UNSW researchers win prestigious Tall Poppy awards

UNSW researchers have been recognised in the prestigious Young Tall Poppy Science Awards for work on mental health in young people and building engineered tissue that reduces heart failure.

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Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, Dr Michelle Tye and Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina.

Three young UNSW researchers have won 2018 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Awards, recognising their commitment to scientific research and communication.

Now in their 20th year, the Tall Poppy Science Awards are run by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) and honour up-and-coming researchers for outstanding contributions to science, including technology, engineering, mathematics and medical research.

The awards are held on a state-by-state basis and acknowledge the researchers scientific achievements and their drive to communicate science and promote ongoing engagement in science within the education and community sectors.

“A more scientifically engaged society is something every scientist should aspire to and the reason that Tall Poppy winners are so important, for being passionate about this outcome,” said Professor Maria Kavallaris, Chair of the Australian Institute of Policy and Science.

Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina, a senior lecturer from the School of Biomedical Engineering, was recognised for research into effective treatments for damaged heart tissue caused by heart attacks. Dr Rnjak-Kovacina’s research explores the use of bioengineered tissues, such as cardiac patches, that can replace dead and damaged heart tissue.

“At the moment we are just managing the damage done after a heart attack as opposed to finding a solution. My work is in regenerating heart tissue, like grafting surgery involving the transplantation of skin,” said Dr Rnjak-Kovacina. “The goal is to develop materials that will allow better vascular supply and drive tissue vascularisation – process where body tissue becomes vascular and develops capillaries.”

Dr Rnjak-Kovacina’s vision is a future in which patients can be offered treatment solutions for cardiovascular disease by growing replacement tissues in a lab that will also have the potential to repair cardiac muscle of children born with congenital heart defects.

Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler and Dr Michelle Tye, both from UNSW Medicine and the Black Dog Institute, were recognised for their work in mental health, including depression and anxiety prevention programs for young people.

Dr Werner-Seidler has recently developed a smartphone application called Sleep Ninja, a gamified app to prevent insomnia based on cognitive behaviour therapy. The app involves six lessons, or ‘training sessions’ that work as a game, so users can progress to the next level after completing a series of tasks that involve sleeping tracking, including monitoring when you go to sleep and reminders around bedtime.

'Sadly, one-in-four teenagers experience symptoms of mental illness and of these, around 75% can’t or won’t seek help. I want to change this and reduce the devastating consequences it can have.'

The app does not rely on internet connection, drain phone battery or require data for download. She recently completed a pre-post pilot trial with results showing that the app can lead to reduced insomnia and depression symptoms. The intervention is being taken to trial in NSW in 400 schools.

“I've been investigating the effect of delivering mental health prevention programs for young people through digital devices appeals to adolescents,” said Dr Werner-Seidler. “Insomnia is a major risk factor for depression, but unlike depression is not associated with stigma.

“Sadly, one-in-four teenagers experience symptoms of mental illness and of these, around 75% can’t or won’t seek help. I want to change this and reduce the devastating consequences it can have.

“I'm driven by a desire to communicate my ideas to a wider community, such as the preventative programs for young people – being recognised by the AIPS gives me a great platform to speak from,” said Dr Werner-Seidler.

Dr Tye was recognised for her recent work on improving early detection and prevention of suicide.

“Sadly, suicide remains a complex devastating disease burden and the leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 44 years,” said Dr Tye. “It’s our job at the Black Dog Institute to prevent suicide, to enable mentally healthier lives across Australia, and to communicate these goals effectively to the people this work can benefit.”

For the past three years Dr Tye has sought to achieve this through trialling innovative, evidence-based prevention programs that have population reach, such as the Good Behaviour Game (GBG) in primary schools that is based on behavioural and emotional regulation through delayed, shared reward. GBG has the potential to improve peer networks among participants by creating opportunities for interaction between students who may not normally connect.

Dr Tye is also developing technology and using data to drive suicide prevention by creating geographical information systems from suicide data to develop suicide risk profiles for local regions.

“Less than 30% of people seek help after a suicide attempt. For many, suicide risk remains undetected and untreated. To combat this, improvements are needed in the timing, quality, and reach of prevention initiatives,” said Dr Tye.