Oral vaccines, rare ecosystems and microplastic map

Black summer bushfire research, a vaccine against a childhood virus and a science education program for Indigenous students are among the winners of the 2021 Eureka Prizes, announced Thursday night at a virtual ceremony.

Presented annually by the Australian Museum since 1990, the Eureka Prizes recognise scientific excellence of both individuals and organisations. Seventeen prizes were awarded this year across categories of leadership, research and innovation, science engagement and more.

Among those honoured was Australian Antarctic Division ecologist Dana Bergstrom, who took out the prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science.

“My work focuses on protecting the really rare Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic ecosystems,” she said in a statement.

“There’s intrinsic value in the wildlife, plants, animals and fungi of the region, but there’s also rich scientific value. To study a place that’s gone through many ice ages and understand how the plants and animals survive will help us predict what might happen to our climate into the future.”

Bergstrom received the award for the decades she has spent championing evidence-based science in biodiversity, biosecurity and the impacts of climate change – including research into ecosystem collapse from Australia’s tropics to Antarctica.

“This research sounded the alarm on the breakdown of the ecosystems, but also provided advice on ways to slow this trend,” she said.

Ten out of the 17 award categories honoured women, including the prize for Infectious Disease Research, which was awarded to Professor Julie Bines from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and University of Melbourne.

Bines and team have developed a new oral vaccine for rotavirus gastroenteritis.

People in hard hats and fluoro vests stand in burnt forest
NSW Bushfire Hub – Finalists, 2021 NSW Environment, Energy and Science (DPIE) Eureka Prize for Applied Environmental Research Credit: University of Wollongong

“Rotavirus continues to be a major cause of death in young children and infants around the world, particularly in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia,” Bines said.

This disease is preventable, with two safe and effective vaccines existing, but costs prevent children in poorer countries from accessing them. Each year, 250,000 children will die from rotavirus.

“We’re working with emerging country vaccine manufacturers to produce a safe and effective and affordable vaccine that has the potential to save many thousands of lives and prevent suffering in many more,” Bines said.

Another lifesaver is the NSW Bushfire Hub, which received the award for Applied Environmental Research for their research into the devastating Black Summer bushfires. Their work spanned droughts, fire weather, fuel dynamics, and the social and environmental impacts.

“We found that the main causes were unprecedented drought and fire weather,” explains hub director Associate Professor Owen Price, from the University of Wollongong. “Our research directly influenced the inquiry recommendations.”

The collaboration resulted in 19 submissions to the NSW Bushfire Inquiry.

Read more: What fuelled Australia’s “Black Summer” fires?

The Innovation in Citizen Science prize went to the Australian Microplastic Assessment Project (AUSMAP), a national program that trains citizen scientists to collect data on microplastics, particularly on beaches and waterways.

Five people sit on a mat in an arid area, looking at pictures of animals and people, while someone films
Cassandra Algy Nimarra and Felicity Meakins record director-matcher tasks with Jamieisha Barry Nangala, Regina Crowson Nangari and Quitayah Frith Namija. Credit: Jennifer Green 2017

To date over 700 citizen scientists have removed more than one million pieces from our shoreline, and a map of hotspots has been produced.

The prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research was awarded to a team studying Gurindji, an Indigenous language in the remote communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu in the Northern Territory.

The winning team includes Indigenous community member Cassandra Algy, linguist Felicity Meakins, mathematician Xia Hua and biologist Lindell Bromham. Together, they’re striving to understand the processes of language change, and to work out how to keep Indigenous languages strong.

Other winners include the team behind a bioprinting machine that prints 3D models of cancer cells; Dr Emma Camp, from the University of Technology Sydney, whose research focuses on corals in extreme conditions; and Corey Tutt and Team DeadlyScience, an education program committed to getting young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids into STEM.

A little closer to home, the Finkel Foundation Eureka Prize for Long-Form Science Journalism was awarded to Dr Dyani Lewis, for her piece in Cosmos 87 titled “Role Models in a Time of Pandemic”.

Congratulations to all the winners. Read the full list here.

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