UNSW Science Vacation Research Scholarship UGVC1056
2021/2022 Research Projects

The purpose of the UNSW Science Summer Vacation Research Scholarship is to expose highly talented undergraduate students, enrolled in Science or a related discipline, to scientific research and other science-based experience, and to further their education and inspire them to consider research or related activities. The scholarship program will run for a six week period over the Summer Semester (November to February).


How to apply

To apply you will need to submit the following:

Supporting Documentation

Please submit the following with your Scholarship application:

  • An electronic copy of your CV
  • An electronic copy of your academic transcript

Applications are now open and will close Thursday 30 September 2021.

Research Projects

Click on the School to view possible research projects:

School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences Projects

Project Title: Evolution of Motility Across Interfaces

Supervisor(s): Dr Matthew A B Baker

Description: In this project we explore the directed evolution of the flagellar motor in the lab by evolving it to swim under different energy sources and selecting for motility. Recent work in antibiotic resistance (eg by Michael Baym) has shown that the resistance of antibiotics occurs in lockstep when progressing through 10-fold increases in antibiotics. We aim to explore how motility evolves across interfaces, when a bacterium faces a change in environment between, for example, H+ and Na+ environments, and how the bacteria adapts to dwindling nutrient across this interface. This project has scope for designing and building custom tanks to optimise bacterial evolution using 3D printing and prototyping, as well as investigating microbiology and bacterial motility in multiple dimensions using layered swim devices. 




Supervisor(s): Dr Matthew A B Baker

Description: We utilise the high efficiency and self assembly of the flagellar motor to drive rotation of cells on patterned surfaces to control mixing and fluid flows in microfluidics. We have projects involving designing and building new devices to apply the flagellar motor onto other things. This would suit someone with an interest in DIY/maker culture. 



Project Title: Origins of Bacterial Motility

Supervisor(s): Dr Matthew A B Baker

Description: The evolutionary origins of the bacterial flagellum have been a subject of scientific and public controversy – how can evolution produce such a complex system? We believe we can make progress on the issue by updating old phylogenetic work with new datasets and improved models, and combining this with experimental evolution work being done in our labs. The project will be to assemble a well- organized database of flagellar proteins and explore sequenced bacterial genomes with genome browsers and similarity searches. The student will identify flagellar proteins and their evolutionary relatives, including recording their position in the genome. The student will also plan and conduct phylogenetic analyses, and then use synthetic biology to recreate these ancestors in a contemporary microbial ‘Jurassic Park’. 




Project Title: Deep Omics!

Supervisor(s): Dr Fatemeh Vafaee

Description: Deep learning has revolutionized research in image processing and speech recognition and will soon transform research in molecular biomedicine. Deep learning models can capture multiple levels of representation directly from raw data without the need to carefully engineer features based on fine-tuned algorithmic approaches or domain expertise. Omics data is one of the most prominent examples of feature‐rich and high‐dimensional heterogeneous data and thus multi-omics data analysis and integration have increasingly become a deep learning harvesting field in computational biology. We are developing deep learning models to leverage large omics data for finding hidden structures within them, for integrating heterogeneous data and for making accurate predictions in different biomedical applications ranging from single-cell omics analysis and multi-omics biomarker discovery to human functional genomics and drug discovery. (Example of Papers: (Zandavi and Vafaee, NeurIPS 2021, Zandavi et al, IEEE Cybernetics 2021).

Experience: Students need to have experience in programming and interest in machine learning/artificial intelligence methods applied to biomedical applications


Project Title: Data-driven Drug Discovery

Supervisor(s): Dr Fatemeh Vafaee

Description: Repositioning existing drugs for new indications is an innovative drug discovery strategy offering the possibility of reduced cost, time and risk as several phases of de-novo drug discovery can be bypassed for repositioning candidates. Biopharmaceutical companies have recognised advantages of repositioning, and investment in the area is dramatically increasing. With the rapid advancement of high-throughput technologies and the explosion of various biological and medical data, computational drug repositioning has become an increasingly powerful approach to systematically identify potential repositioning candidates. My lab is running multiple research projects advancing the field of computational drug repositioning. We are developing computational tools and databases which integrate massive amounts of biological, pharmacological, and biomedical information related to compounds into advanced machine learning or network-based models to predict accurate repositioning candidates. Example of papers: (Azad et al, Briefings in Bioinformatics, 2020), (Azad et al, Patterns, 2021, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.patter.2021.100325)

