DID you know Australia's marsupials see more colours than other animals, including humans?

Research showing same was carried out with a very special microscope.

That was one of the illustrations about the value of microscopes used by neuroscientist Professor Lyn Beazley (pictured, right) when addressing  Rotarians from the Palm Beach, Rockingham, Kwinana and Mandurah clubs at Rockingham's Ocean Clipper Inn on Monday.

Professor Beazley is WA's Australian of the Year  and we will soon know   — on Australia Day  — if she has scored the national award.

She has spent more than 30 years in the field of neuroscience, researching brain damage recovery and changing clinical practice in the treatment of infants at risk from pre-term delivery.

She was also WA's chief scientist from 2006 to 2013, advising the State Government on science, innovation and technology.

She helped set up a nationwide hotline for laboratory technicians in schools, worked for healthier waterways across the state by establishing Dolphin Watch, and was involved in the negotiations for the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope project.

On Monday she presented mini-microscopes, funded by Rotary clubs, to representatives of several local schools. 

Her whole address kept reverting back to the value of microscopes, from her first revelation about the joys of science through a microscop's eyepiece when she was an English schoolgirl.

Researchers had wondered if humans saw the same colours as birds and other animals, she said.

They examined pigment cells in the back of the eye that "jiggled" for red, green and blue light.

Primitive animals had one extra light cell, sensitive to ultra-violet, Professor Beazley said. 

Primitive mammals, which were much smaller than the dominant dinosaurs, were largely nocturnal, to escaper predation. Because of the light levels, they lived with largely green-blue vision. 

Placental mammals  lost pigment for seeing red and green. To a fighting bull, the matador's cloak is not red but blue. Red was reinstated in some mammals due to mutation of their DNA but mostly they see far fewer colours than humans.

Marsupials were different. They parted from other mammals because of their environment and its more intense light.

To test this WA researchers needed a super microscope called a microspectrophotometer.

Only five or six  existed in the world, they cost $300,000 and were beyond local scientific budgets.

One chap (whose name your scribe missed) was retiring from an Eastern States university and offered his microspectrophotometer to the WA researchers. 

All was in train, until his uni's bean counters — who didn't know how to spell the machine's name, or how it was used or for what — decided it was a valuable asset. They were not prepared to let it go.

The retiring academic got the gadget valued for his soon-to-be ex-employers — $4000 from a scrap metal merchant.

The microspectrophotometer was soon on its way west and helped prove that marsupials can see all the colours we can and more. They can see ultraviolet light and an extra band of colour on the rainbow.

Professor Beazley peppered her talk with tales of her own life.

After gaining Oxford University entrance (the first member of her family to go to uni), she applied to live at Somerville College. During her pre-admission interview for what was then an all-female hall of residence, she was asked why she chose that particular college.

"Because it was the only one with a bus stop immediately outside", Professor Beazley chuckled.

This practicality apparently impressed the interview panel and she was in. 

Her choice could not have been better. Though she did not know it at the time, Somerville was "a strong science college".

Her interest in neuroscience was sparked after she completed her zoology degree. She attended an evening lecture with a boyfriend she wanted to impress and heard a doctor talk about his efforts to help people with brain and spinal cord injuries.

It sparked her imagination and she continued to Edinburgh to do her doctorate, minus that influential boyfriend.

Later she married (not that boyfriend) and emigrated to WA with her husband and first young child. She was so grateful she had, for lifestyle and career opportunity.

She has lived in Mandurah for many years and worked with schools in Kwinana and interacted with Rockingham schools, she said.

Professor Beazley has spent more than 30 years in the field of neuroscience, researching brain damage recovery and changing clinical practice in the treatment of infants at risk from pre-term delivery. Some of her work has had a later direct benefit for her own family.

She was studying how to regrow nerves after injury and a colleague, John Newman (Neumann?) was working with premature babies at King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women.

Preterm birth is associated with health and developmental problems including cerebral palsy, lung and gastrointestinal problems, and vision and hearing loss. These problems being most likely to occur in preterm infants with an extremely low birth weight.

It was known damage nerve damage in children and adults could be treated with anti-inflammatory cortico-steroids. 

The researchers started treating premature infants and those at risk in utero, by administering these drugs to their mothers. One woman had 22 treatments while pregnant.

They found the appropriate levels to allow the lungs to mature without endangering the baby.

"This is now standard practice around the world, they have all adopted the levels we recommended," Professor Beazley said.

"More personally, six years ago, on Easter Thursday, we got the message my daughter had gone into premature labour at 27 weeks.

"Seven doctors were waiting for her."

Professor Beazley scrambled and got to the hospital in time for the birth. 

 "My daughter grabbed my hand and said 'Mum, do you think they have read your papers?'," Professor Beazley said.

She reassured her and all was well. "How happy am I to have done research that helped my grand-daughter!"