Two Bendigo researchers have been named among the winners of the Australian Research Council's prestigious Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards.
Biophysicist Dr Donna Whelan and computer scientist Dr Khoa Phan are La Trobe's first regionally-based researchers to be named DECRA winners.
Honing in on the causes of diseases at a molecular level, and making cutting-edge technology more secure and efficient.
These are two of the groundbreaking research projects taking place in our city.
Recent recognition by the Australian Research Council could see more researchers travelling from all over the world to collaborate two scientists based at La Trobe University's Bendigo campus.
From a modestly-sized laboratory, tucked away within what can seem to the uninitiated like a maze, biophysicist Dr Donna Whelan is performing research few even have the equipment to match.
Researchers have to travel to Europe or New York to access microscopy that compares.
Using her bespoke microscope, Dr Whelan studies cells and DNA.
"In particular, I am interested in looking at DNA damage, which is kind of the pivotal event that causes a lot of diseases like cancer and neurodegeneration," she says.
By better understanding the chemistry, Dr Whelan and La Trobe University Bendigo pharmacy and biomedical science department head Dr Michael Angove believe there is a better chance of developing therapies to help cure diseases.
"From a research perspective, we're really hoping to understand on a molecular level how DNA damage is usually avoided," Dr Whelan says.
"Because almost always, somehow our cells fix DNA damage and we don't get sick.
"So if we can understand how our cells do that, we can harness that in a kind of therapeutic approach again for a lot of different diseases."
The bespoke microscope is one Dr Whelan created herself, based on not only her needs but those of other researchers.
"It combines the single molecule, high laser power I need for with a lot of accessibility for other student's projects, and then other researchers," she says.
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A $300,000 anonymous donation enabled Dr Whelan to develop the one-of-a-kind equipment.
Having recently won a prestigious and highly-competitive Discovery Early Career Research Award, she has big plans.
"I'm hoping to really be able to leverage it to get some really exciting research happening here on campus - get some students in, bring some collaborators over from overseas, really see if we can step up," Dr Whelan says.
The award assures Dr Whelan of three years of project money and a salary.
Academics conferred with a PhD within the previous five years are eligible to apply for the DECRA program.
Only 16.3 per cent of applicants were successful in 2018.
Dr Whelan says winning the award shows there is a lot of belief and support for what she was doing, which is a "fantastic boost".
The accolade is also outstanding for Bendigo, Dr Angove says.
"It really tells everyone the Australian Government in particular is really interested in the research we're doing here... they recognise the research is of world class, world standard, and that's really important," he says.
"You can do some things here - and Donna will be doing some thing here - that no-one else in the world can do."
Dr Whelan's research falls into one of the two main undergraduate science degrees offered at the campus, the Bachelor of Biomedical Science.
The other main undergraduate science degree offered in Bendigo is a Bachelor of Pharmacy.
"We have quite strong cohorts across our science degrees," Dr Angove says.
"It would be great to get more students interested in science."
He says interest in science has 'fallen off', nationwide.
"The more people get interested in doing science courses and doing really interesting research, the better off we're going to be as a country," Dr Angove says.
The research Dr Khoa Phan is doing also has medical applications, among things.
A lecturer in the Internet of Things, he has won a Discovery Early Career Research Award for his work on the challenges the technology faces in its applications.
Challenges include efficiencies and security.
"The Internet of Things connects everyone and everything together," Dr Phan says.
"There are many challenges when we think about that."
He has been conducting his research for several years, and anticipates it will continue for some years yet as the Internet of Things and its applications evolve.
"Everyone engages with the Internet of Things, one way or another, in their daily lives," Dr Phan says.
He is hopeful his research will help with its development.
"We will enable people to use new types of applications they've never used before," Dr Phan says.
For instance, he says the Internet of Things might be applied so devices can monitor the health of patients from the comfort of their homes, with data reported to doctors and health services.
In the event of an anomaly, the technology can ensure appropriate practitioners are alerted.
But the technology has to be secure to enable sensitive health data to be shared in such a way.
Dr Phan says the award will provide him with more time to focus on his research and explore opportunities for international collaborations.
"Just use it as a springboard to get more research output," he says.
La Trobe deputy vice-chancellor (research and industry engagement) Professor Susan Dodds congratulated the university's first regionally-based DECRA recipients.
"It is a great credit to the university, our staff at the Bendigo campus, and to the region as a whole, that we are able to attract and retain world-class researchers," she said.
"These successes in such a highly competitive environment recognise the depth of research talent we have at La Trobe, and show that our Bendigo campus has become an important research hub."
La Trobe Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional) Dr Guinever Threlkeld said awards like the DECRA recognised the importance of the research being done in Bendigo globally, not just in Australia.