Experience: Students need to have experience in programming and interest in data science



Project Title: Rare disease gene discovery 

Supervisor(s): Dr Emily Oates

Description: Our research is focused on the discovery of new human disease genes, establishing the biological pathways that are impacted by disease-causing variants (mutations) in these genes, and using this information to identify targets for future therapies. In this summer project students will have the opportunity of analysing massively parallel genetic sequencing data from patients with rare genetic disorders who do not currently have a genetic diagnosis. In most cases patient data will be analysed in parallel with data from both unaffected parents to increase the chance of identifying the causative mutation(s) (“trio” analysis). If potentially pathogenic variants in possible new disease genes are identified, students will draw on existing literature and database-accessible information to determine the biological plausibility of the gene as a new disease gene (Is the gene expressed in the clinically affected tissues? Does the gene encode a protein involved in a pathway altered in other similar diseases?). The student will also determine the likely pathogenicity of their variants of interest using in silico-based analytical techniques, and by finding additional patients with mutations within the same gene via our well-established collaborator network and clinical ‘matchmaking’ programs.

Experience: Prior knowledge/experience required for this project: All applicants should have strong interest in human genetics – and a curious mind. Science or medical science students with a background in genetics (2nd and 3rd year level) or medical students with a background in fundamental and/or clinical genetics would be very suitable. Bioinformatics/programming skills useful but not essential.



Project Title: Advancing our understanding of normal muscle isoform biology and muscle disease pathogenesis using advanced RNA sequencing technologies.

Supervisor(s): Dr Emily Oates

Description: This project involves the use of state-of-the art short and/or long read RNA sequencing technologies to (1) Advance our understanding of normal skeletal and cardiac muscle isoform biology, and (2) Characterise the transcript-level impacts of mutations responsible for paediatric muscle diseases. Data generated by this project will also be used to inform the development of muscle disease-focused genetic drug therapies aimed at modifying the expression of transcripts impacted by genetic muscle diseases to improve clinical outcomes.

Experience: Prior knowledge/experience required for this project: All applicants should have strong interest in human genetics – and a curious mind. Science or medical science students with a background in genetics (2nd or 3rd year level) or medical students with a background in fundamental and/or clinical genetics would be very suitable. Bioinformatics/programming skills very useful but not essential.



Project Title: Advancing our understanding of the clinical and genetic features of disorders caused by TTN (titin) mutations.

Supervisor(s): Dr Emily Oates

Description: This project involves the use of state-of-the-art genomic and RNA sequencing technologies, as well as detailed clinical phenotyping and natural history analyses, to advance our understanding of “Titinopathies”. These are an important emerging group of cardiac and skeletal muscles disorders caused by disease-causing variants (mutations) in one of the largest genes in nature – TTN (titin). In collaboration with an international army of clinicians and researchers, we have established a large cohort of titinopathy patients, 30 of which were described in a recent high impact publication (Oates et. all, Congenital titinopathy: comprehensive characterisation and pathogenic insights. Ann. Neurol. 2018). The goal of this project is to broaden our understanding of the clinical, muscle pathology and imaging features, and the biological basis of this important group of disorders.

Experience: Prior knowledge/experience required for this project: All applicants should have strong interest in human genetics – and a curious mind. Science or medical science students with a background in genetics (2nd or 3rd year level) or medical students with a background in fundamental and/or clinical genetics would be very suitable. Bioinformatics/programming skills very useful but not essential.



Project Title: Immune sensing of RNA

Supervisor(s): A/Prof Cecile King

Description: "Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is ubiquitous - the most ancient macromolecule for life. The immune system evolved in the context of RNA and, since the role of the immune system is to protect us from infection, it evolved ways to distinguish foreign RNA derived from pathogens from our own “self” RNA. To do this, the immune system utilizes receptors that enable specific recognition of RNA. Accumulating evidence shows the association between multiple human diseases and RNA sensing genes in the immune system, highlighting the important role of RNA sensing in the function of the immune system.

