30 October 2018

Flu researcher Dr Kirsty Short has won a $25,000 fellowship for her work on the long-term links between obesity, the immune system and influenza.

The University of Queensland virologist has been awarded one of this year’s L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellowships, supporting outstanding early career female scientists.

Dr Short said she would use the funding to investigate links between obesity and the influenza virus, as it appeared the obesity epidemic had created a more vulnerable patient group.

“We’re discovering that obesity is definitely a factor when determining who is most susceptible to contracting the virus, even after they’ve returned to a healthy weight,” she said.

“It seems that obesity leaves behind a legacy effect, due to the fact that it alters the function of the alveolar macrophages – white blood cells – which play a critical role within the immune system.

“This means that these immune cells are no longer able to limit influenza virus replication.”

Dr Short said the award came at a time when the flu remained a major health threat.

“In 2017, Australia experienced its worst influenza season on record,” she said.

“Over 60 per cent of adults and one in four children are reported as overweight or obese, so this research is of critical importance in protecting the public health of many Australians.

“And our population is changing, so new research is critical in helping us better understand if we are prepared for future pandemics.”

Growing up in a family of scientists, Dr Short initially rebelled against the idea of pursuing science as a career.

“It was never really an option for me, but then I completed my first science subject at uni and I was hooked.

“Now science is my life and, by understanding the mechanisms driving this long-term susceptibility, I’m hoping to be able to design novel clinical approaches to improve the health of billions of people who are or have been obese.”

Dr Short’s success is the latest in a string of accolades for UQ researchers.

She was among the researchers recognised for outstanding contributions in The University of Queensland 2018 Research Week awards.

Dr Jacqui Romero won a L’Oreal fellowship in 2017 for her work on quantum alphabets.

Last month, Dr Jack Clegg won a Prime Minister’s Prize for Science following in the footsteps of Professor Jian Yang and Professor Kerrie Wilson.

Professor Yang, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience and Queensland Brain Institute, was awarded the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year at the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science ceremony.

ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions Director Professor Wilson, who is a UNESCO Commissioner for Natural Sciences, won the Frank Fenner Prize in 2016.

Media: Dr Kirsty Short, k.short@uq.edu.au, +61 452 374 811; Dominic Jarvis, dominic.jarvis@uq.edu.au, +61 413 334 924.