2015 Australian Synchrotron Stephen Wilkins Thesis Medallist Dr Donna Whelan in her new laboratory at New York University in United States.

Dr Donna Whelan, 28, whose early career has taken her from Noble Park to New York City, has taken out a prestigious annual Australian Synchrotron award for her novel approach to comparing two powerful microscopy techniques to improve imaging of cells beyond the naked eye.

Dr Whelan, who completed her PhD at Monash University using the Australian Synchrotron and who is completing postdoctoral studies at New York University in the United States, was awarded the 2015 Australian Synchrotron Stephen Wilkins Thesis Medal for her research, which included designing a new approach to ‘super-resolution’ microscopy to visualise and investigate DNA, informed by synchrotron science.

Dr Toby Bell, School of Chemistry at Monash University and Dr Whelan’s PhD supervisor, says Dr Whelan’s insight, gained by combining the super-resolution technique with live-cell imaging on the Infrared Spectroscopy (IR) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron, will improve how these techniques can work in tandem to help scientists peer deep into individual cells.

‘Using the bright light of the IR beamline at the Australian Synchrotron, Donna investigated cells when alive, when dehydrated, and when “fixed” with chemicals, before taking the fixed samples back to the laboratory at Monash, on the same day, to image the fine structure of the cells under a superresolution microscope.

‘Comparing the images, Donna noted the outer cytoskeleton of a cell could be well preserved during chemical fixing despite otherwise rampant destruction of the cell, an observation only the synchrotron beam could enable – similarly, super-resolution microscopy allowed detection of very subtle structural damage to cells, incurred during the IR beamline experiments.’

Dr Bell says these observations into how preparing and managing cells in experiments can interfere with samples and affect results will inform new approaches for researchers to better combine the two powerful, but different, techniques.

Professor Andrew Peele, Director of the Australian Synchrotron, says with such innovative research, Dr Whelan is a worthy recipient of the Stephen Wilkins Thesis Medal, named in honour of synchrotron pioneer Stephen Wilkins.

‘Science is founded on experimentation and collaboration, which Donna has displayed excellently in articulating how two microscopy techniques can work together to give researchers better information about their biological samples.

‘The thesis medal honours Stephen Wilkins’ creativity and his devotion to nurturing the next generation of scientists, and we wish Donna well as her career builds in the United States.’

Accepting the medal on Dr Whelan’s behalf, father Jim says he was very proud, but not surprised by his eldest daughter’s accolade.

‘Donna has always put in 100 per cent and left no stone unturned in her science – the hard work truly pays off and now she’s living the dream.’

The Thesis Medal is awarded annually to the PhD student at an Australian or New Zealand University who is judged to have completed the most outstanding thesis of the past two years whose work was undertaken at and acknowledges the Australian Synchrotron, or the Australian National Beamline Facility (ANBF), or whose work acknowledges and was undertaken under the auspices of the International Synchrotron Access Program (ISAP) or the ASRP.

Pictured: A standard radiograph of The North wind (left) shows touched-up areas of the painting as dark patches, of interest to conservators; in the centre, the pre-restoration painting as viewed by the naked eye (centre); the image on the lower right shows the power of the Australian Synchrotron’s X-Ray Fluoresence Microscopy (XFM) beamline in revealing colour-coded detail of the metal composition of paint layers.


Following an intensive, year-long conservation project, one of Australia’s foremost Impressionist artists Frederick McCubbin will be seen in a new light as his painting, The North wind, c1888, returns to public display at NGV Australia today.

Working with the Australian Synchrotron and utilising its ability to produce light a million times brighter than the sun and record the X-ray fluorescence emitted, NGV researchers have imaged the pigments buried within the many layers of paint to reveal the painting’s secret history, no longer visible on the surface.

Images produced by the Australian Synchrotron’s X-Ray Fluorescence Microscopy (XFM) beamline revealed a lush and green landscape composition later replaced by McCubbin in favour of an arid landscape, a change suspected to have been made amid the centenary of settlement commemorations in 1888 and the emergent idea of the ‘Aussie battler’.

The high resolution images also confirmed the signature and much-speculated 1891 date depicted on the painting were added erroneously after early restoration attempts saw the painting cropped and the original signature and date removed.  Analysis at the Australian Synchrotron showed the use of materials in The North wind is consistent with McCubbin’s work in the late 1880s and indicates the painting was most likely begun between 1887 and 1888.

Professor Andrew Peele, Director of the Australian Synchrotron says pixel-by-pixel scanning on the XFM beamline guided the restorative work of NGV conservators.

‘While the naked eye can differentiate between colours, and a standard X-Ray reveals further information about the depth and shape of the paint, only the powerful light of the synchrotron beam can colour-code and map the distribution of metals such as zinc, lead and iron in the pigment, enabling conservators to identify and remove touch-ups from the original.

