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NYU Sydney Hosts MLK Scholars

This March, NYU Sydney proudly hosted the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars Program Travel Colloquium.

A group of 30 students from across all undergraduate divisions of NYU were accompanied by staff and faculty as they embarked on an intensive five days of education, discovery and service. This all-University scholars program was initially proposed by NYU’s Association of Black Faculty in 1986 with the first group of Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholars beginning their studies in 1987. The program brings together students with a demonstrated commitment to further the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through excellence in academic achievement and distinguished leadership and community service.

The week officially began on Monday March 18 with a Welcome to Country performed by esteemed Aboriginal Elder and representative of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Uncle Charles “Chikka” Madden. Madden welcomed the group to Gadigal land and discussed his own life and Aboriginal life and culture more broadly. The Welcome to Country was followed by a brief introduction and orientation from the NYU Sydney team before the scholars participated in their first academic lecture of the week.

Facilitated by Dr. Laura McLauchlan, this class served to provide the platform of information by which learning throughout the week would be built upon. During this session the scholars explored the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture; the relationship between Australian settler culture and Aboriginal Australians; Australia’s experience of migration and multiculturalism; Australians’ relationship with their environment; and Australians’ sense of national identity. After lunch at Science House the group made their way to Customs House at Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour. At Customs House the scholars met with their walking tour guide and spent the next two hours walking around the city and learning about the economic and social forces that shaped modern Sydney. This tour included commentary from above a scale model of Sydney’s Central Business District and surrounding area.

The second day began with a tour of the First Australians Gallery at the Australian Museum. This tour was facilitated by a Wiradjuri woman and it gave students a brief but comprehensive exposure to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, culture, customs and tradition. At Science House, Australian Historian and NYU Sydney instructor Justine Greenwood’s class examined immigration and multiculturalism in Australia. The day concluded with a visit to the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. At NCIE the group learned about the history of the organization, some of their current challenges and the services they provide to the local Indigenous community. A highlight of this visit was the opportunity to meet with Wiradjuri woman and NCIE Aunty-in-Residence Glendra Stubbs.

Stubbs serves as a mentor for Indigenous young people from across Australia that are invited to stay at NCIE. Stubbs has worked with a number of state and national bodies including: as an Aboriginal Engagement Advisor for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the National Stolen Generations Alliance, and Metro Migrant Resource Centre. She is also a member of the advisory group of the NSW Government child protection and wellbeing program. Stubbs led the group to the NCIE child care center where she discussed her own lived experiences as an Indigenous person growing up in Australia as well as the experiences of members of Australia’s Stolen Generation.

A special treat was arranged for the scholars on their third day in Sydney. On the way to the Blue Mountains a quick stop was made at the Featherdale Wildlife Park. At Featherdale, the students fed kangaroos breakfast and watched with amazement as koalas, dingos and wombats woke for the day. Following their trip to the wildlife park the group made their way to the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains to hike and learn about the region. The area is the traditional home of the Darug and Gundungarra peoples and for decades this location has been a “must see” for visitors to Sydney.

The Blue Mountains are home to 400 species of animals and some of Australia’s most breathtaking landscape. Charles Darwin crossed the Blue Mountains in 1836 and the students walked along the track that carries his name. At the conclusion of the hike the group met National Parks and Wildlife Service Aboriginal Discovery Ranger, Yamindirra Newton and learned about his experiences as sn Indigenous elder living in the region.

On day 4, Drs. McLauchlan and Greenwood co-facilitated a class that served as an opportunity for the group to reflect on their experiences thus far. The fifth and final day of the program was the day of service. The group travelled to Bradley’s Head on Sydney’s lower north shore to participate in a weeding project to protect the habitat of the red-crowned toadlet. The red- crowned toadlet is only found in the Sydney region and the group was charged with protecting its habitat by identifying and disposing of invasiveexotic weed species.

The MLK Jr Scholars Colloquium was a fantastic week in Sydney and the NYU Sydney team cannot wait to host future special programs.

Article by Marcus Neeld.
Images: MLK Scholar Kori Selwyn Vernon

NYU Sydney Hosts China Matters Debate

In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, Australia’s engagement with the People’s Republic of China has continued to expand and while the commercial relationship is complimentary and robust, public discourse regarding political interference and security concerns continue to run counter to this unfettered optimism.

