UOW researchers named as Eureka Prize finalists

UOW researchers named as Eureka Prize finalists

Justin Yerbury, Sharon Robinson, the NSW Bushfire Hub team and Dana Bergstrom recognised for outstanding contributions to science

University of Wollongong (UOW) researchers are in the running for four awards in this year's Australian Museum Eureka Prizes.

The annual Eureka Prizes are Australia’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research and innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.

Finalists from UOW are Professor Justin Yerbury, a finalist for the Eureka Prize for scientific research; the NSW Bushfire Hub team led by Associate Professor Owen Price for applied environmental science; and Senior Professor Sharon Robinson for leadership in innovation and science.

UOW Honorary Fellow Dr Dana Bergstrom, from the Australian Antarctic Division, has also been named as a Eureka Prize finalist for leadership in innovation and science.

This year’s winners will be announced at an award ceremony on Thursday 7 October.

Professor Justin Yerbury, Eureka Prize for Scientific Research

Professor Yerbury AM is a molecular biologist at the University's Molecular Horizons Institute. He is known for his research on Motor Neuron Disease (MND), with a particular emphasis on biochemical processes such as protein misfolding and protein aggregation.

“Being selected as a finalist in the Eureka Prize is an honour that I believe is a reflection of the hard work and dedication of all the members of the laboratory over the past decade,” Professor Yerbury said.

“There is still no effective treatment for MND, so research is critical. I am delighted that our research is being recognised by such a prestigious award, and I hope it will help create more awareness among the people who are either affected by this disease or are researching on it.”

Professor Yerbury’s research is motivated by personal experience, with himself and many family members having been diagnosed with MND. Professor Yerbury knew nothing about the condition when he first heard of it and has since lost several family members to the disease. The experience motivated him to research the disease, which started his journey to becoming a biologist.

MND is a fatal disease that affects nerves called motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, which affects the functioning of the muscles that controls movement. The prevalence of MND internationally is estimated to be between 3 – 7 people per 100,000 but the rapid progression of the disease means that the lifetime risk is around 1:400.

Professor Yerbury’s passion to find a cure for the disease has been inspiring to many. He has been intimately and actively involved in the MND community. This includes presenting at Ask the Experts, MND connect, seminars and fundraisers among many other initiatives to raise awareness of the disease.

He has won several prestigious accolades that acknowledge his research contributions towards MND and has received several grants to focus on a potential new therapeutic strategy.

Professor Yerbury’s research focuses on understanding the link between proteostasis – a process that regulates proteins within the cell – and cellular dysfunction such as hyper excitability.

Professor Yerbury’s work has contributed to a paradigm shift in the understanding of the biochemical processes that lead to the loss of motor neurons in MND. This new way of thinking about MND has already led to his laboratory developing new therapeutic targets. His work has been accessed over 25,000 times and citations continue to rise indicating the growing impact of his research.

NSW Bushfire Hub team, Applied Environmental Research

Professor Price is the director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfire and leads the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub with his team of researchers. The team has been nominated as a finalist in the NSW Environment, Energy and Science Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research category for the Hub’s contributions to the Bushfire Inquiry. Other UOW members are Dr Hamish Clarke and Dr Katharine Haynes.

The Bushfire Hub was commissioned by the NSW Bushfire Inquiry to help it understand what happened during the 2019-20 fires and why they differed from fire seasons past. Its findings are captured in 19 reports by 16 authors, organised into five themes: seasonal context, fire behaviour and severity, impacts on people and property, impacts on biodiversity and options for future bushfire risk management.

“The impacts of the 2019-20 unprecedented bushfire were devastating and caused irreparable damage to life and property,” Professor Price said.

“Every member of the team at the Hub has worked extremely hard to analyse the causes of the bushfire and provide recommendations that were adopted by the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

“We are delighted that our work has been recognised for the Eureka Prize and the role the Hub has played in making key recommendations to the Bushfire Inquiry.”

Funded by the NSW Government, the Bushfire Hub is a consortium of four university research groups led by UOW and including researchers from UNSW Sydney, University of Tasmania and University of Western Sydney. It targets major knowledge gaps in fire management: fire information, fuel dynamics, smoke and emissions, biodiversity, Indigenous fire management and cost-effective risk mitigation.

Dr Rachael Nolan, Hub lead researcher from Western Sydney University, said: “It’s humbling to be part of a team that’s a finalist in the Eureka awards. The Bushfire Hub is a unique collaboration of researchers from a range of research disciplines, we work towards a common goal of improving fire management. This goal is more important than ever as the climate changes.”

Dr Grant Williamson, Hub lead researcher from the University of Tasmania, said: “Having worked extremely hard after the 2019-20 fire season to gather data and quickly put together a range of analyses to help authorities understand the causes and impacts of the Black Summer fires, at the NSW Bushfire Hub we were glad to see our science and recommendations utilized and adopted by the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

“We were all especially excited to hear about our place as a finalist for the Eureka Prize, acknowledging the importance of our work in making Australian communities safer, and understanding how the Australian environment is being changed by extreme fires.”

Dr Mark Ooi, Hub lead researcher from UNSW Sydney, said: “The fires were a product of record-breaking dryness off the back of prolonged drought and sustained periods of record fire danger weather conditions.

"Impacts on biodiversity were widespread, with hundreds of rare plant species falling under the fire footprint and high proportions of vulnerable plant communities, such as rainforests, burnt in NSW.

“Continued monitoring and prioritisation of those species and communities most in need of protection are essential if we are to maintain our natural heritage into the future, particularly in the face of climate-driven changes to the fire regime.”

The Bushfire Hub team includes a diverse mix of senior, mid-career and early career academics, students and government scientists.

The work done by the Hub played a vital role in the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, providing the bulk of the evidence base for its recommendations which set the direction for fire management and associated research needs in NSW for the foreseeable future.

Senior Professor Sharon Robinson, Leadership in Innovation and Science

Professor Robinson from the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health is a global leader and a renowned Antarctic environmental science researcher. She is the Executive Director of Global Challenges program, UOW’s strategic research initiative designed to harness the diverse expertise of researchers to address real-world problems.

Her research focuses on understanding the impacts of climate change on Antarctic ecosystems, and informing better environmental protection through ground-breaking and interdisciplinary research methods.

She leads the ‘Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF)’ program at UOW, a research program delivering interdisciplinary science to forecast environmental changes across the Antarctic region.

“I am delighted to be the finalist for the Eureka Prize and that our work on addressing climate change and its impacts on society and biodiversity is being recognised globally,” Professor Robinson said.

“I believe that everyone should have equal learning opportunities and a chance to be curious so they can grow and progress in life and leadership, mentoring plays an important role in nurturing talent and providing opportunities for this.”

Professor Robinson has made outstanding contributions to local communities through leadership and passion to address climate change issues using evidence-based research. She is a great advocate for science, diversity and providing mentoring opportunities in the community.

As a strong advocate and role model for gender equity and diversity in polar science, her work is driven by the core values of diversity, equity and excellence, and has been paramount in ensuring that gender balanced research teams are both encouraged, achieved  and celebrated.

Professor Robinson has a long-standing commitment to being a leader of women in STEMM, through her active participation in various leadership roles and community partnerships.

Dr Bergstrom, who collaborates closely with Professor Robinson on understanding and protecting Antarctica through evidence-based research, has been named as a finalist for the same category of Leadership in Innovation and Science.

Dr Bergstrom’s work revolves around studying how Antarctic organisms and ecosystems work, identifying risks to these Antarctic ecosystems and finding solutions to mitigating such risks, especially in terrestrial ecosystems.