In this project, we will analyse RNA sensing molecules inside cells and the RNA that they bind, both when cells are in the steady state and when they are exposed to foreign RNA. You will learn methods including immunoprecipitation of RNA binding proteins and methods that enable detection of the RNA that binds to these receptors. This project is designed to further our understanding of the immune stimulating features of RNA and how the pathways involved in RNA sensing are regulated."



School of Physics Projects

Project Title: Imaging through multimode optical fibres

Supervisor(s): Prof Peter Reece

Description: Multi-mode fibres support hundreds of different electromagnetic waveguide modes, each with a distinct intensity profile and propagation constant. When coherent laser light is coupled to a fibre the interference between the modes will produce a complex speckle pattern at the fibre-output. Using adaptive optics it is possible to disentangle this speckle pattern so that the light again produces a uniform wavefront. With this knowledge, the fibre may be used as miniature endoscope to capture and images and videos. This project will develop the ideas of imaging through complex scattering media, such as tissue and other turbid media.


Project Title: Finding the Most Perturbed Planets

Supervisor(s): Dr Benjamin Montet

Description: In multi-planet systems, dynamical perturbations between planets cause them to exchange energy and angular momentum, causing their orbital periods to change by a few minutes from year to year. Simultaneously, the changing stellar surface on host stars through changes in the underlying stellar activity levels can affect the size of signals of transiting planets as observed on Earth. In this project, we will use data from the NASA Kepler and TESS telescopes to identify perturbations in planet signals to better understand the architectures of nearby planetary systems and to search for evidence of stellar magnetic activity cycles in order to understand how stellar parameters affect the magnetic fields of Sun-like stars.



Project Title: How cool are starspots?

Supervisor(s): Dr Benjamin Montet

Description: Low-mass and young stars can have complex stellar surfaces, at times having 80% or more of their visible hemispheres covered by networks of starspots. From most observations of stars, there is a degeneracy between the size of starspots and their brightness, inhibiting our ability to make absolute inferences about stellar magnetic fields. In this project, we will use high-resolution spectroscopy of young M dwarfs observed with the Anglo-Australian Telescope to understand how these stars' spectral features vary over a stellar rotation period. By carefully monitoring the growth and decay of particular features, we will be able to directly measure the temperatures and surface distribution of starspots, enabling new insights into the processes that drive stellar magnetism on young stars.




Project Title: Illuminating the Dark Universe with Gravitational Lensing

Supervisor(s): A/Prof Kim-Vy Tran

Description: This Project uses gravitational Lensing to directly detect total matter halos at cosmological distances. By measuring the properties of massive halos and comparing to predictions of how baryons couple to dark matter, we illuminate dark matter and constrain fundamental cosmological parameters. The student will focus on integrating multi-wavelength data-sets including imaging and spectroscopic measurements to help develop lensing models and determine galaxy scaling relationships.




Project Title: Detecting Tidal Features to Uncover Galaxy Interactions

Supervisor(s): Prof Sarah Brough

Description: The interactions in a galaxy’s past leave faint traces, visible in the form of diffuse structures of stars: tidal features. However, these features are hundreds of times fainter than the dark night-sky making them difficult to detect, and so these faint markers of galaxy evolution have remained largely unexplored. This vacation student will develop a Machine Learning algorithm to identify and classify tidal features around galaxies in observations from the 8m Subaru telescope.



Project Title: Hole spins in strained Germanium

Supervisor(s): Dr Matthew Rendell, Prof. Alex Hamilton

Description: Experimental Quantum Devices 1: Despite being used in the first transistor, Germanium was replaced by Silicon in most semiconductor devices. Recently, strained Germanium has had a resurgence in nanoscale electronics due to its interesting quantum properties including spin-orbit interactions and coupling to superconductors. These properties make strained Germanium useful for quantum computing using spin qubits, low energy topological electronics, and exotic superconducting states. In this project you will have hands-on lab experience, measuring the quantum properties of holes in strained Germanium electronic devices using cryogenic systems and low noise measurement techniques.



Project Title: How does stacking order affect electronic properties of trilayer graphene?

