Green, clean and making particles that can’t be seen – Meet Munkhshur Myekhlai

By Koumbo Ornella

Munkhshur Myekhlai
Munkhshur Myekhlai

Why is the sky blue? Why are leaves green? Why is the sun bright? These are typical questions we expect from children about the outside world. But not Munkhshur Myekhlai; she was wondering how she could protect the environment of her country of Mongolia from mining and air pollution. Her passion for the environment led her to study chemistry at National University of Mongolia and then Australia where she is a Scientia PhD scholar and working on synthesising nanoparticles to develop clean energy sources which she may one day be able to introduce to Mongolia.

  1. What do you study at UNSW?

I am a PhD student in the School of Chemistry at UNSW. My research focuses on the synthesis of nanoparticles which can help by used to develop clean energy sources.

  1. Why did you choose to study in science?

Since I was child, I was always looking for answers. Where does rain come from? How those glasses are made? How does a television work? Naturally, this led me towards an interest in science as a way to find the answers to these questions. As I grew up, began to realize that studying science is not the only way to help me understanding the things, but it was also a way for me to help change our world in a right way.

  1. So, what kind of questions are you now trying to answer in your PhD?

I was born in Mongolia, a country rich in natural resources including precious and rare earth metals, and fossil fuels. Naturally, these resources mean there is a lot of mining in my country. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the mining industries in Mongolia are not well developed and there are no recycling systems in place for industrial waste which means the natural environment of Mongolia is under threat. So, one of my biggest goal in life became how can I help protect the environment in Mongolia?

Munkhshur's home town in Mongolia. Photo credit D. Lkhagva-Ochir
Munkhshur’s home town in Mongolia. Photo credit D. Lkhagva-Ochir

This led me to my PhD research which focuses on making nanoparticles to be used as a catalyst for clean, green energy sources. By learning how to develop green and sustainable technology during my PhD, I can return to Mongolia and drive the development and implementation of environmentally friendly mining technology.

Laboratory where Munkhshur makes her nanoparticles
Laboratory where Munkhshur makes her nanoparticles
  1. What do you love most about your PhD research?

I love the challenge of learning new skills. For example, I had to learn certain microscopic techniques to characterize the nanoparticles I have made. It is amazing when you see your particles at the atomic level. As Richard Feynman, one of the fathers of nanoparticles, once said ‘there is plenty of room at the bottom’.

  1. So, what do you like to do when you are not making nanoparticles?

I love to know more about Australian culture, and I like to enjoy the beauty of nature, specially, the beaches of Sydney are very beautiful. I also like watching movies, playing chess and working on science outreach events with younger generations.

  1. What is your advice for younger generations considering a career in science?

    Outreach event with school children
    One of Munkhshur’s outreach events with school children

If you have willpower and a dream, nothing is impossible. Follow your dreams with a science and go forward.


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Friends, Romans, Countrymen – Let’s talk Science!

By Poppy Watson

We know through surveys that many people believe that scientists should spend more time discussing their work with the public. We also know that representation of females in science is not great. But is there a way we can tackle both these issues?

Introducing Soapbox Science – a unique science-themed event where high-profile, female scientists discuss their work with anyone who will listen. The idea is simple – four ‘soapboxes’ are set up in a small central space and twelve female scientists have one hour each on one of the podiums. Members of the public can come and listen to each scientist talk about their work and ask questions or start discussions. People do not have to sign up and plan to go, they can spontaneously listen to and engage as they wander through town.

Founded in London in 2011, Soapbox Science has now spread to over 20 cities across the world. This year, it finally made its way to Sydney, taking part outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay and featuring twelve scientists from local universities discussing subject matter ranging from volcanoes to quantum mechanics to the brain.

One of the soapboxes featuring Dr Domique Tanner with the iconic Sydney Opera House in the background.


I worked as a volunteer at the event, performing a range of tasks including directing people to the event, observing how long people stayed at the event, and organizing exit questionnaires. As the first four speakers took to their podiums, I was nervous. Would anyone would come and listen? Would they stay? Would they understand?

Me trying to lure crowds

I needn’t have worried – as soon as people saw what was happening or heard the word ‘science’ they headed over to check it out. Once there, most scientists only spoke for ten minutes about their research before having the rest of the hour flow organically as new people arrived and new discussions started up.

Whilst observing with the crowd – I also learnt a lot. Not only facts about science but also about how to communicate science effectively. For the first hour I observed people near the podium of Dr. Gal Winter who talked about: “The gut microbiome: Ask not what you can do for your microbes but what they can do for YOU”. Gal used some clever tricks to make her talk fun and engage people. As people approached, she said “catch” and chucked them a bag of sand weighing 1.5 kg to illustrate how much of our body weight (approx. ~2%) is made up of microbes. This trick meant that people moved closer to catch the bag and were then hooked into the topic. Lots of people wanted to talk about probiotics (whether they are worth it), links between gut microbes and depression, and fecal transplants. At one stage Dr Winter donned a Tina Turner wig and got the crowd to sing What’s the gut got to do, got to do with it, what’s the gut but a host for a million microbes”…amazing.

Dr Gal Winter throwing bags of sand to her crowd.
Dr Lisa Williams on her soapbox.

I also learned a lot from my colleague Dr Lisa Williams from UNSW who talked about “Is the pursuit of happiness shortsighted?”. It turns out that pursuit of what makes us feel ‘happy’ is not a good strategy to wellbeing because happiness is a single, short-lived positive emotion. Instead, we should focus on a wider range of positive emotions by doing things that make us feel, for example, grateful or proud. This fascinating topic generated lots of discussions from the public on cultural differences in happiness expectations, vocabulary around emotions and whether tips given in women’s magazines are based in scientific evidence.

The people I interviewed at the end (ranging from 6 – 80 years old) said they thoroughly enjoyed the event – with all of them saying that they never or rarely attended science events and were just walking past but ended up staying to listen to all of the scientists.

So can Soapbox Science help scientists spend more time discussing their work with the public? Yes

Can Soapbox Science help improve representation of females in science? Definitely!

Will you see me on a soapbox next year? Watch this space!


Note: Soapbox Science Sydney was generously supported by UTS Faculty of Science, UTS Women in Engineering & IT, ACEMSEQUS, FLEET, POCD Scientific, Franklin WomenAustralian Science CommunicatorsNational Science Week Sydney Science Festival


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