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Projects working to empower Indigenous youth, develop innovative climate change solutions, and stop the spread of malaria were included the Australian scientific initiatives highlighted during this week’s 2019 Australian Museum Eureka Prize ceremony. 

Known as the “Oscars” of Australian science, the Eureka Prizes honor “excellence across the areas of research and innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.” 

Let’s explore some of the innovations that took home a prize. 

Malaria Crusaders

A team of scientists and researchers working to curb the spread of malaria have won the Eureka Prize for Infectious Disease Research. The award is granted to an individual or team for “outstanding recent contributions to infectious diseases research.”

The Melbourne-based team discovered a potential vaccine against Plasmodium vivas (P. vivax), one of the most common and difficult to treat causes of malaria. The scientists found that when mosquitoes infect a human through their bite, the P. vivax malaria parasite fastens onto a precise human protein that carries iron to blood cells. 

Upon discovery, the team then worked to create an antibody to stop the parasite.

"P. vivax is the main obstacle to malaria elimination in the Asia-Pacific and the Americas,” Associate Professor Tham said in a statement. “Our team combines unique expertise in malaria biology, population studies, and statistical models to overcome these challenges and support the region-wide goal of malaria elimination by 2030.”

Around 500 Australians are infected with malaria each year. Those infected are usually people returning home from traveling in high-burden malaria areas like much of Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. 

There were 219 million recorded cases worldwide in 2017 — with around 435,000 deaths.  

Protecting Ecosystems  

A pproject working to conserve coastal wetlands took home the Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

The Blue Carbon Horizons Team work to protect wetlands, because doing so, they claim, allows the ecosystems to store carbon and fight climate change. 

Kerrylee Rogers, who leads the team out of the University of Wollongong, says mangroves absorb and stow carbon in their roots. These roots can stay in place for thousands of years, Rogers states, because they are often submerged in water and their decay is slow. 

"We found that as sea levels rise, so too does the capacity of wetlands to capture and lock away more of this carbon,” Rogers states. “Our findings provide a powerful incentive for the conservation and restoration of wetlands in Australia and across the globe.

These mangrove roots also work as a shield against coastal erosion and flooding, Rogers explained. 

Cancer Care 

Laura Mackay, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, was presented the Outstanding Early Career Researcher Award. Her work explores which immune cells in the human body give the greatest protection against infection. 

"Our discovery is that there is a type of immune cell which exists within tissues of the body and can’t circulate or be found in the blood,” Mackay explained in a video for the Australian Museum. “And these cells can form a defensive barrier around the tissue, providing long-lasting immunity against infections and also tumors.”

"Our hope is that by studying these cells, we can generate new information that can inform new vaccines against a range of diseases,” she added. 

Cancer is one of the most common causes of death in Australia. The Cancer Council Australia estimates that 55,000 Australians will die from the disease this year. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 1.1 times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. 

Indigenous Representation 

The National Indigenous Science Education Program claimed the Eureka Prize for STEM Inclusion for their efforts to use science to encourage and inspire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. 

The in-school programs see Indigenous elders pass on their traditional knowledge to the students, who are then encouraged to vocalize the importance of science-based activities to their peers. 

Macquarie University collaborates on the program alongside the Indigenous Yaegl and Bundjalung communities.

"When we talk about Indigenous STEM there is this deep knowledge that Aboriginal elders and Torres Strait Islander peoples have,” Joanne Jamie, an associate professor at the university, told SBS. “And there is a whole host of knowledge that they have, including things like understanding bush foods and bush medicines.”

“We can combine the wonderful knowledge that they have — for example, using plants for the treatment of wounds — with some of the science that I do. That can help us understand what the active ingredients in those plants are," she added.

The program works across 16 underprivileged high schools and three universities.


Demand Equity

Malaria Crusaders Recognized in the ‘Oscars’ of Australian Science

By Madeleine Keck