- So Isaac Newton once said, "No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess." So this is supposed to be true for all the great discoveries that mankind has ever made in history. Fire was one of our first technology that humans have ever made, and it seems a long time ago since that was discovered, but what have we done with it? In the ninth century, gunpowder was discovered, and that set the preface for this modern-day rocketry for our space rockets. 17th century, smallpox was eradicated, and this was the first time a disease has been eradicated by human intervention. 20th century: satellites, spacecraft, internet. That led to 1961, the first launch into space. In 1969, this allowed for a man on the Moon. In the 21st century, nanotech, biotech, which is amongst the first discovery in the first decade. We're now in the year 2019 and right now we're on the verge of allowing us to allow gene editing to allow our bodies to be enhanced, to eradicate diseases, and for the first time in human history, medical and space technology are converging together to allow us to make plans and to realize visions to allow us to go and colonize, explore other planets. So for all those people here tonight that knows me, you know my vision is unlimited, and for those who do not know me, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dr. Joshua Chou, and if you indulge me, I would like to show you how I plan to change the world. So good evening, everyone. Thank you all for coming today to my talk, on tonight, on "Curing Diseases in Space." I realize a couple nights ago that the title might, can be interpreted as curing diseases that are in space, so if you're here for that talk, it's probably not the right one. So I'm actually here talking about curing diseases on Earth through space. Now before we embark on this journey tonight into space, there's one word I want everyone to forget tonight, and that word is the word impossible. The world is round, that was thought to be impossible. We want to fly in the skies, impossible. We want to reach for the stars, impossible. How many times in human history have the impossible been shown to be possible? And that is one word that we try to forget, especially when we're doing research in places like Harvard. The impossible becomes the possible. Like many of you tonight, you're here coming to this lecture because you're curious about space, the curiosity about space, the wonders of space, the impact of space, and more importantly, the mysteries of space, and like you, I'm also a sci-fi person and I love space as well. So it all started with E.T. trying to phone home, and I was actually thinking the other night, it's actually really bad luck for E.T. To have landed during that time because if he landed now he wouldn't have a problem phoning home. He would just go up to anyone, grab a phone, and he'll be able to dial home. But what I'm trying to say is that sci-fi has always been embedded in our society, whether it be in culture or in films, and often times, a lot of things start with sci-fi, but then it soon after becomes reality. So, for example, "Armageddon", you're talking about, whoops, oh, wow. Sorry, I just got this new one so trying to use it. "Armageddon" talking about the impact of asteroids and we constantly hear news about asteroids that might be hitting Earth. Life in another planet, are we alone in the universe? These are real questions that we've always been wanting to answer. "The Martian," that has been held as one of the movie that most depict the realistic space exploration. It's so real, when I was in Boston, I had to argue with my Uber driver that it wasn't a documentary, it was just a movie. He actually thought it was a documentary, I was like, "No, bro, you have to look that up. "It's really not." But it was so real it felt like a documentary. And, of course, coming I think in the summer, "Ad Astra." Brad Pitt is in it and they have proclaimed that it is the most realistic depiction of space travel. So you can see that the fabric of space and the mysteries of space have always kept humanity really interested in it. Just last month, the front cover of "Time" magazine, "The Next Space Race." So we've already know about the first space race and that was going into space, going to the Moon. What is the next space race? The next space race is really about colonizing. Landing on the Moon, colonizing the Moon. Going to Mars, colonizing Mars, and beyond. You can also see that no longer space travel is limited to just countries like the United States or China, but we have started to see the privatization of space. So space exploration is just literally on the horizon. NASA and everyone else also have their own programs and programs to go to Mars. And how are we gonna build the science, the exploration, the technology to send people to Mars and live on Mars? So it actually all started with Isaac Newton coming up with the universal theory of gravity in the 1600s. Little did he know that 300 years later that there will be astronauts floating on the International Space Station. Just like me, when I first started studying, little did I know that here tonight I'll be talking to you all about surviving and curing diseases in space. So the first man in space was a Russian cosmonaut called Yuri, and since then, 560 people have gone into space, but what we don't realize is that these astronauts, or cosmonaut, or the space travelers, they've been carefully selected based on certain criterias, whether it be physical, mental, and so on. But that is no longer the case anymore. With the privatization of space, these criteria are no longer limited to certain space agency for each country, but rather up to individual medical officers. So one of the most famous picture that everyone relates to in space is the floating astronaut. Things float in space, and why is that? And that's due to a condition called microgravity. So these are either people or objects that appears to be weightless, and the effects of microgravity can be seen, an astronaut floating in space, and so we all see it in a lot of picture. So what is microgravity? So when we drop something here on Earth, it falls to the ground and that is due to the effects of gravity which is 1G. When an astronaut drops the same object in space, it is also falling, but it's just that because everything is falling, it seems like it's weightless, and we call that zero gravity or microgravity. So for those of you who plays a bit of game, you'll know that "Angry Birds," you know, you shoot the bird, "Angry Bird," when you shoot the bird, it's also due to the effects of gravity. So everything in our solar system, whether it be the planets, us on the planet, is all subjected to the laws of physics and gravity. So throughout human history, things have changed. The environment has changed, human evolution has happened, genetic knowledge has changed as well, but the one thing that has remained constant is gravity. That has not changed. The world around us has changed, physical, chemical properties have changed, but gravity has never changed, and that is a very powerful thing because it means that in our genetic code there is absolutely no memory of adaptation other to the gravity on Earth. So this is very interesting and it presents a lot of opportunities for scientists like myself to conduct research in biomedical research, commercialization, or even just fundamental science, and also for space exploration. So let's start with the beginning of the journey for astronauts. They go up in a spaceship. So this presents a lot of medical challenges in space flight. So if you see anyone sitting on the chair going up into space, they'll be subjected to different forces in XYZ direction. So whether it be a push sideway or up and down. So we live in three-dimensional world where there's X, Y, and Z, and these forces are present on the astronauts as they go up into space. Of course, the effects of gravity or microgravity is dependent on how long the astronauts are actually exposed to the microgravity environment. That simply implies how long they're actually in space for. So this year, these three astronauts are going up to the International Space Station, and Captain Hague, he made a very interesting statement: Getting there is only half the battle. We're just started to study those experiments here on the space station to see how microgravity changes the cell function. So he's acknowledging that we have the existing technology to get into space, but getting there is just half the battle. We actually have to survive it, and what he's saying is that they've only started to look at how microgravity affects cell function, and this is exactly what I'm doing in terms of my research, and also this reflects on our technology in the last decade in terms of space technology hasn't really matched our research in terms of how microgravity affects cell function. So what happens to the body when you're in space? So under microgravity condition. So in the short term, there are some short-term effects. Again, reinforcing that there are differences depending on the duration that you're exposed to microgravity, you have a lot of different medical challenges and effects as well. So whether it be hours, weeks, or months, they'll have detrimental effect on the body, but what you are see over here is that the effect is either radiation, yup, okay. It's either radiation or microgravity on the right hand side. So microgravity plays an important role in the human physiology when we're in space. What is very interesting is that it takes about 48 to 72 hours for the astronaut to start to feel the effects of microgravity on the human body. So we all know the one thing that we correlate astronaut and space exploration is bone, the loss of bone in space, and that is because bone is a very unique tissue and organ in your body that is responsive to mechanical loading, and what that means, for example, when we always tells our kid to go out, run around, and exercise, those are mechanical loading. When we're middle-aged men like myself, we're asked to do more weights. As we progress in life, we're asked to do a lot of sports, that's why we ask people to do sport, because of those mechanical loading help our body to build muscles, tissue, and maintain homeostasis. And in case any one is curious, this is a real life picture of me. I just cut of the head so that you can really see my body underneath here. So just to clarify that. So if that holds true, that your body responds to mechanical loading to sustain homeostasis, then the opposite must also be true. In the unloading environment where there is no more gravity, where there is no more force in your body, what happens to it? And that's where we start to see the loss of bone. So you can see that the percentage change in bone density per month during space flight is about one to 1-1/2%. You lose that much bone when you spend one month in space. So that is why astronauts can't stay in space for too long. Obviously there are certain areas in your skeletal system that are not that susceptible to the loss, but overall, and especially in the back, the hip, and the other areas, you lose a lot of these bones. So this actually causes a lot of problem because you can imagine even if we have the technology to say we can go to Mars tomorrow, what happens when we get there and we can't function, our body can't function to its full capacity. We're not able to colonize, we're not able to do work, and that causes a lot of problem. So that's why it's becoming very important to develop countermeasures to predict what type of side effects there is from long-duration space travel. So this is where my research comes in, in terms of the terrestrial musculoskeletal problems. So just like astronaut losing bone, it's also very similar to a problem here that's already