Conjoint Associate Professor Eric Ho

Conjoint Associate Professor

School of Medicine and Public Health

Immunity and Respiratory Health

Dr Hock Tay’s research examines how and why airway infections can be so problematic for patients with chronic respiratory diseases.

Dr Hock Tay

“I was always interested in infection and immunity – in particular how infection moderates the immune system. It's interesting because sometimes when you have infection in patients with chronic lung disease, they have exacerbation of their condition."

“I’m focusing on how pathogens can manipulate the immune response to cause this exacerbation of disease.”

An emerging field of research

According to the central dogma of biology, in order for genes to work (and therefore for cells to be functional) the gene DNA has to be transcribed into RNA, which is translated into protein.

For a long time, it was thought that these proteins did all the important work within the cell. But throughout the past few decades, this central dogma has been turned upside-down.

Researchers have seen that RNA can have a functional role completely aside from their protein-coding function. There is also non-coding RNA that can function within the cell to alter cell activity.

A whole new area of research onto these ‘non-coding RNAs’ has blossomed. One particular type of non-coding RNA are known as microRNAs, of which there are thousands. Each microRNA has a different role – many of which are yet to be described. Importantly, one microRNA has the potential to modulate the level many coding-RNA and thus regulate the level of a range of proteins and integrated signalling networks.

“When I started looking at microRNAs around 10 years ago, their role in complex biological processes was just emerging – some non-coding was even thought to be ‘junk’. It’s only recently with new technologies that allow us to identify all the different microRNAs, that we can see how they are dysregulated in lots of diseases, as well as used in infection.”

“What's so interesting about them is that they can regulate multiple pathways. So that could be really important in disease pathogenesis.”

Hock first heard about these somewhat strange molecules during one of Laureate Professor Paul Foster’s lectures during his Biomedical Science degree at UON.

“Nothing much was known about them, so I was really curious!”

Hock approached Paul about working in his lab throughout his Summer Scholarship, and was excited to get started in the field of RNA and immunology.

“I’d actually applied to work with Paul on microRNAs for my undergraduate research project – but he had already taken on his students for the year so I had to go to a different lab."

“That was a great experience, but I knew that immunology was what I really wanted to work on.”

Regulating the immune cell response

During infection, the early immune response clears the pathogens, while adaptive immune response is called upon if the infection persists or reoccurs.

Throughout his PhD, Hock was focussing on the early responses to infection, as these drive inflammations that cause exacerbation of lung disease.

“The focus was on how these immune cells come in during the early stage, and how that changes the molecular miRNA signatures inside the cells.”

Hock focussed on a few select microRNAs and their role in the immune response, including miRNA-328.

“We found that is acts like a brake for the immune cells. Before infection, miRNA-328 stops the immune cells from becoming active so they’re not just going around destroying everything. Then during an infection, the levels of miRNA-328 drop, and we see upregulation of the immune response. The drop in miRNA-328 enhances the uptake of bacteria into the immune cell to be destroyed.”

New horizons

In 2016, Hock commenced his prestigious NHMRC Early Career fellowship, which he was awarded to continue his study into the role of non-coding RNAs in respiratory disease.

“I wasn't expecting it. It was a relief really - I can now plan for longer term projects instead of smaller projects which only run for one or two years.”

Throughout his fellowship, Hock will be moving on to study an entirely new group of non-coding RNA: long-non-coding RNAs.

“Where microRNAs are about 23 nucleotides (genetic units) long, long-non-coding RNAs are longer than 200. The mechanisms are completely different and they are actually even harder to study. But a lot of the skills I developed throughout my PhD will still be very useful. I’m really using my PhD as a building block for this project.”

With this fellowship, the University granted Hock two PhD scholarships, and he is taking on his own students for the very first time.

“Everyone tells me having students is going to be challenging but I'm excited about it. I'm excited about the opportunity of teaching someone and at the same time I’m pretty sure I can learn from them too.”

Immunity and Respiratory Health

Dr Hock Tay’s research examines how and why airway infections can be so problematic for patients with chronic respiratory diseases.

Read more

Andrew Howells is illustrating the importance of cross-disciplinary research

Dr Andrew Howells has created a series of 60 illustrations that assist scientists to visually assess the health of captive Asian elephants. Now he is looking to expand this work to other species in captivity.

