Tracking the spread of deadly diseases

Dr Kathryn (Kat) Holt, Bio21 Institute, The University of Melbourne

Kathryn-Holt-700x500-2Kat Holt is using genetics, maths and supercomputers to study the whole genome of deadly bacteria and work out how they spread. Studying a typhoid epidemic in Kathmandu, she found that it didn’t spread in the way we thought epidemics did. Her research, published in Nature Genetics, will change how we go about responding to epidemics.

With the support of her L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship, Kat will be using the same techniques to understand how antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread in Melbourne hospitals. Are people catching these superbugs in hospital, or are they bringing the bugs into hospital with them? Can we give the intensive care clinicians early warning of a drug-resistant bacteria in their patients?

Kathryn (Kat) has been a pioneer ever since she became the first student at the University of Western Australia to undertake an honours year in the then-fledgling area of bioinformatics.

Kat ventured across the Nullarbor to the other side of Australia—to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne—where she sought advice from bioinformatics guru Prof Terry Speed. As a result, she ended up as a doctoral student at the world renowned Sanger Institute at the University of Cambridge, one of the homes of the human genome project.
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How Australia and India broke up—100 million years ago

Dr Joanne (Jo) Whittaker, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart

Dr Joanne (Jo) Whittaker likes to solve jigsaw puzzles. Now this marine geoscientist is tackling the biggest puzzle on the planet—the formation of continents.
WithSDP_0059 the help of Australia’s national marine research vessels, and now her L’Oréal Fellowship, Jo is reconstructing how the Indian, Australian and Antarctic tectonic plates separated over the past 200 million years, forming the Indian Ocean and the continents as we see them today. This information will help us model climate change better, find new gas resources, and understand the dynamics of the land in which we live.

The piece of this jigsaw she is now working on centres on two underwater plateaux, the Batavia and Gulden Draak Knolls, towering about 3000 metres above the Perth Abyssal Plain (PAP), which is around 1600 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australia. In November 2011, Jo’s team mapped and sampled rocks from both knolls. Based on the evidence so far, Jo says, it looks like they split from the margins of the moving Indian Plate about 100 million years ago.
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When killing saves lives: our immune system at work

Dr Misty Jenkins, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne

Misty-Jenkins-700x500Dr Misty Jenkins spends a lot of her time watching killers at work: the white blood cells of the body that eliminate infected and cancerous cells. She can already tell you a great deal about how they develop into assassins and arm themselves. Now with the support of her L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship Misty is exploring how they become efficient serial killers—killing one cancer cell in minutes and moving on to hunt down others. Her work will give us a greater understanding of our immune system and open the way to better manage T cells to defeat disease.

Misty’s career so far has been quite a journey for a girl from Ballarat. Along the way she been mentored by Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Prof Peter Doherty and become the first Indigenous Australian to attend either Oxford or Cambridge. Now working with Prof Joe Trapani as a National Health and Medical Research Council  (NHMRC) postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Cell Death laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Misty has been awarded a $25,000 L’Oréal Australia and New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowship. She will use the money to further her study of what triggers T cells to detach themselves from their targets and seek additional prey.
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