Tall Poppies investigate TB, reef fish and coastal communities

Three James Cook University scientists have been recognised by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in its annual Queensland Tall Poppy awards held in Brisbane tonight.

JCU’s Tall Poppy winners are tuberculosis researcher Dr Andreas Kupz from JCU’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine in Cairns, along with Dr Michele Barnes and Dr Peter Cowman, both from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) in Townsville.

Dr Andreas Kupz has embarked on a biological arms race to develop an effective, life-long vaccine for tuberculosis (TB).

“The current vaccine, BCG, only protects children, has limited efficacy in adults and is not recommend for people with a suppressed immune system,” he said. “My team is working to genetically enhance BCG to also protect adults and people with immuno-suppression.”

The research team is also working on ways to make the existing vaccine more effective, by changing the way it’s delivered.

“Tuberculosis is one of the top 10 causes of death world-wide, and the leading cause of death from a single infectious agent. Finding a vaccine for adults is critical,” Dr Kupz said.

“The burden of TB falls mostly in poorer countries, so recognition in these awards is helpful in drawing attention to the problem, and our efforts to find solutions.”

Dr Michele Barnes draws on network science, sociology, and economics to move beyond a predominantly biological focus on coral reefs to a broader understanding of the links between healthy coral reef ecosystems and the wellbeing of human societies.

“You’ve probably heard the saying ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. What this gets at is that social networks matter.

“My team is investigating how social networks matter for environmental sustainability.

“To achieve sustainable use and governance of environmental resources, we need to better understand people and group dynamics, across different cultures.”

Dr Barnes’ current projects span the divide between the developed and developing world, with field sites in coastal Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and Hawaii.

“Coral reefs support the livelihoods of millions of people across the globe, yet they are facing significant threats to their long-term viability, such as overfishing, pollution, and climate change,” she said.

“Historically efforts to sustain reefs and other environmental systems have largely relied on biological or ecological information – yet understanding people and their interactions with the environment is just as critical.

“Thanks to Tall Poppies for highlighting the importance of the social sciences in achieving a sustainable future.”

Dr Peter Cowman is a leading authority on the evolutionary history of coral reef-associated fish and their relationships with tropical reef habitats.

“Coral reefs support over one third of all marine fish species. That’s impressive considering coral reefs make up less than 0.1% of the ocean – so where did all those species come from?”

“My research answers this question by giving fishes their own version of ancestry.com.”

“Using fish DNA and fossils, I build family-trees for different groups of fishes, to trace their ancestry over millions of years. This can tell me how fast species are produced and how quickly they disappear.”

Dr Cowman’s research has shown that coral reefs have provided a safe haven for fish lineages that have survived past periods of climate change, while also acting as a cradle where new species are produced.

“Today, coral reefs and their fishes face many challenges under a changing climate. This award will help highlight how despite recent changes on coral reefs, understanding their past can help protect their future.”

The annual Queensland Young Tall Poppy Science Awards are hosted by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in partnership with the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist.

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