prevalent on Earth and that's osteoporosis. So there are also other types of bone diseases like bone cancer, but, personally, my area of research is in osteoporosis. So to put things into context, I would like to show you how I've worked through my career to get to where I am today. So I started my bachelor's at UTS in 2001. As I mentioned before, the beginning of 21st century is almost all biotech or nanotech. So I was one of those people that did nanotech because that was hailed as the future. Then I followed through with a PhD in developing biomaterials for bone tissue regeneration. So what that meant was developing materials. When people break their bone, how can we put new materials in there to help improve the fracture time and healing time as well. Then I did my first post-doctoral fellowship at UTS. Then I went to Japan as a a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, in which I developed drug delivery system for bone tissue regeneration. So that's enhancing the biomaterials by adding different drugs into it to see if we can increase and speed up the regeneration process. Now at that point in time, I was not happy with it. There was only so much materials on planet Earth, and it's only so much we can do about it. It was not enough to cure osteoporosis, so I wanted more. So that's where I met my supervisor at Harvard and I decided go to Harvard, obviously, not I decided, people just don't decide to go to Harvard, but I decided to pursue in getting into Harvard, and that took a year or two before I actually got there to study bone cell signaling. Now what that means is we're studying at the cellular level how cells communicate with each other. It's no different than us humans talking to each other. If we can't understand how we talk, then there's no communication. So it's learning a different language but on the cellular level. So in 2017, I came back to Australia and went back to UTS. So I just have to show everyone what Harvard looks like. So that's me and my baby over that, over at the Harvard Medical School, and then I also was fortunate enough to be awarded the Dean's Scholar over at Harvard as well. So just a little insight into what is osteoporosis, like why is so important and why does this affect so many people? It's considered a silent disease because you don't really know you have it until you fall down and have a fracture, you go into the hospital, and the doctor tells you that you have osteoporosis. Or else, there's no other symptoms that shows on the outside, so a lot people don't know that they have it. So what is osteoporosis? So in a healthy person, your bone remodeling, which means the building of new bone and the destruction of old bones is in balance. When you have osteoporosis, obviously you have more breaking than building, so that tips the balance over to the other side and so you have more destruction of your bone. Similarly, the other can be hold true is that you can have more deposition than destruction. So you can see from the top right image, you can see the bone density of a normal, healthy bone, and also in the osteoporotic bone. I'm part of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, and they made a survey and found that more U.S. woman die each year from complicational hip fracture than from breast cancer. So you can see that bone problem, fracture, osteoporosis, this is actually quite a detrimental disease that hasn't gain as much attention as cancer. So back in 2001, a bunch of scientists found a very interesting person, this guy over here on the right. He has actually a lot, you can see that his cranium, his forehead, is actually very bulged out. He has really big jaws. I think he's also blind and deaf as well. This came from a mutation in one of the genes in the bone that's called osteocytes. So I'm not sure if this one, no, oh, here we go. Osteocytes, so there are three main bone cells in your body: the bone building one up here called osteoblast, the bone destroying osteoclast, and the manager cells called the osteocytes. So you can see that this man over here, poor man over here, he suffered from a condition that has overexpression of sclerostin. So sclerostin is a marker that is only produced by the osteocytes. So when they found that there was a mutation in the SOST gene, it means that he's suffering from a condition in which it keeps building bone, right? So that's why he's suffering from, his jaw's really elevated, his cranium's out everywhere. So that's what the condition where his body is constantly just making bone and that is not being replaced by the destruction of the old bone. So knowing that, this marker was able to continue to grow bone. What happened was the pharmaceutical company, Amgen, and together with NASA and Harvard, together they developed a sclerostin antibody. What this means was that it blocks the pathway of osteocytes creating this protein, and from there, they did this test in space. So we know astronauts loses bone, so they want to test it in space and see what happens to osteoporotic rats models that they took up to space for two weeks, and you can see, you can see, so this is the region of interest, so this is the part of the femur, the area that they're looking at. So this is the control group, this is the osteoporotic group, and then this is the osteoporotic with the drug being injected. You can see from the statistical analysis that the one with the drug, the bone density matches those of the control group down here on Earth, and similarly on the other side as well. So this was actually very important because for the first time in human history, we've actually used space to cure a disease that is prevalent on planet Earth. So as part of that, obviously they went through a lot of clinical trials to confirm those results. And as you can see, as of April 2019, which is only four months ago, this has been FDA approved for treatment of osteoporosis and postmenstrual menopausal woman with high-risk fracture. It was approved in Japan in February as well. It's been hailed as gonna be the gold standard for osteoporotic treatment in the coming years, and it does exactly what it was supposed to do. It blocks the sclerostin production in osteocytes and therefore increases bone formation and while decreasing bone resorption. So this is a very beautiful case study showing the potential of using the International Space Station to not only study diseases, but also study the human biology as well. So you can see that what they did was use the International Space Station to do this early target and screening, and also the pre-clinical studies, and then following on with the clinical studies back on Earth, which eventually lead to commercialization. So this shows that there is potential for using the unique environment of space to really study what's happening here on Earth. So I was very fortunate to be part of that project, I was very excited by it, and to be able to contribute to it, but then it left me with a lot of more questions. So how does the body, how does cells actually respond to microgravity? Are there certain mechanoreceptors that cells perceive these forces and so what are they? What is the normal threshold for gravity that cells can function or tissue can function properly? Why do gravity changes cell response, and, more important, how do they participate in the tissue growth, organ growth, and regeneration? These are very fundamental questions that we have yet to have any answers of, and these could be crucial and important if we want to do things like tissue regeneration, organ growth, and so forth. Before we get any deeper, I want to introduce to everyone the concept that your cells is more than just a cell. It is actually sensitive to the environment, just like you and me on the outside, but at a smaller scale. Just like us, we love to go to the beach and do yoga, have a lot of space, and stretch out ourselves. I was one of the fortunate people to experience the peak-hour traffic of Tokyo train lines where I have to be stuck in one of those trains, and I'm a pretty big guy compared to Japanese standard, and I feel like I'm almost gonna die in there, and you can imagine they have to do that every day. Similarly, cells feel the same. If they have space to spread out, they're happy, but if they're crunched up together, they also want to die, and that means if that is true, then that also means that they can sense their surroundings. But how do they do that? So as part of my research, I look, I study a signaling pathway called a YAP and TAZ pathway, and it probably won't mean anything to you, but it's a very important pathway because every single tissue, and organ, and cells in your body is governed by this pathway. Just think of it as a center for transducing or translating those mechanical signals that happens to your body. So organ growth, when you're a baby inside the mother's womb, how fast it grows, how much it grows, have you ever wonder how does your body and cell tell when to stop or when to grow? These are all governed through this pathway. So that's why this pathway is very important. Now I look at it from a perspective of bone, tissues, because that's my interest and that's my area of study. So a lot of people ask me, "How did it all start? "How did you get from bone into this whole space thing?" Well, it wasn't one moment in my life, but rather it started with my lunchbox at Harvard. So even when you're at Harvard, even lunchboxes aren't safe. We started talking, we started to write down ideas, on just brainstorming how we can measure these mechanical signals in the cells. Then when I came back to Australia, one day while I was picking up a delivery from the delivery store, the delivery guy for some reason drew a spaceship going to another planet. I was like, "Oh, that's interesting. "How does he know I have this interest?" And finally, my research partner, Dr. Peter Bevry who's sitting back there tonight, was also an inspiration for me, and we've talked a lot, and we're just two crazy people coming up with idea. And so put it all together, we decided to follow this dream on seeing, understanding how cells perceive of the environment. So the ultimate question came down to how do we create microgravity here on Earth that cells can actually perceive and we can do experiments on it? So there are a number of strategy and one is a neutral buoyancy. That's not really feasible. Magnetic levitation using super-conducting superconductors. That one creates the microgravity. It's not feasible to put cells in there for a long time. And then the most popular, your parabolic flights or drop towers. So you have those comet vomits, also drop towers, because the microgravity that it can induce is only about three to 10 seconds. So for cell study, they don't respond that fast, so it does not fit what we want to do. So the only thing left is the random position machine, or the RPM. The RPM is not a new concept. It's not a new technology as well. See, other people have attempted at building these type of devices, but you can see that they're very bulky. They rotated the whole incubator. This one is just really gigantic, I don't know why. The closest one we could find was the Airbus one, and this has been built for the last, at least a decade, but no one has been able to use it because back then no one understand the concept of this, how cells perceive the environment, so it's kind of been lying there, kind of dormant, without people really using it while applying it to its full potential. For those people that are old enough, like me, who've seen the movie "Contact," that machine that they built, it also looks like an RPM, so I thought it was pretty cool. So I talked with one of my student who graduated. He knows he's a brilliant engineer. I'm a cell biologist, I'm not an engineer, so I can't make these things. So I talked to my