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Taking research and teaching to another level

Scott Byrne

Students and teachers are already experiencing the benefits of open learning spaces and new technology at the Charles Perkins Centre this semester, but with research groups relocating to the hub from May, many more opportunities for innovation await.

Dr Scott Byrne is one academic who is particularly excited to see the Charles Perkins Centre vision of multidisciplinary collaboration come to life, as both a researcher and teacher. While Scott has been teaching at the research and education hub since February, he has also been involved with various working groups, committees and pilot programs since the early stages of the planning and design process in 2009.

"One of the exciting things about the facility is flexibility, which you can not only see in teaching spaces such as the X-lab, but also in the research spaces," says Scott, a senior lecturer in immunology, whose research group is due to relocate in mid-2014.

"The 80-person, open-plan laboratories will house literally dozens of research groups, with open-plan offices just outside those labs for higher degree by research students and post-docs, research assistants and academics.

As researchers populate the Charles Perkins Centre throughout the year, Scott is keen to facilitate innovative ways to bring students up close and personal with the research environment.

"Students can't access the research levels in the building for health and safety reasons, but it doesn't mean that we don't want them to be a part of it. One thing we'd like to do is film and talk to researchers and academics at work and stream this live to students who are downstairs in the teaching spaces to really give them a taste of what's going on.

"We also aim to run an advanced immunology tutorial with some of our top science students. Rather than using a traditional classroom style, I'd like to get students using the spaces in the Charles Perkins Centre that researchers use, to really act like researchers, discussing the latest topics in the field."

"What I love about working at the University is the ability to combine my immunology-based research with my teaching. I can't imagine having one without the other," says Scott.

"Working here gives us the opportunity to inspire both undergraduate and postgraduate students to embrace the sciences and engage with their community. We're in the unique position to shape the future of medical research by educating and mentoring the next generation of scientists and clinicians."

From benchtop research to bedside results

Robyn-gallagher

The newly appointed Professor of Nursing at the Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney Nursing School, Professor Robyn Gallagher aims to improve care for people with cardiovascular disease and promote a deeper understanding of the disease among health professionals.

A world-leading expert in cardiac nursing, Professor Gallagher said the Charles Perkins Centre provided a unique opportunity for collaboration with multiple disciplines and leading international researchers.

“It’s exciting because everyone joining Charles Perkins Centre is making a leap into the future of research into pervasive and complex problems like cardiovascular disease and obesity,” Professor Gallagher said.

An important part of Professor Gallagher’s vision for the future is the translation of research into real-world solutions – a key focus of the Charles Perkins Centre’s unique multidisciplinary approach.

“Traditional research centres aim to be multidisciplinary but rarely achieves the true integration of benchtop research into practice and policy."

“The advantage of working in the Charles Perkins Centre is that research is integrated with clinical, public health and policy research, as well as systems and theories so that every opportunity for breadth and depth of research into obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes is afforded.”

Professor Gallagher’s primary focus will be helping to provide quality care for people with cardiovascular disease, and to support their efforts to reduce risk factors through managing weight, physical activity and good self-care.

Professor Gallagher will present her exciting research work and explore the outcomes of the Healthy Eating and Exercise Lifestyle Program (HEELP) in the upcoming lunchtime seminar series on 8th April 2014 at the Charles Perkins Centre.

HEELP is a 16-week group-based weight reduction and physical activity intervention, and supplement to cardiac rehabilitation and diabetes education programs.

The Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney aims to ease the burden of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease by translating the work of the University into real-world solutions.

Protein and carbohydrates outweigh calorie counting

woman-eating-in-park

4 March 2014

Food intake is regulated primarily by dietary protein and carbohydrate, and not by the number of calories consumed, according to the most comprehensive study of macronutrient balance ever undertaken.

Conducted by the University of Sydney's ground-breaking Charles Perkins Centre and published in Cell Metabolism, the world-first research examines the effects of protein, fat and carbohydrate on energy intake, metabolic health, ageing and longevity in mice.

The research demonstrated in mice that calorie restriction, achieved by high protein diets or dietary dilution, has no beneficial effects on lifespan, a phenomenon researchers predict will apply in humans.

While a high protein, low carbohydrate diet resulted in reduced body fat and food intake, it also led to a shorter lifespan and poor cardiometabolic health.

By contrast, a high carbohydrate, low protein diet resulted in longer lifespan and better cardiometabolic health, despite also increasing body fat.

A low protein, high fat diet provided the worst health outcomes, with fat content showing no negative influence on food intake.

"This research has enormous implications for how much food we eat, our body fat, our heart and metabolic health, and ultimately the duration of our lives," said Professor Steve Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre and corresponding author of the study.