Supervisor(s): Dr Feixiang Xiang, Prof. Alex Hamilton

Description: Experimental Atomically Thin Quantum Materials: Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms with honeycomb lattice structure, shows many exotic physics and promising properties for device applications. Stacking different layers together provides a degree of freedom to change electronic properties of graphene, such as electronic band structures. In this summer project, the successful applicant will work with a team from the Centre of Excellence in Low Energy Electronics Technologies in the UNSW School of Phyiscs to explore the fabrication of different layer stacks and how this affects their electronic properties. The successful applicant will participate in fabrication of van der Waals heterostructure and measuring their electronic properties in an environment of ultracold temperatures and high magnetic fields.



Project Title: Semiconductor hole spin qubits

Supervisor(s): Dr Scott Liles, Prof. Alex Hamilton

Description: Experimental Quantum Devices 2: Our understanding of the quantum mechanical properties of positively charged holes in nanoscale electronic devices is far from complete, despite the fact that your mobile phone contains billions of transistors that use holes. This is because although undergraduates are often taught that valence band holes are essentially just heavy electrons, with a positive charge and a positive effective mass, holes are spin-3/2 particles whereas electrons are spin-1/2. The spin-3/2 nature of holes means they make excellent spin quantum bits, and this project will involve hands on laboratory research to study how to read and manipulate hole spin qubits. See http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/QED for more details.



Project Title: Topological transport in 1D quantum point contacts

Supervisor(s): Dr Karina Hudson, Prof. Alex Hamilton

Description: Topological quantum states hold promise for a new generation of electronics and class of quantum computing. Semiconductor quantum wires are particularly interesting as their size and shape can be exactly controlled to result in topological quantum states. This project will involve learning about quantum point contact architecture, and hands-on low-temperature, low-noise electrical transport measurements to understand how to optimize semiconductor quantum wires to host topological quantum states.



Project Title: Simulation of nuclear spin dynamics in multi-donor quantum dots

Supervisor(s): Prof Michelle Simmons

Description: Multi-donor quantum dots, defined by a few phosphorus nuclei harbouring a single electron spin in a silicon crystal can be used as multi-qubit systems. The ability to control up to 4 or 5 qubits localised to less than a few nanometres offer great potential for scalability of quantum computers. However, controlling these atomic-scale qubits requires thorough knowledge of the interactions between them and how we can utilise those interactions for our benefit. This project will focus on theoretically simulating multi-donor quantum dots where the individual nuclear spins can be utilised to perform small-scale quantum algorithms of up to 4 or 5 qubits. The student will gain knowledge on how to simulate these complex qubit systems using state-of-the-art modelling techniques and design few-qubit quantum algorithms that can be demonstrated in current experiments.

School of Mathematics & Statistics Projects

Project Title: Beyond the Compass:  Exploring Geometric Constructions via Circle Templates and a Straightedge

Supervisor(s): A/Prof Chris Tisdell

Description: Every year millions of students around the world learn geometry with certain instruments: a compass and a straightedge. However, this inherited way of working has led to significant challenges that are well-recognized by the research community. In particular, there is mounting evidence to question the efficiency, efficacy and safety of these tools when constructing geometric figures in the classroom. The purpose of this project is to explore the aforementioned need, and to ultimately establish a foundation of practical geometric methods involving alternative instruments that are safe, efficient and effective. We will analyse circle templates as geometrical instruments to explore if and how they can be used in conjunction with a straightedge to establish common constructions, and thus analyze what types of traditional compass-based constructions they can efficiently, effectively and safely replace.The scope of this work includes well-known constructions, such as: bisecting a given line segment, constructing a parallel line through a given point, constructing a perpendicular line through a given point, determining the centre of a given circle and so on. This project will draw on a research design framework known as case study research. Case study research is a popular methodology that can also be viewed as a strategy and a research genre (Day Ashley, 2017, p114). Indeed, there is strong alignment between the nature of the project and the purpose of case study research because the research questions driving this project are of an “explore and explain” nature and involve particular phenomena that are not well understood (Day Ashley, 2017, p114).


Project Title: Unsupervised clustering of the global ocean using machine learning

Supervisor(s): Dr Taimoor Sohail, Dr Jan D. Zika

Description: To aid in global navigation and scientific inquiry, the global ocean been classified into different ocean basins for centuries. Students in most schools around the world learn there are five major ocean basins - the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, Arctic and Southern Oceans. However, the decision on where to draw the boundaries between different ocean basins is highly subjective, and the exact definition of each ocean basin remains ambiguous. This ambiguity leads to significant obstacles in reproducibility of oceanographic research and understanding or scientific results. For instance, one researcher's definition of the geographical boundaries of the Southern Ocean may differ from another's, such that results for seemingly the same part of the ocean differ. If we move towards categorising the ocean into smaller clusters, or 'water masses', we begin to realise the subjective nature by which ocean boundaries are drawn further complicates our ability to study the ocean.

