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Trailblazing researchers recognised in King’s Birthday honours

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Spring ‘23
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Key Researchers
Laboratory Head
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Misty Jenkins, Melanie Bahlo and Kelly Rogers

WEHI researchers Associate Professor Misty Jenkins, Professor Melanie Bahlo and Associate Professor Kelly Rogers have been recognised in the King’s Birthday Honours List with Australia’s highest civilian honours.

At a glance
Associate Professor Misty Jenkins appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
Professor Melanie Bahlo appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
Associate Professor Kelly Rogers awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

Distinguished service

A laboratory Head at WEHI and The Brain Cancer Centre, Assoc Prof Jenkins has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to medical science as an immunologist, to the promotion of women in STEM, and dedicated service to the Indigenous community.

Assoc Prof Jenkins said she was humbled to receive the honour.

“One doesn’t embark on these endeavours seeking personal accolades; rather, we do it because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

As an immunologist, Assoc Prof Jenkins has made remarkable contributions to medical research. She considers it a privilege to work in a field that holds the potential to improve medical treatments and, ultimately, to end brain cancer as a terminal illness.

“My ultimate goal is to be able to find a cure for brain cancer and train the next generation of brilliant young medical researchers” she said.

“The brain is a challenging space to work in, but with the arrival of new clinical trials in immunotherapy, we have a genuine opportunity to enhance the prognosis for individuals grappling with this devastating disease.”

Steadfast advocate

Assoc Prof Jenkins has been a steadfast advocate of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), exemplified by her founding membership of the Women in Science Program (WISPP) in the Parkville precinct.

Reflecting on the progress made, she said there was still a lot to be done to support women in these fields.

“While we have made significant strides in promoting inclusivity and accessibility for women in science, there remains much work to be done,” Assoc Prof Jenkins said.

“I vow to continue championing women in science, particularly women of colour, to ensure they receive the same opportunities as their male colleagues.”

Assoc Prof Jenkins has also been a tremendous advocate for the Indigenous community.

She played a key role in the establishment of the National Centre of Indigenous Genomics at ANU, a groundbreaking organisation dedicated to advancing genomic research and understanding within First Nations communities.

“Through deep engagement and collaboration, the centre aims to empower Indigenous peoples in genomics research.”

She also played an instrumental role in establishing prestigious scholarships for Indigenous Australians to pursue studies at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England. Prior to 2010, there were no Indigenous Australians studying at these esteemed institutions.

Leveraging her experience from completing her postdoctoral research at Oxford and Cambridge, Assoc Prof Jenkins was instrumental in the establishment of a national scholarship program.

“As a result, more than 50 Indigenous Australians have graduated or are still pursuing studies in STEM fields such as mathematics, neuroscience and microbiology, achieving a 100% completion rate,” she said.

Receiving a King’s Birthday honour adds to a long list of achievements for Assoc Prof Jenkins, with previous honours including induction onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women (2020), NHMRC Ten of the Best Projects (2020), Westpac/Financial Review Top 100 Women of Influence Award (2016), L’Oreal for Women in Science Award (2013), CSIRO Professional Achievement Award (2018) and the International ZONTA women’s award for leadership (2019).

Bioinformatics pioneer

Professor Melanie Bahlo has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to genetic and infectious disease research, and to public health.

A laboratory head and leader of the Healthy Development and Ageing Theme at WEHI, Prof Bahlo has spent more than 26 years as a bioinformatician working on genetics and neurological disorders.

“I think this award highlights the work I have done in translating discoveries into the clinic, through highly collaborative work with clinical colleagues, which is something I am very passionate about,” she said.

“It is important to do the research, but it is even more important that we use that research to translate our findings into treatments.”

Her research focuses on neurological disorders and retinal diseases, including epilepsy and age-related macular degeneration.

When Prof Bahlo was recruited to WEHI 25 years ago, she was one of the first bioinformaticians at the institute. WEHI now has an entire division dedicated to bioinformatics and more than 60 researchers working in this space.

Prof Bahlo is what many in the science arena might refer to as a ‘gene hunter’ and has made significant discoveries in genetics, including finding several new genes responsible for epilepsy and ataxia – a condition that causes people to lose muscle control in their arms and legs.

“It is an exciting time to be working in genetics and I think the next 10 years will see us make significant discoveries and deliver insights that will help us improve public health in Australia and across the world,” she said.

The King’s Birthday honour is the latest accolade in Prof Bahlo’s career, with previous honours including the Ross Crozier Medal (2015, Genetics Society of Australasia) and the Moran Medal (2009, Australian Academy of Science). Prof Bahlo became a fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences in 2020.

Power of technology

Associate Professor Kelly Rogers, a laboratory head and also Head of the Advanced Technology and Biology division at WEHI, was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to medical research.

Her research over the last two decades has focused on developing innovative ways to visualise biology in highly detailed and unique ways, using powerful and sometimes custom-built microscopes.

Assoc Prof Rogers has also been instrumental in establishing the Centre for Dynamic Imaging at WEHI, a core facility dedicated to giving researchers access to these technologies,

“There are so many talented scientists, including those I work with, who have dedicated so much time and passion to medical research and who are deserving of this award, so I feel incredibly humbled and very grateful for the recognition,” she said.

“It’s important to remember that science is a team effort and we don’t achieve what we do alone.

“I’ve had the privilege to work with an incredible multidisciplinary team, who are passionate and committed to their work and who are all very clever scientists in their own right. This is what has enabled us to push the boundaries in imaging, which is the focus of my research.”

Assoc Prof Rogers said the honour recognized the critical importance of those scientists who support medical discovery through their deep knowledge and understanding of new and emerging technologies.

“The teams I work closely with are dedicated to enabling researchers to have access to some of the most advanced technologies available for genomic, proteomic and imaging-based research,” she said.

“Our scientists also work in partnership with research teams to design new technologies or methods that aim to answer the questions we can’t address because we just don’t have the right technology.

“New technologies can lead the way to scientific discoveries and it is this research partnership that will continue to transform our understanding of human disease and health care for the future.”

First published on 12 June 2023
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Spring ‘23
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