"We have shown explicitly why it is that calories aren't all the same - we need to look at where the calories come from and how they interact."

"This represents an enormous leap in our understanding of the impact of diet quality and diet balance on food intake, health, ageing and longevity," said co-author Professor David Le Couteur, from the University's Charles Perkins Centre and Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Concord Hospital.

"We now face a new frontier in nutrition research."

By examining mice fed a variety of 25 diets, the research team used an innovative state-space nutritional modelling method to measure the interactive effects of dietary energy, protein, fat and carbohydrate on food intake, cardiometabolic health and longevity.

The results suggest that lifespan could be extended in animals by manipulating the ratio of macronutrients in their diet - the first evidence that pharmacology could be used to extend lifespan in normal mammals.

Although mice were the subjects of this study, Professor Le Couteur said the results from the study accord with previous research in humans, but with a much larger number of dietary treatments and nutritional variables.

"Up until this point, most research has either concentrated on a single nutritional variable, such as fat, carbohydrate or calories, so much of our understanding of energy intake and diet balance is based on one-dimensional single nutrient assessments," he said.

"The advice we are always given is to eat a healthy balanced diet, but what does that mean? We have some idea, but in relation to nutritional composition we don't know terribly well. This research represents an important step in finding out."

In terms of practical advice, the researchers predict that a diet with moderate amounts of high quality protein (around 15 to 20 percent of total calorie intake), that is relatively low in fat and high in good quality complex carbohydrates will yield the best metabolic health and the longest life.

Professor Simpson is Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, a world-leading initiative that brings together international leaders across a broad spectrum of academic disciplines to find real-world solutions to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The state-of-the-art Charles Perkins Centre building, a $385 million teaching and research hub on the University of Sydney's Camperdown Campus, will officially launch later this year.

A number of external donors are supporting the Charles Perkins Centre and the appointment of professional chairs to lead ground-breaking research on obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Find out more about philanthropic support and the research it enables on the INSPIRED website.


The brave new world of digital health

E health

Online brain training to promote wellbeing, SMS to improve infant feeding in Shanghai, eResources for open drug discovery…

These were just a few of the exciting e-Health and m-Health innovations from across the University showcased at a recent Charles Perkins Centre interactive forum.

The one-day program provided the opportunity for students and staff from disciplines as diverse as dietetics, pharmacy and engineering (human-computer interactions) to discuss new technologies that could be applied to digital and mobile health outcomes.

Following a morning of short presentations about developments in apps, websites, software and devices, the afternoon sessions were dedicated to interactions and exploring new collaborations, followed by thematic discussion, feedback and synthesis. Attendees interacted with new collaborators, arranged to prepare grant and funding applications, and discovered more about the Charles Perkins Centre and how to establish a Charles Perkins Centre project node.

“There has been a lot of positive feedback from the day, with requests for it to become a more regular event,” said the event chair, Professor Andrew Wilson, leader of the Charles Perkins Centre Designing and Implementing Solutions domain.

“We were pleased to hear there were new collaborations established and plans for at least two or three new Charles Perkins Centre project nodes.”

Held at the Faculty of Health Sciences, Cumberland Campus, the showcase and roundtable formed a part of the Charles Perkins Centre’s aim to stimulate and enable interdisciplinary research in health.

Watch a video wrap-up:


The first step in a revolution to stop diabetes in its tracks

Charles Mackay

The newly-announced Australian Diabetes Council Chair of Diabetes at the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre has predicted that new research can bring about a dramatic decrease in the incidence of all types of diabetes in the foreseeable future.

Professor Charles Mackay, who will be named today as Australian Diabetes Council Chair of Diabetes, believes that we are at the start of a process of discovery that could see the prevention of a majority of all forms of diabetes in future generations.

"We're at the beginning of something that is as exciting to me as the discovery of electricity, there's so much to come from what it will trigger. I'm confident we'll be able to reduce the incidence of diabetes dramatically in the not too distant future," said Professor Mackay.

Professor Mackay's previous research has already been translated into real world medications and treatments, with more in development, but it is hoped it will also unlock the secrets of what triggers type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

"As Australian Diabetes Council Chair of Diabetes I want to start a little revolution. I'm looking to change perceptions about diabetes and add years to people's lives," said Professor Mackay.

The key, researchers have discovered, is fibre. While fibre has consistently been recommended by Australian Diabetes Council's dietitians and educators, its significance in regulating the bacteria found in the gut, and in turn the immune and metabolic responses, has not yet been fully understood.

"The theme for World Diabetes Day is 'take a step for diabetes' and our members bold decision to invest $5 million to fund Professor McKay's appointment can be seen as a collective leap for diabetes in Australia as it ensures continued innovation in diabetes research" said Nicola Stokes, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Diabetes Council.