Over time, advancements in statistical methods and machine learning have prompted a rethink on the way the ocean is classified. Rather than splitting the ocean along arbitrary geographical boundaries, we may track the ocean's properties, such as temperature or salinity, over time. Using clustering algorithms, we can objectively split the ocean into distinct regions that have similar properties. This new clustering workflow yields several benefits. The boundary of each water mass adapts to changing ocean conditions (an important characteristic given global warming). In addition, the results are robust across different oceanographic datasets (aiding in scientific reproducibility). In this project, the student will make use of state-of-the-art clustering and machine learning algorithms to objectively cluster the ocean based on raw profiles of temperature and salinity. The student will develop a workflow to produce objective ocean clusters, or water masses, based on a set of raw temperature and salinity profiles. This workflow may then be used to compare between different types of clustering algorithms, or to assess changes in ocean properties over time. Previous experience with (or strong interest in learning) Python and/or machine learning is recommended. 



School of Aviation Projects

Project Title: Modelling air passenger shopping behavior with machine learning models

Supervisor(s): Dr. Cheng-Lung Wu

Description: This project is to model air passengers' retail shopping behavior by considering passengers' demogrphic background and shoping context information. Airport retail context information include termporal data (how long a passenger stays in a shop) and spatial data (where is the shop located in the airport terminal. With the inclusion of the spatio-temporal data in retail, behaviour modelling becomes complex and beyond the scope of econometric models. This project aims to use a graph-based machine learning model framework to explore passenger retail behaviour.



School of Chemistry Projects

Project Title: Mechanistic and Physical Organic Chemistry

Supervisor(s): A/Prof Jason Harper

Description: Our research falls broadly into the category of physical organic chemistry. However, the areas covered also include biological, bioorganic, synthetic, analytical and environmental chemistry and this demonstrates the range of areas that physical organic chemistry is applicable to. The breadth of topics also illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of the research and the significant scope for collaboration with groups in the more traditional areas of organic chemistry and biochemistry. We particularly focus on understanding organic processes in ionic liquids, determining reaction mechanisms and developing novel ways to follow reaction progress. For more details see area see http://www.chem.unsw.edu.au/staffprofiles/harper.html


Project Title: New battery materials

Supervisor(s): A/Prof Neeraj Sharma

Description: The design, synthesis and characterisation of new materials for battery based applications.



Project Title: Designing molecular dual pump

Supervisor(s): Dr DJ Kim

Description: Artificial molecular machines have received an increasing amount of attention over the past few decades. They have the unique abilitiy to generate directional motion of components within their molecules by energy inputs or external stimuli. In our group, we have developed chemically- and electrochemically-driven molecular pumps in order to trap cyclobis(paraquat-p-phenylene) (CBPQT4+ ) rings on a collecting chain. A dual molecular pump can generate unidirectional motion along the dumbbell component using chemical reagents or electricity without accumulating waste products. By attaching a steric stopper at the end of the dual pump, the dumbbell will contain two collecting chains, making it possible to synthesize a [3]rotaxane sequentially.



Project Title: New fuel cell catalysts

Supervisor(s): Prof Richard Tilley

Description: Synthesis, electron micrscope characterisation and testing of new fuel cell electrocatalysts




Project Title: Taking holograms of artificial cells

Supervisor(s): Dr Anna Wang


How can we build a cell from the bottom-up? This project involves buildling artificial cells, and taking holograms of them for characterisation. No prior knowledge of holography or synthetic biology required.



Project Title: Interstellar Molecules

Supervisor(s): Prof Tim Schmidt

Description: The chemistry of interstellar space is not the same as in a conical flask. It contains radicals and ions which you could never make in glassware. In this project, you will join our efforts to understand interstellar molecules by creating crazy carbon-based molecules in our vacuum chamber using elecrical discharges, and studying the molecules using multiple lasers.



