Lauren O'Keefe

Journalist | Photographer | Cyclist

Author: Lauren (page 1 of 3)

Protecting Australia’s water ways

It’s not something that most people would ever think about – what happens when water is pulled out by irrigators all along the Murray Darling Basin? What else is getting caught when the pumps are turned on?

Dr Lee Baumgartner
Photo: Charles Sturt University

It’s something that Dr Lee Baumgartner has thought about. He believes millions of fish are sucked out of rivers by irrigation pumps every year.

“We’ve estimated as part of some work we’ve done that 87 million fish are sucked out every year across the whole Murray Darling Basin,” he said.

Dr Baumgartner is a researcher at the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University in Albury and an avowed “fisho” who wants to save as much river wildlife as he can.

It’s not just fish and wildlife being sucked up by irrigation pumps.

Anything that is close to the intake when the pump is switched on will get pulled in and this includes gum nuts, sticks, bark, leaves and weeds – all of which have the potential to clog the intake and break the pump.

The solution seems obvious – screen the irrigation pump intakes.

Unfortunately Dr Baumgartner and his team met with high levels of doubt when they approached farmers.

“They said it’s going to be harder for us to clean the screens then to actually go and clean the jets on our irrigation system,” he said.

“They were bit worried they’d have to jump in the river and brush all these gum nuts and fish off the screen.”

After much scepticism and dismissal of their idea, Dr Baumgartner applied for a Global Connections Grant.

“We used the Global Connections funds to build a prototype that was going to help us demonstrate to the market that these actually have a practical application,” Dr Baumgartner said.

The prototype screen is been designed to have water constantly flowing over it, which doesn’t allow debris to settle on the screen. This ensures it’s self-cleaning – which means no jumping in the river for farmers.

“Every pump we can get a screen on, every diversion we get a screen on saves about 12 to 25 thousand fish per year which is a good outcome,” he said.

Dr Baumgartner and his team are currently in the process of proving the environmental and financial benefits of their screen and are seeing positive results.

Building the prototype and proving their screen will work has led to relationship with AWMA Solutions, one of the biggest irrigation supplies in Australia.

The relationship has flourished, with AWMA Solutions investing their own capital to build a huge outdoor lab for testing.

From small beginnings with a Global Connections grant, Dr Baumgartner and his team may have come up with way to protect river wildlife, save farmers money and potentially kick-start a new manufacturing sector in Australia.

Profile of Dr Baumgartner written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Tapping into graphene’s potential

According to many, graphene is the material of the future with unlimited potential to change the world.

Head of Research and Development at Imagine Intelligent Materials, Phil Aitchison, is quick to counter the hyperbole, noting that some of what is said and written about graphene is nonsense.

However, he believes that it does have enormous potential.

“The real miracle of graphene is that you can do these things that can be done otherwise but graphene can do better,” Mr Aitchison said.

“You can do things that were extremely difficult before and very expensive to do.”

Imagine Intelligent Materials have already successfully introduced graphene to Australia’s mining industry where it used as a sensor to track the movement of trucks on the mine’s roads. Another use is in irrigation where it has been used to reduce water wastage by detecting leaks in channels.

But Mr Aitchison’s big vision is to make every surface a sensing surface, able to provide feedback on what’s happening to the object the graphene has been applied to.

One example to immediately leap to mind is roads. Graphene could be added as a layer during the road’s construction and, once complete, it would be able to provide data on how much it’s being used and how it’s faring.

“In our factory in Geelong we built a bitumen road. We put [the graphene] into the road base and we could tell the difference between a child and a truck,” he said.

Another area of interest is structural health monitoring. The technology is in its infancy but Mr Aitchison believes that their technology could predict events like what happened at Opal Tower and Mascot Towers in Sydney.

“What we’ve done in the lab is we’ve taken a piece of concrete, coated it one side. The concrete moves, expands, bends and we can measure that,” he said.

With this technology only just beginning, Mr Aitchison used a Global Connections Grant to approach world-leading polymer and geotechnical experts at the University of Oklahoma to discover the full potential of graphene.

“These grants are great because it’s fast and easy. They’re not big, but they start a relationship which may or may not continue,” he said.