"We elected to partner with the Charles Perkins Centre because it brings together experts and researchers from different disciplines in collaboration designed to ease the daily impact of chronic disease by translating the work of the University of Sydney into real-world solutions", she added

"We wanted to find someone who is internationally recognised as an outstanding researcher. We're particularly excited about appointing Professor Mackay as his research spans a great range of interconnected areas, including microbiology of the gut, inflammation, immune function and the relationship to autoimmune and metabolic conditions" said Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre.

"We are at the beginning of understanding the combination of environmental and biological factors that determine metabolic and autoimmune disease, and Professor Mackay will bring together a truly multidisciplinary team with a new perspective to translate this groundbreaking research to improve people's lives," said Professor Simpson.

"Professor Mackay has an internationally recognised CV in research and life changing projects that have translated into new treatments and real world impacts on people impacted by disease. His network of colleagues stretches around Australia and around the globe, so his approach will be to ignite this network for the benefit of diabetes research in Australia," said Ms Stokes.

Thursday, 14 November is World Diabetes Day, recognised by the UN as an official day to raise awareness of the disease around the globe.


Pushing the boundaries of biology and philosophy

Professor Paul Griffiths

Professor Paul Griffiths

Professor Paul Griffiths explains how his new research project, funded by a major grant from a philanthropic foundation, aims to fill a gap in the scientific worldview.

Paul Griffiths, Professor of Philosophy and Associate Academic Director (Humanities and Social Sciences) at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre has been awarded a grant of US$1.2m from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to pursue his work on the concept of information in molecular biology.

“The source of order in living systems has been the key question at the boundary of biology and philosophy since the 18th century,” says Paul.

“The idea that living organisms are the product of information stored in their genome is a familiar one. But the reality is more complex and there are still fundamental theoretical issues to be resolved.”

Paul’s work illustrates how the Charles Perkins Centre’s interdisciplinary approach is creating new and exciting opportunities for innovation in learning and teaching.

He says that while grants for theoretical biology are not as rare as people might think, what is unusual in this case is that research of such a pure nature is being funded by a charitable foundation, rather than a government research agency.

"It is important to realise that this purely theoretical, conceptual work is significant enough to attract outside support – that there are people out there in the world who believe this is how we move forward."

The project, Causal Foundations of Biological Information, will develop a measure of biological information inspired by the early theoretical insights of Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. It aims to show that environmental contributions to the development of living things can be measured in the same informational currency as genetic contributions.

“It is increasingly clear that many diseases result from long-term changes in gene expression caused by the environment. This raises the issue of how to think about the factors that interact with the genome,” says Paul, also a Deputy Director of the Sydney Centre for the Foundations of Science.

“It is widely believed that living systems differ from non-living because they are driven by information, much of which has accumulated during evolution, and much of which is genetically transmitted. But at present, there is no specifically biological measure of information that can underpin this vision.

“This project aims to fill that gap by grounding the idea of biological information in new approaches from the philosophy of science. If successful, it will lead to novel quantitative measures of biological information with wide potential application in biological and biomedical research."

Paul will conduct the research together with Dr Karola Stotz and a new research fellow to be appointed under the grant. Paul and Karola’s book Genetics and Philosophy: An Introduction was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2013.


New research centre sheds light on Western Sydney's most pressing health issues

Prof Bruce Robinson; Prof Michael Peek; Fiona Scott MP; Prof Jill Trewhella, Prof Stephen Simpson

L to R: Prof Bruce Robinson; Prof Michael Peek; Fiona Scott MP, Member for Lindsay; Prof Jill Trewhella; Prof Stephen Simpson

The University of Sydney is bringing its most innovative and visionary multi-disciplinary research and education centre to Western Sydney to find real-world solutions to some of the most pressing health issues in the region: obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The Charles Perkins Centre Nepean, based at Sydney Medical School's Nepean Clinical School, will bring together internationally recognised health and medical researchers with experts from fields as diverse as architecture, social sciences and engineering to find practical approaches to help ease the burden of chronic disease.

As Australia's leading causes of morbidity and mortality, the effects of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are particularly pronounced in Western Sydney. More than half of its rapidly growing and ageing population is overweight or obese, with high rates of stress, diabetes and smoking.

"Obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are not going to be fixed by medical treatments alone," says Professor Michael Peek, Head of Sydney Medical School Nepean and local Windsor resident.

"What is needed is research expertise from many different groups, working together, to better understand and solve the complexities of these diseases. This new centre gives us a great opportunity to contribute to this fight for better health."