student, "How can we actually build one of these "that fits the profile of what I need to do "in the laboratory to study cells?" So my student, Anthony, he went away for a few weeks and then after a while he came back and he made me one of these microgravity devices. So this is what it actually does. So you see that flask? That little flask with the blue lid? Inside there there are cells, and you can see that it's rotating on three different axes. And also here, down here, you can see that there's a graph. It accelerates at a certain rate and a certain angle that creates the microgravity that we wanted. What was really cool about what Anthony did was that he developed the algorithm so that we can actually produce the gravity from different planets. So that means we can actually mimic the conditions of gravitation pull from different planets and therefore study, and get a glimpse and an idea of how cells or tissues will respond under those type of condition. So last week me and Anthony were actually interviewed by ABC's "7.30" report. I think that's gonna be air either this week or next week, and he's also sitting there as well, so you guys can go take a selfie with him later. And so it was great. So we have this great device that can mimic microgravity. It's all good. Now I want to use it for my bone research, and that's great, but there was another question. So this was a point in time in my life where people around me started to also develop cancer. When I was a kid, knowing someone to have cancer was really, really, really rare, like you probably have to go to another city to even find anyone that might have it, but now fast forward 30-something years later, it's becoming widely accepted in our society to get different variations of cancer. So at my age, people around me, people I care, I love, start to either develop them or have the onsets of cancer, and that was, for me, that was not something I can live with. I'm a person of action and there was, but also I was very conflicted because I cannot restart a career looking into cancer research, and there are a lot of other brilliant people out there that do cancer research, so what can I do to help or contribute? So I thought about cancer. So we all know cancer starts of really small, like over here. So it starts out really small, and then it multiplies, and it gets bigger and bigger, and then it becomes so big, eventually it invades other surrounding tissue. That's a very basic model how cancer work. You also have to appreciate how well cancer can conduct modern warfare. It's no different than any types of warfare in history. You start of really small, you build a small base, you get more troops in there until you're so confident that your base is well-fortified that you send troops out to invade the rest of the country, and that is how cancer operates. So as I mentioned before, I study the YAP and TAZ pathway, and like I said before, it's preserved in all the organs in the human body. When I was at Harvard, even though I was working on the bone stuff, every single cancer-related research group there was studying how YAP and TAZ affect cancer biology. And then in recent publication, they've actually said that YAP and TAZ is the origin of all human cancer. So what that means is the ability for cancer to migrate in your body, that is also governed by YAP and TAZ. How it adapts to the environment once it gets there, that's through the YAP and TAZ pathway. How it multiplies and sense its surrounding, that is also through the YAP and TAZ pathway. So you can see that the cancer cell is one that is highly sensitive to its surrounding. So last week I had to actually go to my child's child care center to present what I'm presenting to you tonight, as I thought the best way to describe this was through Avengers. Thanos being the bad guy, the cancer, bad guy, and the superheroes are attacking him. We have in human history spent trillion of dollars in those years developing superhero drugs to combat cancer. And don't get me wrong, we've made a lot of progress, and they're very effective drugs, and they work to a certain extent, but, nevertheless, cancer still stands. We have yet to find any cure. We've done quite well, but we haven't got there yet. So the biggest thing in cancer therapy right now is personalized cancer therapy. So what that means is that we finally accepted that cancer are all different, each person's cancer is different, each individual is different, and therefore we cannot possibly make a drug to target different people with different types of cancer. It's just not possible. So now the big thing is about personalizing the therapy for a specific patient to a specific cancer. So if I say in this room everyone is different, right? You're all from different races, different age group, different sizes, and so on and so forth. There's no possible way I could develop a drug that can target every single one of you 'cause everyone's different, but I thought about it. Even though the individuals are different, the cancers are different, there's something that they all share in common and we all share in common. We all need to breathe, we all need to eat, we all need to sleep, and we all sense as well. So what if cancer also have these similar traits that they share amongst themself as well. So that led me to ask the question: Sp what happens if I put cancer in an environment where they can no longer sense each other? What happens to them? If they can't sense, how do they form a tumor? Can they still form a tumor? If they've already have a tumor, will the tumor disintegrate? Will it break down? These are really fundamental questions and yet no one has ever done it before. But before I can do that, I also need to have a good cancer model. So a lot of drugs and so on has been developed in the laboratory, but they don't hold up when it gets to the human body, and that's because of the different types of environment. But thanks to the UTS faculty of engineering, they were able to support us with a bioprinter in which I'm able to create an artificial 3D tumor model that mimics the biological environment. And this is one of the bioprinters. I'm printing little spheroids that eventually grows to look like these. So these are three-dimensional cancer tumor models, artificially created in the laboratory at a high-throughput production, allowing us to screen for drugs, and study cancers, and see how they work. So now I have both technology, a microgravity device and a realistic cancer model. So let's put cancer to the test. How do they hold up in microgravity? So I started off with a nasal cancer. You can see in normal gravity, normal gravity, these cancer cells are like this. After 24 hours in microgravity, there's less of them. That look really promising. Then I looked at ovarian cancer. So, again, you see a large population in the normal gravity environment, and a significant reduction in the microgravity. I'm happy with that, I kept going, breast cancer. Again, you see a large variety of cells, and after 24 hours, you have reduction in the cells and they look also different as well. So just what this tells me is that you have nasal, ovarian, breast cancer. Three different parts of your body and three different types of conditions, and yet all of them respond very similarly to microgravity in that they reduce in numbers and also in shapes and sizes. What was also very interesting is the surviving cell, cancer cells, if I return them back to normal gravity environment, after 72 hours they actually retain their full functions back. So isn't this really interesting? It takes an astronaut about 72 hours to adapt, to start to feel the effects of microgravity in space, and similarly, and then the opposite, it takes 72 hours for cancers to get its full function. So I don't believe in coincidences; there must be something there as well. So from this result, we looked at is the cytoskeleton a possible mechanosensor? So if you think of the cytoskeleton as a structure of the cell, it's no different than the bones of our body, so is this a possible mechanosensor? Are they sensing through their cytoskeleton? Maybe they are. So we dug a little bit deeper. So the changes in the cell number, is it because the cancer cells are actually dying or are they just, they can't fit, attach anymore, they're just floating around? What's happening to their cell cycle? So what we found was that, if you remember from high school when we did all those mitosis stuff? I had to go back because I forgot about it. You know how there's different phases of your cells on replication? So what we found was the cells were actually stuck in this G2 phase where they're actually unable to grow, and this is very interesting because just by using microgravity and no drugs at all, we were able to make the cancer cells not only come off, but they stuck in the state where they can not grow anymore, and this is very significant. So I wanna make it clear to everyone, we're not in it to create a miracle drug. I just don't think that's possible. But what we're able to do is to provide us with an advantage to coexist with current therapies and to make a more effective therapy for people suffering from cancer. The number one question, again, from people is, "So are you saying that if we have cancer, "if we fly out to space on say Virgin Galactic "we'll be cured of it?" That's not what I'm proposing here, and I've talked to a few ministers, they even propose, "Well, how about we build a big simulator "where we can put the cancer patient in there "and we spin them around?" I said, "That could be a problem "because the first thing that's gonna happen "is they're gonna vomit to death first "before anything actually gets cured." So that's not very feasible. What I am proposing is to, like the bone drug, into tricking the body, tricking the cancer, that it is in microgravity. So if they can sense the microgravity here on Earth, it means that there's some sort of sensory receptors that we can target and make it feel like it's actually out in outer space, just like virtual reality. It can be very convincing. So if we can convince cancer that it's actually floating in space, then how does it, it can no longer function and we can target it with current therapies and have a better much effect on them. So where do we actually go from here? So everything I've told you right now has been done in the laboratories. So this year I bought a new project called Project J.I.A., this is the patch, and what we want to do is actually conduct this experiment, in actually in space. So working with Airbus, Arlula, and Zertia, these are the first Australia companies that can help facilitate this type of mission launch, and the Airbus engineers will be coming to help us integrate with the air systems so that we can make a launch. Also I'm partnering with Harvard and MIT as well. Now when I say Harvard, MIT, I'm not collaborating with some young professors that just think space is cool. These are professors, these are well-renowned researchers, professors to be at the top of their game in the cancer field. These are people who you normally don't meet, and if you do, you have about five minutes of their time that they actually care to listen to you. But, yeah, when I first told them about my project, they actually gave me their complete support. So if I can convince professors, world-leading professors from Harvard and MIT, it means I'm actually doing, hopefully I'm doing something that's actually right. So what does this mission means? It's gonna be Australia's first research mission to the International Space Station. Now this is actually very historical because we, Australia has actually never launched a research mission to the ISS and this is gonna be the first one. Now initially I wanted it to be a mission where it's just promoting Australian innovation, Australian