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Meriden student recognised as an up-and-coming scientist

Dr Laurence and Katherine Willetts with Dr Andrew Thomas

Year 12 student Katherine Willetts was one of just ten students from across New South Wales awarded a scholarship to attend Science at the Shine Dome in Canberra. It was the first time the state’s brightest Science Extension students and their teachers have been invited to the event as organisers recognised that the young attendees are already laying the groundwork for careers in science.

Science at the Shine Dome is hosted by the Australian Academy of Science and sees over 400 scientists from around the world gather in Canberra to celebrate and honour outstanding achievements in science. Attendees include Australian Academy Fellows, Chief Scientists, Nobel Prize winners and early and mid-career researchers. Katherine had the opportunity to meet with many accomplished scientists, including Dr Andrew Thomas, the first Australian-born NASA astronaut.

As part of her Extension Science unit, Katherine is undertaking a secondary investigation into the connectome of the mouse brain and the project has given her a clear vision of her desired career path.

“After school, I intend to enter the field of neuroscience and in particular, work on the development of connectomes,” she said.

“I am interested in the application of neuroscience as part of a multidisciplinary approach to fields such as psychology and the treatment of neurological conditions.”

Connectomes are wiring diagrams of synaptic activity in the brain. Katherine is currently completing analysis of a dataset describing the strength and distribution of neuronal connections in order to compare three brain regions.

“Currently, connectomes reveal more about structure than function, and the only completed connectome to date has been on a nematode – a microscopic worm – brain,” Katherine said.

“By comparing connectivity in three different brain regions I intend to improve understanding of activity in the parts of the brain that deal with motor control, autonomic functions and higher-order processing. A greater understanding of brain connectivity in smaller mammals such as mice is an essential first step towards a full understanding of complex connectivity in the human brain.”

Katherine understands the wide-reaching impact of scientific research and hopes her own research will improve her life and the lives of others.

“I am curious about the world and believe that research enables us to better understand our cosmos which in turn allows us to make more informed decisions about all aspects of our lives, from our beliefs to our social systems.”

Dr Jocelyn Laurence, Meriden’s Science Extension Teacher, was impressed by Katherine’s talent and passion for neuroscience and nominated Katherine to attend Science at the Shine Dome.

“In addition to her love for neuroscience, Katherine displays a strong interest in the philosophy of science, and the role that science can play in society. The combination of Katherine’s scientific skills and her thoughtful approach to research made her an excellent candidate for the program.”

Dr Laurence said the move to include Year 12 students in the science conference was a great way for practising scientists to extend connections to new generations of researchers.

“Science at the Shine Dome provides students with the opportunity to listen to and speak with some of the most accomplished scientists in Australia,” she said.

“By listening to their presentations, the students were able to gain an understanding, not only of the scientists’ research topics, but also of the processes that are used to carry out that research. It is very rare for students to be exposed to this level of insight prior to university. All the students, including Katherine, left the program with a renewed enthusiasm for science and research.”

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