“But the alternative is everybody spends a huge amount of time and effort building up this big process to get something and it doesn’t happen. And then it all just falls by the wayside.”

For Imagine Intelligent Materials, it hasn’t fallen by the wayside.

The grant provided them with the opportunity to establish a relationship with some of the best polymer and geotechnical experts in the world which can only help the company succeed in its quest to be a world leader in graphene technology.

Profile of Mr Aitchison written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Discovering the future of medicine

With more and more bacterial infections becoming drug resistant, questions are being asked about how medicine will treat these illnesses in the future.

Dr Mark Blaskovich
Photo: The University of Queensland

Dr Mark Blaskovich and his team of researchers at Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland believes they could have a potential answer.

Their research focuses on using antibodies to selectively diagnose and treat bacterial infections.

Dr Blaskovich explained the new approach is like using a targeted missile to treat an infection instead of the traditional method of broad-spectrum antibiotics which is more akin to carpet bombing.

The technique allows for a high concentration of antibiotics to be delivered to a specific cell type – in this case the bacteria causing the infection – which kills it, curing the patient.

“What we were looking to do was to attach a payload to antibodies that would contain something known to be toxic to the bacteria so an antibiotic is the most obvious choice,” he said.

The method would have the benefits of reducing a patient’s exposure to the antibiotic and lowering the possibility of side effects or complications, including damage to helpful bacteria living in a patient.

Dr Blaskovich believes the technique could also be used to diagnose bacterial infections much more quickly than current testing which can take 24 hours or longer to confirm a diagnosis.

“With the advances in diagnostics, within probably five years, hopefully there will be a pathway where you can rapidly sample the infection and tell that it is, for example, a pseudomonas as opposed to e-coli and then use the bacterial specific treatment if that’s been developed in parallel,” he said.

He envisages that the tests could be rolled out to medical clinics and used by GPs to rule out bacterial infections and help them break the bad news that the patient has a cold or the flu, for which antibiotics are useless but often prescribed.

With the help of a Global Connections Fund bridging grant, Dr Blaskovich partnered with Visterra, a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts who specialise in using antibody therapy to treat a variety of diseases, including cancer.

The project had reached test tube proof of concept stage and was showing positive results when Visterra was bought by Otsuka Pharmaceutical, a Japanese global healthcare company in September 2018.

Unfortunately for Dr Blaskovich, the new owners of Visterra decided to discontinue research into several projects including theirs.

He is hopeful the company will send the project data and the actual antibodies to his team’s research facilities at The University of Queensland.

Once returned, Dr Blaskovich believes his team would be able to advance the work enough to apply for other research grants or attract the interest of another research collaborator who could take the work in a different direction.

“One of the things we were trying to do with this collaboration was come up with a new and better way of selectively targeting the bacteria,” he said.

“There’s so much room and scope for developing different variations of how it’s done. Because this is all very early stage research, there’s no guarantee as to which approach is going to be successful.

Profile of Dr Blaskovich written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.

Butt out, don’t flick out

The CFA and Environment Protection Authority are calling on smokers to not flick their cigarettes, especially from car windows.

With the fire danger period for North Eastern Victoria expected to continue into May, the CFA and EPA are asking that people think about how they’re disposing of their cigarette butts.

Many fires in Victoria are caused by discarded lit cigarette butts and EPA North East Region manager Emma Knights is hoping people will continue to report others who flick their butts out of car window.

‘‘EPA counts on members of the public to report people who flick their butts out of car windows,’’ Ms Knights said.

‘Flicking lit cigarettes out your car window is a serious fire hazard, as recent fire tragedies across our state have shown.

‘‘And cigarette butt litter pollutes our roadsides and chokes our waterways.’’

Some of Victoria’s worst bushfires were sparked by discarded cigarettes and the CFA regularly attends fire caused by people who have flicked their butt away when they’ve finished their cigarette.

Mr Warrington said more than half of Victorian bushfires are deliberately lit or caused by reckless behaviour.

‘‘One of the most common causes is inappropriately disposing of cigarette butts,’’ he said.

‘‘Recklessly caused fires are often viewed by the community as accidental, but in reality, the potential for injury, loss of life, property damage and drain on resources is the same as that caused by arson.’’