glory and everything, but I think that sends a wrong message, so that's why I partnered with Harvard and MIT, because I want this to send out the message that this is a mission for humanity and for all humankind. It's not just for Australians but for everyone that is on Earth. So in April, just a couple months ago, a company in the U.S. called Emulate, they also, too, started to send stuff into space, and to study brain, kidney, and lung as well on the ISS, and this how happens to be my supervisor from Harvard. It's one of his company, so I was a little bit upset that he beat me to it, but at the same token, there is no one else on Earth that can say that they're in competition with him because no one can be like him. He's just a person that thinks two steps ahead of everyone, so, actually, it's actually a good complement. It reinforces that what we're doing is actually really novel and, more importantly, impactful. So what are we doing as part of our Project J.I.A.? So what does it stand for? It stands for Joint International Astrobiology. So my friend calls it Josh in Action, which sounds cool as well, so either interpretation is fine. But not only is this gonna be Australia's first research mission to the ISS, it's also gonna be one of the most advanced cell biology study to be conducted in space. So there is not a lot of people in the world that has actually conducted this type of study in space. If you wanna send a satellite into space, that could be done quite easily, but what we're talking right now is sending live cells into space, that has to survive it, we have to maintain it, and we have to get them down back to Earth. So that adds a lot of dimensions of complexity and there are no current technology, so we actually have to build it from scratch. So luckily I have a lot of talented students that had helped me build all these new technology. And why is this the most advanced cell biology study? Is because if you look around, all the study conducted in space has been collecting samples upon returning. What we are able to do is to study the cells live while it's still in space, and that will give us much more accurate results and response than collecting the sample when it gets back to Earth. So we set a launch date to be somewhere in the first quarter of 2020, because launching a space mission is not as trivial as as one now says. So what will actually happen as part of this mission? So we've done the hard part, the developing the space module. We actually have to go to the United States 24 hours before the launch. We have to load the cells into the module. It gets launch, it goes to the ISS, it'll stay there for about 28 days, they'll return back to Earth, and then we process our sample. So you can see while this sounds really easy, it really is not, and then we have to go through a lot of rigorous testing and also regulatory approval. And for Australia to launch anything to the ISS, it actually has to get final approval from the prime minister himself because it's representing Australia. So it's not something that I just thought up and it'll happen. It actually has to go through a lot of process. So, in conclusion, I hope tonight that I'm able to give you a glimpse of what is gonna happen in the next couple of years in the space arena, especially in the space biology, space medicine, and space health care, and that the future for curing Earth-borne diseases might very well be found while conducting this type of research in space. So, finally, like I said, this type of project is not something that I can do by myself, but rather it's a collective work of a lot of talented people, so that's why I like to acknowledge and thank my past and current students for trusting me, having blind faith in me leading them into the unknown, and fortunately we have something to show for it. Also all the international partners that has worked with me to make this possible. And, finally, I would like to end, again, with Isaac Newton's quote, "No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess," and I hope that continues to hold true for moving forward, and I also would like everyone here tonight, if you'd like to follow us in our journey, into our space research, you can find us on Twitter, or follow us on our website, email us. And when I say support, it could be just even words of support. That means a lot to us to have those words of encouragement. We also have a Kickstarter if you're feeling, if you can support us financially, the students as well, that will also be great. So thank you very much, everyone, for listening and coming here tonight, and I hope you've enjoyed and learned something about space tonight.
UTS Science in Focus: Will coral reefs survive climate change? Professor David Booth
Thanks so much David and welcome everybody and it’s especially nice to see a bunch of old friends out supporters I guess you’d say. So tonight my role I guess is to not paint too much of a morbid picture of the state of the Barrier Reef, because it's still a wonderful place in this and fantastic diving and that sort of thing but to put these in the context of what's going on up there and what organisms that live there what options are they have, do they stay? Do they go? Can we can we repatriate etc so let’s just see if this works...
So what I want to try and get through tonight hopefully and certainly questions later will be welcome is what's going on up there and course I'm not going to summarise that fully in the next couple of minutes. I’m particularly interested in the phenomenon of coral bleaching which of course is very prominent in the news very few people don't know about it in Australia I would hope, and the bleaching response and how fishes might respond to this of course the charismatic and other tropical reef fishes are important fisheries for tourism etc and I what happened stuff and as David alluded were seeing him down here in that so I want my areas and some of the other people in the audience’s areas.
What happens to those fish that stay and suffer coral bleaching? Can they handle it and also what happens? Is there an escape from the reef to the extent that we might be able to save those horrible airfares and go diving in a coral reef off Sydney one of these days? So cast of important people here and others I'm sure I've left out that have a great deal of involvement in these sorts project and my project so I want to thank them at this early point and reefs in peril well I could put up 100 pictures of oceans and sadly there a lot of things to talk about here so we won't cover them all if I can just maybe go clockwise the top there you have the major ongoing issues of water quality so runoff from agriculture done poorly from urban areas out onto the reef and particularly during cyclones which is one of the other issues.
Sediment and whatever nutrients etc are absorbed onto the sediment get taken off shore and can really devastate areas. Federal government has pumped in lots of money into this and in fact there’s great gains and improvements in water quality in terms of what the farmers know and do in urban runoff.
Overfishing is a perennial a problem on the reef and you’d be pleased to know that 30 per cent of the reef is no take reserve a lot of people from overseas including my colleagues think it must be 100 per cent it's a national park isn't it but no it's only 30per cent but that 30 per cent gives a good foundation through reef fish recovery.
Sadly things like reef sharks are on the decline in spite of that so there are big issues with overfishing. Just human loving of the reef- the sepia picture over there suggests that that's an old picture we don't do the turtle rodeos anymore- gee they were fun but there’s lots of other issues with direct tourist impact, although tourism may save the reef as well, it’s an economic boom.
The crown of thorns sea star has been a problem for the last many decades, the eruption of this sea star, it’s amazingly voracious and it finds all sorts of coral delicious. It can attack a reef and make it look much like coral bleaching. We don’t know all the answers for the ups and downs of that, but that’s a big issue.
I put coal down there it's very prominent and it has many effects as we’ll mention in a minute. Coal export- what you've heard of the Adani plans that are going on up there, coal killing the reef is the headline there and coral bleaching itself and climate change and that's a global issue but you know where I suppose we are not really proud of the fact that Australia exports climate change the world through coal exports so for instance my wife and I who work on the Southern Reef were travelling up to the reef a couple years ago and this is not our picture but we certainly notice this I've been going there since 1978 that's 40 years and the port itself has always been a big industrial port but see the harbour looked like this a few years ago and now it looks like that a coal seam plant has been put there a huge industry there and of course it’s adjacent to one of the most wonderful parts the Barrier Reef so a bit of a handshake up there might help the country or destroy our beautiful Barrier Reef it's not too much politics don't worry I’ll save that till question time.
So focusing a bit more on climate change again there are many manifestations of climate change the ones I’ve shown you include the one probably most people know which is the rising ocean temperatures and our area here is a global hotspot as I'll mention.
Going down to the right here more intense storms they could be in the form of cyclones, we were just up at Hamilton Island and witnessed what was left of Hamilton reefs after a cyclone a year ago Cyclone Debbie but further down the coast as I'll explain also we have east coast lows that are bringing storms which can affect the fishes for instance.
Sea level rise can inundate areas that were otherwise not and finally one of the Insidious ones up the top, top left there is ocean acidification that is the CO2 to draw down from the atmosphere affecting the pH and other aspects of sea water and of course corals themselves calcified they sequester calcium from seawater and turn it into bone basically and it's interrupting that and the fishes have some interesting responses too.
I'll focus mostly on temperature right now so these graphics are quite depressing to someone who's been looking at the reef for 40 years and this is from work done by Terry Hughes and his team who is one of the year the really big names in in this were thinking open mind if we in the whole Reef through aerial surveys and diver surveys and the years 2016/2017 back to back big warming and bleaching years and as you’ll see there the northern sector up north of Port Douglas was massively affected with over 80per cent of the reef severely bleached whereas the Southern Reef where we do most of our work really really did quite well, it dodged a bullet and the reason for that was really nothing particularly special but it was a miserably cloudy rainy period when this all happened so by virtue of clouds I think that was saved this time anyway.
Interestingly if you were to go up there to the Southern Reef a lot more tourists are going there, the tourists are voting with her feet and of course word gets around, this is Toronto Star where this came from but obviously they took it from somewhere else, so the world now knows that a lot of corals are dead in the southern and northern reef that has horrible ramifications for our tourism industry. Of course we should acknowledge that there are other respected scientists that have a different point of view, there they are there, last political comment, and of course you’ll always get denialists because of course not everyone can get out to the reef but I’m here to tell you it’s in very bad shape for the north, recovery we’ll have to wait and see.
