Monash early career researchers recognised with over $6 million in federal grants

Fifteen Monash researchers working on a diverse range of studies across the University have been recognised with Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Research into how sleep impacts decision-making in emergency shift workers, the intellectual legacy of Sufism on Islamic thought since the 13th Century, and the evolutionary patterns of whales, penguins and plesiosaurs are among those to receive funding.

More than $6.25 million has been awarded to the 15 Monash researchers under the DECRA scheme, which provides focused research support for early career researchers in both teaching and research, and research-only positions.

A total of $83 million has been distributed nationwide in the 2021 round.

Monash University President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner AC said the funding acknowledged the significant contributions early career researchers make in improving our understanding of and commitment to finding solutions to global issues.

"The DECRA scheme provides opportunities and resources for our next generation of researchers and thought-leaders to advance their critical work in addressing today’s global challenges," Professor Gardner said.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Senior Vice-President Professor Rebekah Brown said: "This is great recognition of the excellent research these researchers are doing so early in their careers."

"This investment allows them to build their career pathway and grow the impact of their research. The diverse range of projects across disciplines and faculties - and the real world impact of these projects - shows that the future is bright for research at Monash."

The complete list of successful researchers is:

This project aims to undertake discovery research to investigate the roles of metabolites in T cell immunity. This project expects to generate new knowledge in the areas of cellular biology and immunology by using cutting-edge molecular and immunological approaches. This will provide fundamental insights into the mechanisms that govern microbial metabolite-based T cell immunity, which may advise future research into vaccines or therapeutics. In addition to knowledge gains, expected outcomes of this project include the development of innovative methodology and building international collaborations to enhance national research capabilities. This will place Australia at the forefront of conceptually innovative discovery in the life sciences.

This project aims to develop pressure-sensing surfaces that directly quantify surface forces, focused towards measuring complex cell traction forces. Understanding cell traction forces is a crucial challenge towards developing new materials for regenerative medicine. The surfaces, consisting of fluorescent polymer brushes, are expected to provide direct information on singular and clustered cell forces, which can reveal new insight into how cells interact together. This may provide currently missing information on how cell-surface interaction forces modulate cell growth, differentiation and tissue formation. This insight is crucial to providing the underpinning science that can position Australia at the forefront of regenerative medicine.

This Project seeks to understand the formation of our Galaxy by studying the brightest billion stars. This Project will develop novel methods to account for the unseen hundreds of billions of fainter stars, and for the complexities of space telescopes. Anticipated outcomes include fundamental tests of stellar evolution theory; the discovery of stars flung from our Galaxy by massive black holes; a timeline of our Galaxy’s evolution; and a 3D map of its stars and interstellar dust. This is expected to drive a generational advancement in astrophysics, provide social benefits by engaging the public with discovering the cosmos, and generate economic benefits from a general method for hypothesis testing with biased and incomplete datasets.

With the ultimate goal of reducing the road traffic crash burden in Australia, on individuals, their families, and on the nation’s social support systems, the project will determine the impact of pre-claim social factors on compensation system outcomes including claim duration, benefits and costs, and the impact of compensation system design on claim and social outcomes of road traffic crash survivors. Addressing an unmet need, this project will determine the impact of macro-level compensation system design on social and claim outcomes and allows identification of groups at higher risk for poor post-crash outcomes, in whom earlier identification and intervention can improve these, and potentially save the Australian economy $300m annually.

This project aims to investigate the intellectual legacy of Sufism on Islamic thought. Using an interdisciplinary approach it expects to generate new knowledge about the influence of Sufism since the thirteenth century, through a detailed analysis of newly-identified medieval texts and their transmission and dissemination throughout knowledge systems. Expected outcomes of the project include a challenge to conventional understandings about the chronology and structures of Islamic thought, and the first global mapping of Islamic intellectual networks. The project should provide significant benefits including an improved appreciation of the influences on, and complexities of, Islamic thought in the modern world.

This project aims to develop multifunctional membranes with high ion conductivity and selectivity and high energy density to address the key challenges in the development of aqueous organic redox flow battery for renewable energy storage. The project will develop novel methodologies for precisely tuning and functionalising microporous materials to achieve cost-effective and scalable fabrication of membranes with multi-functions, thus improving the energy efficiency and retaining the cycling capacity of redox flow batteries. The advancement of multifunctional membranes will enhance the efficiency of storage of intermittent and fluctuating renewable resources, thereby contributing to the reduction of carbon footprint in Australia.

