Justin Yerbury in the lab, January 2020.

Australia Day honours for Professor Justin Yerbury

Australia Day honours for Professor Justin Yerbury

Outstanding scientist receives Order of Australia for contribution to MND research and advocacy

Molecular biologist Professor Justin Yerbury has been named as a recipient of an Order of Australia Award (AM) on the 2020 Australia Day Honours List, announced on Sunday 26 January.

A Professorial Fellow in Neurodegenerative Disease at the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI), Professor Yerbury has earned a reputation as an international leader in Motor Neurone Disease (MND) research.

His achievements in researching the causes and treatment of MND, and his tireless advocacy for those living with MND, are made even more remarkable in the context that he himself is living with MND, leaving him paralysed, unable to speak, and unable to breathe independently.

Professor Yerbury said he was honoured to receive the recognition.

“The award to me is recognition of the hard work I have put in over the last few years. It is also a reflection of the amazing efforts of those that make it possible like my wife Rachel, my family and my research team.”

Professor Yerbury initially studied business, graduating from UOW with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1995 before going on to play professional basketball for the Illawarra Hawks, competing in the National Basketball League in 1995 and 1996.

However, following the diagnosis and deaths of several family members from MND, Professor Yerbury gave up his professional sporting career to return to UOW to study science in an attempt to understand the disease. He attained his Bachelor of Science with 1st Class Honours in 2004 and completed his PhD at UOW in 2008.

In May 2016, Professor Yerbury was diagnosed with MND. Most cases of MND occur randomly but 10 per cent of cases are inherited, as in Justin’s family.

In January 2018, Professor Yerbury underwent a tracheostomy and laryngectomy. The decision to undergo surgery extended Justin’s life expectancy and enabled him to return to his research into MND at IHMRI.

“This surgery may prolong my life by years, even decades, but the MND will continue to progress,” Professor Yerbury said.

Professor Yerbury now speaks with a computerised voice using a software program that converts words generated through eye-gazing technology. It’s the same technology was used by Stephen Hawking before his death in March 2018. Professor Yerbury and his family had visited Professor Hawking in Cambridge. Before his death, Hawking recorded the introduction to the ABC Australian Story featuring Professor Yerbury, titled The Enemy Within.

World-renowned University of Cambridge chemist Professor Sir Christopher Dobson also appeared in the Australian Story documentary.

“The award is also something special because it was the last time my dear friend and mentor Professor Sir Christopher Dobson provided a reference for me before we lost him to pancreatic cancer in 2019.”

UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE said Professor Yerbury’s Australia Day honour was richly deserved.

“On behalf of the entire University of Wollongong community I would like to extend congratulations to Justin on being awarded the Member of the Order of Australia,” Professor Wellings said.

“Justin’s visionary leadership and creative approach to research has driven fundamental new understandings of MND. His dedication and tenacity in finding a cure for MND, and his bravery and determination in overcoming personal and family tragedy, are an inspiration for all Australians.”

Distinguished Professor David J Adams, IHMRI’s CEO and Executive Director, congratulated Professor Yerbury on his AM.

Justin has demonstrated enormous commitment to his career in research for MND while also living with the devastating disease, this is a well-deserved award,” Professor Adams said.

“My congratulations to Justin and his team for this national recognition of his dedication to MND research.”

Dr Justin Yerbury’s Career

2019 Professor, Professorial Fellow in Neurodegenerative Disease.

2019 Recipient, “Wollongong’s Citizen of the Year”, Australia Day Awards, Wollongong

2017 Awarded the Betty Laidlaw MND Research Prize.

2015-2019 Senior Research Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health.

2016 Promoted to Associate Professor in recognition of contributions to the fields of proteostasis and MND.

2012 Awarded ARC DECRA Fellowship.

2012 Awarded Lorne Conference on Protein Structure and Function Young Investigator Prize.

2011 Awarded Vice-Chancellor’s Emerging Researcher Prize.

2008-2009 ARC International Linkage Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, UK.

2009-2012 Awarded the Bill Gole Postdoctoral MND Research Fellowship.

2008 Receives PhD from University of Wollongong

1999-2004 Undergraduate science degree completed with first class honours.

67 career publications to date.

About Motor Neurone Disease

There are more than 2000 Australians living with the illness.

People with MND progressively lose the use of their arms and legs, their ability to speak, swallow and breathe.

Males are more likely than females to have MND but the cause as to why isn’t known.