So my little friends the fishes, which I’ll concentrate on mainly for most of the talk, how do they respond? Well you can stay or you can go I suppose are two options. So a little bit of physiology I guess you’d say- cold-blooded organisms like fish respond to temperature very much so, so their metabolism basically goes up, they crank up as the thing warms up like a car warming up after a cold morning and so if you can see the little green icon there we’ve got temperature versus their metabolism measured by oxygen. Oxygen is used in respiration and you’ll see that the basal metabolism like the idle speed of the fish increases sort of exponentially, goes up quite steeply with temperature, cranks up. Also the maximum they can do, their maximum ability to respire or take up oxygen goes up but not the same rate it’s at a decreasing rate so inevitably you get the clash of the two where the two clash, the animal has no scope to do anything- to breed, escape predators to grow etc - bad news.
In the middle here if you can notice the difference between those red and green curves that’s a maximum aerobic scope, that's kind of where you want to be in the in that case, it's where the fish wants to be and of course what's happening with increasing temperature where up on the reef is that aerobic scoop is dropping away so fish aren't doing as well in general. For example just some of the outputs here, this particular little spinal damselfish, we did some work with this guy and as you increase temperature in a laboratory situation its reproduction goes to pot. The size of the eggs it produces goes down, the number of eggs goes down, and overall reproductive success drops away and that’s only three degrees which is not a lot.
I cherry-picked some of the other examples from the literature, this is a good one and basically it’s suggesting that once coral is bleached, a consequence of rising temperature, little prey fish like little ambon damselfish right here are conspicuous against the bleached coral and predators like the psuedochromis here have much less trouble trying to catch them and killing them so and so this curve here down the bottom shows survivorship which is you want it to be nice and shallow, is steeper for the bleach corals than healthy corals so there's a conspicuous element here as well.
And there's Nemo everyone wants to know about Nemo but sadly anemones which are related to corals also bleach and so there's a nasty white ones they’re supposed to be lovely and pink, and for whatever reason those fishes that are in the bleached coral don't reproduce or reproduce very poorly and this example above the blue graph shows a year of a non-bleached anemone and then the red graph shows the drop off of reproduction in these fish when there was a bleaching event so yeah pretty dire consequences for poor old Nemo.
Also fishes can do different things at different temperatures and this particular bit of work that we did looked at three species of damselfish. This one up here loves live coral and once the water was heated up experimentally it still loved live coral. However, these two down here are what we call generalists, they’re quite adaptable to a range of habitat whether they be rubble or dead coral or alive coral. However, when we warm things up this guy in particular all of a sudden got a propensity for live coral, so it became a specialist, which is all very well but coral is a thing you really not want to be a specialist in in the future warming world. This guy maybe a bit better, will survive a bit better in warmer conditions it seems to like rubble a bit more which there will be plenty of in future.
So all in all without going through everything what we’re expecting to see and this is a very recent paper come out by some colleagues up north, a homogenisation of reef fish, a loss of all the different interesting things, functional groups etc as the reef deteriorates. Now for the bad news, nah. And we’ve been monitoring corals and fishes at One Tree Island the University of Sydney’s research Island for 25 years now, by monitoring fishes and corals, transect simple good old-fashioned biology, noting where bleaching’s occurred, noting numbers of fish etc.
And back in 1998 we were one of the first people to look at the impacts on the fish of bleaching because people had been very focused on the corals which is reasonable and we found that on and One Tree Island at these particular sites, the yellow sites were nailed by bleaching the horrible 1998 bleaching and never recovered, the green did better or the blue did better and as you can see up here the red box indicates those in the sites and the black to the grey shows the drop in life, which is quite severe those sites. And then I guess not too surprisingly the fish responded, the baby fish didn't come in in great numbers at those same nasty sites, the adult fish of these species also dropped off quite severely.
Now the yellow one of the top as I mentioned that's expected that loves live coral, the thing that worried us with the other two fish, these two here really didn't really care for live coral, they could be found in any old dirty old rubble, they also declined and that suggests to us that bleaching has a general negative effect on reef fish in the area which is a bit of a worry. Without going through too many more details things are looking up at One Tree Island, I have to say, after the initial drop in the early years corals have bounced back to a certain degree and so have fish so we may be looking at a slightly better news story at One Tree than in the Northern Reef.
So also one of the things that we certainly put this in every single grant we write not very successfully mind you, is that this particular region of South East Australia, there it is, is well known as a global hotspot for climate change, so I guess it’s a bit of a pun but the fact is that the temperature is expected to rise to this model by the end of the century by about 4 degrees and nearly as much on the reef and so it's a good place to do this work I guess you’d say and to ask a question what are the fish going to do? What are they going to do? Follow Nemo of course so one of the options are for fish is to travel away from the reef. Now fishes have a baby that lives in the plankton and most of those fishes have the ability to swim in lava form quite a long way for instance those little guys which about the size of a, I’m going to say 5 cent piece, are they gone now? $2 coin about that size most of them are about that size or smaller have an amazing ability to swim in spite of drifting with currents they can swim against currents and so this little graphic over here pretty much shows that some of these bigger lava fish in experimental situations can swim without food for 8 days and go over 100 km in that time- you try that and therefore they have an ability to choose where they’re going to be to a certain degree.
If we do a little graphic like so we might find and we are finding we think that a coral reef fish that has a distribution potentially like so with that red core where most of them are breeding and the little dottie line out there where the larvae go to don't survive. We might end up seeing a movement down the coast and we think we are to a certain degree whereby while on the move we have a trailing edge the guys left behind and a leading edge the brave ones upfront much like any invasive species you could argue, cane toads and then maybe finally relocating South so without going into detail we might see different aspects of the population and we might be finding the poor old trailing edge right at the top of the thermal abilities are suffering as a consequence directional selection smaller numbers in breeding etc so that could be the fate of those guys so they could change quite substantially if they stay there. The leading edge on the other extreme again has its challenges it's got to adapt to new areas and new temperatures and maybe low temperatures that it wasn't ready for.
So a big review that a bunch of us did a while ago asked a simple question who's getting through and why and I won't go into those details, you can look it up yourself if interested but it turns out a range of fishes, about 360 species out of about 5000 species so about 5 to 10per cent of species have a vagrant stage as we call it that is they can move outside the reef and we looked at which sort of species, there were things that had big larvae and various other features be quite a few fish make it from the reef and in this case in our case we presume and we think we're pretty sure they come down the coast, it takes in about a month to get down there with the advantage of the East Australian current of course but also their swimming ability and of course they come to an area that's pretty different from where they’ve left and enter to little vagrant tropical fish hiding down there.
So there's 4 or 5 climate change related things on their side- first of all the current itself as I mentioned is strengthening it's well known to be strengthening and it will continue to do so because of that mainly the sea temperature is rising towards the poles and habitat destruction, I already mentioned about the demise of the habitat on the reef but the flip side of that is the habitat, the useful habitat is expanding and that's mainly because they love rocks without allergy they love urchin barons covered in the thin film of coral and algae with lots of shelter holes and that's increasing because of a sea urchin that’s coming from the north as well.
Here is an example there are many many others but you can see these actually beautiful creatures that have been arriving through as far back as we know and whether they persist in Sydney we’ll talk about. A little video here shot by David Attenborough, no, telling some of the species just very quickly a lot of the butterfly fishes associate with the locals that is very quick a little triggerfish, they often like urchins and that sort of area some surgeonfish, unicorn fish, Sergeant Major damsels someone pointing, that’s me I think and you see that's a tropical damselfish a chromis it's quite happily living out there and spends quite a while there again a little butterfly fish friend these are quite common in Sydney and get quite large and some over winter this little surgeon fish, baby topical surgeonfish, some issues with surgeonfishes I'll mention in a minute they can cause damage there’s a baby olive surgeonfish scattering away from my camera, a baby damselfish, a cleaner wrasse and finally an iconic Moorish idol baby swimming around and so there's quite a lot, a grab bag of really cool fish I guess you’d say.
Our work over the years since about 2001 is simply going out and counting the. There’s a lot of experimental projects associated with that but the skeleton is basic surveying and of course what we’ve found over the years is generally an increase in early summer so don't bother going out December you won't see much at all, but if you go out in February you’re liable to see an increase in these babies, they’re quite beautiful but unfortunately they stop coming as the East Australian current drops off and most of them die over winter very few survive at the moment and what it means is at least easily Sydney’s fish fauna nearly a quarter of the fish are tropical visitors and with potential ramifications for the local fish.