The Australian public has more recently been exposed to headlines regarding visa cancellations for academics attempting to complete field research in Xinjiang; concerns of scientific collaboration being too obscure and leading to gains for Beijing’s opaque security apparatus; and the detainment of Chongyu Feng, Associate Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

It is against this backdrop that China Matters hosted its 6thYoung Professional debate. The topic, ‘Does the People’s Republic of China pose a threat to academic freedom in Australia?’

China Matters is a local think tank, established to stimulate a realistic and nuanced discussion of the PRC among Australian business, government and the security establishment, and to advance sound policy. Part of the organization’s efforts rest in bringing young professionals into the discussion. Each year, China Matters hosts youth policy forums, debates, and publishes articles from young China watchers.

On December 5, 2018, NYU Sydney collaborated with China Matters by hosting the 6th debate in the series. These debates bring together two young professionals and two special guests to debate topics that are key to the Australia-China relationship. The format is geared at providing stimulating discussion that spans generations, levels of experience, backgrounds and competencies.

The two special guest debaters for the evening were Dr Jane Golley, Acting Director, Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU, and Ms Geraldine Doogue AO, ABC Broadcaster. The young professionals participants were Ms Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, Project and Research Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, and Ms Belinda McEniery, Health Economics Associate, Johnson & Johnson. The debate was moderated by Mr Dirk Van der Kley, PhD Candidate, ANU.

The debate started strong with Dr. Golley insisting that anecdote and statistics play a key role in separating fact from fiction. Golley revealed five separate instances in detail regarding visa and book publication deal cancellations, and anecdotes of joint collaboration for publication in journals whereby content had been altered in the editing process in order to reach publishers’ requests for a softer tone. The punchline– they were all personal anecdotes.

Simone van Nieuwenhuizen from the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS did well to rebut these points while simultaneously bringing to light more factual recounts regarding media stories of detained academics from her own institution. At the heart of her argument for the negative team was her insistence that there was no real threat, the academic relationship is strong and the media have led to a misrepresentation of relations.

Belinda McEniery, Health Economics Associate, Johnson & Johnson then discussed the topic from an economic and policy perspective, arguing that the PRC has so many policy levers that simply leave Australia too vulnerable. McEniery spoke more broadly of political interference citing recent cases in Federal politics to exhibit the breadth of the issue.

The final speaker was one of Australia’s most loved journalists, Ms Geraldine Doogue AO, ABC Broadcaster. Doogue again attempted to argue that public opinion had been too heavily tainted by media headlines. Doogue spoke of the impact of these developments on Chinese students studying in Australia, and argued that there are deeper aspects to the story that need more attention. She again rebutted the affirmative team by assuring the audience that our institutions are more robust than we might think. And this, she closed with, is the most important thing to remember when we are considering threats. Threats are only threats when we fail to mitigate them.

The event concluded with a robust Q&A where members of the audience were able to interact with the panel, seeking their expertise on the topics discussed. Once all questions had been fielded, the moderator, Louisa Bochner of China Matters asked the audience to vote for the winning team. The affirmative team of Dr Jane Golley and Belinda McEniery won with a count of 44-32.

After the event the crowd broke out into NYU Sydney’s Edgeworth David room for catering and refreshments. Sydney students and guests were able to talk to the panel one-to-one to discuss the debate in more detail.

NYU Sydney was also proud to host John McCarthy, Senior Advisor to Mitsubishi Materials Corporation in Tokyo, and the Chair of the Advisory Board of the Griffith Asia Institute; Stephen FitzGerald, adviser to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China; Jocelyn Chey, founding Director of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University 2016-17; and Laurie Smith, member of the national board of the Australia China Business Council and Executive Director of International at Austrade 2011-2015.


Former NYU Sydney Student Presents Behavioral Research

Former NYU Sydney student, Julia Moses recently presented at the 30th Annual Greater New York Conference on Behavioral Research at Fordham University.

Julia presented her research on Infant Studies of Language and Neurocognitive Development. The research is a result of working with Dr. Natalie Brito at Infant Studies of Language and Neurocognitive Development” (ISLAND lab). “The presentation was about how maternal anxiety may have an effect on 3 month old infants. I measured the blinks per minute of the baby during a recorded 5 minute play task with the mother and counted the number of blinks over the time period,” explained Julia. 

