Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize goes to young Brisbane researcher
The winner of the Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is Dr Jian Yang, from the Diamantina Institute of the University of Queensland.
He has solved one of the great puzzles of human genetics—why the genes typically implicated in inherited diseases like schizophrenia, obesity and diabetes only account for a small amount of their heritability.
Jian developed statistical software to analyse genetic data in a different way. This showed that inheritance of these complex conditions depends on tens and sometimes hundreds of genes which all contribute a little bit to the risk of developing the disease. So we need to sift through samples of a much greater size to find them all. The heritability was not missing, but hiding in the data.
His prize was announced today, Thursday 15 November 2012, at a lunch at financial services company UBS in Sydney.
He received a cheque for $25,000 and a “fruit of knowledge” glass sculpture.
The purpose of the Prize is to encourage Australia’s best young biomedical researchers to stay in Australia and build their careers here.
“I think the scientific environment here is comparable to the US and UK, and in my field—statistical genetics or human genetics—Australia is a leader. And it is very nice here.”
“The award has given me encouragement, and suggests that my research has been accepted by medical researchers, and that myself and my colleagues have been recognised.”
The work has direct consequences for the designing the right experiments in medical genetics, according to Jian’s supervisor and mentor, Professor Peter Visscher. “His approach takes the whole genome into account, whereas previously people took one genetic variant associated with a disease at a time. Jian’s was the crucial statistical approach that answered the question.”
“It’s quite interesting that both Jian’s and my own background are in agricultural genetics—and we borrowed the techniques from there,” Professor Visscher said.
“The scientific judging panel has been astounded at the quality of the applications. Jian Yang is a worthy winner,” said Centenary Institute Executive Director, Professor Mathew Vadas.
20 applications were received from early-career scientists from universities and medical research institutes around Australia.
The other finalists were Robert McLaughlin, a medical engineer from the University of Western Australia, and Marc Pellegrini from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. They will each receive $2,500.
- Robert has developed an optical probe that fits inside a hypodermic needle to help surgeons accurately determine if they’ve removed all of a breast cancer tumour.
- Marc’s discoveries about how the body regulates its immune system are being applied to clinical trials of cancer vaccines and treatments for HIV and hepatitis.
The Prize honours Neil Lawrence, the inaugural Chairman of The Centenary Institute Foundation. Neil and his wife Caroline hold Centenary Institute very near to their hearts, as they are both passionate about advancing the field of medical research so that all Australians can live longer, healthier lives.
“Exceptional young scientists can be hard to keep in Australia and we hope this award will not only celebrate their achievements but also encourage a domestic culture of brilliance in this truly important field,” said Professor Vadas.
“We acknowledge the generosity of our sponsors and thank them for making this prize possible.”
Major sponsors: Val Morgan Cinema Network, Mindshare, stw group.
Supporting sponsors: Deloitte
Event sponsor: UBS
Media sponsor: The Australian
- Mathew Vadas is available to speak about the winner and finalists.
- Jian is travelling but there is a video interview together with images and a backgrounder below.
- Media contact: Niall Byrne on +61 (3) 9398 1416, +61 (417) 131 977.
Background: Dr Jian Yang
Dr Jian Yang, from the Diamantina Institute at the University of Queensland, has solved one of the great puzzles of human genetics—why the genes implicated so far in inherited diseases like schizophrenia, obesity and diabetes only account for a small amount of their heritability.
Jian developed statistical software to analyse genetic data in a different way, taking the whole genome into account instead of one gene at a time. It showed that inheritance of complex conditions depends on tens and sometimes hundreds of genes each of which contributes a little bit to the risk of developing the disease. So researchers need to sift through samples of a much greater size to find them all. The heritability was not missing, but hiding in the data.
His findings have completely changed the approach to determining the human genetics of complex conditions. Researchers are now conscious of having to use much bigger sample sizes. The research is so significant that in the past five years Jian has been an author on three papers in Nature, six in Nature Genetics and two in The American Journal of Human Genetics.
Originally from China, Jian received his BSc in biological science (2003) and PhD in agriculture (2008) from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, west of Shanghai. The story of how he came to Australia in 2008 says a lot about him and his character.
His Australian supervisor and mentor Prof Peter Visscher remembers encountering him as he was about to speak at a conference in Hangzhou. A young man he had never met came up to him saying ‘You must be Peter Visscher,’ and began to talk to him. Apparently Jian had memorised the names, history and pictures of all the key speakers at the conference so he could get the most out of interacting with them.
By the end of the week, several conversations later, Peter Visscher had become convinced that Jian should come and work as a post-doctoral fellow in his laboratory at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. “I was very impressed by his attitude towards science. He asked all the right questions, and had already had papers published in international journals—which was quite a feat for a student in China.”
Jian moved to the Diamantina Institute in 2011. People all over the world are using his software, and he is involved in several collaborative projects. His initial collaborators, in South Korea, recently published a paper on their findings using Jian’s methods.
About the Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize
The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is an exciting new initiative to promote medical research in Australia and recognise the young talent that already exists in the field.
The Prize is in honour of Neil Lawrence who was the Inaugural Chairman of The Centenary Institute Foundation. Neil and his wife Caroline hold Centenary Institute very near to their hearts, as they are both passionate about advancing the field of medical research so that all Australians can live longer, healthier lives.
The Centenary Institute, Lawrence Creative Prize (CILC Prize) is for young biomedical researchers who have displayed outstanding originality and are able to demonstrate that their thinking has made a significant change in their field.
The winner of the 2012 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize will receive $25,000.