22 December 2015

 Group Picture of Future Fellows 2015 with ARC CEO Aidan Byrne and Senator Hon Simon Birmingham

Image: Some of the new 2015 Future Fellows at the announcement event in Brisbane with Minister Simon Birmingham and ARC CEO Professor Aidan Byrne. 
Image courtesy: Ray Cash Photography.

Fifty new Future Fellows will soon commence important research programmes worth more than $38.6 million and covering a broad range of research disciplines.

Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham, announced the new fellowships at a ceremony at Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art campus in Brisbane.

“These 50 Fellows will build on the nation’s innovation efforts and deliver research outcomes that will improve the lives of everyday Australians,” Minister Birmingham said.

Chief Executive Officer of the ARC, Professor Aidan Byrne, said at the announcement event that the Future Fellowships scheme was vital for supporting mid-career researchers to conduct their research in Australia.

“Our Future Fellows are our future leaders and this scheme is also about making sure that those fellows are able to move forward and produce outputs that provide real benefits to the nation.

“Those benefits are across a range of fronts—they improve jobs, economic activity and the well-being of the nation.”

Professor Byrne went on to say that the 2015 round of Future Fellows was extremely competitive with only 50 fellowships available.

“Five out of six applicants did not get a fellowship…the future of the country sits on these new fellows’ shoulders.

“I am confident that this is an outstanding cohort of fellows.”

Three of the new 2015 Future Fellows spoke at the announcement event about their research projects and their passion for making a difference.

Dr Fiona Barlow is a research fellow from the School of Psychology at Griffith University. Dr Barlow will investigate the harmful effects of racism and develop solutions to promote social cohesion.

“We’re becoming increasingly multicultural as a nation and as a global community—that brings with it amazing opportunity, but also challenge,” she said.

“From acts of intergroup violence, to riots and even in destructive behaviour online, it’s obvious that we need to find solutions to what is an old problem.

“In my project I mix cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental design to look at the most common intergroup interactions that we have to understand the small encounters and how small, positive interactions between members of different groups can create understanding and intergroup positivity.

“But I also want to look at how the small negative interactions, those that are uncomfortable, awkward or even hostile, can drive us further apart.

“I want to emerge from these four years able to give concrete suggestions about how we can increase positive interactions and better manage the negative ones.”

Dr Barlow went on to talk about the importance of her fellowship in giving younger researchers greater opportunity.

“My Future Fellowship frees me up to train a new generation of researchers to conduct the research that I love and that I believe is meaningful, publish it in top-tier outlets and communicate the findings of my work to members of the general public and relevant organisations.

“To me the Future Fellowships scheme signals Australia’s commitment to supporting and leading the way with world-class research and to building a brighter and more cooperative future.”

Another of the Future Fellows who spoke on the day was Dr Timothy Dargaville from Queensland University of Technology. Dr Dargaville will develop a 3D moulding process for generating soft materials. Future applications of his research include tissue transplants and microfluidic devices to study cancer metastasis.

Dr Dargaville explained two of the main barriers to printing organs and tissue for the body and how his research would assist in addressing those issues.

“Some of the materials (currently) being used often have more in common with what you would find in the hardware store as opposed to what you would find in the human body.

“Also, it’s extremely difficult to get a network of channels in there as a blood supply.”

A few years ago a research team, including Dr Dargaville, commenced work on a new material that has ‘stealth properties’, that is, the material is invisible to the body and if you implant it, is less likely to be rejected.

The material also has interesting chemistry, hence it can be functionalised so that it can go from a liquid to a gel simply by shining light on it. The material is also relatively cheap and easy to make.

According to Dr Dargaville, the development of new polymers is a multi-billion dollar industry, hence development is critical.

The other technology that his team has been working on in recent years is a novel 3D printing process for making microfibres about one-fifth the thickness of human hair. This is performed by melting the polymer (or material), extruding it through a nozel, then using an electric charge to extend the fibre to position it precisely into a programmed pattern.

Recently researchers combined these two technologies—the created gels and fibres. They went about encapsulating the fibres in the gel, then washed away the fibres. Much to their surprise, this left a perfect negative copy of the original fibre pattern, i.e. a new capillary channel network for blood supply.

Dr Dargaville’s Future Fellowship will allow further optimisation of polymers, gels and microfibre printing and the funding will also allow his team to continue collaborations with experts around the world.

“Initial applications will include such things as microfluidic devices to study how cancers spread, soft robotics and also as an artificial cornea to treat blindness.”

Another important aspect of the Future Fellowships scheme was highlighted through the third speaker on the day, Associate Professor Christine Wells, a genome biologist from The University of Queensland (UQ).

Currently Associate Professor Wells works half of her time at UQ and half at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

“One of the most immediate outcomes of the Future Fellowship is that I will be able to come home full-time.”

This is one of the goals of this mid-career fellowship scheme, that is, to give outstanding researchers incentives to conduct their research in Australia. While international experience is important for Australian researchers, it is also vital they have the opportunity to return home to continue their work.

Associate Professor Wells is an internationally recognised pioneer of genomics in its application to innate immunity and stem cell biology. She has driven programmes to identify the genetic elements which define the innate immune system, contribute to the regulation of immune genes and describe the functions of new gene products.

Associate Professor Wells said her Future Fellowship will enable research that will have broad applications to stem cell biology and further developments in tissue engineering.

“We aim to identify new classifiers of stem cell populations, which will provide molecular predictors of the differentiation potential stem cells have,” Associate Professor Wells said.

“The group has had very positive results to date in developing new statistical models addressing stem cell behaviour, and we hope this work will provide the basis for understanding other cellular systems as well.”

For more information about the 50 new Future Fellows awarded funding in 2015 or data around the 2015 round, please visit the Funding Announcements page via the ARC website.