Christmas message 2013

21. December 2013

Dear Friends,

2013 turned out to be a challenging year for us with great changes and many endings. The year started well. After quiet Christmas we joined Ron and Sue Cumbo in New Zealand walking the Routeburn track. We rediscovered Queenstown, such a beautiful place! The first day of the walk was easy short climb to Flats Hut. Following day involved a much longer walk past Falls Hut, the highest point of the walk Harris saddle (~ 600 m climb) and descent to MacKenzie Hut. The views were fantastic up to Harris saddle, then the weather closed in and it rained till we squelched into the hut full of other water-logged people. But by the morning the sun came out and we enjoyed spectacular views and admired Earland waterfall (~ 170 m). Howden hut was less crowded and comfortable. We were one of the oldest people doing the unguided walk. We had to carry our food and sleeping bag, 10 - 15 kg. After the walk we drove to Bluff, very English seaside town complete with aluminium smelter, and caught a ferry to Stewart Island at the bottom of New Zealand. We did short walks, a late night "wild" kiwi spotting and enjoyed great seafood. We returned in time to farewell Kiri, who organised a great Viking party before her departure to Denmark. We miss her a lot.

From start of February I was hard at work: submitted improved ARC proposal, and updated 2nd Year Lab manual to process 3 new experiments. The "coolest" one shows dual properties of light: students can hear clicks as single photons arrive (particle properties), but can also measure interference pattern (wave properties). Sabah has returned from Iraq and Ph. D. student Faisal discontinued. We had a short break over Easter in Jindabyne with a nice walk to Cascade Hut. All my spare time was swallowed by finishing the Characeae book. Chapter 4 took me out of familiar electrophysiology to explore how this iconic system laid basis to understanding of cyctoplasmic streaming, cell to cell transport and gravitropism. Michelle Casanova finished Chapter 1 on Characeae morphology, systematics and ecology. We submitted to Springer at the beginning of July.

Very tired but happy, we both travelled to Vancouver to attend Plant Signalling and Behaviour conference, brilliantly organised by Susan Murch. The conference was excellent with wide ranging topics, including poetry by Sonnet L'Abbe. Great to see old friends and meet many interesting people. Thanks to all the organisers! Then we flew to Denmark and were welcomed by Kiri, who organised a cute place for us to stay and excellent activities. We loved walking around Copenhagen, doing the history tour and canal boat tour. We drove across Denmark to north most point Skagen and walked up one of the Danish highest mountains.

Back in Sydney I started teaching my usual Biophysics class and Phys 1111. It was a busy time. Then I noticed Mowgli, the handsome boy cat, had runny nose. After some fraught vet visits between lectures, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and went down rapidly. In the end the vets made a final visit - very sad time.

The house build: in the beginning of the year our architects suggested finding a project home company. They helped and we selected Boca Krslovic, who will build Regina's design with small modifications. We submitted plans to council and after more changes the Development Application was accepted in last few days. A house across the road became available to rent and we moved in early September. Moving after more than 25 years is a very unsettling experience! The house is large and Bruce can sort all his treasures. There is also salt-water pool needing high maintenance. But I am starting to enjoy it! The old house will come down early next year.

The corrections to the Characeae book came at the same time as the house move. At work we were subjected to new occupational health and safety regulations and worked very hard for several months to make the lab compliant. Thanks, Sabah, for all the hard work! The combination of all these tasks and stresses gave me a very hard time. Bruce was a great support, wheeling his shelves and computers around me, while I sat on the last chair doing the book index. Seems very funny, looking back.

Our friends, Ron and Sue (who also moved houses twice this year) organised 4 day walk (65 km, 900 m drop and climb) between old drovers huts in Wild Rivers National Park near Armidale. We were all exhausted from moving, but decided to go. We were joined by Paul and Lynn, who shared Coast to Coast walk with us. The walk was beautiful, but too hard. The weather was unexpectedly hot and we were running out of water. In Blue mountains the bush fires destroyed many houses. We did smell smoke, but fire was far away. On the second day we climbed to a trig point and then dropped into Green gully following a ridge (the way aboriginals must have done) and finally coming down very steep grassy slope. The next day we walked the river and enjoyed a great swimming hole. The last day was hard as we had to climb back up and the temperature was still high. Fortunately, the rangers turned up and gave us a lift to the top of the hill and took our backpacks and Bruce back to the cabin. We were exhausted but proud we made it. Thanks for great company, friends!

Upon our return, we heard a sad news: Alan Walker has died. He was quite ill for last year, but had such amazing spirit, that we hoped he will be with us a bit longer. His daughters, Mandy and Jude, organised a beautiful funeral and asked me to speak about his scientific contributions. Many people came and it was a great celebration of Alan's life. I am missing him terribly.

Science: We set out to test if melatonin is involved in the growth of the Characeae and in the circadian cycle. We ran another set of randomised trials with nodes exposed to mixtures of cytokinin BAB and IAA and later replacing IAA by melatonin and BAP by serotonin. This time we saw very few rhizoids, but many shoots. Clearly, the node system needs more research. Another experiment is on the way. Earlier in the year I sampled plants (growing in 12/12 hrs day/night) for 24 hrs. Suzan and her student Christina analyzed the data: melatonin, serotonin and IAA concentrations all rose between 8 pm and 1 am. Cells pretreated for three days in the dark retained the concentration peaks. Cells pretreated in the light lacked melatonin or serotonin increase, while IAA concentration seemed to oscillate with shorter period of about 5 hrs. It is likely that melatonin functions as circadian time-setter in Characeae. We presented our results at the Australian Society for Biophysics conference. Our mucilage paper with Kaire was accepted by International Review of Hydrobiology. And Michelle Casanova identified Lamprothamnium we worked on as distinct species and called it L. beilbyae. We also gathered data suggesting that exogenous melatonin slows the appearance of saline noise. If the H+/OH- channels are opened by increased concentration of reactive oxygen species (ROS), exogenous melatonin, strong antioxidant, delays the rise of ROS due to salt stress. So, we have several interesting lines of enquiry in progress.

Rather unexpectedly, the School asked me to retire. We struck a good compromise: I will retire in March, but will retain the use of my lab and office in 2014. This gives me a year to work out my transition to "independent scientist".

Kiri came for a week in early December: the best Christmas present! We gathered our friends for a party, painted ginger breads, kayaked across the Harbour, heard a great performance of Messiah and had fish and chips on the beach. This year made me realise my priorities in life: family ties, close friends and doing science. Thank you everyone for support in hard times!

I am looking forward to hearing your stories and wishing you

a peaceful Christmas break and All the Best in 2014!!!

Mary, Bruce and Kiri

The background picture is from the third day of Routeburn track

January: Day 2 Routeburn track, climbing from Flats hut with the clouds gathering

Day 3 Routeburn track, at MacKenzie lake hut with the clouds lifting

Day 4 Routeburn track, Done it!

Kiri with her Viking mums at the Farewell party

July: Plant Signaling and Behavior conference, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, with Mary and Susan

September: Mowgli (1998 - 2013)

October: Wild Rivers walk

November: remembering Alan

December: Kiri visits

December: kayaking on the Harbour. Click on the picture to download a card.

December: rented house comes with sulphur crested cockatoos! Click on the picture to download a card.

The Characeae book is out!