Mr Alan Ho
School of Psychology
Professor Alan Brichta's primary research interest is balance and the vestibular system. His most recent NHMRC-funded research has focused on the efferent branch of the vestibular system – the pathway by which the brain can modulate inner ear sensitivity.
Despite fifty years of ongoing research, the functional purpose of the efferent vestibular system still remains a mystery – most likely due to its inherently complex mechanisms of action. To combat this, Alan has developed a semi-intact model of the vestibular system, which allows for faithful, high-resolution recordings of hair cell function. This recording technique has provided new information about the efferent vestibular system, with particular regards to the novel alpha-9 nicotinic receptor.
Alan has ongoing collaborations with vestibular experts Dr Americo Migliaccio (Neuroscience Research Australia; NeuRA), Dr Joseph Holt (University of Rochester, USA) and Dr Richard Rabbitt (University of Utah, USA), as well as HMRI neuroscientists Professor Bob Callister and Dr Doug Smith. He is also closely affiliated with the Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation (GPRWMF), and the Neuro-Otology Society of Australia (NOTSA). Alan is currently the Head of Discipline (Anatomy), supervises multiple PhD students, and teaches into a number of programs including Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Biomedical Science.
What intrigues you most about the vestibular system?
I know it may sound a little strange but almost from the moment I learned about the vestibular system, I've been fascinated and intrigued by the subtle and mysterious way it works to provide us with a sense of balance.
The vestibular system allows us go about our daily activities, correcting almost every move we make, so that we don't fall over. And it does this with little or no fanfare or even very much recognition. The vestibular system is neither blatant nor does it intrude on our consciousness with the flamboyance of primary senses such as vision and hearing. If the vestibular system is doing its job properly it is almost imperceptible, working away with exquisite precision, speed, and accuracy. Perhaps it is precisely this 'backstage activity' that is responsible for our general lack of awareness and why we know so much less about this system in comparison to its close cousin, the hearing or auditory system. In short, the more I get to know the vestibular system the more I am in awe of the 'no nonsense' way in which it influences almost all aspects of our lives, making it the 'quiet achiever', or dare I say, the unsung hero or heroine of the central nervous system.
NIER: Ambitious energy agenda
Dr Alan Broadfoot has an affinity with the University of Newcastle. After spending 16 years at the University as a part-time undergraduate and postgraduate student, Broadfoot returned as the Director of the world-class Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER).
Unrivalled in Australia in scale and the quality of research infrastructure, NIER was established in 2010 to address rapidly emerging issues in the energy and resources sector and create the collaborative platform to deliver sustainable solutions to real world problems.
After spending 14 years as general manager and then chief executive of leading resource sector company Ampcontrol, Broadfoot decided to head in a new direction and return to the University for this position.
NIER is located at the former BHP-Billiton Newcastle Research Laboratories, a 3.8 hectare site adjoining the University of Newcastle's Callaghan campus comprising extensive mineral, chemical and related technical laboratories, workshops, offices and five industrial‐scale pilot plant workshops.
"NIER is being established at a critical time as both locally and globally we focus on the management of energy and natural resources," says Broadfoot. "The infrastructure at NIER allows for the translation of research projects from bench-top through to industrial-scale pilot plant demonstrations."
Funded with the assistance of $30 million from the Australian Government, the NIER project will involve the refurbishment of existing buildings, integration works to link the site to the Callaghan campus, and the design and construction of an additional state of the art research building.
NIER provides practical and viable benefits to industry, the community and the economy, and is advancing research in clean energy production, energy efficiency and the minimisation of carbon emissions through its research, which includes:
- reducing energy and water consumption in coal and minerals processing
- lowering carbon emissions through next generation clean coal and carbon capture and storage technologies
- developing alternative energy sources, including geothermal and polymer solar cells
- improving efficiency in energy generation and conversion
- creating smarter, more efficient networks for the distribution and utilisation of electricity and water
- promoting social change and the sustainability of resources and the environment.
