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Leading the way in research

Volume 7 Number 9 September 12 - October 9 2011

Australian Laureate Fellowship recipients Professors Stuart Wyithe (left), David Studdert and Peter Hall have sage advice for up-and-coming researchers. Photo by Dave Tacon
Australian Laureate Fellowship recipients Professors Stuart Wyithe (left), David Studdert and Peter Hall have sage advice for up-and-coming researchers. Photo by Dave Tacon

Three University of Melbourne researchers have received Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellowships to further their research into disease and security, the national health system, and the origins of the universe. Silvia Dropulich talks to Professor Lyn Yates, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) and the three winners about the awards.

Each of the new Fellows is passionate about unexpected ideas that are original and can improve people’s lives. And they all have rich and varied interests outside their research areas from rock-climbing and aerospace to the Australian bush, railways and photography.

With such full lives and intense academic interests, the next great idea is always bound to be just around the corner.

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Lyn Yates believes all research achievements rest on having fine researchers.

“This University is proud to host researchers of the calibre of these successful new ARC Laureate Fellows,” Professor Yates says.

“And for the University to be awarded three new Laureate Fellowships in the same year is also recognition of the very fine research environment and research community at the University of Melbourne.”

The Laureate Fellowships are the flagship awards of the Australian Research Council (ARC). They are designed to recognise and retain some of the very best researchers to work in this country, and to build ongoing research programs and teams of the highest quality.

Melbourne’s Professor Peter Hall (Department of Mathematics and Statistics), Professor David Studdert (Melbourne Law School and School of Population Health) and Professor Stuart Wyithe (School of Physics) were among 17 new Fellows announced by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, the Hon. Senator Kim Carr at the University of Melbourne in August.

None of the three award-winners expected to win an ARC Laureate Fellowship. Their journeys culminating in the award reflect their advice to up-and-coming researchers about persistence and originality.

Professor Hall observes that for him, only later in life did it become feasible to be supported by an ARC Fellowship, when the work he had done turned out to be more influential than some had originally thought. This is his fourth ARC Research Fellowship.

All three Melbourne winners have sage advice for up-and-coming researchers.

“Don’t give up – learn from your failures, and follow your instincts persistently”, says Professor Hall, ARC Federation Fellow for Mathematics and Statistics.

Professor Wyithe an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellow believes it is important not to follow the crowd in terms of your research topic.

“The interesting problems in a crowded area have normally been solved,” he says.

“One trick to successful research is often to predict where the crowd will be working in a few years’ time.

“This requires good advice and some luck. I have been very fortunate in my career to have received excellent advice along the way.”

Professor Studdert, ARC Federation Fellow and Deputy Head of School of Population Health, observes that the most interesting answers to questions often lie in gaps or overlaps between established fields of study – places that no one has looked into before.

“Ignore disciplinary boundaries as much as you can,” he says.

“Pursue the questions that excite you, and don’t be afraid of asking big questions.”

Professor Hall says research in statistical science is inexpensive to fund, and until the mid-1990s Australians punched above their weight internationally in terms of their contributions to the field.

The research program supported by the Laureate Fellowship will help to stem the decline that has occurred in the past 15 years, and enable him to make important advances in statistics, leading to new statistical methodologies.

Professor Wyithe never imagined becoming an ARC Fellow.

“You get into academic life to follow a passion for a particular topic,” he says.

“ARC Fellowships provide an opportunity to pursue this topic to its fullest potential, and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to make the most of my interest in astronomy.”

Neither did Professor Studdert ever imagine becoming an ARC Fellow.

“It was crooked path,” he says. “And for a long time I felt like I was only as good as my last paper.”

As a young lawyer working at a firm, Professor Studdert started to become more interested in the way the system worked than in the details of particular cases. It was that impulse that led him to public policy.

“But how I got from there to my career today is all about mentors,” Professor Studdert says. “Most people are lucky to have one great mentor in their professional life; I’ve been blessed with three.”

The first mentor was James Murray, a partner with whom Professor Studdert did his articles. The second was the late Marie Tehan whom David worked with when she was Victorian Health Minister. And the third mentor was his PhD supervisor, Troy Brennan, whom David describes as a sort of unconventional genius.

The advice of the researchers is reflected in their unique areas of research.

Professor Hall has received the award for his proposed development of new methods in modern statistical science. Statistically challenging problems today involve answering many more questions than we have useful data for.  

“There is an increasing quantity of data, but in many cases the useful information it contains is distributed very sparsely,” Professor Hall explains.

“We plan to make inroads into the analysis of data of this type.  The data arise in areas such as genomics, where the aim is to elucidate causes of disease, and security for the community, such as testing for molecules in the atmosphere which may indicate the presence of bioweapons.”

Professor Studdert received the Fellowship for his planned work in the development of techniques to use caseload data from medico-legal agencies, such as health complaints commissions and coroners’ courts, to monitor and address risks to health.

Working at the intersection of the health and legal systems, Professor Studdert said his research would test the potential of legal institutions as a new type of surveillance system.

“Legal scholars and practitioners tend to focus on one case at a time.  We will study large collections of cases to try to identify ways of reducing risks of injury in hospitals, on the road and in workplaces,” he says.

Professor Stuart Wyithe will use the award to make a comprehensive study of the formation of the first galaxies and provide answers to the questions of how and when the first generation of galaxies formed, and what they looked like.

Professor Wyithe said the next 10 years would be a very exciting time to study the first galaxies and their effect on the surrounding universe, thanks to the technological advances in the new generation of large telescopes.

“These telescopes have been designed to have the capability for study of the first galaxies. I plan to develop a unified theoretical framework based on the data these telescopes will provide, to help answer questions about how the first galaxies were formed.”

Professor Yates chairs a University committee which is convened each year to provide advice and feedback to researchers and faculties who wish to nominate for the Laureate Fellowship.

Applying for major competitive grants and fellowships today is not an easy process, she explains.

“The rules are detailed and often change from year to year,” says Professor Yates.

“The Melbourne Research Office provides great support on getting all these details right.

“Applicants have to demonstrate not just the outstanding world-leading achievements of their research, but the way in which they are well-supported in their own university, and the kinds of capacity they will be able to build there.”