“Using the number of blinks as a measure of dopamine production in the infant, we can infer that the rate of blinks per minute is telling us about the baby’s internal state. Through surveys the mother took and counting the blinks, preliminary results have shown that mothers who feel less stressed in the moment correlate with higher blinks in the infant due to (inferred) higher dopamine production in the infant’s brain. ”

“This is very early on into our research so nothing is certain yet as we don’t have enough participants, we are hoping to continue with more studies to build on the research”.

NYU Sydney Students Visit Local Initiative with Global Equity Fellow

On December 6, 2018, NYU Sydney’s Global Equity Fellow, Juliana Maia led a group of students to Summer Hill to visit the Four Brave Woman initiative.

Four Brave Woman is a project that works to empower refugees by providing a commercial kitchen and seating area for use as a restaurant. Refugees are invited to spend eight weeks at the location cooking for paying customers and managing daily operations.

Customers are invited to enjoy lunch or dinner six days a week. At the end of each eight week period the goal is for participants to gain enough experience and capital to establish their own business. Juliana and her friends were treated to a wonderful Iraqi meal followed by an opportunity to talk with their hosts and staff. During this conversation the students learned that the Four Brave Women initiative is receiving international recognition for its work and requests to sponsor similar initiatives in other parts of the globe. It was a great afternoon for our students and hands-on experiences are a great reminder of the value of the Global Equity Fellowship at NYU Sydney.

At NYU Sydney Global Equity Fellows are encouraged to provide opportunities for their peers
to not only explore individual identity but to also explore the lived experiences of individuals within the local community. By connecting with members of the Australian public, students can learn about the aspects of identity that are salient for people living in another part of the world. Opportunities for students to learn about the interplay between national identity and other aspects of social identity are characteristic of the invaluable learning that occurs when students study away.

NYU Sydney Anthropology Lecturer Petronella Vaarzon-Morel on Students Experiencing the Warmth of Walpiri Culture

The Warmth of a Walpiri Welcome

By Petronella Vaarzon-Morel, NYU Sydney Anthropology Lecturer

This September, students in the Anthropology of Indigenous Art and Anthropology classes were privileged to meet with Warlpiri cultural experts Selina Williams Napanangka and Julie Kitson Napaljarri from Willowra, an Indigenous community which is located 350 kilometres north-west of
Alice Springs in Central Australia.

NYU Sydney was recently honoured to host Warlpiri cultural experts Selina Williams Napanangka and Julie Kitson Napaljarri from Willowra. Selina and Julie were guests for two classes within a week on campus. The occasions brilliantly illustrated the opportunities afforded by the anthropology classes and the Sydney campus for meaningful cross- cultural exchanges between Indigenous Australians and NYU students.

Julie and Selina are both skilled artists and performers of the Warlpiri women’s yawalyu ceremonies, which celebrate their ancestral connections to country through song, dance, and body painting.

Both women are currently involved in two collaborative projects with NYU anthropology lecturer Petronella Vaarzon-Morel. The first is a cultural mapping project which involves traditional owners visiting their ancestral countries in the Lander Warlpiri Anmatyerr region and mapping ancestral tracks, sites and cultural heritage information. The second is a cultural returns project, an Australian Research Council Linkage project involving the Indigenous body the Central Land Council, and researchers from The University of Sydney and The University of Melbourne. The project has been running for three years and is near completion.

During this period the researchers have located large collections of Central Australian Indigenous cultural materials which are held in diverse public and private collections. Applying international best practice, material (primarily images and audio-visual ) has been digitised and reconnected with rightful Indigenous people.

The project has helped preserve Indigenous heritage, improve community access, safeguard at-risk materials, support intergenerational knowledge transfer, and provide a framework for the development of a repatriation policy. At the time of their visit to NYU Sydney, Julie and Selina were visiting archives in Sydney and Canberra for the project.

The theme of the Indigenous Art class for the week was Warlpiri and Anmayerr art. In addition to providing insights into the different Warlpiri modes of artistic practice, and providing feedback on the readings for the week, Julie and Selina taught students the basics of the Warlpiri traditional iconographic system. The iconography is employed in body painting, sand drawing and the contemporary Western Desert style of acrylic painting on canvas which has become renowned throughout the world.

In a fascinating cross-cultural exercise, students later viewed video clips made by Petronella of Julie and Selina providing their interpretations of works such as Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in the American Masters Exhibition, which was on display next to the Indigenous Gallery.

