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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.

NYU Sydney Professor Joanna Nash’s Co-Authored Paper on Ethical Investing Wins Award

NYU Sydney Professor Joanna Nash teaches Foundations of Finance at NYU Sydney. She co-authored a paper which recently won the Harry Markowitz Special Distinction award on sustainability issues within finance. The article is titled “A Pitfall in Ethical Investing: ESG Disclosures Reflect Vulnerabilities, not Virtues”.

NYU Sydney Global Media Instructor Sacha Molitorisz Signs Book Deal

In 2013, soon after joining NYU Sydney to teach Global Media as a founding instructor, Sacha Molitorisz began his PhD in media and philosophy. Last week he signed a publishing deal with New South Press to turn the now-completed PhD into a book

“The provisional title is Panopticon 2.0,” says Sacha, who has been teaching Global Media since 2012, when he put a full stop on his career as a newspaper journalist. “It’s about the ethics of internet privacy, and basically it applies Kantian theory to the internet.

“The idea, taken from Kant’s categorical imperative, is that people should never be used ‘merely as a means’. It took me about 100,000 words to apply that single phrase to internet privacy. And the good news is that an ethical principle from 1785 turns out to be a really good fit for a medium invented nearly 200 years later.”

The publication date is pencilled in for February 2019, and New South Press will seek an academic co-publisher for a US release.

“I’m thrilled New South Press are publishing. They straddle that middle ground between academia and the mainstream. That really suits my approach. Now that I’ve shifted from journalism to academia, I’d like to blend the best of both: the accessibility of journalism with the substance and rigour of academia.

“Actually, I think that sums up the NYU Sydney approach too. Everyone makes an effort to be both approachable and substantial. And it turned out to be a really good place to teach while I was wrestling with Kant and privacy.”

This post comes to us from Mark Eels, Operations & Communications Coordinator at NYU Sydney

NYU Sydney Screens Film Featuring Research of Biology Instructor Sean Blamires

On Wednesday 7 March NYU Sydney will be screening ‘Sixteen Legs’ an award-winning behind-the-scenes glimpse of the effort required to tell a natural history story with 7 years of filming, 27 years of scientific research and over 250 million years of evolutionary detail. The film features research conducted by NYU Sydney biology instructor Sean Blamires.

This is a nature documentary like no other. Featuring Neil Gaiman alongside appearances by Stephen Fry, Tara Moss, Adam Hills, and Mark Gatiss, and with a score co-written and performed by Kate Miller-Heidke, it will premiere in Sydney on 18 March.

In a special presentation of the short film, followed by a Q&A, the film’s co-director and writer will showcase how everything hinged on capturing one key sequence: the kinky mating of giant prehistoric spiders the size of a dinner-plate. Journey into a shadowy world of strange rock formations to meet animals that outlasted the dinosaurs, survived the splitting of the continents and that have endured the entirety of human civilisation in Australia’s deepest caves.

NYU Sydney Writing Lecturer Tim Ferguson Stages First Art Exhibition

NYU Sydney Lecturer Tim Ferguson, who teaches Comedy Writing to Tisch students in the Spring semester is staging his first art exhibition on Sunday 18 February at the Campbell Project Space.

The is the first 2018 Sunday arvo art event, a a regular program in the space. It features the premiere of a suite of artwork by Tim Ferguson. Tim is a well known Australian comedian and member of the comedy trio Doug Anthony All-Stars. A screenwriter, filmmaker and teacher of comedy screenwriting at NYU Sydney, Tim’s first exhibition of artwork is entitled ‘Gatherings’.

Tim explains, “I’ve nicknamed this genre ‘Disruptive Art’. As Uber is to taxis, disruptive art serves some of art’s functions without adhering to its more common forms. Disruptive art doesn’t wait at the ranks. It’s had no instruction. It borrowed it’s license from it’s sister.

“I deliberately place the joyous alongside the dark, the melancholic by the tortured, the lofty beside the dumb-ass. Each character is a world unto themselves, with no obvious casual link. Such is life.

“I hope the pictures are fun to look at, with fresh discoveries in every viewing. Or at least, an endlessly repeating fresh discovery.”

NYU Sydney Lecturer Abidali Mohamedali – Biologist and Entrepreneur Who Wants To Give Back

This month, NYU Sydney Lecturer Abidali Mohamedali was featured in Cosmos Magazine. The article focused on Professor Mohamedali’s research and teaching career, describing him as a biologist and entrepreneur who wants to give back.

For Professor Mohamedali, turning scientific discovers into business propositions is about driving understanding and benefiting people rather than acquiring wealth.

To learn more, read the full article here.

NYU Sydney Faculty Seeks to Increase Competencies with Diversity and Equity

Increasing competencies with Diversity and Equity has been on the key goals this year at NYU Sydney. This led to a series of Diversity and Equity meetings and a training session conducted by Dr Tim Marsh (NYU Sydney Lecturer: Social Psychology) and Dr Suraj Samtani (NYU Sydney Lecturer: Multicultural Counselling). Both academic staff and administrative staff participated in this training and meetings this year to increase awareness and skills with diversity. We hope to lead by example and put our skills into practice every day. Here are some nerdy highlights:

What do we know from psychology about biases?

The training session discussed how biases play a role in everyday interactions. The research from Social Psychology is that we have two distinct systems that influence biased thinking and behavior: System 1 (automatic, fast, not conscious) and System 2 (effortful, slow, conscious). We generally operate using System 1 which results in quick judgements and reactions that we are not necessarily aware of. It is only by being aware of our quick judgements that we can bring our behavior into consciousness and therefore, give it a different direction. Our System 1 typically reflects the biases inherent to the culture we live in and the media we consume, even if our System 2 would consciously reject them.

How can we know our own biases?

Instead of self-report measures (which assume conscious awareness), the staff were encouraged to find out their own biases using Harvard University’s Project Implicit. This involves a sorting task, where you must categorize both photos of people and either positive or negative adjectives. The website analyzes differences in reaction times in milliseconds and lets you know if you have biases and how strong they are. Staff were surprised to find the biases they held against those with different skin colors, sexual orientations and genders. Find out your own implicit biases here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

How can we change our biases?

In our increasing ‘curated’ online world, our sources of knowledge are funneled to match our existing preferences. Finding out where are biases lie is the most important step. Making changes to diversify the shows we watch, the websites we read, and the people we interact with, gradually adjusts our preferences in System 1, changing even our most subtle and unintentional behaviors and reactions over time.

How can we change our approach in class and in our teaching?

The syllabus is one of the key areas where we can change what we do. The training highlighted steps like representing cross-cultural sources of information in the syllabus. The staff shared ideas such as marking using student numbers instead of names, including photos of professionals who come from diverse backgrounds, managing which groups of students we stand closer to while teaching, and balancing out the amount of time given to male vs. female students when answering questions in the classroom.

Our challenge to you

Find out your own biases using the Harvard implicit project test, check your syllabus for cross-cultural references and investigate your non-verbal reactions in the classroom.