After years working in animation, graphic design and later as a freelance illustrator, it was a conversation with a veterinary science friend that sparked Andrew’s interest in completing a PhD in Natural History Illustration.

“My friend, Dr Roy McClements, was a very tall man and he was researching penguins. So I thought it would be a great composition for a portrait. I did a life size portrait of him for a portrait competition, and while he was sitting for it we were talking about his research,” Andrew recalls.

“I said, ‘what’s next’ and he said, ‘elephants’.

“He and his colleagues had identified nine different conditions that an elephant could be categorised, from emaciated through to obese, so they thought they would collate a whole collection of photographs describing those different conditions.

“However, as I pointed out to him, then you are going to have nine different animals with nine different body conditions in nine different environments with nine different photographers. There are all these variables, which means it is going to be hard to see the difference between them. You might have an emaciated animal that is heavily dappled in pigmentation behind a tree in a jungle, and you might have an obese animal that is photographed in a zoo that is completely lit against a clean background.”

That’s why the role of the illustrator is so important. We can take what is unseeable and make it ‘seeable’. It is a really descriptive role that is all based on being accurate in representing and contextualising factual information.

This led Andrew to complete a Research Masters and, later, a PhD in Natural History Illustration at the University of Newcastle.

The discipline of Natural History Illustration has been around for a long time, and the relationship between scientist and natural history illustrator is historically founded. However, Newcastle currently has the only degree program in Natural History Illustration in Australia, and is one of only a few internationally.

For the elephant project, Andrew spent four years working from information provided by scientists and photographs, as well as observing the elephants at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, and at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, US.

“After I had the chance to study elephants in Australia and get some ideas on paper, then I worked with researchers in the US to look at their elephants and have a discussion about how to really refine the drawings to describe specific anatomical detail. From there, it was up to me to take it to the next level and create the resource set,” he explained.

“I would like to create resources across a range of species that are an active part of research in the conservation space.

“The head of conservation research at Taronga has been very supportive of my work and I am looking forward to working on new projects with them in the future.”

Andrew Howells

Andrew Howells is illustrating the importance of cross-disciplinary research

Dr Andrew Howells has created a series of 60 illustrations that assist scientists to visually assess the health of captive Asian elephants.

Read more

Equipping every learner

Dr Barry Hodges is seeking to define and defeat the challenges associated with sustained participation in enabling education programs.

Individuals who undertake enabling education make up a wide cross-section of society, richly diverse in ages, geographic locations, financial circumstances and cultural backgrounds. Many are the first in their family to seek entrance into university, often battling considerable socio-economic obstacles to do so. Willing to give things a go with a contagious ‘can do’ attitude, they are underrepresented and non-traditional but certainly not to be counted out. Dr Barry Hodges is in their corner.

“Attrition is fairly high in the programs that have no academic entry or cost requirements,” he points out.

“So I’m interested in discovering to what extent dropouts are something we can, as an institution, do something about, and to what extent we must simply accept as a natural part of the process.”

“Crucially, where students do drop out, I want to figure out what we can do to mitigate any negative effects on the student and ensure exits are positive experiences.”

As eye-opening as it is socially conscious, Barry’s research is motivated by “personal concern”, a feeling of responsibility, and a firmly held belief in the power and promise of tertiary study.

“I’ve come into contact with hundreds of eager students – ranging from 20 years old to 74 years old,” he elaborates.

“Some students really engage and go on to achieve great things, others stay for a couple of weeks then disappear, while unfortunately, a few make the effort to enrol but never turn up to orientation or lectures.”

“It’s disheartening to see the numbers dwindle throughout the year.”

An alternative pathway

Barry undertook a PhD in the philosophy of science before signing on to coordinate Open Foundation at the University of Newcastle (UON) in 2007, merging his “philosophical interest in the development of knowledge”, with a passion for enabling education. Awarded an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) Promoting Excellence Initiative Grant in 2009, the enthusiastic scholar began research into student attrition in the Open Foundation.

“I looked at a sample of individuals who’ve come through our door,” he explains.

“The aim was to find out what keeps them here, what makes them leave and what we can do to change it.”