Following their visit to Sydney, Julie and Selina visited the National Gallery in Canberra, where they expressed great pride in seeing Aboriginal art in the nation’s capital. Julie commented “it’s so amazing to see Aboriginal art displayed so beautifully here. The last time I came with you [Petronella] to Canberra in the late 1970s we hardly saw any Aboriginal art. It’s good to see the increased recognition of Aboriginal people in Australia.”

Julie and Selina joined students of the Anthropology class to view the virtual reality film Collisions, directed by Lynette Wallworth with Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan. The film, recounts Nyarri Nyarri Morgan’s recollections of his first contact with Europeans during the 1950s, and the fallout of the atomic bomb over his people, the Martu in the region known as the Pilbara in Western Australia. The viewing provided a great opportunity for the Warlpiri guest speakers to share their reflections on the violent history of settler colonisation of Australia and Indigenous responses. This in turn prompted exchanges. For example, one student spoke of the feelings the film stirred concerning the bombing of Japan, her homeland during the 2nd World War.

Julie told the students about the murder of her relatives during the Coniston Massacre, which took place in the Willowra region in 1928. Coniston is officially recognised as the last massacre of Aboriginal people in Australia. The students also heard excerpts from radio interviews with Aboriginal people including Julie’s son Dwayne Ross, sister Maisie Napaljarri, and also Petronella about the Massacre. The interviews were recorded during the recent Coniston Massacre memorial day, which was held at Yurrkuru, the place where the massacre began.

During this commemorative event Warlpiri spokespeople called for a National Remembrance Day to remember the victims of massacres of Indigenous people that have occurred throughout Australia. The exchange between the NYU students and Julie and Selina were respectful and relaxed, and they highlighted the importance of the recognition of Indigenous Australians, of the true history of Australia, and of reconciliation.

During the Anthropology class Selina and Julie instructed the students in Warlpiri kinship and classificatory or “skin” system. Each student received a skin name and had to work out how they were related to Julie and Selina. In learning about their kinship relationships, they also learnt about appropriate marriage partners and kinds of behaviors associated with different kinspersons. In illustrating the importance of the relational ontology which is foundational to Warlpiri society, the exercise facilitated understanding of different ways of being in the world. Selina later commented to Petronella, “the students were pretty quick in learning their skin names. They feel proud of them. They will have them forever and will take them back to their country and share the names and their experiences. If they want to come to central Australia, we would welcome them.”

Both students and Julie and Selina felt that there wasn’t enough time to share all they could and hoped that there will more opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges at NYU Sydney in the future.

NYU Sydney’s Mark Eels on Balancing the BRI

This article comes to us from Mark Eels, NYU Sydney’s Operations & Communications Coordinator, and was originally published in Australia as a  China Matters Young Professionals Stance .

Balancing the BRI

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), formerly referred to as One Belt One Road or 一带一路, was a concept borne, on the one hand, to remedy structural inefficiencies, local debt and rampant overcapacity, and, on the other, as parallel trade architecture to counter the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and bolster the standing of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). ­

The BRI represents a latent microcosm of our larger engagement strategy with the PRC. However, Australia is yet to formally endorse the BRI. Moreover, domestic public opinion about Australia’s involvement is pessimistic. So are we at risk of missing the boat?

While BRI has announced five major goals of policy coordination, facility connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds, the cornerstone, at least for now, is infrastructure development. BHP Billiton’s BRI project database appraises investment related to power, railways, pipelines and transport as accounting for 70 percent of aggregate spending with the remainder related to new economic zones, industrial parks, refineries, plants and public buildings. Estimates for PRC investment ranging to as high as 8 trillion USD. As a result, project announcements revive a similar sentiment to that experienced during the PRC’s 2008 stimulus package, whereby capital largely flowed downstream to infrastructure projects, heavily reliant on Australian resources.

Major Australian ore producers Rio Tinto, BHP, and Fortescue are primed to benefit from this transcontinental appetite for infrastructure investment boasting  entrenched sectoral structural power, massive break even advantages and vessel roundtrip times around half that of Brazilian counterparts. Stubborn PRC domestic ore production is finally falling, with last month’s output the lowest for a non-winter period since 2008.

There are, however, major risks associated with BRI.