‘As a national facility, the Australian Synchrotron is proud to improve understanding and contribute to the conservation of our collective cultural heritage.’

Tony Elwood, Director, NGV says the NGV’s conservation department is responsible for the care and restoration of more than 70,000 works of art.

‘Our conservators have partnered with scientists at the Australian Synchrotron to advance the use of state of the art imaging technology in the visual arts and created new research methods for art historians and conservators.’

Prior to entering the NGV’s collection in 1941 The North wind was subjected to significant restorations that altered the presentation of the artist’s original work, including a failed attempt to clean its surface, followed by considerable over-painting of McCubbin’s original composition. There was also evidence to suggest that the format of the picture has been modified and the original frame removed.

From today, a new interactive e-book will be on display at NGV Australia detailing the restoration process of McCubbin’s The North wind through interviews, text, images and videos.  This display will be a new permanent feature of NGV Australia and showcase works from the NGV collection that have undergone conservation research. 

Find out more:

Hear Dr Daryl Howard, Scientist on the XFM beamline describe how the Australian Synchrotron team helped NGV conservators restore The North wind, in an interview with Michael Varcoe-Cocks, Head of Conservation, NGV. Play video below.

Read the full story of The North wind’s journey back to glory in NGV Australia’s extensive e-book, produced with the support of the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project. Click to view e-book >


Media coverage:

High-res imaging reveals Fred McCubbin's true painting’, Australian Financial Review, Thursday 3 December 2015.

Australian Synchrotron used to analyse pigments to restore Frederick McCubbin's The North Wind’, Sydney Morning Herald online, Tuesday 15 December 2015.


The stonefish is one of the world’s ugliest and deadliest fish. You’ll know if you step on one; the fish protects itself using 13 razor sharp venom filled spines capable of slicing through reef shoes. The resulting pain is crippling, can last for days and may result in amputation of a limb or death -- a torturous venom worth avoiding.
Monash University researchers have solved the X-ray crystal structure of the lethal factor present in stonefish venom. Their discoveries have provided unexpected insight into a crucial human immune response that is responsible for the failure of up to 30 per cent of bone marrow transplant therapies for treating leukaemia.
The structural insights obtained from stonefish venom are now being used to develop immunosuppressants to improve the success rate of transplant therapies.
The work, published today in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), reveals that the lethal component of stonefish venom, a protein called Stonustoxin, is an ancient relative of the human immune protein perforin. 
In humans, perforin is an essential weapon unleashed to destroy virally infected and cancerous cells.
Perforin proteins attach themselves to a diseased cell and assemble to form giant ring shaped holes, or pores, on the cell surface. Each pore contains around 20 perforin proteins that stick together in a symmetrical fashion. The pores are big enough to allow toxins to enter the cell, killing it from within.
How these pores form is a mystery but the work on stonustoxin has revealed a key part of the pore assembly mechanism.
To make their discovery, the team used powerful synchrotron radiation to visualise the atomic structure of stonustoxin. Crucially, they found that the toxin contains two perforin-like proteins stuck together. By seeing how two of the proteins first interact, the researchers can build on this to understand how the full assembly of 20 perforin molecules forms a complete pore.
Unravelling the structure of the stonefish’s lethal toxin was carried out at Monash University and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging. The leading authors of the study were Dr Andrew Ellisdon, Dr Sheena McGowan and Professor James Whisstock.
“The lethal factor in stonefish venom is like a loaded gun: ready to fire as soon as it is injected into the foot of an unsuspecting victim,” says co-lead author Dr Sheena McGowan.
In humans unwanted or excessive perforin activity is responsible for a range of medical problems including pancreatic cell destruction in type I diabetes and the rejection of bone marrow transplants in the treatment of leukaemia.
Accordingly, an international group of researchers, led by the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute and including Monash based Professor Whisstock and his team, are working to develop perforin inhibitors.
“Already the structure of stonustoxin is starting to inform our drug development program,” says co-lead author Professor Whisstock. “Now we understand the very first stages of perforin pore formation. This type of mechanistic information is extremely useful in developing new strategies to inhibit perforin itself.
“People who step on a stonefish suffer agonising pain because the lethal stonustoxin protein attacks nerves. The treatment for envenomation includes an antivenom together with soaking the wound in non-scolding hot water – the latter treatment unravels the venom and stops it punching holes,” he says.
The work conducted at the Imaging Centre used major national research platforms, including the Australian Synchrotron, and Monash University Ramaciotti Centre for Cryo-Electron Microscopy.

 Content courtesy of the ARC Centre for Advanced Molecular Imaging

Media coverage:

Deadly stonefish discovery could reduce transplant rejection rate in cancer patients’, on ABC radio’s World Today, Wednesday 2 December 2015