UniSA Wins a Hat Trick of Tall Poppies

One third of this year’s nine South Australian Young Tall Poppy Science awards have been won by UniSA researchers for their investigations in specialised science and technology fields: one on the social and economic repercussions of fatigue, another for improving communication systems, and one in augmented reality.

This year’s awards, which recognise the achievements of outstanding young researchers in science and biomedics, were presented at a state ceremony on Thursday August 12. It is the first time UniSA researchers have won a hat trick of Tall Poppies and levelled with the previously dominant award winner, Adelaide University.

Dr Adam Fletcher, Senior Research Fellow at UniSA’s Centre for Behavioural Science, received a Young Tall Poppy Science award for his investigations into sleep and work related fatigue.

Dr Fletcher says that while the cost of fatigue has been well acknowledged in some areas – such as road and workplace safety – the impact of lack of sleep on a person’s family life and general well-being is all too often dismissed.

His computer model that predicts fatigue has been commercialised and is now in demand nationally and overseas in both public and private sectors. The custom software uses working hours as input and predicts the fatigue a person may experience in a work pattern.

Dr Fletcher and the team at the Centre for Sleep Research have also been looking at the effect of sleep and fatigue on international pilots, an area he says people haven’t understood and have consequently made a lot of assumptions about.

“We now have data that gives a much clearer picture of the choices that pilots are making about when they sleep,” says Fletcher.

“We understand how much sleep pilots are getting and what sort of recovery they have between flights.”

Dr Fletchers’ research reputation has extended internationally and he has been invited to lead the US Defence Force in their study on the effect of fatigue in the armed forces.

Professor Alex Grant, who at 33-years-old is UniSA’s youngest professor, won a Tall Poppy Science Award for his contribution to information theory where he has been using mathematical theories to explore and extend communications systems, such as wireless data networks, broadband systems and new mobile telephony networks.

“Just as the laws of physics and chemistry tell you from a scientific basis what is physically possible, information theory tells you from a scientific and mathematical basis what is possible in the transmission, storage and encryption of information,” Prof Grant says.

Leader of the Coding and Information Theory Research Group at UniSA’s Institute for Telecommunications Research, Prof Grant has developed new ways of increasing the capacity and efficiency of communications systems in an effort to help deliver cheaper and better communications to the broader public.

“One of our research projects that has been commercialised is mobile broadband data access that uses new techniques that deliver around double the range of existing wireless LAN equipment and that supports high vehicle speed,” says Prof Grant.

“With the research that we’ve done, we’ve been able to generate real practical technology that will enable the same thing to happen at higher data rates over longer distances and work in much faster vehicles. For example, it will work in a car, train or bus or some other vehicle. At the moment, this is not possible.”

Currently, Prof Grant is working on an international symposium on information theory scheduled to run in Adelaide in 2005, as well as conducting research in four grant projects from the Australian Research Council, including two Discovery Grants.

Dr Wayne Piekarski, UniSA PhD graduate and lecturer in the School of Computer and Information Science, received an award for his doctoral research into user interface design and augmented reality (AR), a process of projecting computer-generated images over a user's view of the real world.

Dr Piekarski successfully built a mobile AR computer – with a backpack, virtual reality glasses, gloves with metallic sensors and a video camera that watches the user’s hands – so augmented reality can be experienced in an outdoor environment.

“People had built AR systems before, but my mobile system is one of the first that allows you to really control and interact with it,” Piekarski says.

“With most other systems you look at the real world and the overlayed AR, but mine actually allows you to make changes to the virtual models.

“It’s much more flexible and more useful because users can grab and change the models using their hands.”

And the applications in the working world are far reaching, from architects and surveyors being able to view a 3D model of a building projected over its designated physical space, as well as uses for simulated games and exercises.

After receiving his doctorate in March this year, Piekarski is continuing his work as the assistant director of UniSA’s Wearable Computer Laboratory, developing new ideas and applications for this unique technology.

While the Young Tall Poppy Science awards recognise scientific achievement, they also have a strong focus on the researchers’ contribution to community awareness and education. The three winners’ dedication to educating the public and promoting science as a career path as well as demonstrating their own research in the community, are clearly reasons they were selected.

UniSA’s three award recipients said they were honoured to receive the prestigious award and look forward to continuing to help promote science and technology to the younger generation, a part of their award winning obligations.

UniSA’s Vice Chancellor Professor Denise Bradley congratulated the three winners. Prof Bradley said she was thrilled that the calibre of UniSA’s young researchers had been acknowledged in this important national arena.

The Tall Poppy campaign was established in 1998 to promote awareness of Australia’s intellectual achievements among the Australian public. The Tall Poppy Sciences awards are an important part of this campaign.