As Future Risk’s Tristan Kenderdine notes, BRI projects and international capacity cooperation behind them ‘cynically export China’s industrial policy, circumventing the established trade and investment architecture … As China domestically struggles to contain the local government debt built up, export of the investment-driven industrial model, which is what ICC [International Capacity Cooperation] represents, will inevitably export the lax banking standards and endogenous risk to other middle-income countries which do not have the financial infrastructure to survive a collapse.’ More bluntly, as he revealed to me in a novel manner ‘If you are exposed to China’s state capital then you are exposed to China’s local government debt and no one wants to know how that sausage is made’.

Peter Cai has demonstrated feasibility apprehensions with BRI projects. Cai quotes Andrew Collier, Managing Director of Orient Capital Research, ‘It is pretty clear that everyone is struggling to find decent projects. They know it’s going to be a waste and don’t want to get involved, but they have to do something’.

PRC projects are also less open to local and international participation, ‘out of all contractors participating in Chinese-funded projects within the Reconnecting Asia database, 89 percent are Chinese companies … In comparison, out of the contractors participating in projects funded by the multilateral development banks, 29 percent are Chinese, 40.8 percent are local, and 30.2 percent are foreign.’

So how does Australia intend to proceed? Should it be business as usual and are we content to again be seen as the dustbowl of the PRC, or can we learn to more broadly balance the benefits of BRI engagements while mitigating exposure to capital risks?

Should BRI infrastructure projects prove fruitful, there will be new industrial clusters in East Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East all needing resources and iron ore for steel manufactures, along with industry expertise. 139 ASX companies are in 34 countries across Africa, making Australia the largest international miner on the continent.  Government and industry level dialogue with bodies such as the Australia-Africa Minerals & Energy Group need to be increased to include more participants looking to understand opportunities and operational risk.

The Australian government at all levels should foster new relations with emerging economies along BRI to capitalise on the downstream effects of BRI. Examples include the 2014 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) that focuses on technology for mining, energy and agriculture.       

Australia should persistently leverage its positions in institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to create strong risk culture, strengthen governance frameworks and ensure opportunities for Australian contractors to bid under open procurement models. Increasing transparency and accountability will open the door for Australian expertise in services such as project management, engineering consultancy, and financial and legal services.

As BRI facilitates further RMB internationalization, Sydney, as 1 of 20 global official offshore RMB centers should boost its capacity to become a hub for RMB cash and security settlement in the Asia Pacific.

Australia needs to think more broadly about its relationship with the PRC by developing a multidimensional view inclusive of related economies situated along the PRC-led BRI.


NYU Sydney’s Fran Molloy on Australia’s Population Reaching 25 Million Two Decades Earlier than Predicted


By Fran Molloy, NYU Sydney Lecturer in Journalism

On August 7, Australia’s population reached 25 million, more than two decades faster than predicted.

Recently, the Australian Bureau of Statistics population clock – which adds another Australian every 1 minute and 23 seconds – rolled over to exactly 25 million.

It’s a significant benchmark, particularly when as recently as 2002, Australia’s population was predicted to climb from 19.6 million in 2002, to 25.3 million in 2042.

Instead, Australia’s already at 25 million, more than two decades earlier than expected; and if current trends continue, will likely exceed 30 million by 2030.

“When population grows rapidly, it makes it more likely that you will have further growth in the near future, because you have a younger and more fertile population,” says Professor Nick Parr, from Macquarie’s Centre for Workforce Futures.

He points out that population growth is complex; while migration has played a huge role in for Australia’s fast growth over the last couple of decades, factors like a strong economy pre-2008 and delayed childbearing also contributed to a “baby bump” in the early years of this century.

Students + Kiwis + holiday workers + expats + babies = 25 million

In 2017, net migration accounted for 62 per cent of our population increase. “That number includes international students as well as temporary workers, working holiday makers, New Zealanders and returning expatriates,” says Parr.

With house prices recently spiralling in major cities and complaints of traffic congestion and overdevelopment growing louder, rapid population growth is generally unpopular among Australians.

But there are advantages, Parr says – chief among them that population growth due to immigration both supports our ageing residents – and slows the overall rate of ageing of our population.

“When we have more people working and contributing taxes, the costs of population ageing are spread more widely,” he says.

He says that a more pressing issue for Australia than population growth, is its distribution. “Geographically, our population growth is very heavily concentrated in the major cities, which is the key factor influencing congestion and housing issues.”