The EPA handed out more than $5million in fines to Victorians for throwing away litter from their cars with the majority being cigarette butts.

Ms Knights said that EPA’s litter reporting program works to curb cigarette butt littering, with fines and enforcement actions undertaken through the courts ‘‘sending a clear message that this kind of mindless behaviour will have real consequences’’.

EPA litter fines range from $322 for a small piece of rubbish or unlit cigarette up to $645 for a lit cigarette.

Individuals issued with a litter fine have the right to request that EPA review the matter or to have it determined in court.

People can report littering via EPA’s website, through its smartphone litter app, or by phoning 1300 372 842.

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on March 20 2019.

Avenel fire brought under control

The fire at Tarcombe Rd near Avenel which was started by lightning strikes on March 1 is now under control.

Difficult terrain restricted the firefighting efforts against the blaze near Booroola Homestead.

Although under control and well within containment lines, the fire is still an ongoing concern for the CFA who remain onsite.

It’s estimated that the fire has destroyed 220ha of dense scrub which includes stringybark eucalyptus trees and tea trees.

When clumps of tea trees catch fire, they can send flames three or four metres up into the air.

Firefighters set up containment lines around the fire but were restricted in their firefighting efforts because of the steep, rocky terrain.

CFA crews are on the ground night and day, constantly monitoring the fire.

Incident controller Peter Bell said aircraft were used to water-bomb the fire.

‘‘[The terrain] is all mountain range, rocks, boulders and the like that can’t be driven across so we’re fighting it with aircraft and tankers up close where we can,’’ he said.

‘‘We have aircraft fly across it each day to find out all the hot spots so we can try and water-bomb those.’’

The fire has been burning in deep valleys that run in a north/south direction with limited drivable tracks which made it hard to access the fire.

‘‘Because we can’t get into the actual fire because of the hilly and steep terrain, we’ve got to let it burn out to the control lines which is sometimes putting up a lot of smoke which you’ll be seeing across the district,’’ Mr Bell said.

Unlike the Bunyip State Park fire which has destroyed over 30 houses and nearly 70 outbuildings, no structures have been lost as the area is sparsely populated.

The fire did come extremely close to the vineyard at Booroola Homestead where picking is under way but firefighters successfully defended the vines and none were damaged.

Mr Bell said that there was no danger to the public or any structures.

Due to the terrain, Mr Bell said what they really need is rain to give the site a good soaking but at the moment there’s little forecast.

One of the bigger concerns now is air quality with VicEmergency issuing a statewide warning for the Labour Day long weekend.

This was due to smoke from the various fires combining and drifting across the state.

People can connect to multiple sources for emergency information, including the VicEmergency app, the VicEmergency hotline on 1800 226 226, or follow VicEmergency on Facebook and Twitter.

For information about the effects of smoke on health go to or for more information on air quality visit EPA’s website at

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on March 13, 2019.

Practising law, her way

Jacqui Brauman wants to change the law profession.

Jacqui Brauman, owner of TBA Law and its principal solicitor.
Photo: TBA Law.

Ms Brauman first qualified as a solicitor while working at Tehan George & Co in Seymour but then moved to Wagga and then to Sydney for several years with her husband who is in the military.

In 2012, fate brought her back to the Seymour region and she bought Rod Theobald’s practice, determined to find a different way to practice law after a particularly disturbing experience in Sydney.

‘‘I had a horrendous experience with my last employer in Sydney,’’ Ms Brauman said.

‘‘Discrimination, sexual harassment. I even got physically hit once by my boss. That compelled me to work for myself because I wanted to be in control of my environment and I want it to be safe. And I wanted women who I brought into the workforce to also be safe.’’

The experience of being slapped across the face by the general manager in the middle of heated discussion is a central motivating factor behind why Ms Brauman has set up her law firm, TBA Law, the way she has.

Starting with herself and one support staff member, she has grown the firm to 10 employees and all of the solicitors who work at TBA Law are women.

Ms Brauman said that was intentional.

‘‘I only have female solicitors working for me. I’ve got a couple of male support staff and that’s been conscious,’’ she said.

