Eureka science prizes: Justin Yerbury wins research honour for work on motor neuron disease

A motor neurone disease researcher living with the disease, a nanomaterials engineer and a recycling pioneer were among those awarded Eureka prizes at the Australian Museum on Wednesday night.

Established in 1990, the Eureka prizes recognise the work of Australian scientists and science communicators.

Prof Justin Yerbury of the University of Wollongong was awarded the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Eureka prize for scientific research, for his work on motor neurone disease (MND).

Yerbury, who has been living with MND since 2016, first heard of the condition when his uncle was diagnosed.

“At the time … we had no idea what MND was, and we had no clue of what was to come,” Yerbury told Guardian Australia via email. “In the next few years we would lose cousins, aunts, my grandmother and my mother.”

A need to understand the condition eventually led Yerbury to a career in MND research.

“I needed to know why there was no drugs that could slow down the disease,” he said.

“Not having studied biology before, I struggled to understand. It was like reading another language … I decided to enrol in some biology classes at the local university to advance my knowledge.”

His laboratory’s work has broadened the understanding of MND and explained why motor neurons – the nerve cells that control muscles – die in the condition.

“As a field, we need to better understand the molecular causes of MND in order to discover or design effective drugs,” he said.

Yerbury said he was “truly humbled” to even be considered for a Eureka prize. “The award is a reflection of the effort and support of many people, without whom my work would not be possible.”

Prof Sumeet Walia of RMIT University was awarded the Eureka prize for emerging leader in science. His research into nanomaterials – at scales thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair – has applications including window coatings to maximise heat efficiency, and artificial vision technologies.

Sumeet Walia is posing for a photo in a lab. He is wearing a lab coat and the lab behind him is dark with a green glow
Prof Sumeet Walia has been recognised as an emerging leader and wants to see more equality and diversity in science. Photograph: RMIT University

Walia’s interest in science has been lifelong. “As a child I was always curious,” Walia said. “Whenever I used to get toys, instead of playing with them I used to break them open.”

Walia, who grew up in a small town in India, moved to Australia 16 years ago to pursue a career in engineering.

“Everything that we do in our daily lives is influenced by science,” he said. “We need to make sure science is well supported, evidence-based decisions are taken, and there is more equality and diversity in our scientific sector.”

Materials scientist Prof Veena Sahajwalla of UNSW was awarded the Celestino Eureka prize for promoting understanding of science. Sahajwalla is renowned as a recycling pioneer and the inventor of sustainable products, and in 2018 launched the world’s first e-waste “microfactory”.

“The exciting thing about microrecycling is that technically nothing should go to landfill,” Sahajwalla said. The copper and tin used in the circuit boards of electronic devices, for example, could be re-used in “interesting new alloys”, while rare-earth metals like cobalt should be recycled from the electrodes of lithium ion batteries, she said.

Veena Sahajwalla is standing in a factory holding component. She is wearing a black suit and pink shirt and is looking at the camera
Prof Veena Sahajwalla is a renowned recycling expert who has been recognised for her science communication. Photograph: Richard Freeman/UNSW

Sahajwalla said the award was the “ultimate recognition of the fact that science and scientific endeavours are going to be so important … [in] shaping a sustainable future”.

Prof Raina MacIntyre of UNSW was awarded the department of defence Eureka prize for leadership in science and innovation.

MacIntyre, who heads the biosecurity research program at the Kirby Institute, was recognised for her “significant leadership role in the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic” and her contributions to international public health policy.

Other recipients in 14 prize categories included scientists researching how diets affect the environment, how to improve the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and how wildlife responds to management changes on farms.