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Five young UNSW researchers have won prestigious NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Awards, recognising their commitment to science and their drive to communicate.

The Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) honoured the up-and-coming scientists at a ceremony at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science, and named evolutionary biologist Dr Angela Crean of the University of Sydney the 2017 NSW Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year.

All nine winners will spend a year sharing their knowledge with school students, teachers and the broader community through workshops, seminars and public lectures.

“These Tall Poppies join a strong tradition of scientific research and communication here in NSW,” AIPS General Manager Camille Thomson said.

“They are already showing excellent promise and we are excited to see them become the guiding lights of science to future generations of enquiring minds.”

The UNSW winners include Dr Bridianne O’Dea of the Black Dog Institute, who is examining how mobile technology and social media can improve access to mental health care. She is currently trialling an online stepped-care clinic for adolescents, delivered in schools, called The Smooth Sailing project. It allows for detection of anxiety and depression symptoms, while delivering treatment.

“In Australia alone, one in five people have a mental health problem yet only one in three will seek help,” Dr O’Dea said.

“I hope this award continues the work of myself and others in breaking down the stigma of mental illness and improving quality of life for all.”


Dr Bridianne O'Dea Photo: Black Dog Institute

Dr Emma Barrett at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) researches mental health and substance use treatment. Dr Barrett’s research has shown that young people exposed to life-threatening traumas in adolescence are four times more likely to develop debilitating mental health disorders and alcohol or other drug use disorders.

“By working directly with young people in schools we can intervene early in the trajectory and reduce the life-long harms associated with trauma and substance use,” Dr Barrett said.

“My research aims to support young people to understand their thoughts and feelings, build on their strengths and empower them to make positive choices so they can live life to the fullest.”   


Dr Emma Barrett. Photo: Supplied

Also at NDARC, Dr Louise Mewton has partnered with Lumosity to create a “smart games” program designed to prevent harmful alcohol use. The games are designed to strengthen areas of the brain that have been associated with harmful alcohol use, and the research will test whether they can prevent risky drinking.

“The Tall Poppy award will allow me to communicate my research to young Australians and promote the dissemination of the alcohol prevention programs that I’m involved in,” Dr Mewton said.

“It’s important that we get uptake of these programs in the wider community if we’re to have an impact on alcohol-related harms amongst young Australians.”


Dr Louise Mewton. Photo: Supplied

Dr Louis Wang at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute dedicated his award to his team-members in the Fatkin and Feneley laboratories as well as his supervisors and support staff. Dr Wang, a clinical cardiologist with an active clinical practice, has been involved in studying the mechanism of heart failure using high-frequency echocardiography in living zebrafish.

“One of the things I would like to encourage is increased participation of clinicians in cardiovascular research in Australia,” Dr Wang said.

“Closer working relationships and cross-talk between clinicians and scientists often leads to astute observations and insightful research, and stimulates creativity and innovation during problem-solving.”


Dr Louis Wang. Photo: Supplied

Dr Matthew Baker of UNSW Science uses pioneering methods in synthetic biology to template and shape the assembly of one of the pinnacles of evolution: the bacteria flagellar motor, an electric motor a millionth the size of a grain of sand can build itself, rotate five times faster than a Formula1 engine.

“Talking about science in the community is a great way to remind yourself what it is all about,” Dr Baker said.

“To justify the public funding of our work and to explain why what we do is not only a good use of taxpayer money but also why it is important to push the frontiers of human understanding.”


Dr Matthew Baker Photo: UNSW Science

The AIPS is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that works to promote excellence in research and innovation, increase public engagement in science and inform and influence policymaking.

Young Tall Poppies are nominated by their peers and are early career researchers who have under ten year’s post-doctoral experience.

Selection is based on research achievement and leadership potential. Over 500 young scientists have been honoured nationally since the awards were established in 2000.