So what we’re showing just very briefly here is over the years we've been particularly looking at Sydney and Merimbula on the South Coast but other sites as well and those two sites have shown a cumulative increase in the number of species but a lot more in Sydney but there's still quite a few come down to Merimbula in terms of what's happening through time we’re seeing the last few years we have now moved about the noise level and I think we see an increasing number of species in both Sydney and in Merimbula which has seen a huge boost in the last few years which I will mention more of in a second so just very quickly teasing that apart a little bit which fish the damselfish are on the increase the butterfly fish pretty stable ups and downs importantly these with this group here who I call surgeonfishes some of those at least are capable of destroying kelp beds you might say in a phenomenon known as stopping tropicalisation and it's happened in other parts of the world and colleagues at the University New South Wales are looking into more detail at this but they're increase the last 4 years is a bit of concern for the local environment and oddbods this is a beautiful little Luna wrasse and it was always around but it seems to be increased in numbers and last few years, difficult to explain but a fact.
And overall we’ve seen anything to the right of this line indicates an increase and obviously it's been increasing certain tacks are increasing more than others and worryingly the Acanthuridae or surgeonfish is right up there. How is this happening? Well the obvious no-brainer is it’s to do with the East Australian current, they’re all coming from up there so one would expect a really tight correlation between the strength of the current which varies year to year and the number of fish and of course you don’t really get that, you get something so years that had higher East Australian current strength on the right should have had higher numbers of species and numbers of individuals, there’s something there but it just reminds us there’s a lot of other factors in play.
Once they get there, that’s Step 1, Step 2 is meet the neighbours I guess you’d say, so I’ll talk a little bit about that briefly and one of the interesting things is seeing some very interesting interactions and they’re not just keeping separate, they’re integrating and this particular butterflyfish has a propensity for this territorial damselfish which is interesting. Also unfortunately as the waters cool down as they do every year, these tropical fishes start feeling the pinch and so this particular one here, some experimental work we’re doing on how quickly the fish can escape a predator, so the bigger number is better and as you can see if you look at the black bar this is a tropical one here and this is a temperate they’re about the same they both have the same escape speed but once you drop the temperature which is the grey bars the poor old tropical just doesn’t do and you get picked up by predators, so there's still a few issues here with winter survival and winter survival that's we think is a major bottleneck to the populations establishing so we published some work a number of years ago looking at how many fish survive the winter vs the temperature across the state and was quite interesting that above a certain temperature around about 18 Celsius all of a sudden a lot more survive so I sort of call that a threshold winter temperature so if the winter temperature in Sydney maintains itself at about 18 we expect a lot of those tropicals to survive.
Here is some temperature logger data just to reinforce the point and you can see first of all Merimbula over here, unfortunately if you’ve ever been in Merimbula in winter don't get in the water it drops 15-14 degrees every year not so good for tropical fish but Sydney, luckily for us, is in a very interesting spot. Some years it’s below and some years it’s above in the winter at the water temperature and indeed in those years its above we see more overwintering. And projecting into the future we are expecting an increase this is winter temperature across time, Sydney of course is there, there's our magic red line above that we think they might survive, so Sydney is a very interesting area at the moment whereby some of the winters are too cold some are just right but with a trajectory like that we might expect in my lifetime to see a continual influx of overwintering of these little tropical which is very interesting. Whose overwintering? Mainly damselfish on the left hand side there but others. Is it increasing? We’re starting to see signals above noise and we’re starting to think yes there is an increase in overwintering, very low numbers at the moment. Who’s doing it all? Damselfishes the top guys there, they’re increasing in a jaggardy sort of way, the surgeonfishes are up and down but they’re the ones we want to watch because they’re the one’s responsibly potentially for destroying kelp habitat which we want to keep and fisherman would like to keep as well. Are they breeding? That's the acid question, well someone out here might have observed it in Sydney, I haven't seen it as yet.
This particular species are a likely customer this is a Sergeant Major damsel breeding in that picture up north somewhere I've seen them change colour the males would change a breeding colour and I've seen that happening so we might be set to see some breeding. When you think you've got it all licked and worked out as far as temperature along comes another climate change factor. I mentioned intense storms and east coast lows have battered Sydney, you might know of the one June 2016 this here is a nightmare photo for my risk assessment and this actually happened in Sydney and in fact my study site the idealic Cabbage Tree Bay was reduced to rubble and the little toilet block in there was completely destroyed and dispersed over my study site so luckily we had done a survey just before so as soon as we got out after still we went out and checked out who was still there. Insights they were very exposed and somewhat protected from that horrible storm and as you can see here exposed sites we had huge drops in numbers of the surgeonfish particularly really nailed and there were very few fish left out there afterwards and so that's very negative consequence but interestingly what we also noticed was a lot of this nasty old kelp which isn’t nasty at all but a lot of our fish don't prefer it was replaced by this delicious habitat.
Now the habitat itself includes bits of toilet block as well which they also like and so that restored habitat at least the next year we looked in that habitat vs the other habitat and we found lots and lots of our little tropical fishes in the blues in that new habitat of those of barrens and compared to the stuff outside so there was a negative effect of the east coast low and then the next year was positive it just reminds us that climate change is a little bit sneaky and we don't know all the answers. But of course it’s still not a coral reef is it it’s just a bunch of fish coming down.
This grainy photo is form a colleague of mine Yohei Nakamura at Tosa Bay in Japan, which incidentally is 34 degrees north about the same as Sydney is south. This is a shot from the 70s, late 90s, early 2000s and now. Rapid change over 20-30 years, from a kelp environment which the fishing industry love to a coral environment and as you can see quite beautiful so this is at a place like Sydney so will this happen here? And they found being a fish person, the southern fish that is the fish in the tropics, because of course it’s the other way around there, the current brings them up, increased and the northern fish including fish they like to catch disappeared so the fisheries dropped out of there but we've got some nice corals. Finally will we expect this? Not the flying car I'm guessing maybe the rest of it in future. Well it turns out this not so far-fetched, and if you look at this particular video here are done by John [inaudible] don't know if you are out there in the audience anywhere yes and you'll see it ain't a coral reef but it looks a lot better than than nothing and there's certainly corals there now growing off Shelly Beach in fairly exposed conditions, phosphorus corals that support fish, that fish like branching coral and this has increased in the last 4 or 5 years very beautiful indeed and more importantly supporting some very cool fish that we hadn't seen here before like the little guy in the middle here so you know it's early days but it could well be that we’re seeing a transition in Sydney, watch this space, sadly we might lose some fisheries species but we might see some interesting corals in Sydney maybe not a coral reef but potentially corals can move south so there's the answer I guess you could say for now and that's all I’ve got for you thank you very much.
Who here is working, raising, or perhaps trying to tame a screenager?
Not a teenager or a threenager, screenagers are kids that learn to tap, swipe and pinch before they've learnt to ride a bike, grip a pencil or tie their shoelaces. These are kids that have never known the agony of waiting for their roll of Kodak film to develop. Do you remember the days spent nervously waiting for the chemist, talk about delayed gratification! And these are kids and teens that have never known what it's like for the internet to dial up. In fact, today's screenagers, the research is telling us, are spending more time with pixels than with people. And in a recent survey, we asked young people, upper primary and lower secondary students: would they rather have a broken bone or a broken phone? And I can tell by your response you know what the majority of the survey respondents said.
Whether we love it or loathe it, our children, our adolescents and our young people will inherit a digital future. So digital abstinence is not the solution. Banning screens, suggesting that they're toxic or taboo, is no longer an option either. What we have to do as parents, as professionals and as educators and as young people in this space, is to tame their technology habits so that they are masters of the media and not a slave to their screen.
We need to teach our kids and our young people today how they can be in control of technology and not the other way around, where technology controls them. Where they start to salivate like Pavlov's dogs every time they get an alert or notification on their phone. So one of the issues that makes this particularly difficult is because the very way that technology has been designed. It may come as a surprise to you to learn that many of our big social media companies, when they were developing their online tools were not only employing tech recruits, but they were also employing psychologists and neuroscientists to make sure that the technology appealed to our psychological vulnerabilities. And one of our basic psychological vulnerabilities as human beings whether we're a teenager, a young person or even an adult, is what we call "bad forecasting."
When we jump into our social media feeds or perhaps we get an alert telling us that we've had a photo of us tagged in it, what we actually think will take us five minutes, can very quickly become the rabbithole, so I'm suggesting that instead of having alerts that look like this, we should perhaps have alerts that look like this. Much more realistic indicator as to how much time we are going to dedicate to social media. And this is one of the many psychological vulnerabilities that social media taps into, and that is our incapacity to accurately forecast, and it also explains - and I'm going to talk about this in a moment - something called "the state of insufficiency."
