Six emerging researchers share in $115,000 funding at the inaugural Big Science Pitch

Six emerging researchers from the University of Melbourne competed for a share of $115,000 funding from the Native Australian Animals Trust.

In the inaugural Big Science Pitch, the researchers pitted their pitches against each other, showcasing their cutting-edge research ideas focusing on Australia’s native animals and their habitats. The projects were chosen for their potential to lead to new discoveries in science and have major impacts on our environment and conservation.

Audiences heard from Native Australian Animals Trust patron and award-winning Australian author Tim Winton who announced the winner of $10,000 through the ‘Winton’s Choice’ award.

Six big questions were asked: What attracts male mosquitoes to humans? Can wastewater be transformed into clinical-grade medical agar? How do wallabies put their pregnancies on hold? How does movement affect our perception of iridescence and gloss? Can aquaculture assist in the restoration of kelp forests? Does nature reward good architects?

With only 3 minutes to present their ideas, followed by a live Q&A, the researchers were judged by a panel of experts including population geneticist Professor Emeritus John McKenzie; Fisheries and Threatened Species Campaign Manager at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Tooni Mahto; award-winning national science reporter for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, Liam Mannix;  BSc alumna and conservationist, Julie Douglas; and the Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Unversity of Melbourne, Professor Moira O’Bryan.

Audiences also voted for their favourite pitch through interactive live voting.

"It was hotly contested! The panel conferred and it was a difficult discussion. Each project is an example of what happens when you have curious brilliant people looking at our wildlife and environment. We looked at the innovation, impact and flair of the pitches and we simply could not split first and second. We decided to add an additional $5,000 to award two winners," said Professor Moira O’Bryan, a member of the judging panel and Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Unversity of Melbourne.

Each finalist received $10,000 and the following prizes were awarded:

Joint 1st Prize, $25,000 (each): Dr Iliana Medina and Dr Amanda Franklin

3rd Prize, $15,000: Luke Barrett

People’s Choice Award, $10,000: Dr Iliana Medina

Winton’s Choice, $10,000: Dr Fletcher Warren-Myers

For interviews with the researchers, images and further information please contact:

Alexa Viani, Communications Coordinator | 0422 614 364 |


Dr Iliana Medina: Why are birds so good at building nests? Or...are they

Each bird species has its own building design that has worked well for millions of years, but now, these tiny architects are facing a new challenge in rising temperatures. Nest building is one of the most amazing behaviours in nature and could be critical in helping birds face these extreme temperatures. I want to know to what extent birds can modify this behaviour, and what difference it can make to the survival of eggs and chicks.

Dr Amanda Franklin: Dazzling displays: how movement affects perception of iridescence and gloss

Some of the most spectacular visual effects in nature are those that change with movement. Think of Australia’s amazing stag beetles (sometimes called Christmas beetles) found during summer that change colour depending on the angle you look at them. How can these stunning animals exist if they are so obvious to us, wouldn’t predators find them easily? Together, we will work out whether these changeable colours can help an animal escape attack.  We will test this idea by creating differently coloured artificial prey and using eye-tracking technology to see if human “predators” (you!) find it harder to track and capture changeable prey.

Dr Fletcher Warren-Myers: Can multi-species aquaculture drive kelp forest reef restoration?

The pristine kelp forest reef in Port Philip Bay is being degraded into urchin barrens. Kelp forests are highly productive ecosystems and in Victoria, home to some idyllic marine life. To restore the barrens back to kelp forest requires the urchins to be removed, through divers culling them, but this is costly and unsustainable long-term. My research demonstrates that instead of culling, using aquaculture, urchins from barrens can be turned into a valuable delicacy, which would ultimately create a sustainable self-funded reef restoration mechanism.

Dr Luke Barrett: Converting wastewater into pharmaceutical-grade agar

When dissolved in water, agar powder forms a gel that is uniquely suited to growing bacteria and other microbes. This humble gel has enabled life-saving medical breakthroughs and even now hospital pathologists use it every day to incubate swabs from infected patients, identify the culprit and test the effectiveness of antibiotics. I will explain how I plan to farm native Australian agar weeds by taking advantage of the wastewater stream from abalone farms right here in southern Australia

Dr Jane Fenelon: Putting pregnancy on hold: how does the wallaby do it?

Over 130 species of mammals worldwide have the ability to put their pregnancy on hold for months, a third of which are Australian mammals. If we could “crack the code” on how diapause is controlled there would be significant implications for a number of fields - including IVF and stem cell biology. For example, IVF embryos could be stored without the need for ultra-cold temperatures thus making the process easier, cheaper and better overall for embryo health.

Dr Perran Stott-Ross: Why are male mosquitoes attracted to humans?

Why are male mosquitoes attracted to people when they don’t feed on our blood? This question remains unanswered as most scientific research focuses on female mosquitoes. This project will investigate the basis of male mosquito attraction to people using simple experiments featuring a common urban Australian native mosquito.

More Information

Media contact: Alexa Viani

0422 614 364