The Centre was be launched on 9 October by University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Jill Trewhella, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre Professor Stephen Simpson, Dean of Sydney Medical School Professor Bruce Robinson and Professor Michael Peek. Local dignitaries included Bart Bassett MP, Member for Londonderry, Fiona Scott MP, Member for Lindsay and Counsellor Ross Fowler, Mayor of Penrith.

The Charles Perkins Centre Nepean will work with the Western Sydney community and the Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District to develop research programs, collaborate on new research partnerships, develop cross-disciplinary teaching programs, and inspire and train the next generation of researchers and practitioners.

"We hope that by working hand-in-hand with local residents we'll be able to make real differences not just to their lives, but to the lives of people all over Australia," says Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre. "Working directly with local communities is at the heart of the research and education mission of the Charles Perkins Centre. With strong existing community support for research and education at the University's Sydney Medical School Nepean, we are confident that Charles Perkins Centre Nepean will be a valuable partnership for both local residents and researchers."


Designing collaborative learning and teaching spaces

Dr Tina Hinton

Dr Tina Hinton

The Charles Perkins Centre's new building (our research and education hub, based at the Camperdown Campus) features several spaces dedicated to teaching. These include a 240 seat X-lab, 120 seat microscopy lab, flexible learning spaces, small group spaces equipped with presentation technology, an exercise laboratory and informal “in between” learning spaces.

We have gathered a multidisciplinary team to evaluate how these new learning spaces can change the way we teach and change the student and staff experience. The team includes biomedical science educators, educational researchers, ICT and e-learning experts, and Charles Perkins Centre managers. It also forms part of the PhD projects of Martin Parisio and Pippa Yeoman from the Faculty of Education and Social Work.

At the heart of the project is the investigation of the transition from traditional learning and teaching spaces into new, innovative ones. Evaluation of existing spaces that service current teaching and technological needs will provide a basis for comparing the new learning and teaching spaces in the centre's new building.

A variety of survey and observational methods will be used to gather information from students, academic and technical staff, to understand perceptions and expectations of the learning spaces, equipment and technologies.

The project team will consider aspects like group sizes, multiple disciplines in one space, student and staff interaction, types of learning activities, size of laboratories, traffic, ambient noise, access to resources, specialised and general equipment, software tools and online environments.

“All of our Pharmacology classes will be taught in the new Charles Perkins Centre learning and teaching spaces," says Dr Tina Hinton, a biomedical science educator on the team. "We will be teaching large groups, with cohorts from different disciplines, years of candidature, and degree programs working side by side, and in new types of learning spaces with new equipment and technologies. We are excited about the transition, it will provide us with opportunities to try new things."

Another member of the project team, Pippa Yeoman, a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Peter Goodyear, says "the new space is an embodiment of a change in ways of doing. We anticipate the spaces themselves will facilitate multidisciplinary learning and teaching, by increasing collaboration between staff and students within and across disciplines, promoting integration of learning and teaching. The spaces will also increase options for choice of teaching and learning strategies and prompt curriculum renewal."

The other PhD student involved in the project, Martin Parisio, points out that "space can influence activity in subtle yet important ways. It can make us feel comfortable, supported and inspired. Little is known about the way space influences learning and teaching. This project is an exciting opportunity to inform future design-work in higher education.”

This building and the new learning and innovative spaces will provide a new benchmark for sustainable excellence in learning and teaching spaces across the university.

Project team: Dr Tina Hinton, Martin Parisio, Pippa Yeoman, Dr Beat Schwendimann, Professor Philip Poronnik, Professor Peter Tregloan, Dr Jane Radford, Dr Margot Day, Dr Scott Byrne, Professor Peter Goodyear, Dr Amani Bell, Ms Kathleen Donohoe.

For more information, please contact Dr Tina Hinton or Professor Philip Poronnik.


Summer research scholarships

Summer research scholarships poster

Summer research scholarships poster

Our latest round of Summer Research Scholarships, which closed on 30 September, generated a high level of interest and many applications.

The scholarships offer full-time undergraduate students the chance to be involved in research to deliver new ways to prevent or manage the individual and societal impacts of these conditions.

Students on each project receive a stipend of $300 per week (maximum of eight weeks). Projects can start as soon as the scholarship is awarded, but they must conclude by February of the following year.

Keep an eye on the guidelines and timeline for next year's
scholarships. Applications will probably be due around the end of September 2014.

Read about the 2012 projects worked on by our summer scholarship recipients.


Coming events

Are you interested in learning more about the research being undertaken by the Charles Perkins Centre, meeting our team or getting involved in an event?

In the coming months, the Charles Perkins Centre is hosting a number of research-focussed networking and collaboration events. For more information, visit our events page. You can also subscribe to our events list to get information on coming events. Email