From our vast past to extreme future – Griffith offers answers at World Science Festival

Griffith at World Science Festival Brisbane
Griffith at World Science Festival Brisbane

In its third year, the growing celebration of all things science and the only World Science Festival franchise outside of New York, WSF Brisbane promises to ignite debate and inspire discovery.

Running from March 21-25, WSF Brisbanefocuses on the theme of ‘humanity’, and will see Griffith University experts in the thick of discussions delving into our deep past and speculating on how our species will survive an uncertain future.

Griffith will also play its part taking science to the street for fun activities designed to motivate budding scientists to pursue STEM careers, and so find the answers our vulnerable species and fragile planet needs.

Leading the university’s contingent will be Emeritus Professor Alan-Mackay Sim, last year’s Australian of the Year, who continues to inspire the next generation.

Delving into our deep past

The Longest Walk: Winning the Human Race is the signature event for Griffith University in 2018, showcasing the work of Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) as global attention shifts to the Asia-Pacific region and the clues it provides to Homo sapiens ancient history.

ARCHE Director and geochronologist Professor Rainer Grun will share his globally-renowned expertise in the latest techniques to date fossils, which are shedding modern light on our evolution, and even re-writing history.

“Previous finds out of Africa, in the Levantine corridor and China, dated the first modern humans to around 100,000 years but now we can prove through our dating analysis thatHomo sapiensleft Africa as far back as around 200,000 years ago,” Professor Grün said.

Professor Grun will be joined on the event panel by archaeologist and ARC Future Fellow, Associate Professor Adam Brumm,who has extensively explored caves and open sites on the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Flores, unearthing a trove of finds related to humanity’s ancient heritage and the evolutionary history of ‘Ice Age’ people.

“There may have been a period of overlap in Southeast Asia between Homo sapiens and earlier, now extinct human species, such as the ‘Hobbit’ of Flores — we don’t have direct evidence, but the possibility is exciting, as is the wider archaeological evidence from more recent time periods that modern humans in this region were more culturally advanced than previous studies have suggested,” Associate Professor Brumm said.

Moderated by well-known science communicator, palaeontologist and former ABC Catalyst presenter Paul Willis, the panel discussion may not definitively decide who ‘won’ the race out of Africa, but it will spotlight the global significance of studying ancient peoples in our region.

One thing is certain, a myriad of answers will come from studying very, very old teeth, because according to ARCHE Associate Professor Tanya Smith, teeth tell tales, and very accurate ones.

“Teeth have this amazing record locked inside of them for millions of years and they tell us about diet, growth and development and behaviour,” said Professor Smith.

“When we grow our teeth they are almost like fossils already. We can come up with an accurate age if an individual died before they stopped forming their teeth, we can count each daily line inside the teeth.”

Associate Professor Smith, will serve up her Teeth Tales over a Brainfood Breakfast, with the highly-experienced science communicator, who spent eight years as a Harvard University researcher, set to wet audience’s appetites for her toothy stories to be published in a forthcoming book later this year.

ARCHE’s Dr Sally Waseff will lead a team for a hands-on Evolutionary Biologist’s Apprentice workshop, giving students the opportunity to explore the Ancient DNA lab, and she’ll be joined by Professor David Lambert, for a separate panel conversation about decoding ancient genetics.

Forecasting the future

The role of genetics is also being probed in a timely breakfast debate – just 12 days out from Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games – that will explore the ‘nature vs nuture’ arguments for creating sporting champions. Dr Caroline Riot, of Griffith’s Faculty of Business, School of Tourism, Sport & Hotel Management, will add her voice to the Brainfood Breakfast event.

Associate Professor Cheryl Desha offers extreme solutions for green cities
Associate Professor Cheryl Desha offers extreme solutions for green cities

Since humans don’t always learn the lessons of the past, Associate Professor Cheryl Desha will be a hopeful voice for engineering extreme sustainable solutions for our future — she wants the focus shifted from dire threats to radical ideas that will save our cities and believes harnessing nature’s vast idea-bank will be key. (Extreme Cities panel event).

“Our cities are extremely dysfunctional, that’s why we need a radical shift — think green canopies between buildings, urban agriculture on rooftops, and circular systems that recycle water, food waste and energy, all inspired by nature,” Associate Professor Desha said.

Radical new approaches may also be required to combat modern mutating bugs, just a decade out from the centenary of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of anti-biotics.

Associate Professor Kate Seib wants to beat the super-bugs
Associate Professor Kate Seib wants to beat the super-bugs

Institute for Glycomics Research Leader Associate Professor Kate Seib will discuss possible answers with Toowoomba audiences, as she moderates the regional Bugs & Drugs event.

Glycomics promises a new frontier of drug and vaccine discovery, and Dr Seib’s own research into different kinds of vaccines for middle ear infections, Meningococcal disease and the intractable STI Gonorrhoea will hopefully find solutions, before the super-bugs get the better of us.

“Vaccines really need to be the long-term solution, because some of these bugs just continue to mutate to resist new antibiotics, which only really buy us a small amount of time,” Dr Seib said.

Making it fun

Street Science will offer plenty of hands-on stimulation, including a sneak preview of the Sea Jellies exhibit, set to open at Seaworld in a unique partnership with Griffith coastal researchers later this year. The adventurous can hop on a free (bookings required) boat cruise to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, led by Griffith’s Australian Rivers Institute scientists, to discover the fascinating world of underwater eco-acoustics, tuning into a performance by Lone Pine’s resident population of grunting catfish.

Since last WSF, Griffith coastal researchers, led by Associate Professor Andrew Brooks have taken out a prestigious Eureka prize for their research into the Great Barrier Reef, further proof that Griffith has much to offer modern science, and the ongoing quest for answers.

This year’s WSF line-up also sees the return of co-founder Professor Brian Greene, and features NASA senior scientist Dr Jennifer Wiseman and maths sensation and recently announced 2018 Australian Local Hero Eddie Woo.

For a full program of events and to book tickets visit World Science Festival Brisbane.