Tag Archives: showcasing early career researchers

Early career researcher Jess Moran

Early career researchers make a big impact

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

Connecting graduates with businesses

Connecting graduates with businesses

Gaining industry experience and seeing how their research can have practical applications is important to early career researchers. Universities and industry are now working together to help provide graduates with the opportunity to work on commercial solutions for real-life problems.

Sally Bradford won the 2015 Showcasing Early Career Researchers competition, and is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Canberra. She developed an electronic mental health assessment app allowing physicians to diagnose and support their patients’ previously undisclosed issues. Bradford’s research is part of a larger collaborative project with the Young and Well CRC.

Perth-based cancer immunotherapy research group Selvax Pty Ltd has entered a commercial partnership with Curtin University. They signed a two-year contract to develop anti-cancer immunotherapy treatments in November 2015, after CEO Tony Fitzgerald saw value in Curtin Senior Research Fellow Dr Delia Nelson’s ten years of research into immunological agents.

“We want access to innovative research to make practical use of what researchers are discovering,” says Fitzgerald.

These industry partnerships aren’t new. “It’s a well-trodden path in the USA,” says Fitzgerald.

“But it’s not as common in Australia – we’re great at innovating, but not great at commercialising our work.”

Perth-based energy company Bombora Wave Power needed to know what sensors would work underwater with its unique wave energy converter (WEC), so they partnered with Edith Cowan University (ECU) through the university’s Industry and PhD Research Engagement Program, which matches Western Australian PhD candidates with industry. ECU graduate Gary Allwood researched ways of using optical fibre sensors to measure load and stress on the WEC system’s membrane.

“The partnership allowed me to do things that haven’t been done before, like use optical fibres as sensors instead of electrical sensors,” says Allwood, who will work with Bombora Wave Power to test the sensors.

There are other, similar Australian programs. CRCs offer a number of scholarships across 14 different fields of research, giving PhD students a chance to gain industry experience.

Monash University started its Graduate Research Interdisciplinary Programs (GRIPs) in early 2015, allowing PhD students to solve real-world problems through collaborative research.

The Chemicals and Plastics GRIP has 20 industry partners offering training and funding, including Dulux and 3M. One student is treating coffee grounds to create a fertiliser to improve the soil quality of agricultural land.

“This is an exciting and innovative model for postgraduate education that encourages interdisciplinary and industry-engaged practice,” says Monash University’s Vice-Provost for Graduate Education, Professor Zlatko Skrbis.

– Marisa Wikramanayake