What’s next? “Our population will continue to grow, and we need to plan for that as best we can,” he says. “We need to look further into the future to ensure today’s children are educated and trained in areas that would be gainfully used in the labour market, so they help defray the costs of population aging and contribute to tax dollars.”

This article has been republished with the permission of The Lighthouse, Macquarie University’s multimedia news platform.

NYU Sydney Environmental History Instructor on Ants in Australia

This post comes to us from NYU Sydney Instructor Adam Gall, who teaches Australian Environmental History. 

We tend to see ants as objects of benign curiosity or perhaps annoying interlopers in our gardens or kitchens, but when the Argentine ant appeared in Australian cities and suburbs in the mid-twentieth century it was already understood as a significant pest species. These unassuming little brown ants were emerging at the time as a global problem, infesting people’s home in large numbers in Mediterranean Europe and the southern United States, and generating a great deal of attention among scientists and policymakers. They likely arrived in Australia via the global shipping networks that connected this country with the rest of the world, though their exact date of arrival remains uncertain. As they traveled to new places, they went through a population bottleneck. Instead of being surrounded by diverse, rival colonies of the same species (as they had been in their home range in northern Argentina), Argentine ants in Australia were part of one group and able to cooperate against native species and compete with them for food resources. Their arrival prompted an enormous effort to control their numbers and, in Sydney at least, to eradicate the ants entirely using pesticides.

In a new chapter, “On the ant frontier”, written for a forthcoming edited collection, Animals Count, I narrate the history of these creatures in Sydney. The focus of my research has been on records left by the Argentine Ant Eradication Committee, the government organ which oversaw the eradication initiative in New South Wales. These files are held in the State Archives in western Sydney, at a compound situated on the rural fringes of the metropolitan area. They contain all sorts of documents, including weekly reports from field officers, invoices for equipment, letters from members of the public, articles and pamphlets, as well as plans for publicity campaigns. At the forefront of the work were entomologists, the insect scientists who developed techniques for identifying and spraying Argentine ant nests, and their reports and expert contributions have been fascinating to dig into, too.

The fact that the ants were domestic pests put the campaign on a collision course with suburban middle-class people and their growing awareness of the environmental effects of organochlorine pesticides. Already in the 1960s there were household pets affected by chlordane spray, and people complained about this to the Committee and sought compensation. There are even stories of citizens standing in front of the spraying carts or refusing access to their land because they recognised–against the official positions of government and chemical companies–that these were dangerous poisons. This is all part of a global history, too: around the world, more and more citizens and activists tried to prevent the use of organochlorine pesticides, partly because of the influence of Rachel Carson’s powerful writing in The Silent Spring. There pesticides were used because they were seen as more environmentally friendly than other chemicals, and the eradication campaign was undertaken to protect people’s sense of everyday wellbeing and household amenity. Eventually, citizens and their representatives in the northern suburbs of Sydney–particularly in leafy Lane Cove–challenged the right of the ant unit to spray. In 1985 the campaign was formally ended by the state government, though the ants themselves are still seen as a huge threat to biodiversity in many places around the world.

I found this journey through the archives very interesting as a historical researcher, because it had a defamiliarising effect on the spaces of my everyday life. I grew up in this city in the 1980s and 1990s and had never heard about Argentine ants before beginning this work. I found that whenever I mentioned my topic to people I met, they would say things like ‘Oh, I remember the TV ads!’ and talk about the Trapper Tom character, and about collecting samples to send in to their local councils as kids. There is a whole submerged history of ordinary people–particularly those who were children in Sydney during the 1960s and 1970s–being really invested in the campaign against the ants through popular media.

As new campaigns begin against other species, such as fire ants in Queensland, it is fascinating to see patterns repeating. History prompts us to ask difficult questions about the decisions we are making now. While it is happening, we feel with great urgency the threat of insects infesting our homes or suburban spaces. But we should also recognise that there is usually much more going on, from the effects of changes to land use to the potential risks of whatever substances we use to control pest species.

NYU Sydney Biology Instructor Sean Blamires Discusses His Research Featured in Documentary Film

This post comes to us from NYU Sydney biology instructor Sean Blamires. He also took the photographs. His research was the focus of the film Sixteen Legs.


Hickmania troglodytes spider

On Sunday, March 18, the documentary movie Sixteen Legs premiered in Sydney. Earlier in March, New York University students got rare behind the scenes glances at the making of the documentary and a chance to meet the director, Niall Doran.