Project Title: Novel molecules for advanced materials

Supervisor(s): Dr Martin Peeks

Description: We design and build new organic and inorganic molecules with unusual electron delocalization. Our ultimate goal is to create new molecules which could be part of the advanced materials of the future: molecular-scale wires, nanoscale sensors, and more! Projects are available ranging from synthetic to analytical and computational, depending on your interests.



Project Title: The True Impact of Volatile Fluorinated Pollutants

Supervisor(s): Dr Christopher Hansen

Description: Use cutting edge chemical dynamics techniques to improve humanity's understanding of the true atmospheric fate of emitted hydrofluorocarbons and, their replacements, hydrofluoroolefins. In this project you will use big lasers to blow apart molecules entrained in a molecular beam inside a vaccuum chamber. Choose from averting the next environmental catastrophe by studying the tropospheric photochemistry (wavelengths > 300 nm) of hydrofluoroolefins or improve our understanding of a current crisis by studying the upper atmosphere photochemistry (wavelengths ~ 120 nm) of hydrofluorocarbons.



Project Title: The smallest organic laser dye molecule

Supervisor(s): Dr Vinh Nguyen

Description: Organic laser dyes are small organic compounds that can emit light at narrow and specific wavelengths. In this project, we will develop the smallest organic molecule that can do this, hence trying to break a fun but useful record in the interface of organic and materials chemistry.



Project Title: Taking quantum chemistry to the real world

Supervisor(s): Dr Junming Ho

Description: Quantum chemistry has the promise of accurately predicting the structure and function of biomolecules. A major roadblock is the steep scaling computational cost which limits their application to few tens of atoms. This project will build on our expertise on fragmentation methods to implement an approach that scales linearly with the size of molecule so that computation can one day replace experiments.



Project Title: Discovering new chemistry to enhance atmospheric models

Supervisor(s): Prof Scott Kable

Description: The best models of the atmosphere are only as good as the best chemistry that goes into them. Over several years, we have discovered that the photochemistry of simple molecules is far more complex than models use,. Sometimes, the new chemistry doesn’t make a different to model predictions, but sometimes, our new chemistry can explain aspects that models get wrong. In this project, you can be a laboratory photochemist - measuring new reaction pathways; or an atmospheric modeller – taking lab results and seeing whether they are important or not; or a computational chemist – explaining the experimental results using quantum chemistry techniques.




Project Title: Computational Chemistry for Sustainability

Supervisor(s): Dr Martina Lessio

Description: Our group uses computational tools to investigate a variety of phenomena, molecules, and interfaces that are relevant to sustainability applications. In particular, we are interested in catalysis, water remediation, and  material conservation. Example of active projects available in the group are: 1) Developing new ligands for toxic contaminants removal from water for solid substrates such as metal-organic frameworks; 2) Study existing and new transition metal catalysts for converting CO2 and plastics into useful products; 3) Study of relevant material/solution interfaces for artwork and heritage conservation. The summer project will focus on one of these aspects, depending on student interests and current research developments in the group.

School of Psychology Projects

Project Title: Using face averages to measure demographic bias in face perception

Supervisor(s): A/Prof David White and Dr James Dunn

Description: The student will join a project team investigating novel techniques for measuring ‘bias’ in humans and facial recognition technology. In this part of the project, the student will help conduct human testing to examine whether the methods can be used to measure similar biases in human observers. Our visual diet of faces, that is the faces we encounter daily, causes differences in our accuracy when identifying faces from different demographic groups. A well-known example is the ‘other race effect’, whereby people are less accurate at remembering and discriminating faces of other-races relative to their own-race.

Such biases can have a profound impact on the real world, for example the other-race effect has been attributed to the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities being wrongfully accused of crimes via eyewitness misidentifications. The method of measuring bias we have developed has the potential to measure people’s differential accuracy, which could inform how we avoid biases when selecting people for specialist face identification roles, or when evaluating identification evidence provided by eyewitnesses in court. The summer project will aim to conduct tests that begin to assess this potential approach


Project Title: Hindbrain control of feeding behaviours

Supervisor(s): Dr Zhi Yi Ong

Description: Overeating is a key contributor to increased obesity rates. Obese individuals overeat because they are less sensitive to gut signals that are responsible for making one feel full and stop eating. It is therefore critical to understand the gut-brain mechanisms that control feeding behaviours to better guide the development of treatments that can promote long term body weight loss. This project will explore the role of hindbrain neurons that receive inputs from the gut, on the control of feeding behaviours. Using transgenic rodent models, students will have the opportunity to run feeding behavioural tasks and perform histological and microscopy analyses.