Despite typically attracting people with low socioeconomic statuses, disabilities and other mental and physical issues that can disrupt schooling, Barry reveals the programs were usually not the problem when it comes to student dropouts – and neither were demographic factors.

“We discovered that the vast majority of reasons given for dropout are associated with life factors, such as marital breakdowns, health complications and employment issues,” he recalls.

Access all areas

Using this as pilot data to gain further funding from the ALTC in 2010 for what became known as the “Enabling Retention” study, Barry expanded the investigation to incorporate similar enabling programs at five different institutions across the country.

“I teamed up with academics from Edith Cowan University, and the Universities of New England, South Australia, Southern Queensland and UON.”

“All the participating programs differed markedly.”

“Some were regionally or rurally located and others were more metropolitan, some were part-time and others full-time, and some were conducted face-to-face and others online,” he notes.

“Together, we delivered a ground-breaking report on student retention in enabling education.”

Titled Enabling Retention: Processes and strategies for improving student retention in University-based Enabling Programs, this report was published in 2013 by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.

The study confirmed the results of the 2009 pilot study across a wider range of programs all over the country. Importantly, it was also found that those who are engaged in Open Foundation and similar enabling programs by Week 2 persist at a higher rate than overall rates of attrition suggest.

“There must therefore be a window of opportunity and areas where enabling education might well need to provide additional support,” says Barry.

“Greater flexibility and helping people to choose better and more suitable courses are two of the options we’ve since included at the University.”

Fast-forward three years and Barry is still at the Centre for English Language and Foundation Studies, happily lecturing in philosophy and weighing up the pros and cons of open entry “as a strategy to attract non-traditional students into university.”

“Widening participation is an obvious benefit to allowing students to enter the program without meeting any prior academic requirements,” he proclaims.

“An increase in attrition is equally obviously a cost, however.”

“The bottom line is that we don’t want students to see dropping out as a failure - it has the potential to confirm any negative experiences of high school.”

“We have a big responsibility to do something about this.”

Barry Hodges

Equipping every learner

Dr Barry Hodges is seeking to define and defeat the challenges associated with sustained participation in enabling education programs.

Read more

Experimental models of disease

Dr Jay Horvat's preclinical research is cementing a scientific, nuanced understanding of our bodies' harmful and helpful immunological processes

Jay Horvat

Dr Jay Horvat does his homework. He's using novel experimental models to fact check and fault-find, taking clinical observations and recapitulating them in smaller simulations to dissect and study the intricate architecture of multiple illnesses. Informing the development of innovative and preventative therapeutic treatments, this committed researcher stresses it's the endgame that's important.

"The whole point is to discover molecular mechanisms in experimental models of disease that might similarly be occurring in human patients," he explains.

"This allows us to find new therapeutic targets for the development of treatment strategies that will hopefully translate into improved clinical outcomes for patients with a variety of diseases."

Spanning the microbiological, immunological and pharmacological fields, Jay's work has a particular emphasis on illustrating the roles played by bacteria and viruses in the pathogenesis of acute inflammatory conditions. Mindful of the profound economics of chronic diseases, particularly those with ill-defined triggers, variable clinical courses and not-yet-understood symptoms, this energetic investigator's research is also serving to help construct a "big picture."

"Infection-induced illnesses still cause immense mortality and place an enormous burden on healthcare systems," Jay notes.

"This leads to unsustainable personal and societal costs."

Joining the dots

Jay started his research career with a PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2004. Under the leadership of Professor Phil Hansbro, the four-year probe sought to solidify links between respiratory chlamydia and severe asthma.

"The latter is a major unmet clinical need," he affirms.

"Patients tend to be insensitive to anti-inflammatory steroid therapies so they're usually on higher doses of medications, which could have long-term negative effects."

"Patients are in and out of hospital more often and experience more frequent and extreme exacerbations too."

"They have a lower quality of life."

Appreciating the significance of these health and social impacts, Jay looked to identify how and why severe asthma develops both early on and later in life. He also aimed to confirm hypotheses that major infections drive the disease's most acute forms.

"We found that having a Chlamydia lung infection as either a neonatal or an infant leads to severe changes in lung function as well as more severe asthma," Jay reveals.