The movie is an interlinking journey across the Tasmania culminating in rare footage of giant cave spider mating behaviours and is well worth a look. The novelty of the film is its intertwining themes that combine tourism, education, art, natural history, science fiction and fantasy. While an impressive compendium of celebrities, comedians, and scientists appear in the film, the star is unquestionably the cave spider itself, Hickmania troglodytes.

With a leg-span of up to 18 centimetres, Hickmania troglodytes is an intriguing animal on many levels. It has an evolutionary history dating over 100 million years, as such it has outlived the dinosaurs. It has a lifespan of over ten years, which is rare among spiders. Being a troglophile it spends its life in caves but can survive outside if it needs to. H. troglodytes belongs to the Family Austrochilidae. H. troglodytes is found only in Tasmania, while all other extant members reside in Chile. The Austrochilidae is of particular interest to Arachnologists because they are thought to represent the nexus between modern ‘true’, web building, spiders (the ‘Araneomorphs’) and more ancient non-web builders (the ‘Mygalomorphs’). Add to all of this H. troglodytes has a slow but deliberated, complex, and measured copulation behaviour, involving males tapping female’s heads, kinked forelegs, spider bondage, contortionism, and even cannibalism, all over the course of several hours.

A web in a cave under torch light. This distinctly shows the cribellate silks as they appear blue in this light

While this animal’s sexual exploits are undoubtedly impressive, my interest is in its massive horizontal sheet web and the types of silk it uses to construct it. My collaborators (including Niall Doran) and I have examined the main structural silks in H. troglodytes web and found that larger, older, spiders use tougher silks. We presume this is because the web needs to support the larger spider’s mass or that the webs of larger spiders catch bigger prey.

To capture insects in their webs modern spiders can make their capture threads sticky by using a type of silken (aggregate) glue, while more ancient spiders, such as H. troglodytes, secrete bundles of fine silk threads called cribellate silk to entangle prey. Interestingly, cribellar silk is thought lose its adhesion in humid environments. However, the cave environments where H. troglodytes builds their webs often have humidities exceeding 95%. We are therefore investigating how their cribellate silks can withstand moisture and whether water might even enhance their silk’s stickiness.

There are other projects on this spider and in Tasmanian caves in the pipeline, which we are keen pursue. We plan to one day take New York University students on our expeditions.


Piorkowski, D., Blamires, S.J., Doran, N., Liao, C.P., Wu, C.L. & Tso, I.M. 2018. Ontogenetic shift towards stronger, tougher silk in a web building cave spider. Journal of Zoology. 304: 81-89.

The History of Black Image in Cinema: An Evening with Alrick Brown at NYU Sydney

Article by Mark Eels of NYU Sydney. Photos courtesy of the U.S. Consulate General Sydney

‘This conversation can be honest. Open and honest always makes for uncomfortable discourse, but as Martin Luther King once said, It’s friction that helps us to grow, without that intellectual and emotional friction inside of us nothing changes.’ And with that NYU Tisch professor Alrick Brown set about delivering a truncated version of what is typically already a packed fourteen week course for eager film students. The topic- ‘Black Image & Film: A Brief History”.

Alrick conceded that it was always going to be ‘A Herculean task to talk about the history of Black cinema in 40 minutes or less… There are too many pieces, too many nuances and moving parts for one guy’s perspective’. But for the viewer, Professor Brown was equal to the task.

The event, which coincided with NYU Black History Month, attracted a large audience of students, members of the Benjamin Franklin Club, the U.S Consulate and the broader public. It was also streamed live on the NYU Sydney Facebook page.

At the core of the presentation was the theme of the power of images and how representation in its many forms can be problematic. ‘Racist, stereotypical images are present, even in the earliest films. So as soon as the technology was born people are misrepresented’.

Alrick acted as a steward, navigating the audience through the evolution of the involvement, themes and representation of black people in cinema, especially from a Hollywood perspective. He set the scene with a basic but powerful thought, ‘A lack of representation is problematic; I want you to think about what it means for cultures that don’t see themselves at all on screen. Or should they see themselves, what if the image is not positive? These images shape how we see the world. It’s a conversation of representation and we don’t have it enough’.

