THERE was never any doubt that Marco Ghisalberti’s future lay in science. “I guess it was in the blood,” he says.
“My parents were both scientists and they encouraged and fostered my curiosity. My three (university) preferences were science, science and engineering and science!”
Dr Ghisalberti’s father, Emil, is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Western Australia and his mother, Dr Annie Ghisalberti is a former director of Scitech, who went on to head Questacon, the national science centre in Canberra. She has often spoken of her passionate belief in the importance of getting children involved in, and excited by, science.
“I was always playing with the exhibits at Scitech,” Dr Ghisalberti says. “Like a lot of kids I asked questions all the time, and I liked to find out the answers myself. I enjoyed the discovery aspect of it.”
His mother must be proud: her son has just been named one of Australia’s top 10 scientific minds under the age of 45 by the science magazine, COSMOS.
He is modest about the accolade. “I’m still not exactly sure how I came to be nominated. I’m not a big self-promoter and I don’t know how they (the judges from Cosmos’s editorial advisory board) heard of me.”
Perhaps it is because Dr Ghisalberti’s work is at the cutting-edge of a hot research field, environmental fluid mechanics. It’s an area that draws together many different disciplines, from hydrology and meteorology to oceanography and civil engineering, in a bid to manage our natural environment more sustainably.
“Growing up in Perth exposes you to a particularly unique environment,” he said.
“There’s lots of outdoor activity and you have more contact with nature and the elements than you would if you were growing up in a high-density city. So from an early age I was just naturally interested in, for example, what makes waves down at the beach?”
Dr Ghisalberti’s current focus is on the role of turbulence in water flow, which can have a huge impact on the productivity and biodiversity of important aquatic ecosystems, such as seagrass.
“I look at how obstacles in the water, be they plants or coral reefs, cause turbulence and mixing.”
He is also looking at wind flow over forests and wind farms. “Wind and water have different densities but the same fundamental physics applies. You can make comparisons across systems and scientists are finding more and more similarities between them.”
His research uses innovative experimental lab models that mimic the real world.
“One of the challenges is to set up a model that is as realistic as possible,” he said.
“It is powerful because you see it as a realistic phenomenon and you have confidence in that. Lab models are a crucial step before you move on to computer models.”
Dr Ghisalberti graduated with honours in science and engineering from UWA in 1997. By then, he had been awarded the Australian Water Association Undergraduate Gold Medal WA, the BP prize in Environmental Engineering and the Wilsmore prize in chemistry.
He left sunny Perth for blizzard-prone Boston to complete a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His supervisor, Professor Heidi Nepf, successfully drew a link for him between studying in a lab and real-world problems.
“Until then I didn’t really have an appreciation of how precarious our environmental situation really is. Our environment is changing rapidly and dramatically and we have to do everything we can to mitigate that change.”
He returned to UWA last year on a postdoctoral fellowship. At 30, he is enthusiastic about Australian scientists’ ability to better the planet.
“Australian science is having a bit of a renaissance,” he said.
“I’ve noticed that Australian scientists, particularly in the environmental sciences, are very well-respected overseas. Around the world they are noticing we have a big contribution to make.”