A vision comes to life

Last month marked a pivotal moment in the Charles Perkins Centre story, when members of the University community came together to celebrate and usher in a new collaborative approach to confronting some of the world’s greatest health challenges.
Belinda Hutchinson speaking at the launch

Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson speaking at the launch

The official launch in early June capped off a month of special launch events for students, staff, friends and donors. These events celebrated the arrival of the $385 million state-of-the-art research and education hub (which occupies 49,500 square metres – almost twice the surface area of the Sydney Cricket Ground), an innovative academic strategy, and the appointment of more than a dozen new professorial chairs who will steer the centre’s research efforts.

Hundreds of University staff and students shared in those celebrations, enjoying a sneak peek inside the remarkable research and education hub at an open day in May. Staff and students were treated to healthy food and fun fitness activities, including DIY smoothies powered by pedalling on an exercise bike.

In early June, donors, VIPs and University staff heard more about how the Charles Perkins Centre vision has been brought to life at two separate launch events – a small preview dinner and an opening cocktail party celebration.

In true Charles Perkins Centre spirit, these events were underpinned by a theme of collaboration: from culinary delicacies created by renowned Adelaide chef Jock Zonfrillo in consultation with the nutritional experts of the Charles Perkins Centre, to the sweet notes of a beautiful musical partnership between award-winning singer/songwriter Megan Washington and our students. This partnership was enhanced by the string arrangements of conductor George Ellis – a distinguished graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

As a tribute to the centre’s namesake, Charles Perkins, guests were treated to a performance by the Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) Aboriginal men’s dance group, which travelled from his country, Arrernte in Central Australia.

One of the most outstanding performances on the night was from the Charles Perkins Centre itself; the building shone as its spectacular interior was illuminated by brilliant multi-coloured projections.

PROFOUND SHIFT IN NUTRITION

Charles Perkins Centre staff and student open day

Charles Perkins Centre staff and student open day

During the formal proceedings, the centre’s Academic Director, Professor Steve Simpson, explained to guests the profound shift in modern human nutrition that underscores the centre’s work. “For the first time in history, more people are experiencing diseases of overnutrition than diseases of undernutrition, and that’s what the centre is about.

“Internationally, the model we have developed for the Charles Perkins Centre is unique. It is not a stand-alone institute but rather serves to enable success across the University and its affiliates by providing new collaborative research and educational opportunities that cross disciplines and boundaries. The aim is to improve the health of individuals, communities and the nation.”

The centre is facilitating collaboration between researchers and practitioners in health and medicine and experts from many other disciplines. These include arts and social sciences, architecture, business studies, education and social work, engineering and information technology, and the physical, life and environmental sciences.

“We now have all 16 faculties of the University engaged with the Charles Perkins Centre. It is transforming the University,” Professor Simpson adds.

In his closing address, the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, reiterated that sense of change and momentum. “We have already inspired a belief in our mission in people who share our bold vision: people who have seen this research and teaching hub come out of the ground, as teaching began at the beginning of this year, as researchers move into these world-class facilities, and hear from Steve Simpson and his colleagues about the impact their collaborations are already having.”

RESEARCH PROJECTS

Indigenous Ltyentye Apurte dance group

Indigenous Ltyentye Apurte dance group

The centre has established 24 research project nodes, Professor Simpson says, and projects now underway provide a strong sense of the centre’s multi-disciplinary character. They include the following.

Pre/early conception cohort study
Led by Professor Simpson, the Preconception, Pregnancy and Childhood Cohort Study is a flagship project which aims to better understand the mechanisms occurring before and during pregnancy that contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and related conditions. A prospective observational group will follow parents and their offspring, from preconception and early pregnancy to the first years of life.

E-health and avatars
Led by Professor Stephen Twigg, Professor of Endocrinology, and Professor David Cook, Professor of Physiology, this project investigates the potential for creating lifestyle coaches using artificial intelligence agents. For example, a prototype for an avatar named Sunny has been produced, and it is designed to encourage users to achieve their health and wellness goals. Sunny continually offers suggestions for users to modify their thoughts and behaviour around eating and exercise patterns, self-image, motivation and ambitions.

Megan Washington

Megan Washington

Health literacy network
While there is a large body of research showing the relationship between lower health literacy and poor health outcomes, there has been a lack of high-quality research evidence to support this link. Under the leadership of Associate Professor Kirsten McCaffery from the School of Public Health, this node aims to take potential solutions for improving health literacy and test them rigorously to inform public policy decisions.

Paddock to plate
Led by Professor Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, this node aims to develop a complete systems understanding of the food production and delivery cycle. Using one grazing system (beef cattle) and two horticultural systems (apples and almonds) as key examples, the research employs robotics and intelligent systems to measure and control the nutritional benefits of these commodities. One aim is to give every piece of fruit, vegetable, grain and animal its own ‘life story’ – from paddock to plate.

Wireless Wellbeing
Led by Dr Margaret Allman-Farinelli, Associate Professor from the School of Public Health, this node explores how wireless sensing and communications can empower individuals to self monitor and positively influence their decisions and behaviour around nutrition, physical activity and sleep. This research is characterised by the development of monitoring systems. It examines preferences for data storage mechanisms that can better modify behaviour and the use of educational messaging.


FREE WEEKLY LECTURE PROGRAM

As part of its educational vision, the centre has launched a program of weekly public lectures by the new University professorial chairs and other high-profile researchers. To date, the series has featured speakers including Professors David Raubenheimer (speaking on nutritional ecology and human health), Steve Simpson (the geometry of ageing), David James (systems biology), Robyn Gallagher (weight management in heart disease and diabetes), Adrian Bauman (sitting versus standing), Charles Mackay (diet and Western lifestyle diseases) and Associate Professor Andrew Holmes (gut microbiome).

Upcoming speakers include: Professor Paul Griffiths (evolution and biomedical research), Dr Kyra Sym (CPC Cohort Study: the first 1000 days), Professor Salah Sukkarieh (robotics for food systems), Professor Deborah Schofield (health economics and chronic disease) and Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli (personalising preventive health
with technology).

PODCASTS, VIDEOS AND FULL DETAILS: sydney.edu.au/perkins