Baseline analyses of soil-transmitted helminths in Timor-Leste

On 21 January Suzy Campbell of the Research School of Population Health gave this talk as the final oral presentation of her PhD thesis. Soil-transmitted helmiths are perhaps better known as intestinal worms – a huge burden in impoverished regions of the world. The core of her research was a cluster randomised trial in 24 villages of Timor-Leste providing observations on over 2000 individuals. The treatment was a program of water sanitation and hygiene interventions to work in concert with regular de-worming tablets. Her analysis included mixed logistic regression models and multinomial mixed effects regression, with principal component analysis for creating socio-economic scores on top.

There was a high prevalence of worm infestation observed, but the link to health outcomes such as anaemia and stunting was not so clear, and may indeed be linked more to nutrition. Debate continues amongst public health researchers as to whether a continued presence of worms may actually be protective as far as auto-immune conditions such as asthma and even multiple sclerosis are concerned.


Lasers can do anything

Professor Hans Bachor of ANU was having a busman’s holiday at the Kioloa Coastal Campus of ANU, part of the Walk in a Scientist’s Shoes program. I was having a proper holiday … but when it’s January 4 and it’s a wet day at the beach, what better activity that to hear a talk on lasers?!

Hans took us through the history of the laser, starting with Max Planck and working through the use of lasers for military, industrial and other uses into the 21st century. He had a variety of demonstrations to keep the younger members of the audience on their toes, including a photon detector, balloon-popping using the power of a laser, a neon tube, and laser glasses such as are handed out for New Years Eve fireworks. He also informed us all that laser is an acronym, that was originally loser … But that was never going to fly, was it?!

Fascinating little rock pool critters

Walk in a Scientist’s Shoes is the name of the week-long summer program run by ANU at its Kioloa Coastal Campus. On the afternoon of 4 January it was raining, and Dr Melanie Rug and Associate Professor Alex Maier of ANU were presenting this talk subtitled “A microscopic journey through life in Kioloa rock pools”. So we went along.

Ten microscopes were set up on benches, with one more microscope connected to a PC to allow for multiple viewers. More like a tutorial than a lecture, the room was filled with young children, older children and their parents milling around a table with critters in dishes, along with material to put into a glass slide and take to your microscope to view. Despite it seeming quite crowded, it was surprisingly self-regulating with no long waits for a microscope … and there was always the PC screen to look at if you were having trouble handling microscope viewing with glasses on! It would have been good to have a bit more structured “lecturing” around what what was being viewed as the samples on the table rapidly became hopelessly muddled. That said, the biologists were both approachable and helpful if you did ask them a specific question. After an hour or so the younger kids had lost interest and it was possible to really learn something one-to-one about the crawlies in the local rock pools.

Seventeen equations that changed the world

Good to see a scattering of statistical equations here, such as the Normal distribution (number 7) and the information theory one (number 15). It would be fun to produce a similar list of the top ten, say, statistical equations or models or concepts that changed the world too.

Parental education, pathways through senior secondary college and post-school outcomes in the ACT

Jenny Chesters presented this talk on 10 December as the second in a pair of talks about the work she is dong in this area. She’s using ACT Government data on about 1000 students, including Year 9 NAPLAN results as well as college pathway and post-school destination from a survey 6 months after students finished school. Jenny used multinomial logistic regression models and related the results to theoretical models including human capital theory. Implications for policy included the importance of encouraging students to take appropriate pathways through college including ATAR subjects whenever possible. Also employers in a range of industries are encouraged to offer part-time work to young people wherever possible. Her talk was part of the inaugural colloquium of the Research Group for Educational Leadership and Policy formed this year at the University of Canberra.

Science Australia Gender Equity

The Australian Academy of Science is sponsoring this great initiative to improve gender equity in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. A presenter from the Academy addressed the University community on 1 December about the University of Canberra’s participation in this initiative. Part of participation involves signing up to the Athena SWAN Charter, established in the UK in 2005, an accreditation and improvement program for higher education and research organisations focusing on gender and other forms of inequality. Athena is not a person, and SWAN stands for Scientific Academic Women’s Network. I hope there are lots of positive outcomes for the 20 plus Australian science organisations who have signed up to date.

Wellbeing and progress: from measurement to action

A full day of talks were scheduled at the University of Canberra on this topic on 7 December. I was able to attend the first three presentations before other appointments came piling in. Jacki Shirmer of the University of Canberra began proceedings by talking about UC’s Regional Wellbeing Survey, and about the importance of collaboration between academics, policymakers and citizens. Mike Salvaris, of ANDI Limited, spoke about the Australian National Development Index, ANDI. He argued strongly that progress is a democratic issue, and that the current measure of choice, the GDP, has lots of problems associated with it. Nicolas Gruen of Lateral Economics spoke about his index of wellbeing, the HALE (Herald Age Lateral Economics). His particular concern was incommensurability. This could be solved in many ways, ranging from weighting all items equally to constructing do-it-yourself weights, but all with different pros and cons. His best line was: “do we want to be approximately right, or precisely wrong?” A very statistical poser!

First year student experience in Australian universities: findings from two decades 1994-2014

Ryan Naylor of the University of Melbourne gave this talk to the University community on 27 November. His talk provided an analysis of trends over a twenty year period in the attitudes and experiences of first year students in Australian universities. It was based on the national survey of first year students undertaken by the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at five-yearly intervals since 1994. There was a rich variety of data to present, covering the whole range from outreach programs, to intention to come to university, and on to whether expectations were met.

Damage controller or perfection seeker?

An article by Chris Havergal in the Times Higher Education Supplement (available here) refers to a short paper by Dennis Bryant and myself. Good to see our work being picked up internationally!

Nine circles of scientific hell

At the Knibbs lecture, the discussant Ian McDermid of ANU referred to the nine circles of scientific hell. Here they are, to be avoided at all cost!