University of WA student Sabrina Davies could hold key to world food security

“Agriculture is the big one,” Ms Davies said.

“All the stats on feeding the world say that by 2050, we’re going to have to double current crop yields.

“Our limited land and resources means we’re going to need more innovation and more sustainable agriculture.

“Being in Australia where we have access to food, and knowing other countries are without this access, is a big driver for me.”

The work involves determining the structure of the proteins that govern all processes in living things.

In the lab, Ms Davies derives proteins from plant DNA samples, purifies them then grows crystals from them, a process called crystallography.

“It’s kind of like when you’re making a salt crystal in primary school,” she said.

“But once you have that nice regular structure you can fire X-rays at it. The way those rays scatter tell you about the shape of it and from that you can work out more about the protein structure.

“Or, once you’ve purified that protein, you can conduct other experiments on it, seeing how it binds to things, its stability, its responses to other interventions.

“There are many unknowns in all these steps; many variations, a lot of trial and error.”

Ms Davies is one of 17 young Australians recently awarded a Westpac Future Leaders scholarship –$120,000 for lab equipment and materials, as well as a nine-month tailored leadership development program and opportunities to travel, including an upcoming trip to work with Californian scientists working in this field.

“I’m hoping this research will give us the opportunity to collaborate with industry on developing a real-world application,” Ms Davies said.

“This has the potential to put Australia on the world stage … to contribute to solving a global problem.”

Emma Young is a Fairfax Media journalist based in Western Australia, breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice.

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