‘‘I really tried to flip the model a little bit because traditionally it’s been male partners, maybe some female associates and then female support staff. But no, my firm’s going to be females solicitors.

‘‘My first and foremost goal was to have a safe environment for myself. So when I’m bringing other junior staff members and mentoring them, I want them to have a safe experience in legal industry and I want to protect them to some degree from what it can be like.

‘‘Obviously they’re still exposed to other solicitors in other firms on other sides of matters and I can’t protect them completely.’’

She said she had hired one or two male solicitors but they elected to move on voluntarily when they realised they didn’t fit with the culture of the firm.

Ms Brauman wants to change the way it has become acceptable for opposing lawyers to attack each other in an attempt to win their cases.

‘‘Some people think that just because it’s adversarial, it’s alright to attack people personally. It’s not okay and you don’t tear someone down professionally just to achieve a result for a client.’’

After her experiences, Ms Brauman wants to make TBA Law a safe place for young lawyers who are entering the profession and to show them the law doesn’t have to be an aggressive, win-at-all-costs environment.

She doesn’t regret starting her law firm even though it’s a six-day-a-week job at the moment and encourages any woman who’s thinking about starting their own business to do it and to seek out other like-minded women as she has done.

‘‘I would say find a good network of other business women. I think that’s made the biggest difference for me because it’s a safe place to share things and get ideas,’’ she said.

She belongs to a variety of female-only professional groups including Her Business (formerly called the Australian Business Women’s Network) and WOW Women in Shepparton which allows her to float ideas and spend time with other like-minded women.

As for the female business leaders of the future, Ms Brauman believes that someone’s first career choice doesn’t have to be their last.

‘‘The first degree you do doesn’t have to be the last or the only profession that you follow. I really hate that the school system says you have to do so well in VCE and then know what you want to do for the rest of your life from there,’’ she said.

‘‘I think they should know that you can go back to uni, you can go back any time. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you to make a decision about what you want to do.’’

This article was originally published in the Seymour Telegraph, March 6 2019.

Cooking up a career

Peta Crowl was stuck living in a shed with her baby son when she decided she had to do something.

Ms Crowl with some of her delicious wares.

Before finding herself in the shed, she was the only female beer plumber in Australia and had been running a successful business in Port Macquarie.

But when life got complicated, she decided to leave her business and move to Melbourne.

‘‘I went from being a beer plumber, earning great money, $85 a hour to pretty much having nothing,’’ she said.

On one of those days when she was stuck at home she stumbled across Cupcake Wars on television.

She was fascinated and decided that she would try her hand at baking, even though she had never baked anything in her life.

For five years she baked cupcakes at home and did whatever she could to sell them.

‘I was baking at home, walking the streets, sitting on the side of the freeway, walking into shops. Doing some really crazy stuff just to try and get back into the business world,’’ she said.

‘‘I thought I needed to do something for myself because no one else was going to.’’

Ms Crowl eventually found full-time work at the Cheesecake Factory in Epping, moving quickly from the front counter to the kitchen out the back.

She became their head baker and spent the time learning as much as she could about running that sort of business.

She said the work was extremely tough but it helped her enormously.

‘‘While I was working there, my eyes were wide open, I was watching everything, learning. I was just a sponge, absorbing everything. It taught me to be quicker because you had to multi-task and being the baker you might have 30 cakes in the oven; you’ve got a mix on that’s got 30 in it and you’re preparing the next batch and you’re putting cakes away as well that you’ve baked. So it was all multi-tasking and you had to work very hard.’’

Ms Crowl’s dream was to open her own cupcake and cake shop and a year ago she did just that.

The journey has been a tough one and she freely admits that she’s made plenty of mistakes along the way.

She has found a mentor in Cynthia Lim from Blue Tongue Berries.

‘‘She knew I was looking and I was trying different things. And one day she goes ‘here, what do you want help with?’ She wants me to strive and succeed. It’s been really good,’’ Ms Crowl said.

She is also an advocate of women educating themselves and backing themselves.

‘‘Make sure you research, research, research and just go for it. If you’ve got a dream, go for it. You can really do whatever you want if you set your mind to it, I really believe that,’’ she said.

‘‘Go and do a small business course. I did one even though I had a lot of experience in accounting.

