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Recipient 2017


Valette Williams Scholarship Recipient 2017

Aaron Phillips

The Val Williams Scholarship in Botany is sponsored by the North Shore Group of the Australian Plants Society. The Scholarship honours the memory of our former esteemed member, Val Williams (1937-2004). Applications are sought firstly from Honours students and also from Masters or PhD students undertaking research at universities in the Sydney region.

The project must contribute to the knowledge of the ecology, conservation or propagation of native plants in the Sydney and surrounding regions.

The Scholarship, valued at $2 500 this year, attracted five applicants, a mix of Masters and PhD students, from two universities.

Congratulations to Aaron Phillips, recipient of the 2017 Val Williams Scholarship in Botany.

Aaron is a Master of Research student within the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University.

His topic is: Surveying evolutionary drift in heat tolerance genes from Themeda triandra (Kangaroo Grass) relative to local Sydney populations

In Aaron’s words:

"I am currently enrolled in the second year of a two-year Master of Research degree within the department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. As a child I remember being fascinated by plants - I can still recall the very first time I was told about that wonderful thing called photosynthesis during primary school, when my teacher told us that plants breathe in as we breathe out, and use our exhalations to make food. The plants around me were brought to life after I knew that there was some connection between us. And who could forget their very first "grow a bean in a jar" experiment? Watching the plants grow from the seed brought me so much joy. Despite this, I always wanted to get into veterinary science - a dream that died abruptly after I took my first proper lesson in plant biology under my now supervisor, Professor Brian Atwell, who also gave me a deep appreciation for agricultural species.


Aaron at work in a glasshouse


Nowadays I still find myself obsessed with how plants take CO2 out of the air and turn it into the vast array of chemical compounds that keep humanity on its feet. So, when offered the chance to study a key enzyme in the photosynthetic carbon-fixing reactions, there's no way I could pass that up. My thesis is focussed on the enzyme known as Rubisco activase (RCA). It keeps Rubisco (the enzyme responsible for making useful sugars out of atmospheric CO2) in a functional state, and so helps plants make food. However, when a plant gets too hot, say during a heat wave, RCA can no longer do its job and the plant stops making food. This is not true of Australian wild rice species from hot places. My job, therefore, is to try to identify variants of RCA from other plant species adapted to different climates within Australia that may help the plant to tolerate adverse conditions, like high temperature.

Initially, the project was targeting only wild and domesticated species of cotton and tobacco from around Australia, however the Val Williams award has allowed us to extend our analysis into Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), the most widely distributed species in Australia. We want to know whether RCA changes between different populations of Roo Grass, as this would prove to be a powerful demonstration of selection acting on the thermal stability of RCA within a single species across habitats. The prospect of identifying agriculturally important genes in species exquisitely adapted to the harsh conditions of this country excites me deeply, and so I am very grateful for the support from the Australian Plants Society NSW, North Shore Group, which will allow me to explore this question more fully!"


Previous recipients

2009 Liza Xian

2010 Alison Hewitt,

2011 Nathan Emery &Tanya Bangel

2012 Diane Warman & Berin Mackenzie

2013 Jessica Mowle

2014 Desi Quintans

2015 Jon Pankhurst

2016 Johanna Wong

For enquiries:
Wendy Grimm, Convener, Val Williams Scholarship in Botany, Australian Plants Society - North Shore Group
Phone: 02 9144 5600


We are affiliated with Australian Plants Society NSW Ltd which is part of the national body the Australian Native Plants Society (Australia) inc. (ANPSA).