Research leaders recognised with Australian Laureate Fellowships

9 July 2021
Three prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowships
University of Sydney researchers have been awarded $9.5 million to conduct ground-breaking research as part of the Australian Research Council's (ARC) 2021 Australian Laureate Fellowship scheme.

The University of Sydney has been awarded three of 17 highly coveted ARC Australian Laureate Fellowships. Announced by Minister for Education and Youth, Alan Tudge, the Fellowships recognise the best research in Australia and from around the world.

The researchers were awarded $9.5 million to deliver a soil monitoring, assessment and restoration system; model the response to the treatment of solid tumours; and address knowledge gaps about L-form bacteria – a source of antibiotic resistance.

Congratulating the recipients on their Fellowships, Professor Duncan Ivison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), said:

“I am incredibly proud to see our researchers recognised by their prestigious ARC Australian Laureate Fellowships. This is an outstanding achievement and we lead the country, along with ANU, in the number of fellowships won this year.

“The areas of research are all vital to Australia’s future and well-being, and Professors McBratney, Byrne and Errington will provide leadership and inspiration for our research ambitions at Sydney.”

Professor Alex McBratney

Professor Alex McBratney, a world-leading soil scientist, has been awarded $3.2 million to deliver a first-of-its-kind comprehensive systematic soil monitoring system as part of an overall framework for evaluating soil security in Australia and worldwide.

“For the world’s growing population to develop sustainably, we must address six existential environmental challenges—food, water and energy security, climate change abatement, biodiversity protection and human health. Soil plays a pivotal and integrative role in each of these, indeed soil security can be considered the seventh existential environmental challenge,” said Professor McBratney, Inaugural Director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture.

“97 percent of our food comes from agricultural soils and the world’s soil contains more than twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. Yet much of our productive lands are currently degraded, with soil loss, salinisation and acidification severely impacting the ability of soils to contribute to planetary health.”

Professor McBratney’s research will create a detailed reference map of the Australian landscape to explain impacts on our soil cover. Soil security indicators will be created from which actions can be prioritised, while early warning systems will offer predictive capability around emerging threats to soil condition, feeding into best-management practices for regeneration. This will see soil secured for future generations and Australia at the forefront of soil assessment and restoration.

“Expected outcomes will also include a think tank on soil security. There is no soil think tank globally – consequently policymakers and the public are not well-informed on soil issues. The think tank will be a way of translating the new science in this program into public policy.”

Professor Helen Byrne

Mathematical biologist and pioneer in the field of mathematical oncology, Professor Helen Byrne, has received $3 million to model the growth and response to the treatment of solid tumours.

“This project aims to unlock the potential of biomedical data through the development of new mathematical approaches that combine concepts from pure and applied mathematics, statistics and data science, and then to investigate their ability to generate mechanistic insight into fundamental biomedical processes,” said Professor Byrne.

“The expected outcome is a paradigm shift in mathematical biology while strengthening Australia’s reputation as a world-leader in mathematical biology. My hope is that it could lead to new mathematical models that guide decision making in the clinic.”

Professor Byrne’s research has transformed multiscale and multiphase models of tissue growth, wound healing and angiogenesis. She is currently based at the University of Oxford and is an international representative on the Advisory Board of the University of Sydney Mathematical Research Institute.

Professor Jeffery Errington

Cell and molecular biologist, Professor Jeffery Errington, has been awarded $3.2 million to addresses key gaps in knowledge on a breakthrough area of bacterial science: cell wall deficient, “L-form” bacteria.

Professor Errington currently leads the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology at Newcastle University in the UK, one of the world's largest groupings working on fundamental studies of tractable model bacteria. Professor Errington will join the School of Medical Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine and Health in 2022. 

“My goal is to improve our understanding of the basic biology of L-forms and employ them as tools to better understand the mechanisms of cell wall synthesis and how antibiotics work, as models for early steps in the evolution of cellular life, and as a significant new platform for the production of proteins and fine chemicals,” said Professor Errington.

“I plan to establish a new Australian centre, unique internationally, on bacterial cell science and exploitation, which will drive major advances in understanding of these important organism.”

Outcomes and benefits of the research project will include improved understanding of how to generate new antibiotics and the development of new platforms for Australian biotechnology and biocommerce.

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