‘‘There’s lots of short courses to help you along the way. Find a good friend in the industry that will help you and you can go to for advice.’’

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on March 6 2019

Casual flick was a disaster

Fire destroyed two sheds on Monash Drive in Seymour last Thursday.

It’s believed the fire was started by a discarded cigarette that had been flicked into grass at the back of a property.

Emergency services were quickly on the scene and no one was harmed in the fire.

A shocked but calm Melissa Smith told The Telegraph that she and her two daughters were next door visiting her mother, Dianne Ginn, when she went out the back to smoke a cigarette.

When finished, she flicked the cigarette away and went back inside.

At first, no one in the house realised anything was amiss until Ms Smith thought she could hear a tap running.

Thinking it was her younger daughter playing with the taps in the kitchen, she went to check and was horrified when she looked out the back door to see the backyard on fire.

The grass in the backyard had caught alight and the fire quickly spread to her mother’s storage shed and to the one on Ms Smith’s property.

Ms Smith was shocked at how fast the fire caught hold and said she ‘‘couldn’t believe how quickly it went’’.

Ms Smith’s older daughter, Brittney, had just done a load of washing which was hanging on the backyard’s clothesline to dry.

The clothesline and the clothes were destroyed in the fire.

Once the family realised they couldn’t put the fire out with their hose, they ran up the street to escape the smoke.

Country Fire Authority operations officer Peter Bell said the fire hadn’t reached the homes but smoke had got into Ms Ginn’s house.

Mr Bell confirmed the fire destroyed both sheds, a clothesline and a couple of trees.

‘‘There was a report of a smoke sighting at 2.06pm today which turned out to be a couple of storage sheds in the backyards of houses, a couple of tree and grass that caught on fire. The grass was fairly long in the backyard where the fire started,’’ he said.

‘‘Both the sheds have been full of the person’s belongings which have been destroyed.’’

Police, Ambulance Victoria and the fire brigade all attended the scene as well as AusNet Services in case the power needed to be cut.

The properties are owned by the Department of Health and Human Services and representatives from the department quickly arrived to help the family and assess the damage to the properties.

Mr Bell said the firefighters were hampered in their efforts by the locked and very full sheds.

‘‘It’s created a lot of hassles for the firefighters in the storage sheds, pulling all the belongings out to douse the fire,’’ he said.

Ms Smith could only say ‘‘never do it, never flick your cigarette’’.

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on March 6 2019.

Residents pressured to sign up for NBN by robocallers

Unscrupulous retailers are cold-calling residents in Seymour and telling them their phones will be disconnected within 24 hours because of the switch over to NBN.

While it’s not illegal for these retailers to call potential customers, Greg Maher from Seymour Technology believes the calls are exploiting vulnerable people in the community.

‘‘People are getting phone calls saying that they’ll be switched off if they don’t act in the next 24 hours and that they need to sign up with them [the retailer] then and there,’’ Mr Maher said.

‘‘It’s scare tactics they’re using so that they can get the job or the hook-up for them.’’

Calls are coming from an automated voice which prompts whoever has answered the phone to push ‘one’ to talk to someone about NBN.

Other calls are coming from call centres who then tell the resident that their phone will be disconnected within 24 hours if they don’t switch to NBN immediately.

Mrs Ure, pictured here at her home, is concerned for vulnerable residents in Seymour who could be taken in by the persistent calls.

Longtime Seymour resident Faye Ure, who is 85, has received multiple calls from a robocaller.

At first she thought the voice was a real person but soon realised it was a robocall and hung up.

‘‘It was a programmed voice, it wasn’t anyone speaking. A good Australian accent saying ‘we’re calling from the NBN, about your national broadband’,’’ Mrs Ure said.

Mrs Ure is already on NBN as her son Andrew organised it for her and all notifications about her service go to her mobile phone.

While Mrs Ure simply hangs up on the calls, she’s concerned about other people who could be taken in.

‘‘If someone in town, an older person got called and when it says press one they do that, what do you lose? That’s where I’m cautious,’’ she said.

Mr Maher has had a few people come in to the store who have been conned into signing up for an NBN plan without really understanding what they’re getting.

They then assume because Seymour Technology is the local authorised Telstra provider, the business will know what’s going on.