Project Title: Parent-child interactional patterns in children with conduct problems

Supervisor(s): Prof Eva Kimonis, Dr Georgette Fleming

Description: Children who start showing behaviour problems such as aggression, chronic defiance/noncompliance and property destruction in childhood (i.e., conduct problems) are at high risk of stable antisocial behaviours into adulthood. When conduct problems co-occur with callous-unemotional traits, a term used to describe children with low empathy levels, remorselessness, and uncaring attitudes, they are associated with even more aggressive and pervasive problems and increased risk for psychopathy and criminality in later life. In the UNSW Parent-Child Research Clinic, we have been studying the developmental mechanisms that explain this particularly severe pattern of antisocial behaviour. This knowledge is being used to develop new and refine existing treatments for childhood conduct disorders by targeting the unique risk factors for children on different developmental pathways.

This SVRS project will extend this line of research by examining parent-child interactional patterns in young clinic-referred children with diverse conduct problems. Gaining new insights into the mechanisms contributing to early childhood conduct problems has potential to inform theoretical models and improve the developmental trajectories of at-risk children.
The successful student candidate will have prior research experience with children and/or experience with observational behavioural coding systems. The student will gain experience in conducting literature reviews, coding parent-child interactions as part of clinical trials, performing statistical analyses, and preparing a written report of findings. The student will join a vibrant and diverse team of clinical psychology researchers and students. The UNSW Parent-Child Research Clinic, where the research will be undertaken, provides evidence-based intervention for childhood conduct problems that is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, or PCIT. In PCIT, parents are coached in vivo in the use of positive parenting and behaviour management skills by a therapist behind a one-way mirror using a bug-in-ear device.



Project Title: Neural mechanisms of colour perception

Supervisor(s): Dr Erin Goddard

Description: How do our brains separate raw colour information into different sources? The apparent colour of objects depends on how we interpret the lighting conditions of the scene (e.g. #theDress), a process known as ‘colour constancy’. To better understand the neural processes involved in these phenomena, this project will test the role of attention in the perceptual separation of different colour sources.

The project will involve collecting measurements of perceived colour using a computer and specialised display. No prior experience is necessary: data collection and analysis will involve working with Matlab and some statistical analyses, but all required skills will be taught as part of the project.




Project Title: The costs of thinking

Supervisor(s): Prof Ben Newell

Description: This project combines novel theoretical, experimental, and computational approaches to deliver new insight into the paradoxical relationship between the cost and value of mental effort. Cognition is often described as costly and humans as cognitive-misers. And yet, people seek out and engage in activities precisely because they make them think. Why? We will answer this question via a systematic analysis of attentionally and cognitively-demanding tasks. The expected outcome is a comprehensive understanding of the determinants of the cost versus the value of thinking.



Project Title: Cholinergic regulation of fear in the amygdala

Supervisor(s): Dr Vincent Laurent

Description: Acquiring and extinguishing fear memories is critical to successfully adapt to the environment. Acquisition of fear memories generates defensive responses that enable one to anticipate and cope with dangerous events. Once the environment has been deemed safe, subsequent extinction of such memories inhibits defensive responses, allowing one to engage in behaviours that secure important commodities. The effect of the inhibition produced by extinction is often transient but is more adaptative than the permanent erasure of the original fear memories, as these memories need to be readily available should danger reappear in the environment. This implies that fear memories must be protected to guarantee their inhibition rather than their erasure when they are extinguished. While these primary processes are critical for an organism’s chance of survival, the specific neuronal mechanisms underlying protection of fear memories remain elusive. Our laboratory has obtained preliminary evidence of a new neuronal mechanism by which basal forebrain cholinergic neurons projecting to the amygdala protect fear memories. The aim of this project is to expand this evidence by combining sophisticated behavioural designs with manipulations of cholinergic circuits in behaving rats. Implications of the project include providing new strategies for treating anxiety disorders that are characterised by irrational and persistent fears towards environmental cues that are patently safe.

