Bright young scientists recognised

15 October 2010

Can early intervention programs for dementia risk factors help prevent the disease? Did India really move across the planet in the way we thought? How can we use organic chemistry to tackle tuberculosis and cancer?

Three young University of Sydney scientists striving to find out have been recognised for their research pursuits in the Young Tall Poppy Science Awards, presented at the Powerhouse Museum last night.

The prestigious annual Young Tall Poppy Science Awards recognise achievements of Australia's young scientific researchers and communicators. Initiated to encourage more young people to engage with science, award winners become ambassadors for science for 12 months through promotional activities with school students, teachers and the broader community.

In presenting the awards NSW Minister for Science and Medical Research Jodi McKay said the NSW Government recognises the importance of investing in talented and hard working young scientists trained in NSW universities as well as nurturing our next generation of scientists.

"I am sure this year's winners will continue to achieve great things and will further contribute to science in Australia and internationally," Ms McKay said.

The three University of Sydney scientists recognised for their groundbreaking research in the prestigious 2010 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Awards are:

Associate Professor Sharon Naismith.
Associate Professor Sharon Naismith.

Associate Professor Sharon Naismith, Brain and Mind Research Institute

Associate Professor Naismith's research has shown that some risk factors for dementia can be treated, including health and lifestyle factors. She is currently working on early intervention programs to treat these factors.

"It is a great honour to have received a Young Tall Poppy award and especially significant given the difficulties young people face when embarking upon a clinical research career," she said.

"The awards have highlighted the excellent research young people are undertaking, particularly in the brain and mind sciences.

"My own research has been focused on the many modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline in older adults. This body of work has highlighted the integral role of depression, cardiovascular disease, sleep disturbance, dietary and lifestyle factors for healthy brain ageing.

"More recently, I have focused my efforts on testing the efficacy of interventions such as cognitive training for older people 'at risk' of dementia as well as those with Parkinson's Disease.

"As a young researcher, I am extremely privileged to be part of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, which enables me to interact with a variety of clinicians and scientists and to incorporate sophisticated brain imaging and sleep-related technologies into my research.

"The Tall Poppy awards further highlight the need to ensure that our research is translated into clinical practice and communicated to the wider community."

Dr Joanne Whittaker.
Dr Joanne Whittaker.

Dr Joanne Whittaker, School of Geosciences

Dr Whittaker's current research involves developing a new plate tectonics model to more accurately reconstruct India's motion through time. It is hoped her models will be a key input into palaeo-climate models used to reproduce key global climatic periods.

Plate tectonics are an important driver of long-term sea level and climate change, including the global CO2 cycle.

"I'm over the moon about being a 2010 Young Tall Poppy. Being only 5'2" it is probably the first (and possibly only) time in my life that I've been called tall!" she said.

"I am definitely looking forward to participating in the Young Tall Poppy program of communication events through 2010-11.

"I have participated in some outreach activities before, such as Science in the City, but the Young Tall Poppy program will be a great opportunity to get a lot more practice at communicating all the exciting things we are working on in the School of Geosciences to the broader community and also to reach a lot more people."

Dr Richard Payne.
Dr Richard Payne.

Dr Richard Payne, School of Chemistry

Dr Richard Payne is focused on using organic chemistry to discover new therapeutics for the treatment of a number of diseases including tuberculosis (TB) and cancer. He has designed molecules which bind with and block proteins that TB needs to survive, making them possible new TB drug candidates.

Dr Payne has also been involved in the cataloguing of molecules which appear on the surface of cancer cells but not normal cells; these could allow the immune system to attack the cancer cells.

"I am honoured to be a recipient of a NSW Young Tall Poppy Award. It is a great feeling to be recognised for both my research and community work," said Dr Payne.

"I am looking forward to contributing to the Young Tall Poppy Program of Communication. This is particularly special for me next year as it is the International Year of Chemistry and I am already starting to plan for various events. My previous community events have involved giving special interactive lectures to high school students and I've also appeared on the ABC TV show Catalyst about my research into the development of new TB drugs."

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