In the name of science

Yvan Paquot, recipient of an International Denison Postgraduate Award

Yvan Paquot, recipient of an International Denison Postgraduate Award

A bequest left to the University for scientific research in 1940 is still supporting vital scholarship by local and international postgraduates in biology and physics.

Sir Hugh Denison wore many different hats during his lifetime. He was one of Australia’s highest profile media barons: at one point he owned eight Sydney newspapers and 15 radio stations.

He was also a politician who held the seat of North Adelaide in the South Australian State Parliament from 1901 to 1905, a pioneering film producer, an international diplomat and a successful thoroughbred owner.

Of all his pursuits, it is perhaps his philanthropy that has had the most far-reaching impact. On his death in 1940, he left a substantial portion of his £200,000 estate to the University of Sydney, with instructions that it be used for scientific research. Today this money is changing the lives of emerging scientists from around the world.

One of these scientists is Brazilian physicist Germano Heinzelmann, who received an International Denison Postgraduate Award in 2011 to support him while he completed his PhD.

Heinzelmann’s research project focused on creating computer simulations of complex biological phenomena, such as the action of peptides – a naturally occurring chemical compound – in the body. “Usually the pharmaceutical industry tries different molecules by trial and error but, using computer simulation, you can speed that up and test millions of models,” he explains.

When he opened the email telling him that he had won the scholarship, Heinzelmann was “thrilled”, he recalls, since he knew it would be a life‑changing experience. “I really wanted to go to a good university and when I found out I could live there and do this research it made a big impact,” he says. “I will always feel I have a debt to Australia because it treated me very well.”

Another recipient of the same scholarship is Belgian-born Yvan Paquot, who also recently completed a PhD in the area of physics. His research project, undertaken at the University’s Centre for Ultrahigh Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems, focused on using integrated optics to process information at very high speeds.

“Optical fibres laid in the ocean and in the ground carry data, but it’s impossible to do information processing with optics – it needs to be converted to electronics first,” Paquot explains.

Together with his research team, he completed work on an optics technology that can handle signals 32 times faster than electronics.

Like Heinzelmann, Paquot believes that the Denison award made a critical difference to his studies by providing a living allowance to sustain him throughout his degree. “If I had not had it I would not have been able to carry on the PhD,” he says.

As well as helping international students, Sir Hugh’s gift also assists local researchers such as Geoff Cousland, who was the recipient of a Denison Postgraduate Conversion Award.

This specialised scholarship assists postgraduate students in the School of Physics who have completed the first year of a master’s degree by research to upgrade their degree to a PhD. Like the international award, it also provides a living allowance.

“My PhD would have taken quite a different course if I hadn’t had the Denison,” says Cousland, who completed his studies late last year. “As a consequence of the unexpected death of my father, I would have had very little money, and I would have had to work and study part-time. It would have made it a lot harder.”

Cousland’s research focused on a ceramic called yttria-stabilised zirconia, which can withstand neutron bombardment and is a candidate material for use in fourth-generation nuclear reactors.

Using a combination of experimental and computational physics, Cousland undertook a detailed analysis of the material’s structure, including its electronic and vibrational properties. His project – initiated by a researcher at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) – has potential applications in the nuclear fuel industry.