"The neonatal infection, in particular, leads to a form of disease that resembles emphysema."

Additionally providing evidence for the existence of a phenotype switch in adults who are infected while they have asthma, Jay's doctoral research highlighted a new association between a different series of immune responses and severe, steroid-insensitive asthma.

"Eosinophils have been classically aligned with asthma," he says.

"They come into the lung during an allergic flare-up and release a variety of inflammatory mediators that can cause you to have an asthma attack."

"If you get certain infections, however, you may get neutrophils coming into the lung instead."

"The processes that drive this type of inflammation are not as easily treated."

"So the infection is causing a shift from a type of immune response that is able to be suppressed by steroids to one that is not."

Better breathing

Jay has continued collaborating with Phil Hansbro post-PhD, actively participating in a number of other asthma projects at the Hunter Medical Research Institute. An extension of his earlier work, these studies explore several bacterial and viral infections and their ties to the disease's more severe forms.

"We've shown that both Chlamydia and Haemophilus influenzae infections drive a neutrophilic subtype of asthma and that influenza and respiratory syncytial virus do not," the senior lecturer states.

"All four, however, similarly drive inflammation and lung function changes that cannot be treated with steroids."

"So we've got four infections doing slightly different things but having this universal effect of driving steroid-resistant inflammation and airway side responsiveness."

Simultaneously identifying a handful of cytokines associated with severe asthma, Jay's examination operates – and succeeds – on the proviso that if you can target a critical factor, you can meaningfully treat disease.

"Cells produce cytokines, which are basically signaling molecules that link cells up and allow them to talk to each other," he clarifies.

"They come out of the lung during an inflammatory response and tell the systemic immune response to mobilise and bring certain cells into the lung as well."

"Interleukin-1 beta is one we've found to be involved in this process."

"It's also one that's able to be depleted with antibodies, which actually suppresses the neutrophilic phenotype where steroids can't."

Looking to expand upon this knowledge, Jay's laboratory work focuses on molecular elements upstream of the newly discovered cytokine.

"A series of molecules, collectively called the 'inflammasome,' need to be activated in order for interleukin 1 beta to be secreted by cells," he says.

"If we intervene, we can stop its production and develop novel therapies for severe asthma."

"The same can be said about a novel micro-RNA we recently found."

In another offshoot of his doctoral research, Jay is surveying the effects of oxidative stress on the progression of infection-induced disease. Pointing to vitamin E as a viable, inexpensive therapeutic option, the ambitious academic is perhaps as cutting-edge as he is creative.

"If we can use this compound to treat severe asthma in early life, we can suppress all of the problems it causes later in life," he comments.

"It's quite exciting because vitamin E is something you can get from the local chemist or grocery store – it's already approved for general consumption."

Branching out and stepping up

A master at multitasking, Jay is currently working on some of his own independent research programs.

"Our most advanced one looks at how certain inflammatory stresses might affect Alzheimer's," he discloses.

"We're also examining the effect smoking has on neurodegenerative processes."

Jay and his team are hoping to uncover clues as to how and why the disease advances using their experimental models. They're similarly hoping to develop therapies that will stop or reverse it's progression.

"Chlamydia bacteria has been found in plaques of the brains of patients with Alzheimer's," he shares of the initial findings.

"We have extended these findings to show that infections enter the brain during our models of respiratory infection."

"So the infection can get into the brain – and if it can do this, it could be doing all sorts of things to affect the progression of Alzheimer's."

"We have also shown that cigarette smoking accelerates the number and size of the plaques in the brain."

Extending his research interests even further afield, the Hunter Medical Research Institute innovator is also collaborating with Dr Simon Keely on a novel food allergy project. Marrying Simon's experience in inflammatory bowel disease and Jay's experience with allergy; the study aims to explore and determine the effects of antibiotics on the microbiome and how this may affect immune processes in the gut that predispose to allergic sensitisation to normally harmless food protein.

"Antibiotic use has been linked with increased risk of developing food allergy," Jay explains.

"Importantly, antimicrobials wipe out bacteria throughout the body, especially the gut, and we think this influences immune responses and might predispose to allergic sensitization."

