UQ celebrates Queensland’s top young scientist

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A University of Queensland researcher supporting efforts to combat drug and alcohol use worldwide has been named the 2022 Queensland Young Tall Poppy of the Year.

Dr Gary Chan was among five UQ early career scientists recognised for excellence across fields as diverse as immune responses to viruses, genetic risk for heart disease, life on planets beyond the solar system and developing unbreakable glass.

Dr Chan is an epidemiologist and statistician at UQ’s National Centre For Youth Substance Use Research who is developing new ways to identify trends in substance abuse, a global social problem that causes 10 million deaths a year.

“I’ve analysed population health data to identify groups which may need targeted intervention, such as the growing number of young people using e-cigarettes,” Dr Chan explained.

“Using data from wastewater, which is more accurate and cost effective than surveys, I’ve identified drug or alcohol problem areas and then assessed the effectiveness of interventions like taxation.

“This is not just an award for myself, it is a recognition of the hard work of my team and students and the fantastic mentorship I have received at UQ.”

Dr Chan has worked with the United Nations and is currently supervising researchers from six countries.

Dr Jingwei Hou  believes that in 2022, the International Year of Glass, it is time to shatter expectations of the 5,000-year-old material.

“New hybrid glass made from metallic and organic components and embedded with a semiconductive material called perovskite is sponge-like and flexible at a nanoscale, so it is less likely to break,” Dr Hou said.

“It can make brighter screens with higher quality images for devices like phones and computers as well as have applications in optical sensors and membranes.”

As well as celebrating their research work, UQ’s Young Tall Poppy Award winners are recognised for their enthusiasm for communicating science beyond the laboratory.

Dr Larisa Labzin is an emerging leader in immunology and virology and says her most rewarding activity as a COVID-19 researcher was in community outreach.

“I tried to help people understand the science behind some of the public health decisions and the new treatments, in particular encouraging hesitant people to get vaccinated,” Dr Labzin said.

“My research work is in understanding how the immune system detects an infection and what specific alarm signals it sends out to start preparing a targeted response.”

Dr Sonia Shah has co-led one of the largest genetic studies on heart failure aiming to improve its prevention and treatment.

“Heart disease remains one of the biggest causes of death in Australia, and it is important to be able to identify high risk individuals ahead of time, in order to prevent disease,” Dr Shah said.

She is passionate about giving back to the community activities that increase literacy and participation in STEM.

Dr Benjamin Pope’s research is in stellar and exoplanetary science. He is part of a team taking high resolution images of baby planets outside of the solar system.

“Planets are very small and faint compared to stars, so I spend a lot of time developing technology to see them better,” Dr Pope said.

“I want to know whether we are alone in the universe, to uncover the origins of life on our own planet and find out how our Sun and other stars change and influence the planets around them.”

Image above left: UQ’s 2022 Queensland Young Tall Poppy Science Award winners Dr Sonia Shah, Dr Larisa Labzin, Dr Gary Chan, Dr Benjamin Pope and Dr Jingwei Hou with Professor Hugh Possingham, Queensland Chief Scientist, and Professor Alistair McEwan.

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