Christmas message 2011

22. December 2011

Dear Friends,

For me 2011 was a "work-hard" minus the "play-hard" year. The background of natural disasters in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and financial crisis in Europe gave this year a somber atmosphere.

Christmas 2010 was spent in Sydney. Kiri and her flatmate Steven did the Christmas Eve party. The blend of generations, my mother, our friends and Kiri's friends, worked beautifully. Christmas dinner was at the Szpitalak's place - 10 courses brilliantly cooked by Stefan. We sat in the sunny backyard with a gentle sea breeze, which made for a perfect afternoon. We welcomed New Year at the Cumbo's place and enjoyed the spectacular fireworks. Thanks, everyone!

Early in New Year, Kiri moved to Canberra. She was accepted into a science communication course at ANU and started doing science outreach with Questacon (The National Science and Technology Centre). She also continued to work part-time for Origio. Bruce left for Taiwan and I settled into hermit-like existence, working on chapter 2 of the Characeae book. While writing about water channels, I read about zinc ion blocking animal H+ channles. Would it work in Chara? I have also taken some samples of Chara plants and sent them to Susan Murch at University of British Columbia to assay for melatonin and serotonin. In late February I switched to another book: Second Year Lab Manual, beautifully organised by John Smith, but getting out of date. First session was suddenly upon us.

Easter break was late this year and I worried about snow closing our favourite walks. But the weather relented and we did the Main Range walk mostly in sunshine. Kiri, Dave and Kit Blatt (who is doing Australia) came from Canberra to join us. They walked with Ron from Charlotte's Pass, while we came from Thredbo. Sue and I walked up Kosciusko, while waiting for them. The view was breathtaking, the horizon wreathed in clouds (it rained everywhere except in the Snowy Mts.) We did two other good walks and got back to Sydney refreshed. I also enjoyed my Christmas gift from Bruce and Kiri: iPad. I use it mainly to download and read books. As long as I can connect to the web I am never without a good book to read. Love it.

The Plant Neurobiology conference in Japan was cancelled, but I was invited to give a seminar at University of Melbourne in May. Then Bruce's brother Geoff invited us to his 70th birthday party on the weekend just before the seminar - cosmic coincidences! We celebrated Geoff's birthday in style and caught up with various Beilbys. Then we visited the Characeae book co-author Michelle Casanova in Lake Bolac. Michelle and Anthony live on a farm. After this year's floods, they are surrounded by swamps, full of most amazing charophytes. The living room functions as Michelle's lab. We had very interesting time visiting surrounding swamp sites and talking with Anthony about the farm. Thanks for your hospitality! Driving into Melbourne Uni was a bit of a nightmare, but we got there and my talk went okay. We found many common topics of interest with my host Andrew Melatos, who took us to an excellent late lunch on Lygon Street.

By midsession break, I was hard at work on the book. My pH. D. student Sabah got the referees' reports on his thesis and finalised his work. He also did series of experiments with zinc ion. At 1 mM concentration, ZnCl2 blocks high conductance at very high pH, the noise and the upwardly concave I/V characteristics in saline APW. The block can be readily reversed by Mercaptoethanol. The proton pump is not affected by zinc ion on the time scale of the channel block. So, these results support our hypothesis that H+/OH- channels might be involved in salinity stress. The H+ channels in animals probably have a very ancient origin, indeed. We sent the paper to Plant, Cell and Environment in December. Also good news came from Susan: both Chara and Lamprothamnium have high levels of melatonin and serotonin. They will be a good system for researching the function of these animal neurohormones in plants on single cell level.

Second session saw me teaching three courses: PHYS 1111 (for non physicists), PHYS 1121/1131 (physics and engineering students) and the usual Biophysics - each course with different teaching challenges for me. I worked hard on my teaching and enjoyed the lectures and demonstrations of various effects, especially for the big (400 students) physics class. Have relished discussing demonstrations with Kiri, who was doing some spectacular ones on her tours with Questacon. Sabah graduated in August and we were treated to a lovely dinner at his place. All the best in future, Dr. Sabah!