‘‘A couple of people have come in, they’ve already signed up and don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into,’’ he said.

‘‘We can only look after the ones that we do. We had someone in earlier this week and she was saying, ‘oh, the NBN is going to be switched on today. What plan am I going to be on?’ I wasn’t part of that conversation, I didn’t hear what you said you wanted to go on.’’

Mr Maher said that Telstra and the other major broadband providers won’t cold-call residents and they had been sending out letters to customers advising them of what was happening.

The calls are coming from either telemarketers looking to secure a sale or scammers trying to steal personal and banking details.

He said that if people wanted to protect themselves from being ripped off, they would be better off visiting a store who is an authorised NBN provider.

‘‘Bottom line — go into a store, especially where you know the people. Do it face to face and hopefully you’ll be more comfortable and more understanding of what you’re actually getting yourself into rather than over the phone,’’ Mr Maher said.

He also urged people to not wait too much longer to organise their move to NBN as the old copper exchange will be switched off on April 12 and anyone who hasn’t moved over will have their phone cut off.

‘‘The last thing we really want is people coming in after the 12th saying ‘ah, my phone’s been cut off’. Once it’s been cut off, it’s going to be a quagmire because it goes into quarantine. Can we get that number back for them? Probably after about two or three hours of work and that’s not something we really want to have to do when it can be averted.’’

Mr Maher and his staff are encouraging all Seymour residents to act sooner rather than later.

‘‘Make sure you’re sorted before the end of March. The contractors can only do so many in a day before they move onto the next area after April 12.’’

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on February 27 2019.

All aboard extra train services

Seymour and Shepparton are getting new train services.

Regional Development Minister Jaclyn Symes was in Nagambie last week to announce that from April 1 there will be two new daily train services on the Shepparton line, meaning extra trains for Nagambie and the other stops between Seymour and Shepparton.

Regional Development Minister Jaclyn Symes, Regional Rail Revival director Mark Havryluk and V/Line chief executive officer James Pinder were in Nagambie for the announcement.

In the timetable change, the early morning service which currently terminates at Seymour will be extended to Shepparton.

This is due to the completion of track works and train stabling upgrades in Shepparton.

Ms Symes said the new service was the first part of delivering on the Andrews Government promise to provide more train services along the Shepparton line.

‘‘Local passengers have been calling out for more train services and we’re delivering exactly that, giving people more choice when they travel,’’ Ms Symes said.

Also in attendance was V/Line chief executive officer James Pinder who said the train was scheduled to arrive in Shepparton at around 8.45am, making it possible for commuters in smaller towns to catch the train to work in Shepparton instead of driving.

The train will make a return trip to Melbourne mid-morning, significantly reducing the six-hour wait between trains that currently exists for passengers on the Shepparton line.

Ms Symes also announced a new afternoon train service from Melbourne to Seymour will be added to the timetable from April 1.

The new service to Seymour will leave Melbourne at around 4pm.

Mr Pinder said the new train to Seymour will stop at all stations along the route, giving workers who opt for an early start to their day another option for getting home.

New timetables will be available from March 1, a month before the new services start.

Preliminary work has begun for stage two of the Shepparton Line upgrade to allow V/Locity trains on the line for the first time.

During the next few weeks, work crews will dig 22 test pits and drill six bore-holes between Shepparton and Nagambie to conduct soil tests and to gain a better understanding of the ground conditions in the area.

An assessment of the train line between Seymour and Shepparton has also been conducted by specialists in January and February.

They walked more than 80km of the train line to document the general condition of the track and to check on the condition of the sleepers and ballast.

The preliminary work being conducted will help inform the design and construction of stage two which includes level crossing upgrades, signalling and track upgrades and platform extensions.

‘‘With the next stage of works now progressing, passengers have even more to look forward to, with more modern trains and more reliable journeys on the way,’’ Ms Symes said.

It’s estimated the line upgrade and the addition of V/Locity trains will cut 20 minutes from the trip between Melbourne and Shepparton.

The Shepparton Line upgrade is part of the Regional Rail Revival program which is upgrading every regional train line in Victoria.

This article was first published in the Seymour Telegraph on February 20 2019.

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