This project aims to engineer twisted two-dimensional materials and develop efficient room-temperature mid-infrared detectors that sense both the intensity and polarisation of light. This project expects to generate a cost-effective, ultra-compact, and multifunctional mid-infrared optical platform with high energy conversion efficiency towards advanced sensing and imaging systems. The anticipated goal of this project is to deliver high value-added devices with reduced energy consumption for the electronics and photonics industries. This should provide significant economic and environmental benefits by realising technological innovations, savings in materials and energy costs, and reduced environmental impact in advanced manufacturing.

This project aims to compare and contrast the broad-scale evolutionary patterns of the disparate lineages of aquatic tetrapod (e.g. whales, penguins, plesiosaurs). This project expects to generate new knowledge by utilising cutting-edge methods from several fields, e.g. three-dimensional scans, phylogenetic comparative methods and functional morphology. Expected outcomes include multiple high-quality publications and the development of new local and international collaborations. This will provide significant benefits, including revealing aquatic tetrapod evolution on an unprecedented scale and a better understanding of how some of Australia’s most iconic animals respond to global change, helping inform eco-tourism and conservation policies.

Mitochondria power cellular metabolism. Research suggests that genetic variation in mitochondrial genes can be detrimental and impair energy production, but it can also be advantageous and help organisms adapt to environmental change. How organisms and populations balance these conflicting demands is not known. This project will create and use innovative mathematical methods to provide the general theory of how bioenergetic genes of mitochondria evolve to adapt to shifting environments, while removing mutations that compromise bioenergetics. Expected benefits include informing future applications and new evolutionary understanding of the ongoing effects of climate change in conservation management, agricultural and health industries.

This project aims to identify how microbial communities, known as microbiomes, can be effectively manipulated to the benefit of their host. Microbiome manipulation has been in the spotlight as a potential solution to maintain or improve the health of several hosts, from threatened coral species to livestock and humans, but the development of industry-scale strategies has been slow. This project proposes to chart the nutritional interactions among microorganisms and to identify cascade effects of microbiome manipulation. This will generate fundamental knowledge on the biological processes underlying community stability and malleability, which will ultimately help engineering optimised microbiomes.

This project aims to investigate the emerging insurance technology (insurtech) sector, better understanding how it uses digital innovations to disrupt the insurance industry. This project expects to conduct the first major empirical study of insurtech’s implementation and impacts in Australia, with a focus on automotive, health, and property coverage. Expected outcomes include essential knowledge on the politics of insurtech that can inform interventions into industry practice and regulatory policy. Benefits resulting from this project include ensuring risks of insurtech are avoided (e.g. unfair discrimination and targeted surveillance), while realising positive benefits of more effective and efficient insurance services for Australians.

The electrochemical manufacturing system is a sustainable alternative to traditional fertiliser manufacturing plants. The system can be assembled inexpensively and readily integrated into the renewable electricity grid, solving the greenhouse gas emission issues of the fertiliser plants. This project will identify ground-breaking electrochemical pathways for urea fertiliser and other value-added C-N containing chemicals synthesis. Gaseous CO2 and N2 will be electrochemically reacted to produce the C-N bonds. Therefore, a suite of new materials and electrochemical systems for sustainable fertiliser manufacturing will be developed. It is anticipated that the technology will revolutionise Australian fertiliser manufacturing and agriculture.

Sleep and circadian disruptions due to shift work are common for emergency personnel, but their impact on team performance and decision making is poorly understood. Using an ecologically relevant simulated work environment, this project aims to examine how shift work influences work performance and team decision making and identify potential stress-related mechanisms that may underpin impairments in these outcomes. By understanding the role poor sleep and circadian misalignment due to shift work play on work performance, this project will inform industry practices and training approaches designed to optimise workplace safety and emergency performance. This project will benefit emergency personnel and the people who depend on these services.

This project aims to develop new X-ray imaging methods that capture multiple next-generation image modalities at an unprecedented range of length and time scales. While conventional X-ray imaging is routinely used in medicine and industry, it can only visualise high-density materials like bone. To reveal low-density objects like biological soft tissue and microstructure like tiny cracks, the project plans to extract two complementary image modalities using a robust setup that does not rely on large-scale facilities. Significant benefits from the developed methods are expected for leading-edge research in fields including biomedicine, materials science and palaeontology, and industries such as security, medical diagnostics and manufacturing.

This project aims to develop advanced photocatalysts that can efficiently produce hydrogen peroxide from just water, air, and sunlight. By mimicking the structure and function of the natural photosynthetic apparatus, the key innovations are expected in the design of reaction-oriented conjugated polymer-based photocatalysts at the atomic and molecular nanostructure levels. It expects to generate new knowledge in artificial photosynthesis and rational design of functional materials, and sustainable technology for hydrogen peroxide production. This cross-disciplinary research will benefit Australia by the development of biomimetic catalysts for advancing solar energy conversion and enabling sustainable manufacturing of commodity chemicals.

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