"We show, for example, that taking a five day course of common prescribed antibiotics results in some pretty interesting changes to the immune system in the gut."

"Our hypothesis is that food allergies are dramatically increasing in the developed world because we have a tendency to overtreat bacterial infections, which in turn has an effect on a healthy balanced immune system."

Infection protection

Jay is also collaborating with Professor Liz Milward on a research assignment that looks at the tricky interplay between iron, immune responses and infection in the context of lung disease.

"We want to understand how these three elements come together in the context of the lungs," he explains.

"Literature already tells us that both high and low iron can affect immune responses."

"It also tells us iron is important for bacterial replication."

Jay and Liz are linking a small number of hereditary disorders to this work, looking to identify ways of modifying immune responses through iron and, in doing so, improve treatment options for those suffering from a range of bacterial infections.

"Cystic fibrosis patients have increased levels of iron in their airways and this might be an important reason as to why they're more likely to get chronic colonisation with certain bacteria in the lungs," he acknowledges.

At the same time, Jay is also working with a University of Newcastle PhD student on an adaptation of his earlier respiratory Chlamydia research. This time exploring the role of immune responses in stopping the progression of femalereproductive tract Chlamydia infections, Jay is seeking to develop a comprehensive understanding of the pathogenesis of sexually transmissible infection (STI).

"The immune system in the female reproductive tract is different to other organs as it needs to be able to tolerate the implantation of an embryo that is genetically different from the mother," he comments.

"Consequently, much of what we know about immunity from research of other tissues does not completely apply to the female reproductive tract."

"While Chlamydia is able to be treated with antibiotics, a lot of infections are asymptomatic so you don't go to the doctor to get treated."

Jay explains that if Chlamydia is untreated, it is able to advance into the uterus and fallopian tubes and eventually become chronic. The immune responses elicited in order to protect against this chronic upper reproductive tract infection, can cause damage to the delicate tissues in the female reproductive tract, and this can result in serious problems including infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and ectopic pregnancy.

"We are trying to identify the protective immune factors, and those that cause damage, so that we can develop improved therapeutic strategies for preventing and treating disease," he shares.

"In collaboration with researchers at Monash University we have identified a novel type 1 interferon that protects against infection in the female reproductive tract."

"We are currently working with this factor to try to come up with innovative therapies for Chlamydia."

"These might be applicable to other STIs, like human papillomavirus, herpes and HIV."

Related links

Jay Horvat

Experimental models of disease

Dr Jay Horvat’s preclinical research is cementing a scientific, nuanced understanding of our bodies’ harmful and helpful immunological processes

Read more

Striking while the iron is hot

A human story behind the headlines, Professor Tom Honeyands is seeking to put science behind the mining downturn.

Tom Honeyands

The sun may be setting on the west's golden iron age, but Professor Tom Honeyands maintains there's no need to panic – if the industry can work smarter, not harder. Indeed, while Australia is uniquely vulnerable to China's economic crisis, it's also uniquely placed to compete for the attention of its struggling steel producers.

"The quality of iron ore and the knowledge to use it efficiently has really come to the fore," he asserts.

"The countries that do this best will do much better in the current circumstances."

Though sparking a wrestling match between mining's heavyweights and policy makers, and just about everyone else, Tom concedes the commodities slump dually allows scientists to be at the coalface of cost minimisation and value-adding efforts. A metallurgical specialist with more than 26 years' experience in consulting, research and process engineering, he is aiming to boost the viability and productivity of our nation's careworn minerals sector.

"I look specifically at the use of iron ores in ironmaking," the New Zealand native explains.

"The goal is to cement an understanding of its properties and how they behave in different processes, such as sintering and blast furnace ironmaking."

Iron clad beginnings

Tom's research career began in 1991, when he undertook a PhD at the University of Newcastle. Building a full-scale model of steel caster using perspex and water, he used the three-year probe to examine the fluid mechanics of thin slab caster moulds.

"With this type of casting, the same volume of fluid goes into a much smaller area, which causes oscillating waves to form on the surface of the caster," the chemical expert elaborates.

"This causes product defects."

"I discovered you can use electromagnetic breaking to stop them from happening, however."

"I relied on computational fluid dynamics to explore the magnetic forces at play."

