Getting to know Catalyst Cameron

Cameron Wilson
I sat down (belatedly) with our bioscience brainiac and Catalyst Dr Cameron Wilson to find out a little more about this scientist of the rad variety.

Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Who I am is a tricky one to answer without a specific frame of reference, so I’ll put it in terms of what I do. I am a hybrid (mutant?) of artist, biologist and mechanical engineer, now with a twist of science communicator. Working as a Bioscience Catalyst lets me bring all these together for the first time, so I’m a bit excited about it and have been grinning a lot.

Since 2001 I’ve been working on various medical engineering research projects to do with bone repair and implant integration. Most of it has been based in cell culture labs, and I still get a buzz from seeing what’s going on down the microscope. Last year, I took time away from the sciencing to work on a novel (still in progress) and make music (mostly in collaborations). I’m currently working up a couple of new project proposals, focusing on growing organised tissues and functional blood vessel systems in the lab. There will be more about these endeavours in my blog posts over the coming months.

How did you become interested in your field of practice?
It probably started because many of my closest friends studied in biology-related fields when we left school. Then, when my first job as a research engineer with Comalco ended, I started looking at biomedical engineering as an alternative direction that sparked my curiosity. That career direction didn’t bear fruit immediately, but the seed had been sown.

The BHP Wildscience exhibition at Melbourne’s Scienceworks was my introduction to biomimetics – engineering and technology swiping ideas from biology (I’ll be talking more about this, too). The things I remember most strongly from it were the pneumatic-powered elephant and models showing how a fish’s swimming motion is immensely more efficient than a propeller (that is, it gets more motion for a given amount of energy).

Restless in my mechanical engineering job, I went back to biomimetics around 2000, found a mailing list on the internet, and via that, got in touch with Professor John Evans at the Queensland University of Technology. Talking to him was my introduction to bone biology and how implants integrate into the body, and things just rolled along from there. The more I got to talk with people, the more I learned, the more excited I got, so I climbed aboard and started a new career in medical engineering research the next year.

Why did you choose to bring your skills to The Edge?
For starters, the timing was perfect, with me getting set to return to Australia when the call went out. The Catalyst position was a chance to share my enthusiasm for science, but more than that, I was delighted at how The Edge promotes the kind of experimentation and play that is as much part of scientific research as it is art. Yes, I reckon play is a critical part of science! Here I’m not talking about “pin the tail on the lab-rat” or suchlike, but rather, the joy of imagining possibilities and trying things just to see what happens; that often seems to get lost among the mad scramble of grant applications, experiments not working and trying to publish results. I also reckon that, the more engaged our society is with science, the better we’ll get at communicating it, setting policies and priorities and even carrying out research. So what better place than The Edge to bring a bit of bioscience to Brisbaners AND see if I can wriggle a little more playful creativity into bioscience?

What will you be doing during your time as a Catalyst at The Edge?
To start with, I’m eager to get bioscience out of the lab. Even ignoring the fact that we’re living things that need other living things to live (oh dear… and I fancy myself as a writer at times!), biology and biotechnology have been strongly affecting our lives in one way or another since the dawn of agriculture. So I’d like to show how bioscience isn’t just something that happens in gleaming labs (like the “Ponds Institute” in the old ads on TV), carried out by people in white coats: some of it needs nothing more “sciency” than a kitchen or a garden.

DIY Catalyst, Clinton Freeman, and I have started out with a window farm: an open-source hydroponic set-up that means even a tiny home can have a productive garden. I’m aiming to use this as a test system for a few experiments, looking at environmental changes like salt levels in water, and (just because I’m curious) how plants respond to the directions of light and gravity.

Then we get down to some seriously tasty biotechnology: using micro-organisms to transform and preserve food. Again, we’re talking bioscience that goes back thousands of years, but that still plays a big role today. I’m planning a workshop on a couple of different forms of fermentation, and the first couple of ginger beer test-brews have passed the taste test :)

But all that aside, I am a researcher, after all: I’ll be taking you all with me as I learn about how tissues are formed in a body, and look at the ways we might be able to rebuild them when the body can’t manage it.

And I’m keen to explore how science might draw on art for inspiration, rather than just the other way around. There is a history of technologies being inspired by science fiction, and I read once about how Dr Philip Kilner‘s giving up his research and taking up sculpture showed him how blood-flow shapes the human heart. Art and science are both experimental, both uncertain, and both ways of understanding the world, so it make sense to me that they can work together. I have an idea for a foray into this direction, but because it needs a little luck in getting supplies and facilities, I’m not going to reveal anything about it just now.

How can Edge users get involved?
Now that we’ve run the workshop on building a window farm, we would love for participants to play with the design at home, experiment with plants, nutrients and growing conditions, and share their discoveries with us. Because window farming is an open source technology, the more people share their experiences, the better the designs and methods get. Anyone interested can get involved in the global collaboration here.

