UTS Tall Poppy makes a year of it
Microbiology researcher Dr Laura McCaughey has received the 2020 NSW Tall Poppy of the Year award for her work tackling antimicrobial resistance and communicating science, especially to girls and young women.
Dr Laura McCaughey is a high-achieving scientist both in the lab – tackling the global scourge of antimicrobial resistance – and outside it – as a science communicator and role model for women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine).
Now she can add a new accolade for the breadth of her contribution to science – that of NSW Young Tall Poppy of the Year, awarded by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science.
Dr McCaughey is a postdoctoral research fellow in microbiology at the UTS Faculty of Science ithree institute, in collaboration with the University of Oxford. She is also project manager for Soapbox Science Sydney.
Originally trained as an analytical chemist, her research tackles one of the greatest challenges faced by society – antimicrobial resistance.
Imagine going back in time and talking to your great-granny and explaining that a
simple pill could stop you dying from an infection! She wouldn’t have believed you
because the idea of this would of been too good to be true,
as back in her day, infections were the leading cause of death worldwide!
The idea that a simple pill could cure infections became a reality in the 1940’s
with the discovery of antibiotics. They are now the cornerstone of modern medicine,
without them chemotherapy, organ transplants, routine surgeries and even things
like getting a tattoo could be deemed too risky to undertake.
Today, we are well along the path towards returning to the pre-antibiotic era of
your great-granny. Antibiotics are no longer working against a huge range of bacteria
and we need to act now to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance to avoid over
10 million deaths a year by the year 2050.
This is where I come in as a microbiologist.
My research at the University of Technology Sydney focuses on understanding
the way in which new types of antibiotics kill bacteria and this research takes many forms.
I use microscopes to look at how the shape and size of bacteria
change when they encounter the antibiotics.
I look at the DNA of the bacteria and determine what sections of the
DNA change after treatment with the antibiotic,
and I also play about with the structure of the antibiotics themselves
to see if this changes how they interact with the bacteria.
The reason I want to understand exactly how these antibiotics work is because
this will help get them approved for human use and will hopefully give us
another weapon to use in our fight against the problem of antibiotic resistance.
For me, receiving a Young Tall Poppy Award has been an honor.
My motivations behind the science communication that I do are not to get personal
recognition, but to ensure that everyone knows about the problem of antibiotic
resistance, because it IS an issue that can affect anyone on the planet.
And people’s attitudes and their actions around antibiotic use can also go a
long way in helping to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance.
“Antibiotics can be taken for granted – we often don’t think of them as the cornerstone of modern medicine. Without them, things like chemotherapy, routine surgeries and organ transplants couldn’t be performed. Even a simple cut could once again become life-threatening,” Dr McCaughey said.
“Worryingly, antibiotics are already no longer working against a huge range of bacteria because the bacteria are always changing and evolving to ‘fight off’ and resist the antibiotics effects.
“It’s important to get this message out to the general public so they can understand the difference between viral and antibacterial infections or why their GP can be reluctant to prescribe antibiotics,” she said.
Worryingly, antibiotics are already no longer working against a huge range of bacteria.
Dr Laura McCaughey
Dr McCaughey is working on a group of protein antibiotics, called pyocins, and how they kill bacteria. She hopes her research will advance these new antibiotics through clinical trials to the mass market, providing an alternative strategy for treating multi-drug resistant bacterial infections.
Associate Professor Garry Myers, ithree Director (Interim), said Dr McCaughey is a “deeply worthy recipient of a NSW Young Tall Poppy Award”.
“She is an exceptional research scientist and a talented science communicator. Her world-leading work on antimicrobial resistance, looking for new antibiotics and mechanisms of action, resonates even more strongly in the midst of a global disease pandemic,” he said.
“It is rare for a scientist to not only operate at the cutting edge of research, but to also have the capability of effectively communicating those findings to a non-scientific audience.”
Laura's world-leading work on antimicrobial resistance resonates even more strongly in the midst of a global disease pandemic.
Dr Garry Myers
The annual Young Tall Poppy Science Awards have recognised more than 700 Young Tall Poppies since they were founded in 1998. They recognise the best young scientists from around Australia, who are making a significant contribution to a more publicly engaged scientific leadership.
Previous UTS Tall Poppies include Faculty of Science C3 marine scientist Dr Emma Camp and biomedical engineer Associate Professor Majid Ebrahimi Warkiani, of the Faculty of Engineering and IT, who were recognised in 2019.