So this evening I want to talk about why, whether we're talking about young people or even ourselves as adults with fully developed brain architecture, why we have succumbed to the screen. Why is it that we are digitally dependent on our devices. And then I'm going to speak specifically about the young brain. The teenager and young person's brain and why they are particularly vulnerable to some of the potential pitfalls associated with social media. And then I'm going to provide you with practical solutions about how we can tame our tech habits, in terms of establishing healthy boundaries and also about fostering healthy habits. Because as I said, digital amputation isn't the solution.
So in this video, we often decry that teenagers have become dependent on their devices, but I want to ask you as adults in the room, who here is also dependent on their devices? Are you perhaps one of the 58% of women who said that they would rather give up sex than their mobile phone for the space of a week? Are you, as Louise pointed out, one of the many people that reach for their phone before their partner first thing in the morning? And please don’t answer when I ask you are you one of the people that are checking their social media in the bathroom?
As adults, with fully developed brain architecture, we are tethered to our devices, I can tell by some of the smirks and laughs you're not immune either. I'm often asked, is technology really rewiring our kids' and teens' brains? And I'm here to say as a researcher in this field, in some regards we are conducting a bit of a living experiment. We don't have longitudinal data to tell us what the long term impacts are. The iPad only recently celebrated in April this year, it's 8th birthday. In 8 years, we have, as a society, veraciously adopted it. So I want to ask you as adults with fully developed brains, do you suffer from nomophobia? Fear of not having your phone. Would you travel home in Sydney's horrendous traffic to retrieve your digital appendage that you left charging near the bed or somewhere on the kitchen counter? Now if you don't suffer from nomophobia, maybe you suffer from phantom vibration syndrome. Now you have a label for it, next time you're scratching your leg in that weird way or twitching, that tingling sensation that your phone is vibrating and it's nowhere near your physical body. Now I use these two as humorous examples, but to say whilst we may not have the longitudinal data or the research to confirm that technology is rewiring our brains, I think we can see from our own personal experience what a profound impact technology is having.
So why is it that we find it so hard to digitally disconnect? Why is it that we want to spend more time with pixels than with people? I'm going to explain now that there are three basic psychological drivers that explain why we have become infatuated, somewhat obsessed, with social media, and I'm also going to explain some of the neuropsychological reasons why we have become digitally dependent.
So in terms of psychological drivers, as human beings we share three fundamental needs. This is based on the self-determination theory and our three basic needs, as we heard earlier in Louise's talk, our fundamental need as humans is for connection. We are hard wired for relational connection. We want to feel like we belong. So it is easy to understand why our teens and young people have gravitated towards social media because it caters so perfectly for their desire and biological need for connection. The second need that we have is our need to feel like we are competent. We want to feel like we're in control of our environment. And in social media, I get to depict a sense of competency. As Louise indicated, I only share the highlight reel, I don't share the behind the scenes footage. So I can convince my followers, my friends, that I am a competent human being by what I share on social media channels. And my third need that I have, my third basic psychological need, is the need for control. We are hard-wired for automony. We want to have a sense of locus of control over our lives. And with social media, we get to choose that we are the causal agents. Social media, and gaming in particular, give us that need of feeling like we are in control.
But there are also neuropsychological reasons to explain why we have become dependent on technology, and our teens and young people as well. As Louise indicated, scrolling through Facebook, getting a like, comment or share, triggers the release of dopamine in the brain and a whole lot of other neurotransmitters like serotonin. So when we turn technology off, one of the reasons it's hard to turn off, is because we don't want to terminate our supply of dopamine. Who's a parent in the room? Anyone? So you know exactly what I'm talking about when I describe the technotantrum. For anyone unfamiliar with the technotantrum, this is when your otherwise well adjusted child or teenager emotionally combusts when you ask them to turn off the gaming console, pass back the phone or shut the laptop lid. Why is it that our kids behave like this? Because we're literally cutting off their dopamine supply when we digitally disconnect them.
One of the other reasons and I'm going to talk about this part of the brain in just a moment, but for now I want to explain this part of the brain, it's called the pre-frontal cortex. This is the logical part of the brain, this is the CEO, this is the air traffic control system. Whos's a parent to boys? I have 3 sons. Sorry 3 boys, two sons and a husband. I've got a bit of bad news for you, when does the male pre-frontal cortex fully develop? This is not a gender stereotype, this is neuroscience. Who said never? That was unfair! The pre-frontal cortex develops in the late 20s in males, and for those of you smugly thinking I'm a parent of girls, it's much better for me, it's not. The pre-frontal cortex in females develops in the early 20s, about 21-23 years of age. Why is this part of the brain important? The pre-frontal cortex does three important jobs. It manages impulses, it helps with our mental flexibility, and it helps with our working memory. Do you understand now why you may say the same thing to your teenager repeatedly and they look at you very vaguely each time as though they've never heard the information? They don't have a working memory.
But the big thing there I want to illuminate, is impulse control. That part of the brain that manages their impulses isn't fully developed. So they will share on social media, they will behave impulsively because their pre-frontal cortex is still under construction. Well this pre-frontal cortex has been biologically wired for novelty. We are always on the hunt, as human beings, for new and interesting information. And so social media, the online world in general, caters for that biological need. The online world is always new, it's always interesting, and it's always rewarding, with minimum cognitive effort to go into that reward. The offline world, the analogue world, the real world, isn’t always interesting. In fact the real world is slow-paced, and it's often boring. So when I talk to parents, I send them a virtual giant permission slip to say it is okay, in fact I suggest it is essential, for our kids and teens today, to learn what it's like to be bored. Boredom is absolutely critical, not only for their wellbeing, but also for their creative thinking.
But as adults, we have even lost the art of boredom. A study was done about four years ago with adult participants aged 18-34, and they put the adult participants in a room, no windows, no phones, no magazines, and they asked them to sit there and be bored for 7-15 minutes. Now as a mum to two small children who still put their fingers under the bathroom door, the idea of sitting in a room by myself, uninterrupted for 7-15 minutes sounds like utopia. I did not participate in the study, but the researchers had to prematurely terminate the study because the adult participants showed signs of psychological distress. They could not handle the idea of being bored for 7-15 minutes. Wait it gets better, the researchers went back to their ethics committee and they said, "we'd like to do iteration 2 of this study, but instead of subjecting our poor adult participants to the psychological stress of boredom, we'd like to give them the option of administering a small electric shock. They got the green light, completely ethical, I try relentlessly to get ethics approval on studies of iPads and kids but I'm told it's completely unethical but adults giving themselves electric shocks is completely fine. So knowing what you know now about the male pre-frontal cortex, and its delay in being fully developed, what percentage of males do you think elected to give themselves an electric shock in lieu of being bored. And it wasn't 100! 69% of males, 24% of females gave themselves an electric shock in lieu of boredom. I won't reveal the gender but in the data set there was somebody that we call an outlier, and they elected to give themselves 180 electric shocks in lieu of being bored. Social media, the online world in general, caters for our brain's desire for novelty. It's always new and interesting, you can see why I think boredom is essential.
One of the other reasons why we find it's so hard to digitally disconnect and for our teens in particular is because when they're online, scrolling through feeds or perhaps it's playing video games, they enter what we call the psychological state of flow. This is where they become so engrossed and enraptured in what they're doing, that they literally lose track of time. This is why paediatricians are treating increasing numbers of young children presenting with urinary and bowel incontinence because they're holding on just so they can get to the next level in the game or completely oblivious about how much time they have spent playing online. So when we become enraptured, we lose track of time. Any parents in here, when your little one looks at you with their puppy dog eyes, and says "but I've only just turned it on, I've only just started" and they've probably had 3 or 4 maybe even 5 hours, that is why. They have entered that state of flow.
The fourth reason that we are digitally disconnected in terms of our neuropsychological needs, and this is the one I personally grapple with the most, is something called the state of insufficiency. In the online world, we never ever feel like we are done. There is no finite finishing point. There is no end point. There's always something new I can update my social media feed with, there's always a new browser I can open, another level I can get to in the video game, another TV show I can watch thanks to 24/7 streaming. And so we never ever get that sense of being done. And so I'm often asked, "is this just moral panic?" Is this experience really any different to this experience. Who thinks yes? Are these qualitatively different? Aside from the medium in which they are delivered? And no I'm not talking about whether one delivers fake news and the other one delivers real news. That's open to debate as well. But what I want to point out is that the newspaper had a finite number of articles, a back cover, and a final story. Your device not only has an infinite amount of information, in fact we're calling it infobesity, but the other reason that we find it's so hard to switch this off compared to the newspaper, is that comes into our social media feeds thanks to algorithms, is highly curated and highly personalised. Now you could have obviously selected the newspaper of your choice in years gone by, but the content would not have been as personalised, as interesting as what comes into your social media feed.