In the fermentation workshop, if all goes to plan (dangerous words in experimental sciences!), we’ll be learning how to make ginger beer and kimchi (kind of a Korean version of sauerkraut). Although with food and drink, safety limits how much we can experiment, we’ll also be discussing here how certain changes in the recipes and techniques might affect the products – things you can try, and things you should definitely avoid!

In both these cases, I’m hoping Edge users will be inspired to find more information and try things for themselves, to know that you don’t have to spend 4-10 years in a university to indulge in a little biotechnology.

But I would also love to see scientists at The Edge and getting involved! When time and funding are always tight, it’s easy for a researcher to lose that delight of wild imaginings, so I’d like to provide scientists opportunities to come together in a playful environment and “dream big”. I want to see Edge users unleashing their inner mad scientist (or rad scientist), to come up with outrageous solutions to bioscience problems big and small (there is an article in a medical journal about ice-cream headaches, after all). And this isn’t purely for fun: letting ideas stray into the realm of “a bit silly” can be a great way of cracking a hard problem, and sometimes even just explaining a problem to someone who knows nothing about it can open up a way to solve it. And that’s one of the exciting things about working at the interface between scientific and other disciplines. Ultimately, my aim in this area is about community: if I can even just plant the seed of a creative community of emerging scientists and interested non-scientists, I’ll be beaming lasers of delight from my eyes.

Do Edge users need any special skills to be involved?
No – mostly just an eagerness to try things, observe and, I hope, to share what they find. I’d love to have people with special skills and knowledge involved, though, to build up a strong community and to keep us all challenged with new questions.

If those playing along at home want to know more about the sort of things that you do, where should they go to learn? (books, websites, specific artists etc)
There are lots of great resources across all media, and I’ll be referring to a few more of these in workshops and my blog posts. But here are a few to get things rolling along nicely, even for the far-flung:

http://www.windowfarms.org/ – the online community whose design we used (more or less) in our window farm workshop.

http://www.bottlebiology.org/ – lots of great biology experiments you can try at home / school / office cubicle… including a combined land & water ecosystem and making kimchi (there’s also a book on kimchi in the State Library: The kimchee cookbook – Open Access, level 2 (G 641.59519 1999).

The ABC’s Gardening Australia magazine for March 2012 has a nice, authentic recipe for ginger beer (that’s the one I’m currently trialling).

My favourite art-science project to date is this: http://www.lighthouse.org.uk/programme/laboratory-life

and I’m particularly intrigued by Andy Gracie’s efforts to interface living things with robotics. There are also some amazing new technologies emerging on this front, as featured in episode one of “Brave New World” on SBS (can be viewed online here: http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/2208013170/).

For those of a scientific bent, interested to know where I’m heading, Frederick Grinnell is one name to seek out – in particular his work around 30 years ago on the effects of ascorbate (vitamin C) in cultures of fibroblasts (cells that build soft tissues and play key roles in healing and scarring). He wasn’t the first to report the effect, but has been one of the major players in bringing cell culture into three dimensions.

Also, there is some good stuff on the electric television at the moment: Australia – The Time-Traveller’s Guide (ABC, Sunday 7:30pm), Brave New World (SBS, Sunday 8:30pm), and of course the old standard, Catalyst (ABC, Thursday 8pm). And The Science Show on Radio National (Saturdays at noon, last time I listened in) often has great stuff. Most of these are also accessible online.

Internet gold: CSIRO and ABC. For some more “hard-core” bioscience, stay tuned to The Edge blog!

Fast four:

First three tabs you open in a new browser window
Almost always GMail first; the others depend on time of day and/or what I logged on for (if I can remember). Often it’s Translink, Facebook, Leo (English/German dictionary site) or the (Australian) ABC next, or, if I’m looking for something specific, Google, PubMed or Wikipedia.

First mobile phone you ever owned
My current one! A Samsung S3110. I still feel vaguely embarrassed to have a mobile after so long resisting.

The one piece of technology you couldn’t live without
I was going to say agriculture, because I don’t think I’d last all that long as a hunter-gatherer, but I couldn’t say that without language, and writing in particular: those are technologies I’d be very sad without. So I’m going to go for writing.

Geekiest habit or hobby
I haven’t for a while, but I occasionally get obsessive about computer programming or mathematics – often, but not always, stemming from my work, but going way beyond what was necessary, either because I want it to be perfect or just because I get a bit carried away. Although the complexities of certain operating systems defy logic often enough, the delightful thing about programming is that it is purely logical, as pretty well nothing else is. And I guess using Homestar Runner quotes in conversation probably counts as quite geeky, too, yes?

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