Brown interlaced a pertinent mix of supplementary clips, along with a continual return to content from ‘Classified X’, a film created from one of his mentors, Melvin Van Peebles. Some content was so blatant in its racism that it risked making the audience uncomfortable at times, echoing his initial remarks on the importance of friction. But Alrick pushed the audience to confront their own feelings and interpretations, ‘Should I be angry, or as a director and story teller do I try to understand where people’s’ ignorance and prejudice comes from?’

The lecture was successful in traversing between periods with sufficient salient examples and room for discussion. Behind these movements, he explained lay ‘A kind of intersection of art, technology but also the time we are living in’.

The presentation seamlessly moved from discussion of the birth of love for cinema to the current social climate. All starting with those moments where people realised  a ‘Complete enamour with moving images’, how, ‘cutting two images together changed us forever, cutting back and forth between something like a woman and a fire to create suspense’.

And so, said Alrick, in 1903 you have these innovations but you also have a very racist society. Giving birth to one of the first ever blockbusters, ‘Birth of a Nation’, originally titled, ‘The Clansman’.

Alrick moved on to the interwar period, noting a shortage of new black filmmakers trying to create a space and have a voice. But alas, as he points out heroes inevitably were lighter skinned. And so, as his mentor Melvin Van Peebles argues, ‘The so called golden era of independent black film is a myth… The real history has been one of struggle… sacrifices to bring a few precious moments of black humanity to the silver screen… All that wonderful talent wasted’. ‘The only ray of hope was Sam. You remember the piano player in Casablanca? It was the first time I’d seen a black actor go through an entire film without having to kiss ass.’

It was clips like these that elucidated the often neglected or forgotten stereotypes enforced by the hands of Hollywood. Films an audience member like myself might have seen many times, on their own less obvious in their representation, but strung together and seen as a collection, stark in racism.

Moving to the post war period Brown introduced the new black character, one more multidimensional in nature. Why, he asks? ‘Black people are consumers, so Hollywood caught on. There was a need for a token character or a sidekick to open the market’. Behind this, though he argues always rested the sympathetic white character, ‘Even after these adjustments there were always rules’.

Brown then showed a clip from ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, Hollywood’s push to a more ‘liberal’ lense through interracial relations. ‘The problem though is that if you understand Sidney Poitier’s character in the film, he had just won a Nobel Prize, but the white girl did nothing. But according to the meter in Hollywood they were evenly matched. She was white.’

Alrick then moved on to the realisation of the Black power movement in the 1960s and the acceptance of the need to ‘let people in’. And so, he stated, Hollywood had to let people in, a select few tasked with making movies, directors such as Ossie, Melvin, Gordon, all given budgets. From this stemmed the ‘Blacksploitation’ movement, which was good for employment at the time but there was still an imbalance in roles. Eventually scripts got weaker and it all began to taper out.

The irony, he noted, is that ‘There’s something happening where some of the success that the people are experiencing is a direct result of the lack of success in the criminal justice system’.  And with this came the post 1975 movement and the glorification of drugs and their agents of circulation.

And so, in circular fashion we arrived  back to Professor Brown’s central theme for the evening ‘No representation- some representation – distorted representation’.

So where does Alrick leave us, after some confrontational material and realisations? A combination of personal anecdote, his first short film project ‘Familiar Fruits’ and a message of the importance of not shying away from what he calls friction.  

He explained his pathway to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, via immigrating from Jamaica to New Jersey, living in the crack epidemic of the 1980s, watching footage from the likes of Spike Lee and John Singleton.

‘I was watching them from a distance, I would run home and watch TV, that was my protection, that’s how I escaped’. ‘Some teachers saw something in me and encouraged me to write. I started understanding my world a little bit. Writing was the one place I felt at home. I often say to my students it’s the great equaliser. No matter how much a movie costs, paper and pencil is still free. And you can put pen to paper and you can create just about anything. ‘

Closing his presentation he revealed the moment he realised his passion for film. Walking in Ghana between two villages beginning to doubt his arrival at his destination. ‘I started to write a message to my mother and brother… If I would live what would that one thing be to make my life meaningful? It was film. Everything became clear in that moment’.

And so he applied to film school. That year he was one of 36 accepted from a pool of applicants 1000 strong. The title of his application essay? ‘Death on Graduation Day’. ‘If I die after studying film for three years, I’d be OK. I would have done something I loved.’

Some years have passed since Professor Brown’s graduation. And for NYU Sydney students and those in attendance this was certainly something to celebrate.