So what do we need to know about young brains and why are they particularly vulnerable to social media demands? As I mentioned before, this pre-frontal cortex is still under development. This is the part of the brain that manages impulses and helps to make smart logical decisions. The part of the brain that's operating instead as this next video will show you, is the limbic system.
"So the pre-frontal cortex is the last region to fully develop. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain you need to make decisions, to think about the future, to think about consequences, you can kind of think of it like the Spock of the brain. Logical, calm and collected. And then deeper in the brain, there are emotional systems like the limbic system, which are more interested in immediate gratification. They're sorta like Captain Kirk, a risk-taker and a bit emotional. During the teenage years, the limbic system develops really quickly, and the prefrontal cortex is trying to catch up. Eventually, as individuals become adults, the prefrontal cortex will increasingly have more influence over behaviour than the impulsive part of the brain."
And so you can see why our kids are often engaging in cyber bullying, because they are impulsive and often their emotional brain is taking over as opposed to their prefrontal cortex. So, this is one of the reasons, that we need to be as parents, educators and carers, talking to our teens about what they're sharing online. We need to be encouraging them to critically think, and not only behave respectfully and responsibly, but to think critically about their digital DNA. We need our young people to understand that every post, comment, every blog post, every message that is sent online, even if deleted or dragged to the trash can, has digital DNA. And our young people are curating their digital futures from the minute they share their first post.
So how do we tame our kids' tech habits? What do we need to do? I firmly believe - I deliver seminars to parents throughout the country, and regardless of whether I'm speaking to parents of preschoolers or adolesceents, my message is the same. We need parents and carers to be the pilot of the digital plane. Parents often say "but I feel ill equipped, my child or teenager knows way more about the technology than what I do!" and that may be the case. I say use it to your advantage. What your teenager or young person doesn’t have, is your prefrontal cortex, nor do they have life experience or a catastrophe scale like you do. We need parents to be in the pilot seat of the digital plane, because if and when your child crashes the plane, or they go off course or they hit turbulence, perhaps they're cyberbullying, perhaps they've seen pornographic content or age-inappropriate content. If a parent or carer is in the driver seat, they're there to help them course-correct. However if you're way back in economy class, and your child or young person is in the pilot seat, what happens when they hit turbulence, they crash the plane. And this is one of the many reasons that I talk to parents about strongly discouraging using screen time as a reward or punishment tool. Why? If we offer screentime as a reward as I know many parents do, two things happen. Number one we elevate the status of technology even more. It's already innately pleasurable for all of our kids. And number two, we develop a transactional relationship with our kids. If you do this, then you can have this. And as any parent knows, you get backed into a no win position very quickly if you operate from that standpoint. When it comes to using screentime as a punishment, as Louise mentioned before, about some of the staggering cyberbullying statistics, we know that if children have the threat of digital amputation hanging over their head, if I do something naughty mum's going to confiscate my phone, will they go and tell a trusting adult if they're a victim of cyberbullying? They won't. it's akin to cutting off their oxygen supply. So we need as pilots of the digital plane to help our kids form healthy relationships with technology.
So some of the boundaries that parents can set up is delaying the introduction of social media. Most social media platforms have a legal of children required to be 13 years of age, we must make sure we are not introducing social media before they have the social and emotional skills to deal with the demands of social media. As parents we also have a responsibility to use internet filtering tools on every internet connected device that your child or young person has access to. There are so many tools out there, koalasafe, the one that I personally use with my children and recommend, is the family zone. Not only can you help manage and monitor what your child uses in terms of app and social media tools, you can also monitor and limit when they use screens. Ironically they're also digital tools, so for many adolescents, staying focussed on their homework and assignments, is really difficult when the temptation of social media is calling their name. so there are tools like self control, which allows you to block access to distracting websites or online tools at certain times. There are other tools like FocusMe and ironically also phone tools that will monitor and restrict access to particular sites at particular times.
In terms of how we overcome cyberbullying, one of the great tools that has been developed by a Queensland teacher here in Australia, and this is being readily adopted QLD and western australia schools at the moment, is a tool called Stymie. It's also a tool that parents can use. Using Stymie is an anonymous bullying alert system. Because the research is telling us overwhelmingly that in most cyber bullying incidents, unlike traditional bullying, where there was a physical altercation and there was usually a bystander, the bystander in traditional bullying would go and seek help. With cyber bullying, do bystanders go and seek help or stand up to cyberbullying? In most instances, in fact the research tells us about 83% of instances they don't. why? The threat of social ostracization is great, so they will not do it. So Stymie is one tool, as this video will show you, there's also another great tool that was developed by students and young people, this is basically a tool that acts like your child or adolescent's pre-frontal cortex.
"Reword is an affective tool that will help change online bullying. It's like a spellchecker, for bullying. It's a non-intrusive red line that strikes through insults as they're typed so people can reconsider what they're typing before they press send."
So again, empowering young people to use technology but use it in ways that compensate for some of their emerging social skills. So not only do parents need to enforce boundaries, but parents also need to help their children adopt and develop healthy habits if they're going to tame technology. One of the main things when I speak to parents is that we must strongly discourage young children using screens at night. Not only is it a huge risk to the quality and quantity of the sleep that young people are getting, but we also know that it is one of the prime times of the day when cyberbullying occurs. In fact some studies have suggested that 93% of cyberbullying in teens and young people. Why? At night time, the limited part of their prefrontal cortex that's operational shuts off. Have you ever noticed your young person is particularly illogical and irrational at night? Guess what part of the brain turns on at night. The amygdala. The emotional centre of the brain. So next time your partner is trying to pick a fight with you, you say to them, my prefrontal cortex is off, my amygdala is on, can we talk about this in the morning? Can you see why cyberbullying is so rife at night? We need to discourage the use of screens at night.
Another healthy habit that we can promote and this is a two pronged habit, is proximity, the old out of sight out of mind. Removing devices so they're not a mental trigger to actually pick them up and use them, so we don't start salivating like Pavlov's dogs every time we see an alert or notification on our screen. The second part of the proximity strategy is removing digital temptations from the homescreen of your smartphone or tablet. So that when you unlock the phone to actually make a phone call, you don’t succumb to Facebook or Instagram because those apps are on your device. Another strategy that works really well which is something that I've been implementing lately is the greyscale. Turning your smartphone to greyscale so that the coloured icons are nowhere near as appealing.
Families also need to establish tech free zones. Bedrooms, bathrooms, meal areas, cars and play areas. Cars for two reasons, any parent knows that cars are one of the few times of the day your kids are trapped in close proximity, and even though they might only give you a grunt, you might actually elicit some form of conversation. The other one I have learnt particularly as a parent to boys, is that boys, and I am also told adolescent boys and girls, but young boys in particular, love - do you all remember Dickie Knee from Hey Hey it's Saturday? - they love the Dickie Knee conversation. They would much rather talk to the back of your head or have side by side conversation, than face to face conversation, and the car is one of those opportunities. The other reason that we suggest not having screens in cars is because we now know many provisional drivers have formed such a strong habit that they use screens in the cars, guess what happens when they get their P plates? It's a near impossible habit to break.
So we need to establish tech free zones, as this video shows, I don’t think you need to go to these extreme lengths to make sure that meal areas are screen free areas, but you may in fact need to do so.
So what can we do to help young people tame their technology habits, particularly when it comes to social media? We need to talk to them about the three Ps. The first one, again because their prefrontal cortex is still developing, we need to encourage them to pause before they post, we need to encourage them to pause from their scars and not from their wounds, it's so easy particularly at nighttime when our amygdala is on, to post that comment or social media post that we later regret. So I talk to young people and I give them three strategies. Number one is the stadium strategy. If your phone was plugged in and put on the big screen in a full stadium, would you be okay with what you're sharing? Because our young people often don't understand, as Louise talked about, the immediacy and the gravity of what they're sharing online. The principal test - what would your headmaster or headmistress say if they saw what was shared on your device? And the last one the good old fashioned grandma test. What would grandma say if she unlocked your phone and saw what you were posting?
The second P we need to talk to our young people about is privacy. We are now seeing young people posting inappropriate content and sharing inappropriate content. I am working with primary school students at the moment who have been in trouble with the police because they have been distributing nude photos of other people. And there are criminal offences attached to doing so. We need to make sure that kids are aware of privacy and also whether they have permission to post.
So when it comes to taming technology it’s not about banning screens, it's about planning and helping your child by giving them healthy boundaries and also healthy habits. Digital amputation isn't the solution, in fact we know when we ban technology or we demonise it, it only drives the behaviour underground.
Thank you for your attention, I hope that has been helpful, and ironically, if you need to connect, there are digital channels and social media to do so. Thank you.
Medical and Biomedical Sciences