Microbiologist Cynthia Whitchurch has scrutinised her fair share of microbes down the microscope but it was a “strange observation that no one had noticed before”, of bacterial cells exploding, that has helped elevate her to the ranks of Australia’s top scientists.
Whitchurch, a professor in the UTS ithree institute, is one of eight women among 22 scientists recently elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS).
The AAS President, Professor John Shine, congratulated the new Fellows for making significant and lasting impacts in their scientific disciplines, adding that the Academy was "committed to ensuring that the outstanding contributions of our female scientists are properly recognised”.
“What stands out among the new Fellows elected this year is the collective impact of their science on an international scale,” Professor Shine said.
Professor Whitchurch’s research is highly regarded for its originality and quality. Her critical observation of microbial behaviour and communication led to the discovery that extracellular DNA (eDNA) released during explosive cell lysis had a function unrelated to its genetic coding.
“I was able to make the first-ever observations of how living bacteria organise themselves in their multicellular communities and concluded that, once outside the cell, the eDNA acts as a kind of glue that helps control how bacteria organise themselves into biofilms,” Professor Whitchurch said.
Biofilm-associated bacteria are significantly more resistant to antibiotics. Professor Whitchurch’s discoveries have led to the development of new approaches to infection control, in cystic fibrosis patients for example, and have found application in reducing the risk of formation of infectious biofilms on the surfaces of medical implants. The Microbial Imaging Facility she established in the Faculty of Science in 2008 has become a key platform for ground-breaking collaborative research using live-cell imaging in super resolution.
Whitchurch said that she was most proud of the fact that it was “a basic science discovery” that led to these translational medical outcomes and with ongoing developments in high resolution microscopy it was an “amazing time to be a microbiologist”.
Cynthia is a science pioneer. This is what matters most to her – for her research to make a difference.
Professor Liz Harry, ithree institute Director and colleague, said Professor Whitchurch’s election as a Fellow of The Academy is an "incredible achievement".
"So well deserved, and our team at the ithree institute are thrilled for her. Cynthia has extraordinary talent in basic research discovery.
"She is a science pioneer, identifying new ‘lifestyles’ of bacteria, and translating these discoveries into reducing infectious disease. This is what matters most to her – for her research to make a difference.”
The pioneering contributions of the new AAS Fellows were recognised during their formal induction into the Academy on May 28 at the Shine Dome in Canberra.
UTS Dean of Science Dianne Jolley said the AAS is a Fellowship of "the nation’s most distinguished scientists, elected by their peers for outstanding research that has pushed back the frontiers of knowledge.
"Fellows are eminent by reason of their attainments in natural science. We are delighted that Cynthia's research has been recognised with such a prestigious award, and offer our congratulations to all of the women and men recognised as new Fellows at the Shine Dome this week.”