Signing on to become a Research Engineer at the then BHP Central Research Laboratory after receiving his award in 1994, Tom sought to expand his knowledge of these and other ironmaking processes.

"My most memorable and challenging task was probably at Port Hedland in Western Australia," he muses.

"I was part of the technical team working to improve the operability of the Boodarie Iron, hot briquetted iron plant."

"I led an investigation into the sintering of hot, partially reduced iron ore as it flowed between fluidised bed reactors."

"We had access to specialist laboratory equipment that simulated the high-temperature, high pressure process," he comments.

"Cooling the first reactor was found to be beneficial – dense shells of metallic iron were no longer formed on the iron, which allowed reduction to proceed and made the ore less sticky."

"This discovery led to the creation of a patented test methodology for the sticking of particulate solids."

"It was subsequently licensed to POSCO, a South Korean steelmaking giant."

The big picture

In September 2006, Tom became the Director of Creative Process Innovation, a small, highly specialised consultancy business based in the Hunter. Concentrating on research project management and technical marketing, the accomplished academic looked to foster industry growth both locally and overseas.

"I also developed Marx' Value in Use (VIU), which is a mathematical model of smelting and sintering processes that quantifies the value, or lack of value, of iron ore," he adds.

Teaming up with the University of Newcastle, Auckland University, the CSIRO and the "who's who" of major global mining companies in 2012, Tom endeavoured to advance the science and engineering that underpins measurement of the transportable moisture limit (TML) for iron ore fines through the AMIRA P1097 project.

A ship's rocking motion can potentially lead to bulk cargoes behaving like a liquid, compromising vessel safety. The P1097 project selected and modified a TML test specifically calibrated to iron ore fines shipment, contributing to the new International Maritime Organisation schedule for iron ore fines as well as a draft international standard.

Experiments and exports

Tom joined the University of Newcastle in October 2015, opting to take on leadership roles at its Centre for Ironmaking Materials Research (CIMR) and the "properties and end use stream" of its ARC Research Hub for Advanced Technologies for Australian Iron Ore. Using small-scale laboratory furnaces and microscopy techniques, he's seeking to mimic and better understand sintering and ironmaking processes.

"We're currently simulating smelting in a real blast furnace at small scale. The critical part is the soft melting zone, which controls the productivity of the whole process," Tom shares.

"We're studying the interactions that occur when you charge lump iron ore in with the sinter and pellets."

"The primary goal is to help customers get the best out of these products."

In the former area, however, Tom is mostly interested in structural changes.

"The structure of the iron ore bed changes quite dramatically during the sintering process, and in so doing, determines the quality of the sinter and its performance in the blast furnace."

Funded by BHP Billiton and the ARC, Tom is set to run an interstate study on these complex changes in early 2016.

"We'll be using the Synchrotron in Melbourne to do x-ray CT scans and build up a 3D picture of the structure – how strong it will be and how easily it will reduce," he clarifies.

"We'll also be using sinter pot experiments, which are pilot-scale simulation devices housed in the CSIRO in Queensland and Zhejiang University in China."

Find out more

Tom Honeyands

Striking while the iron is hot

The sun may be setting on the west’s golden iron age, but Professor Tom Honeyands maintains there’s no need to panic – if the industry can work smarter, not har

Read more

Using our past to determine our future

Professor Deborah Hodgson works at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and immunology, to explore the impact of early life events on long term health outcomes

Deborah Hodgson 

Any one person who tackles the dual roles of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), and Director of the University of Newcastle's Laboratory of Neuroimmunology must obviously be enamored with science, but Professor Deborah Hodgson's enthusiasm for her field of expertise appears boundless.

A leading international expert in the field of fetal programming, Deb's area of focus is the role of pre-natal and early life events in the development of the brain and immune system.

"Things that happen early in life, affect your trajectory towards health or disease later in life," she explains.

"It seems like we are stating the obvious, but such a focus is critical in rethinking the origins of disease".

Deb is leading a number of studies that are exploring how perinatal stress may lead to adverse physiological and psychological health outcomes.

"Mothers are essentially a sense organ for their child," Deb states.

"Pregnancy prepares the offspring for what it is going to experience when it is born, and behavioural, physiological and psychological adaptations are about ensuring survival."