We celebrated Bruce's birthday in Canberra with Kiri. She organised a visit to War Memorial, beautiful dinner, great morning in Questacon and a walk around the lake. Thanks, Kiri! Bruce has been away a lot this year: Taiwan, Germany, Canada, USA. The factory in Taiwan has been affected by financial problems in Europe and flood of cheap photovoltaics from China. We live in interesting times.

Working hard on teaching took its toll and I was exhausted by the time Kaire Torn came from Estonia to work with me on the Lamprothamnium mucilage. I organised a small flat for her. This turned out to be problematic: dripping taps, late night plumbers, nonresponsive real estate agents and finally the place was condemned because of white ants! Fortunately, by then Kaire had become familiar with Sydney and organised a better place to stay. The experiments did not bring expected results so far: the mucilage story might be more complicated than originally thought. Despite the frenetic work tempo, Mary Bisson and I also managed to put together a chapter on pH banding in characeae for the next Volkov book on electrophysiology.

In October another "cosmic coincidence" saw Kiri with Questacon circus performing in Leongatha, Bruce's birthplace. This was her final tour before her graduation. We flew into Melbourne with Kaire, who went to stay with Michelle in Lake Bolac. We drove through horizontal rain (Victorian weather!) to Leogatha to stay with Bruce's brother Robert and his wife Heather. They have built a new house, very comfortable. Good inspiration for us, our house plans are still hovering near development application stage. We watched Kiri perform her demonstration of "pressure", switching effortlessly from lower primary to high school students. One of the primary kids was little George (nephew Craig's son) and Kiri selected him for one of her demonstrations. Later that evening, Questacon did a public show in the Town Hall. Kiri and Rachel did fairies vs. witches sketch to debunk magic and prove science rules all! In one demonstration Kiri was lying on bed of nails and Bruce smashed a brick on her chest. Questacon was a great success in Leongatha. Some of Kiri's Questacon colleagues came to dinner at Rob and Heather's place. Robert made wonderfull pizzas in the garden oven. Excellent evening and great company. Thanks for your hospitality, Rob and Heather! We caught up with some other Beilbys and remembered the times of Bruces' parents. The weather relented for the Questacon show, but horizontal rain returned on our drive to Lake Bolac. We spent the weekend with Michelle and Kaire driving into South Australia, collecting Lamprothamnium. We admired the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. I finally got to Coorong (where Lamprothamnium was collected for initial experiments in 1980s), but now the region is too salty even for this hardy characeae. However, we did find many specimens on the way. Once again had great time with the Casanovas! We brought plants home and Kaire is now growing them in the lab.

So, the end of the year finds me in one of my favourite places: the lab! Kaire is planting Lamprothamnium and looking at mucilage. Sabah and my new Ph. D. student Faisal are setting up the first growth experiment with Chara nodes, using IAA and BAP. The next experiment will be with serotonin and melatonin. Kiri is back in Sydney and we are planning Christmas Eve in our place, mother is cooking for Christmas Day. I am back to book writing and getting very close to the end of chapter 2. Michelle has done some splendid drawings for chapter 1. Even I can now tell Chara from Nitella and Lamprothamnium. The greatest adventure on the horizon is a trip to Antarctica with the Cumbos in January.

And it is wonderful to welcome new babies: Anouk for Andre and Juliete, Zayen for Anton and Dimple and Lachlan for Francesca and Stewart!

So, looking forward to hearing your stories and wishing you

a peaceful Christmas break and All the Best in 2012!!!

Mary, Bruce and Kiri

The background picture is a vista on our regular walk along Botany Bay.

Kiri with her Questacon group

In Questacon: Kiri with Michael and Tom exploring centrifugal forces

Main Range Walk at Easter: Kiri with Dave and Kit

Easter: Horse Camp hut with Sue

Aliens among us: Kiri and Michael on the Alice Springs Questacon tour

Kiri in central australian landscape

One night Bruce and I were cooking and needed something from the shelf: surprise! Click on this picture to download a card

August: with Sabah at his graduation

October: Does my bum look big in this? Collecting Lampro with Michelle

October: With Kaire and Michelle at the farm

School show: Kiri and Aidan demonstrate swimming through viscous fluid, such as honey

Leongatha: Kiri the witch lying on bed of nails, Bruce smashing a besser block on her chest

November: Sculptures by the Sea in foggy Bondi

Sculptures by the Sea: touching the void

Kiri graduates, again