NIER encompasses the University's research centres and groups that conduct research into energy production, distribution and efficiency, as well as mining, minerals processing and minerals transport.
"NIER provides a significant boost to research and development in the Hunter region," says Broadfoot. "And while it is a focal point for research, it is important that it also engages in community debate. We want to be relevant."
Broadfoot, who is recognised for innovations in underground mining that have delivered safety improvements and large increases in production, sees his role as a conduit between industry and cutting-edge research.
"I want to have simplified lines of communication and maximise the outcomes for the benefit of the community. People are more aware of the challenges we face in terms of effective resource management. No-one wants to reach crisis point where we are experiencing power black-outs, and drastic fuel and water shortages."
Broadfoot's key focus areas have included setting up the new facility and the relocation of University research groups, strategic planning and establishing the external reputation of NIER.
"We have to make sure we secure the right to be heard within the national and global debate," he says. "We can't take our role for granted."
Visit the NIER website
Legacy of leadership
The University's strength in engineering owes much to the work ethic and reputation of its trailblazers.
One need look no further than the University of Newcastle's Centre for Advanced Particle Processing and Transport for proof of the adage 'success breeds success'.
The Centre is renowned for world-leading research into the processing, storage and transport of minerals and industrial products and boasts an outstanding record of commercial and academic achievement. Its research has led to technological advances that have produced multi-million dollar savings for industry, and it is at the forefront of developing new-generation processes that reduce water and energy use.
Much of that success is due to the foundation laid by two of the University's elder statesmen and principal researchers in engineering, Laureate Professor Graeme Jameson and Emeritus Professor Alan Roberts.
Both have had long and esteemed careers with the University, Roberts arriving as Professor of Industrial Engineering in 1974 and Jameson as Professor of Chemical Engineering in 1977.
Both have been recognised with Order of Australia awards and have received the prestigious Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal from the Institution of Engineers Australia for outstanding service to their profession. Both have also been elected to learned scientific and engineering academies.
Roberts was responsible for the University developing what has become an important and lucrative niche in bulk materials handling, a little-explored area of research back in the 1970s.
He established TUNRA Bulk Solids Handling as a research group and commercial consultancy in 1975. Since then it has completed more than 4000 projects for clients in 40 countries and made an invaluable contribution to research in the field.
"It has become one of the flagships of the University and has certainly validated the decision to go down that path," says Roberts, who is officially retired but still works from his office at the University's Newcastle Institute for Energy Resources (NIER) most days.
"Our work has spanned everything from fine pharmaceutical powders, to plastic powders, agricultural grains, domestic waste and minerals such as iron ore, bauxite and coal. Bulk solids handling is a complex aspect of the industrial process that applies to anything that is transported in powdered or granular form."
Jameson was already a respected expert in fluid mechanics when he came to prominence in the 1980s with his invention of the Jameson Cell. A froth flotation device for recovering fine mineral particles from mine waste and low-yield sources, it was smaller, faster and more precise than existing technology and was quickly taken up by industry.
These days there are more than 300 Jameson Cells in operation in 21 countries around the world. As well as recovering billions of dollars worth of fine coal and minerals a year, they are being put to new industrial applications including extracting oil from tar sands in Canada and removing blue-green algae from waterways in central Australia.
"It was one of those 'Eureka!' moments when all the work you have done beforehand comes together in one realisation," Jameson says of the moment he conceived the Cell.
"I was with some students at a mine in Mount Isa and I looked at the equipment they were using and thought, 'I could build something better than that'."
In their early years at the University, both Jameson and Roberts were committed to lifting the research profile of the engineering group, along with another long-time departmental leader Professor Terry Wall.
Their establishment of research centres in multiphase processing, bulk solids handling and black coal utilisation was important both in facilitating the expansion of research and enhancing the status of the University as a leader in those fields.
The University has long been a magnet for talented engineering students, researchers and academics and this is due in no small part to the reputations of Jameson and Roberts.
For more information visit the Centre for Advanced Particle Processing and Transport.