-19 situation, where he can learn more about the wider fields surrounding his project.

Congratulations to our runner up, Tom Saunders, PhD student at the University of Auckland, School of Biological Sciences in New Zealand. Tom is working under the supervision of Associate Professor Greg Holwell, and Dr Gonzalo Avila from Plant & Food Research.

“I plan to spend the award on a biocontrol-related conference in 2021, such as the second International Congress of Biological Control (ICBC2) in Davos, Switzerland. I’m looking forward to meeting other biocontrol researchers and forging international collaborations. This would certainly help my research and my career enormously”.

Tom’s research focuses on improving the way classical biological control agents are screened for their risks to non-target species before they are released. Tom is using chemical ecology to understand why a biocontrol agent will attack some species and not others, and in particular, how volatile compounds associated with different hosts mediate this host-specificty. His case study is Trissolcus japonicus (or the samurai wasp), the most promising natural enemy of the brown marmorated stink bug, which is a devastating crop pest invasive in Europe and North America, and likely to spread to other regions in the near future. Tom is investigating how the samurai wasp will respond to the stink bug fauna in New Zealand if it were to be introduced there. Tom would like to continue research in this area after his PhD and in the future, be involved in the sustainable development of horticulture in different regions.

Congratulations to our runner up, Cameron McKnight, 3rd year PhD student based at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in the Brain and Mitochondrial Research group, studying under Dr Ann Frazier, Prof. David Thorburn, and Dr David Elliott.

Cameron is using human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC) models to study mitochondrial disease, a group of complex inherited genetic disorders that affect 1 in 5000 live births by adversely impacting cellular energy generation. Despite a number of treatments showing therapeutic promise, none are currently certified for clinical use in mitochondrial disease. To address this issue, Cameron has genetically engineered a panel of hPSC models that mimic mutations known to cause mitochondrial disease in patients. Using disease relevant human heart muscle cells generated from his cell lines, Cameron is performing high-throughput drug screens with several promising compounds. This work could provide the preliminary evidence needed to support a personalised medicine approach to mitochondrial disease by linking targeted therapies to specific genetic causes.

“This award will allow me to make the most of the current situation while working from home, financing subscriptions to Adobe Cloud and BioRender as I use this time to develop some new technical skills and generate figures for my thesis. These funds will also help support my registration fees for EuroMit next year. Although the meeting has been pushed to 2021, I am excited to be able to share what will be my completed PhD work at the largest mitochondrial conference in the world!”

 We would like to thank all those that participated. The next Encouragement Award will be posted on our website soon.

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