Early in the COVID-19 pandemic Australian epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre suddenly found herself in the centre of a storm about masks.
Her response and a long body of work has led to her being awarded the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science, one of the most prestigious awards in Australia’s science community.
In a little known story on Radio National (scroll to 47 minutes), MacIntyre says she had to quickly respond to calls from around the world from anxious doctors because they had run out of masks. “It was just assumed that people would always have access to disposable masks,” she told Radio National.
“I had desperate calls from physicians in the US and other countries asking ‘is it better for me to wear no masks or a cloth mask when I’m treating patients because I have no options?’
“So that was really alarming. I wrote back and said you should really not be working without an N95 respirator but if you choose to work then any mask is better than no mask.
“And then we went back and did further research that we hadn’t published from the data of a trial and found it was actually the washing of the cloth masks that made a difference … that if you just handwashed it, it ended up being worse than no mask, but if you washed it in a washing machine at high temperatures it performed almost as well as a surgical mask.”
MacIntyre says the biggest challenge she confronted was countering the advance of distrust in facts.
“The pandemic has seen a rise in disinformation and an anti-science agenda. So when you are trying to stick to the science, speaking truth to power, it’s very very difficult when everyone else is pushing a different agenda.”
MacIntyre is the Professor of Global Biosecurity with the Kirby Institute at University of New South Wales and a National Health and Medical Research Council Principal Research Fellow, who leads a research program on the prevention and control of infectious diseases
Eureka Leadership Award recipient Professor Raina MacIntyre in Cosmos:
Among the 15 awards was recognition for the team behind a high-tech microscope slide that enables pathologists to detect breast cancer at the earliest stage of development, which won the Eureka Prize in the Innovative Use of Technology category.
Co-inventor of the NanoMslide, Professor Brian Abbey, says by applying a coating created using cutting edge nanofabrication technology, the research team has “turned the humble glass microscope slide into a diagnostic lab”.
“Comparing images from our slides to conventional staining is a bit like watching colour television when all you’ve seen before is black and white,” Abbey says.
Abbey, the Deputy Director of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) and Professor of Physics at La Trobe University, has spent more than six years developing the technology along with co-inventor Dr Eugeniu Balaur, also at La Trobe University, and Associate Professor Belinda Parker, a cancer research expert from Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
Fifteen individuals and teams were recognised across the categories of Research & Innovation, Leadership, Science Engagement and School Science.
Australian Museum director and CEO Kim McKay congratulated the 2022 winners and highlighted the impact Australian scientists have on tackling global issues.
“We are facing major global challenges that require collaborative actions across governments, universities, cultural institutions and creative individuals,” McKay said.
“The scientists who were recognised show that the odds are in our favour to find solutions to those challenges. Their achievements demonstrate that we have the resources and ideas – from 3D printing, alternative and green energy, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology – to build a world that helps sustain us for the future,” McKay added.
Established in 1990, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes were created to celebrate the work of Australian scientists, and how their contributions are producing world-leading results that can influence the lives of many across the globe.
“From trailblazers in sustainable packaging, robotic imaging and motor neuron disease research, the winners of the 2022 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes show the very deep breadth of talent we have representing Australia on the world stage,” McKay said.
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