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The NYSF kick-started Michael Valceski's STEM journey, leading to a mission to cure brain cancer. Taking all the opportunities he could, Michael reflects on his journey from Canberra NYSF to working on brain cancer treatment at the Australian Synchrotron.

Michael's STEM journey is full of taking opportunities and following his passions, and he encourages future NYSF students to do the same. 

"Beginning in 2013 with sponsorship from the Wollongong Rotary Club, I attended the NYSF in Session C of 2014, right before I returned to school to finish Year 12 and complete my HSC later that year. I had the great fortune of being supported by my teachers (whose dedication and teaching styles I still fondly remember to this day) and my family in applying.

Coming from a public school background, where classes in sciences like physics and chemistry weren’t the largest (although still popular amongst us science kids), getting to represent my school at a national forum like NYSF was an amazing opportunity to do my part for the school, and for myself.

Attending NYSF was a life-changing experience, notably in building my self-confidence and inspiring me to pursue my future career.

We stayed for two weeks at Burgmann College, at the Australian National University (ANU) campus in Canberra, having meals together every day and playing card games at night before bed.

Before NYSF, I was typically shy and preferred to keep to my friends or focus on my studies. NYSF changed that for me, with its constant group chants, social events, and workshops and exercises to build our confidence.

I learned both how to communicate and speak confidently in public, and build a network to connect with many other equally nervous, yet excited, ‘NYSF’ers’. The chants, in particular, were the most fun, designed to break the ice and get us excited on every bus trip (the bus drivers loved ferrying us NYSF kids around Canberra). Plus, we got to chant baby shark before it was cool (or a meme)!

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NYSF, Session C, 2014. (Michael in front row on the right.)

Some highlights of NYSF included visiting Parliament House for a tour and meeting the Chief Scientist of Australia at the time, Prof Ian Chubb. We also attended social events and dinners. My group even had the opportunity to dig up fossils at a nearby site and keep them to take home. We visited the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex to learn about Australia’s space exploration efforts!

In short, NYSF was a joyous fortnight of learning, where we all attained new skills, new experiences and a new outlook on our lives and futures.

After NYSF, another opportunity came my way by mid-year. I attended one of the international events following NYSF: the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF). Along with nine other young Australians, we had the unique opportunity to both represent Australia and experience life in Britain for two weeks at this exciting international forum, with hundreds of students attending from over 70 countries!

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Australia’s 2014 LIYSF students. (Michael in back row on the right.)

Inspired by NYSF, I applied for university and chose to pursue a career in science to embrace my love of problem-solving. As a Wollongong local, I chose to attend my local university: the University of Wollongong (UOW), both for its close location, and the modern, high-quality science facilities and teaching labs. Plus, UOW has a beautiful, open, green campus, and a great reputation in physical sciences and engineering.

In 2015, I began my undergraduate degree in Medical and Radiation Physics at UOW’s School of Physics. I realise now in hindsight that this degree was the perfect choice for me; combining my love of problem-solving in physics and math, with dabbling in the biology and chemistry of human anatomy and physiology, and basic medicine. (Medical Physics is the field that qualifies medical professionals to take x-ray CT and MRI scans, and deliver radiation treatments for cancer patients.)

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Michael at UOW’s EIS Faculty Ball (Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences (EIS), UOW), 2018.

Along the way, I met great new friends, expanded my network of connections, and learned all the skills I needed to become a scientist. I joined the UOW Physics Society, a student-run social club famous for its liquid nitrogen ice cream, and served as an Executive for 3.5 years.

My degree naturally opened the door to scientific research. I first began my career as a researcher in 2017, as part of the Targeted Nano-Therapies Theme of the Centre for Medical Radiation Physics, a major research institute in the UOW School of Physics. Here (and to this day), I focused on the use of novel nano-medicine for enhancing radiation therapies in the treatment of cancer.

Following my graduation, I decided to continue my path into science and apply to enrol in a postgraduate degree: a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Since then, I have spent my time researching and developing novel treatments for brain cancer, combining nanotherapy (nano-medicine) and chemotherapeutic drugs, with both tried and tested, and new radiation therapy techniques. This includes the use of precise beams of high-speed x-rays at the Australian Synchrotron, in both the laboratory and in pre-clinical trials. As we continue with our research into this new decade, my team and I work hard every day to achieve our dream of developing an effective treatment for brain cancer with the hopes of one day, potentially, curing cancer itself.

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(The Targeted Nano-Therapies (TNT) and Microbeam Radiation Therapy (MRT) Themes of the CMRP at UOW, Wollongong (NSW), at the Australian Synchrotron, Clayton, Melbourne (VIC), in 2019. Michael (front, second from right) is part of the TNT Theme of the CMRP.

Of course, PhD may be scientific, but it’s not all research. Along the way, I have continued my involvement with the UOW Physics Society, and even more so, discovered my love of teaching. I teach both physics and engineering at University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, and physics and math at UOW College Australia.

So that’s my story, and my career as it stands today.

To future NYSF students, I would like to give some advice. Don’t worry too much about your HSC marks, your grades, your ATAR results; you will all do just fine (trust me, I know). So long as you have the passion and the courage to do what you love, you will always find a way to succeed; and the more you do it and practice your craft, the easier it gets! Never let an opportunity pass by and never be afraid to learn something new; you will always regret more the things you didn’t do than that which you did.

I would best describe university as a lesson in maturity and perseverance; no matter what you do, you have to keep trying until you succeed. Don’t ever give up, and if you ever feel otherwise, then remember something Winston Churchill once said: “if you’re going through hell, keep going”, because that’s the only way you come out on the other side.

When you enrol in university, choose a course you think you will enjoy; if you don’t, you can always change and take with you all the skills you learnt. Remember, it’s not a race to finish first; take your time and learn as much as you can. You are best placed going at your own pace and don’t be afraid to rely on your new friends and peers either, since you will all be in the same boat.

So good luck to you all, and I hope you have a great time at NYSF and beyond."