Experience in working with rodents (rats or mice) is preferable but not absolutely necessary.


Project Title: The role of brain stimulation in anger regulation with and without alcohol

Supervisor(s): Dr Tom Denson

Description: Alcohol-related reactive aggression is a significant problem in many parts of the world. Despite the amount of harm caused by alcohol-related aggression, we know very little about how alcohol influences brain activity that might increase risk for anger-fuelled aggression (Heinz et al., 2011). A recent review proposed a model involving four neural circuits underlying anger: (1) threat detection, arousal, and negative affect; (2) saliency and interoception; (3) regulation; and (4) mentalising (Alia-Klein et al., 2020; Gilam & Hendler, 2015). When anger is provoked, these circuits are likely involved in developing and monitoring an anger experience, signalling a need for control, and anger regulation. Activation in the mentalising circuit may reflect the social nature of anger provocations, the attribution of blame to the culprit, and thoughts of revenge (Denson et al., 2009; 2018).

To date, only a handful of studies have examined the effects of tDCS on anger and aggression, finding that increasing activation (anodal stimulation) to the emotion regulation network decreased aggression but increased angry rumination (Dambacher et al., 2015; Gilam et al., 2018; Hortensius et al., 2012; Kelley et al., 2013; Riva et al., 2014). To our knowledge, research has yet to examine the possibility that tDCS could influence alcohol-related anger, anger regulation, or aggression.

In this study, we aim to identify how manipulating activity within brain networks implicated in anger and emotion regulation can increase or decrease anger. Specifically, using tDCS we will manipulate activity within the mentalising circuit (anodal stimulation of right vlPFC, F6) and examine how this influences anger and anger regulation strategies.

Experience with human testing required. Experience with human neuroscience or drug administration studies is desirable.



Project Title: Reasoning and Misinformation

Supervisor(s): A/Prof Kristy Martire

Description: Misinformation, including fake news, conspiracy theories, supernatural claims, and pseudoscientific beliefs, can cause people to act against their own best interests. For example misinformation about conventional medicines can cause people to reject life-saving treatments, potentially harming themselves and others. To prevent this, it is important to develop a better understanding of why misinformation is persuasive. This project will examine how people who endorse implausible beliefs reason and construct arguments as compared to people who do not endorse implausible beliefs. The similarities and differences between these two groups have the potential to provide a clearer understanding of how implausible beliefs are formed and maintained. This will help with the development of strategies to minimise the individual and societal costs of misinformation.

Experience researching misinformation; programming in Qualtrics; recruiting via Prolific.



Project Title: Preclinical testing of novel cannabinoid therapeutic adjuncts for fear extinction in female rats

Supervisor(s): Dr Kathryn Baker, Ms Kelly Kershaw. Other staff involved in the project: Bronwyn Graham and Rick Richardson

Description: Although anxiety is more common and debilitating in women, much of the research on approaches to enhance fear reduction in non-human animals has only used males. Rodent studies are useful for testing the safety and efficacy of a wide range of potential pharmacological medications given alongside behavioural procedures to reduce fear. In this project, the student will have the opportunity to conduct experiments testing the efficacy of new pharmacological compounds in reducing fear and anxiety-like behaviour in female rats. We will test compounds chemicals isolated from the cannabis plant which activate endocannabinoid receptors in the brain. The student will learn how to handle rats and gain experience in conducting and scoring behavioural tests of fear and/or anxiety (e.g., fear conditioning and extinction, elevated plus maze, or novelty-suppressed feeding test). They will gain experience in data management and analytic skills using MS Excel and statistical analysis software. The student will also attend research group meetings with staff and students. Furthermore, the student will also gain insight into research collaborations with industry partners. The knowledge gained from this project will help direct future clinical trials on pharmacological adjuncts for extinction-based therapies for anxiety disorders in women.



Project Title: Social recognition in the rat and modulation by oxytocin.

Supervisor(s): Dr Justine Fam

Description: Rats are intelligent creatures that form complex social relationships. One important hormone for social recognition is oxytocin, which has received scientific interest for its potential to treat several psychopathologies that are associated with impaired social functioning. In this project, we will identify the cues that rats use to form social memories, and whether oxytocin can improve social recognition. Students with experience in rat handling will be well-suited to this project, but it is not essential.