"In most cases those adaptations are of benefit to the offspring, but in some cases they are not."

FOR THE LOVE OF SCIENCE

For as long as she can remember Deb has been fascinated by science and in particular medicine.  

"I was one of the nerdy kids that loved biology and would read surgical texts for relaxation," she laughs.

This preoccupation led Deb to commence the undergraduate medical training program at UNSW.  However the reality of medicine was not as she had imagined. A fascination with research and in particular neuroscience shifted her focus to study psychology, particularly the psychology of pain, at Macquarie University.

During her PhD studies in neuroscience, Deb studied a phenomenon called stress- induced analgesia.

"Using animal models, we showed that the more unpredictable or uncontrollable an event is, the more aversive it is, and the more aversive the event, the more analgesic the animal would become," she explains.

It was during her doctoral studies that Deb began to consider more deeply two concepts raised by her study: that psychology affects perception of pain, and that pain impacts on our susceptibility and response to illness. She resolved to learn more about interactions between the brain and the immune system.

CALIFORNIA HERE WE COME

Determined to learn from the best, Deb applied to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in 1993. UCLA was renowned as the emerging centre for the study of psychoneuroimmunology, a field which studies the interaction between the brain and the immune system and connects illness, stress, and mood. Dedicating her studies to this emerging field, Deb was awarded the esteemed Post Doctoral Norman Cousins Fellowship.

"It was a very prestigious program, and I had some fantastic mentors there," she recalls.

"It was very exciting to be part of what was a very new field at that stage, and to be working with great minds that were pushing boundaries."

Returning to Australia in 1998, Deb commenced employment at the University of Newcastle.  Her research focused on the fetal alcohol syndrome work which she had been working on with a mentor in the latter stages of her UCLA Fellowship.

"I guess that sparked my interest in what I do now, and I have done it ever since," she contemplates.

"Since 1993, I have been attempting to understand how our early life environment plays a critical role in our predisposition to disease."

SPREADING THE WORD

The compulsion to help people who shaped her early career is still strong in Deb, as she not only supervises lab work, but also spends time sharing her expertise with clinicians, medical practitioners and community groups who have heard about the field of fetal programming. 

"The impact of the early life environment is particularly important in countries where poor maternal health is often encountered," Deb explains.

Her work has been translated into research projects in Sri Lanka and The Maldives where attempts have been made to improve maternal outcomes through an improved understanding of the impact of the early environment on long term health outcomes.

"I like the fact that our research makes a difference. What we are doing really does translate and can potentially explain certain phenomena we observe in human populations."

"A source of constant amazement is the capacity for resilience and adaptation evident in the human phenotype," she adds.

WHEN MEDICAL RESEARCH CHANGES MEDICAL PRACTICE

The field of fetal programming has already changed the way medicine views the relativity of a patient's history. Medical practitioners have discovered that enquiring about early life health and experience may provide invaluable perspective on possible future health challenges.

Designing pharmaceutical interventions that target specific receptors in the brain which may be malfunctioning due to the impact of early life stressors is one possible outcome from research in this field. More immediate intervention may come in the form of educating parents and medical practitioners regarding behavioural interventions, which may lessen the probability of a child developing a disease, despite a predisposition.

Deb provides an example with respect to pain management. "A current dilemma in pain research is understanding why some individuals following trauma, recover quickly with no residual and pain, whilst others with the same injury develop chronic pain syndromes." 

"A research program that two of my PhD students have been working on has demonstrated that perceptions of pain are altered by exposure to early life stress," she shares. 

"This exposure alters a number of basic pain and neuroendocrine pathways.  We are now able to suggest that in some cases a predisposition toward chronic pain following acute trauma may be dependent, at least in part, on experiences in early life."

"Given that the physiology of chronic pain versus acute pain differs, this information allows us to more readily develop strategies to manage pain appropriately."

Deb is passionate about research in this field informing future directions in public health.

"The only way we are going to change health trajectories is by understanding the basic determinants of disease processes. And, in some cases those determinants are happening pre-birth," she discloses.

