UOW researchers win Eureka Prizes for environmental research and science leadership

UOW researchers win Eureka Prizes for environmental research and science leadership

Strong showing from the University's academics at the Oscars of Australian Science

University of Wollongong (UOW) researchers claimed two awards at the 2021 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes held last night (Thursday 7 October).

The NSW Bushfire Hub team, led by Associate Professor Owen Price and including fellow UOW researchers Dr Hamish Clarke and Dr Katharine Haynes alongside colleagues from University of New South Wales, University of Tasmania and University of Western Sydney, won the NSW Environment, Energy and Science (DPIE) Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research for their extensive research into the devastating Black Summer bushfires.

Dr Dana M. Bergstrom from the University of Wollongong and the Australian Antarctic Division, who for decades has championed evidence-based science in biodiversity, biosecurity and the impacts of climate change, won the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science.

Other UOW researchers to feature on the night were  Professor Justin Yerbury AM, a molecular biologist at the University's Molecular Horizons Institute, who was a finalist in the UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research; and Senior Professor Sharon Robinson, a global leader and renowned Antarctic environmental science researcher, who was a finalist in the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science.

UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Patricia M. Davidson congratulated all of the University’s winners and finalists for having their work recognised by the Eureka Prizes.

“Well done to all of our winners and finalists! The Eureka Prizes are the Oscars of Australian Science and to make it to the finals and be recognised by their peers in this way is something they can be immensely proud of,” Professor Davidson said.

“To have so many of our researchers awarded and nominated is a rare achievement and something the entire University community can take great pride in.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Jennifer L. Martin AC also commended the winners and finalists for their success.

“The Eureka Awards bring together the best of Australian science, so to be acknowledged in this way is a clear demonstration of the impact and quality of their research,” Professor Martin said.

“Our researchers are doing exceptional work to solve complex real-world problems. Their contributions to science are making this world a better place and are improving the lives of people across the globe.”

NSW Bushfire Hub, Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research winner

The NSW Bushfire Hub, a consortium of four research groups, was recognised for its research into the devastating Black Summer bushfires.

Their findings addressed major knowledge gaps relating to droughts, fuel dynamics, and the social and environmental impacts of the fires — directly influencing many of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry recommendations and setting the future direction for fire management.

The Bushfire Hub Team is led by Professor Price and also includes Dr Clark and Dr Haynes from UOW, Dr Rachael Nolan from Western Sydney University, Dr Grant Williamson from University of Tasmania and Dr Mark Ooi from UNSW Sydney.

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.

“Behind the team of six people given this award, stand another 23 people who worked on the reports for the inquiry, some who made contributions just as valuable as ours, so I want to thank all of them,” Professor Price said.

“Particularly, I want to highlight Professor Ross Bradstock, Professor Mary O’Kane and Dave Owens. Ross because he offered the services of the scientific team and led the work, and Mary and Dave the Inquiry leads because they accepted that offer and promoted the scientific approach to the Inquiry.”

“I can confidently say that for all the team, this award is the pinnacle of our professional lives.”

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.

“I want to thank the organisers and sponsors for the Eureka Prizes for promoting the value of rigorous science, especially in our current culture of disinformation and argument,” Professor Price said.

“The 2019-20 bushfires are a perfect example of the problem. Everyone has an opinion on bushfire and what to do about them because it seems simple. But in truth, the causes, effects and solutions are really complex and we need holistic research that examines as many aspects as possible.

“Science cannot provide all the answers, but we get much better answers with science than without it.”

Dana Bergstrom, Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science winner

For 36 years, Dr Bergstrom has championed evidence-based conservation science in biodiversity, biosecurity, and impacts of climate change on ecosystems in Antarctica and on sub-Antarctic islands.

She said she was thrilled to be recognised for her scientific career.

“This is such a huge honour and one I never expected to receive for my passion to protect and conserve fragile ecosystems,” Dr Bergstrom said.

Dr Bergstrom began her Antarctic career as a Masters student in 1983 and has been south for her research more than 20 times.

“My work focuses on protecting the really rare Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic ecosystems,” she said.

“There's intrinsic value in the wildlife, plants, animals and fungi of the region, but there’s also rich scientific value.”

“To study a place that's gone through many ice ages and understand how the plants and animals survive will help us predict what might happen to our climate into the future.”

Dr Bergstrom’s work has led to improvements in biosecurity and preventing alien species hitchhiking to Antarctica, a huge international project involving 23 nations and tourism operators.

“Once we understood the extent of the issue, Australia introduced new biosecurity measures, such as cleaning equipment and building new quarantine facilities to stop plants and animals being transported south,” Dr Bergstrom said.

Most recently, Dr Bergstrom led research looking at ecosystem collapse from Australia’s tropics to Antarctica.

“This research sounded the alarm on the breakdown of the ecosystems, but also provided advice on ways to slow this trend,” she said. “It's really heart-warming to be part of a scientific solution to the problems our environment is facing.”

Sharon Robinson, Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science finalist

Senior Professor Robinson was also a finalist for the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science, and like her fellow finalist and colleague Dr Bergstrom, is a world renowned Antarctic environmental scientist.

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. She is also Executive Director of UOW’s Global Challenges Program, a strategic research initiative designed to harness the diverse expertise of researchers to address real-world problems.

“It was really exciting to be a finalist for this Eureka Leadership award along with two other awesome women leaders in science,” Professor Robinson said.

“It was also fabulous to have two leaders in Australian Antarctic science getting this recognition. The work that Dana Bergstrom and I do has highlighted how Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems from Macquarie Island and the continent are being damaged by climate change and reinforces the need to do everything we can to reduce emissions and live more sustainably.

“But science is a team sport and so most of all I would like to thank all my collaborators, especially my student and early career researcher colleagues who make all our work possible.”

Justin Yerbury, Eureka Prize for Scientific Research finalist

Professor Yerbury is known for his research on Motor Neuron Disease (MND), with a particular emphasis on biochemical processes such as protein misfolding and protein aggregation.

His research is motivated by personal experience, with himself and many family members having been diagnosed with MND, a fatal disease that affects nerves called motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord, which impacts the functioning of the muscles that controls movement.

Professor Yerbury thanked the Eureka Prizes organisers for putting science in the spotlight and for the opportunity to have his work recognised.

“I would like to thank the Australian Museum for once again putting together a great evening and putting great science in the spotlight,” Professor Yerbury said.

“The quality of the science was amazing and I am humbled to be amongst the finalists in such a competitive field. A huge congratulations to all the winners and to the Australian Museum for supporting Australian science.”


Pic: Dr Dana Bergstrom, the NSW Bushfire Hub team led by Associate Professor Owen Price, Professor Justin Yerbury and Senior Professor Sharon Robinson