Early career researchers make a big impact

June 10, 2020

From bee breathalysers that detect disease to AI chatbots battling body image disorders, these early career researchers are thinking big.

Early career researcher Jess Moran

Five early career researchers are vying for $10,000 in prize money thanks to CQUniversity and the Co-operative Research Centre Association (CRC Association). The finalists’ fields range from using Artificial Intelligence in mental health to peer pressuring stem cells to become brain cells and creating a beehive “breathalyser” for disease detection.

The five early career researcher finalists were selected from submissions that came from 25 CRCs and the 30 universities that are supporting members of the CRC Association. They are: Dr Kiara Bruggeman, Australian National University; Jessica Moran, CRC for Honey Bee Products; Dr Gemma Sharp, Monash University; Dr Ben Sinclair, Monash University and Dr Julia Stone, CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity.

Judges agreed the quality of the submissions was very high this year, and the selected finalists especially stood out by communicating their science, its impact, and their role in delivering it.

Read more: Celebrating 30 years of CRC success

Bee breathalysers sniffs out disease

Jessica Moran is investigating the smell of the honey bee disease American foulbrood in order to create a “beehive breathalyser” that can non-invasively diagnose sick hives.

“We’re currently starting to develop the sensors, but we’re optimistic that the beehive breathalyser will be commercially available within the next five years. Our device will help safeguard Australia’s honey bee industry: by allowing beekeepers to rapidly screen hives for disease, outbreaks will be detected earlier, preventing severe losses in production and revenue,” says Moran.

“In particular, this device will be used to prevent diseased hives from entering pollination sites, protecting the pollination services that are estimated to be valued at $14 billion annually in Australia.”

AI helps to address eating disorders

Early career researcher Gemma Sharp is leading a team working on a novel conversational agent or “chatbot” which uses artificial intelligence technology to provide therapeutic support to people with body image concerns and also to their concerned loved ones.

“Negative body image is a major risk factor for a number of mental health issues most notably eating disorders, the most fatal of all mental disorders,” says Sharp.

“There are 1 million Australians living with an eating disorder and less than 25% of these will receive treatment or support. The chabot aims to fill this gap by preventing and intervening in the development of negative body image and eating disorders.”

Early career researcher Dr Gemma Sharp is using chatbots to provide therapeutic support to people with body image concerns and their families.

Writing a winning application

Sharp says the award application was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the “big picture” impacts of her research and articulating this information in an accessible way.

“It was a very challenging but rewarding exercise”, adds Sharp, who collaborates with The Butterfly Foundation and AI company Proxima as well as Swinburne University of Technology and Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre. 

“There are not enough mental health practitioners in Australia to meet the high demand for services and so online tools like chatbots could be very helpful in meeting these needs.” Watch Gemma Sharp’s 30 second video here.

Moran, who collaborates with AgriFutures Australia and the state bee biosecurity officers to field-test the sensor, says doing the Early Career Researcher award application made her re-think the language she uses to describe her project to the public.

“The exercise has really improved my skills and the way I think about science communication. I would really like to research other bee diseases, particularly those exotic to Western Australia, and create beehive breathalyser-type tools for them too.” Watch Jessica Moran’s video here.

Each finalist receives $1,000. The winner, chosen by popular vote on Jun 24 2020, receives an additional $5,000. Register to watch or vote here.

Read more: University Science delivering water innovation

Wearable sensors track body clock

Monitoring individual body clock time through wearable sensors will provide huge benefits in personalised medicine, says Dr Julia Stone, from the CRC for Alertness, Safety and Productivity, another early career researcher finalist.

“Cancer treatment outcomes can differ depending on the time they are given in terms of an individual’s body clock. However, it is really hard to know what time it is for each individual’s body clock, and that is what my research is trying to solve,” says Dr Stone.

“Similarly, we could use this technology to develop personalised approaches for managing body clock disruption experienced by shift workers. Light interventions can help people adapt better to their night shift schedule, however if they are timed incorrectly, they can actually make things worse.

“Being able to monitor body clock time using wearable technologies would have a huge impact in both of these scenarios, and potentially many more.”

Early career researcher Dr Julia Stone
Early career researcher Dr Julia Stone is investigating wearable tech in the personalised medicine space.

– Heather Catchpole

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One thought on “Collaborate or crumble”

  1. Business gets 100% the financial benefits, business should pay 100% of the costs. If business thinks R&D doesn’t pay, don’t do it.

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