Entry for:Queensland Women in STEM Research Prize 2016
1. Summary (Provide a short plain English summary of your work, ~150 words)
Nerve cells (neurons) in the brain are normally lost as we age. The unnatural and accelerated loss of these cells is, however, a hallmark of brain diseases that are now being classified as “diseases of ageing”. Motor neuron disease (MND) is one of these devastating conditions where the loss of neurons in the brain and spinal cord leads to muscle paralysis and death, usually within 2-5 years from diagnosis. There is currently no effective treatment for MND, and hence no cure. My laboratory is working towards a greater understanding of the processes that control energy use in the brain during disease so that we can prevent neurons from dying. My immediate goal is to translate basic science discoveries into viable treatments to minimise the impact and slow the effects of neurodegeneration. In the long term, I hope to find a cure for diseases such as MND. To meet these goals, I am focused on personalised treatments, given that no two patients are the same.
2. Description (Describe the benefit of your research to Queenslanders, ~500 words)
An increase in brain diseases associated with an ageing population is placing an increasing burden on our health system. Although we tend to associate diseases of the brain with old age, these diseases are also becoming more prevalent in younger individuals. My research complements Queensland’s existing strength in the study of neurodegenerative disease and aligns with Queensland’s science and research priority of supporting the translation of health research. By helping Queensland mitigate the pressures associated with increased health spending on age-associated diseases, I am working towards the goal of a healthier ageing population.
By working with the MND community in Queensland, nationally, and globally, my research ensures that everyone in the larger MND family plays a central role in my community-directed research goals. I am commited to informing the wider community about the impact that MND has on peoples’ lives. This builds a strong foundation upon which local communities can provide support for all Queenslanders who are affected by MND.
Through my research, I aim to deliver translational research outcomes that will make a difference to the wellbeing of Queenslanders who are afflicted by diseases of the ageing brain. In doing so, I am attracting local, national, and international interest in Queensland-driven research. This is strengthening collaborations and providing a knowledge-based platform to build critical mass that will accelerate Queensland-based STEM discoveries, thereby delivering high-quality research training, and developing novel and innovative strategies to tackle disease. My goal is to deliver the Queensland-born discoveries of today that will lead to the treatments of tomorrow.
3. Additional Details (Short biography, list of key collaborators and summary of your track-record, ~500 words)
I am a Queensland-born scientist who is working towards a world free of MND. During my PhD in neuroscience, I discovered the intricacies that define the connections between nerves cells and muscle. After completing my PhD in 2009, I took up a position with Prof Pamela McCombe and Dr Robert Henderson, neurologists at the Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital who lead a dedicated clinical team that focus on treating age-related brain diseases such as MND. I developed a novel research niche in 2012, and have grown my research program in MND over the last 3 years. My laboratory at UQ specialises in the discovery of treatments to reverse or stop the effects of ageing on the brain.
To find a cure for age-related diseases of the brain we must work together. I actively collaborate with many national and global experts including: Prof Leonard van den Berg, a global neurology expert on MND (Netherlands); Prof Jean-Philippe Loeffler, an expert in understanding how metabolism affects brain diseases (France); Prof Naomi Wray, an expert in investigating the genetics of disease (Queensland); and Prof Miguel Esteban, an expert in stem cell technology (China).
While connections with our peers will create new knowledge, we have a lot to learn from the communities we serve. Through MND Queensland and the MND and Me Foundation, I have the privilege and honour of connecting and working with families and friends of those living with MND. I am also a friend of the Cure for MND Foundation (Victoria), Team Frate Train (USA), and The J9 Foundation (South Africa). These foundations motivate and inspire my team in seeking strategies to improve the wellbeing of individuals affected by diseases of the brain.
Research Output and Input:
I have published 20 papers (50% as first, corresponding or senior author) in leading journals in the fields of neuroscience, neurology, and endocrinology. My work has received over 470 citations and demonstrates its growing impact. My research has been recognised through prestigious awards including: the MND Research Institute of Australia (MNDRIA) Bill Gole Fellowship (2012-2015), the Australian Academy of Science FASIC Early Career Fellowship (2012), The Scott Sullivan MND Fellowship (2015-2018), and the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) Senior Researcher Award (2015). In the past 5 years, I have delivered 16 national and international conference presentations. Since 2012, I have received over M$1.5 in competitive funding, including lead investigator research grants from the MNDRIA and the NH&MRC.
As a Director of the Board of the ASMR, I am an advocate for promoting health and medical research in Queensland and Australia. I actively promoted women in STEM on UN Day for Women and Girls in Science, and will continue to do so in the Q-Weekend and on ABC 612 on International Women's Day in March. I take pride in mentoring women in STEM and provide them with opportunities to pursue excellence in research innovation and collaboration. I currently mentor 6 young Queensland women who are conducting their PhDs or undergraduate research in the clinical and basic sciences. As a testament to my passion for mentorship, they have received esteemed awards including the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence.
I am driven to inspire and empower people living with neurodegenerative disease by regularly conveying research to the wider community (including on ABC 612 and 96.5 Family FM). I volunteer for, and write research updates for the MND and Me Foundation to ensure that the community remains connected and informed about global research outcomes. I organised the 2015 MND Symposium in Brisbane, bringing together the MND community (patients/family/friends), the general public, and basic and clinical researchers to discuss current progress in MND. I also organised the 2015 ASMR Schools’ Quiz to encourage high school students to learn about medical research, and have presented my work to Year 9 STEM students at the Gap State High School.