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Early career researchers solving big world problems

Five early career researchers have gone head-to-head in the University of Canberra’s annual Big Research Pitch, competing for a share of $14,000 towards their research.

Dr Chloe Goldsmith, Dr Natasha Jojo, Dr Cindy Karouta, Dr Claire Pearce and Dr Rohan Nethsinghe battled it out last night, pitching their research to a panel of judges in just 90-seconds.

The judges, Deputy Director of Questacon Kate Driver, Creative Director of Synergy Group Jason Perelson and Program Manager of Canberra Innovation Network Irene Zhen crowned Dr Claire Pearce the winner, for her research in attracting and retaining occupational therapists to work in mental health.

“It’s important we see people with mental health as real people with real goals and real passions, rather than illnesses that have to be treated,” she said.

“This funding from the University of Canberra gives us the opportunity to change the conversation around mental health, and refocus the treatment on people leading meaningful lives in their recovery.”

Dr Jojo took out both the runner-up and People’s Choice Award prizes for her research, focusing on training children with intellectual disabilities and their parents, in sexual abuse prevention and sexuality.

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise Dr Ross Thompson said he was impressed by another year of high-quality research projects presented in this year’s UC Big Research Pitch.

“I’m really excited by the calibre of this year’s early career researchers and how they went about promoting their research projects,” he said.

“The intention of our Big Research Pitch event is to equip researchers who are ‘young’ in the area of research with the skills to progress their  careers in research, and gain the skills to share the story of their work in a way that engages with the public,” he said.

The judges awarded the first-place winner $7000, the runner-up received $4000, and the People’s Choice winner received $3000. All funds will be used progress their research.

The UC Big Research Pitch finalists:

Dr Chloe Goldsmith – Unlocking mechanisms for lifestyle medicine

Dr Chloe Goldsmith is an epigenetics researcher. She has worked extensively on understanding mechanisms of cellular plasticity in cancer and autoimmune disease and returned from to Australia in 2021 from the French Institute for Health and Medical Research. Currently, she is working with the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise at UC to continue this work exploring relationships between lifestyle, epigenetics, and disease and is working towards the translation of her mechanistic research into outcomes for people suffering from chronic diseases.

Watch Dr Goldsmith’s pitch here.

Dr Natasha Jojo – She didn’t know it was wrong

Dr Natasha Jojo is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health and has an academic background in mental health. Her specific research focus is on training children with intellectual disabilities and their parents, in sexuality and sexual abuse prevention. She completed her PhD from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, India in 2018. Her PhD work assessed the “Effectiveness of Behavioral Skills Training” (BST) on knowledge of sexual abuse and resistance ability among children with intellectual disabilities. Her ongoing research evaluates programs aimed at children with an intellectual disability, their parents, teachers, and carers.

Watch Dr Jojo’s pitch here.

Dr Cindy Karouta – Taking a leaf out of nature’s book to cure eye disease

Imagine half the world’s population losing their vision within your lifetime. Now imagine that the largest category of these are children. Modelling predicts this may be a reality by 2050 if no action is taken to find a treatment for myopia, better known as short-sightedness. Dr Cindy Karouta’s research has shown that myopia can be prevented by being outdoors, due to the higher light levels experienced under the sun. Simply spending more time outside is not possible for everyone due to environmental and educational hurdles. Therefore, she took a leaf out of nature’s book, and has developed a drug that mimics sunlight. Her research is moving us one step closer to finding a treatment that will save the vision of millions of children.

Watch Dr Karouta’s pitch here.

Dr Rohan Nethsinghe – Back to the fun times: Creative arts in learning

In our childhood we started learning about the world by engaging in joyful activities such as singing, dancing, playing, drawing and listening to stories. As we grew up, learning became serious and dull. We were not allowed to have fun, but to focus on literacy and numeracy and other “serious” subject areas. Research shows benefits of arts engagement and arts education, including effectiveness of learning through the arts. Dr Rohan Nethsinghe’s Big Pitch is about a project that involves expert arts practitioners to bring back those “fun learning times” into classrooms for students and teachers.

Watch Dr Nethsinghe’s pitch here.

Dr Claire Pearce – Building the occupational therapy workforce in mental health

Half of all Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Unaddressed mental health problems can have a negative influence on employment, schooling and people’s social connectedness. This leads to family and community disruption and, ultimately, increases health care costs. Occupational therapists working in mental health use individual and group programs to support people to reengage in everyday meaningful activities. However, there are insufficient numbers of occupational therapists working in this area. Working with industry, Dr Claire Pearce’s research aims to identify the elements which support the attraction and retention of occupational therapists to work in mental health.

Watch Dr Pearce’s pitch here.