Three research students studying ancient viruses in cane toads, the eye condition myopia, and individualised treatments for mental health, have each won $5000 prizes in the 2017 UNSW Science Postgraduate Research Competition.

Three runners-up also received $3000 each for their research on pattern-matching skills in forensic science, the rising incidence of whooping cough, and a possible new treatment for anxiety in adolescents.

More than 70 students participated in the competition in which they were judged on the quality of an abstract and a poster outlining their research project and findings.

Their third and possibly most difficult task was to give a one-minute long presentation summarising their work in front of a large audience in Leighton Hall in the Scientia Building at UNSW. Judging criteria included communication style, clarity and audience engagement.

Science broadcaster and presenter of The Science Show on ABC Radio National, Robyn Williams, was a celebrity judge of the event and plans to highlight the research of some of the students on his program. Other judges included leading researchers from UNSW Science and other UNSW faculties.

In congratulating students for their engaging presentations, Robyn said there were many benefits in them learning to communicate their science well, including understanding their own work better. “If you have to distil it, it becomes clearer,” he said.

Learning to speak well was a vital skill for any job, he said, giving particular praise to the students entering the competition who did not have English as their first language.

Robyn also highlighted the Top 5 Under 40 competition - an initiative between UNSW and ABC Radio National which gives five outstanding science communicators the opportunity to be scientists in residence for a fortnight at the ABC.

That two of the five winners - Dr Denton Callander and Dr Ursula Sansom-Daly – came from UNSW showed the quality of science communication at the University was “demonstrably superb”, he said: “They are not only good scientists, they can articulate what they are doing as well."

Associate Dean (Research) Professor Chris Tinney said the postgraduate research competition was a highlight of the year, showcasing the huge breadth of the research being carried out at UNSW Science.

“I’m always amazed at how well you can avoid jargon and acronyms, so you can explain your research to people in the audience outside your field.”

Most research was funded by the public purse, he said: “So it is incumbent upon all of us to pass that information on.”

The six winners and runners-up will use their prize money to travel to international conferences or go on research visits. The winners will also represent the Faculty at the UNSW Three Minute Thesis Competition on Wednesday 13 September 2017.

There were six main categories: Climate, Environment and Sustainability; Industry-Linked Research; Energy and Materials Technology; Science and Society; Cutting-edge Discovery; Health, Lifestyle and Ageing.

The 2017 winners are:

Alice Russo (School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences) in Climate, Environment and Sustainability category

Title: Ancient viruses provide insights for cane toad biocontrol

Divya Jagadeesh (School of Optometry and Vision Science) in Science and Society category

Title: Development of an eye model to control myopia

Gabrielle King (School of Psychology) in Health, Lifestyle and Ageing category

Title: A pill for every ill: A precision medicine approach to psychoactive drugs

The 2017 runners-up are:

Bethany Growns (School of Psychology) in Industry-Linked Research category

Title: Forensic science expertise: how learning the frequency of features could underlie forensic expertise

Madelyne Bisby (School of Psychology) in Science and Society category

Title: Reducing fear and anxiety in adolescence: are endocannabinoids the answer?

Laurence Luu (School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences) in Health, Lifestyle and Ageing category

Title: How is the whooping cough bacterium evolving to beat the vaccine?

People’s Choice Award:

Gaurav Vats (School of Materials science and Engineering) in Energy and Materials Technology category

Title: Magnetic skyrmions: Towards a universal memory