PAIN, FERTILITY AND GUTS

The burning curiosity that drives Deb forward is never more evident than when asked about upcoming collaborations, directions and projects. She is excited to be involved in any work that increases her understanding of the brain, speaking with equal enthusiasm about a PhD study in the UON lab or an international collaboration.   

"Obviously because the brain regulates so many different systems we can look at many different outcomes; we've looked at how the early life environment impacts our responses to pain, potential links to psychopathology and disruptions to glucose metabolism, …" she lists. 

Another study, assessing the role of the early life environment and in particular, exposure to viruses on the gut, also has Deb's attention.

"There is a lot of current research focusing on the relationship between mood disorders and diet which needs to be evaluated," she says.

This focus on how food allergies and dietary related phenomenon affect mood perfectly targets her area of expertise, the intersection of illness, brain, and behaviour.

"Your gut produces cytokines, and cytokines enter your brain, affecting mood, appetite, sleep, perceptions of pain plus much more," clarifies.

"So, we've gone from the brain/behaviour axis to the gut/brain axis."

"The gut/brain axis is one of our major future areas of focus," she predicts.

Deborah Hodgson

Using our past to determine our future

Professor Deborah Hodgson works at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and immunology, to explore the impact of early life events on long term health

Read more

Associate Professor Akhtar Hossain awarded Best Paper

Newcastle Business School academic Associate Prof Akhtar Hossain has won an award for his paper discussing Islamic banking and finance.

Associate Professor Akhtar Hossain has been awarded 2014 Best Paper Award at the Foundation of Islamic Finance Conference (FIFC).

The paper, titled "Exchange-rate Regimes, Inflation Volatility and Growth of Real GDP: An Empirical Study of Nine Muslim-Majority Countries, 1970-2010", discusses the evolution of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) since its modern-era emergence in 1970. In particular, the paper highlights the importance of stability for IBF and the methods by which this can be achieved.

The paper develops a short-run macroeconomic model showing the interrelationships of real-GDP growth with inflation, real interest rates and real exchange rates and then deploys a structural vector autoregressive (SVAR) modelling approach to estimate the model and conduct innovation accounting of real output growth for individual countries and all countries as a group.

The key finding is that structural innovations in inflation, real interest rates and real exchange rates explain approximately 40-to-50 per cent of structural innovations in real-GDP growth for most individual countries in the sample. A feedback effect is present, with innovations in real-GDP growth explaining a significant proportion of innovations in inflation in some countries with large non-tradable goods sectors.

The policy implications of the paper are as follows. Islamic financial institutions can perform more efficiently under conditions of macroeconomic stability in general and price stability in particular. This can be achieved when policymakers make firm commitment to achieve the targets of sustained stability in both inflation and real-GDP growth.

Regarding price stability, authorities should establish and maintain transparency and credibility in monetary policy by implementing rule-based monetary policy. This would require introduction of some flexibility into the existing exchange-rate arrangements. Any increased degree of exchange-rate flexibility would represent an improvement, with the ideal being full currency floatation.

Finally, the ultimate success of monetary policy hinges crucially on the degree of disciplined, complementary support that the fiscal authorities provide.

Associate Professor Akhtar Hossain awarded Best Paper

Newcastle Business School academic Associate Prof Akhtar Hossain has won an award for his paper discussing Islamic banking and finance. Associate Professor Akhtar Hossain has been awarded 2014 Best Paper Award at the Foundation of Islamic Finance Conference (FIFC).The paper,…

Read more

The pros and cons of uncertainty

Professor Allyson Holbrook of the Research Training and Transformational Knowledge program looks at the huge intellectual and emotional changes that occur in PhD candidates and what affect these have on their thinking and attrition rates.

Professor Allyson Holbrook

What differentiates an undergraduate degree from a doctorate, besides a few years' extra study and far more knowledge of a subject area? According to Research Training and Transformational Knowledge program leader, Professor Allyson Holbrook, a great deal.

'Everyone who completes a PhD will tell you that they really are not the same as when they began,' explains Professor Holbrook. 'This is because people committed to sustained higher-order thinking activities undergo a transformation, a paradigm shift.'

Holbrook and colleagues have spent 10 years studying how PhD candidates learn and develop. Whereas the undergraduate, and even Masters, student essentially consumes existing knowledge, the doctoral student must learn to question that knowledge and to become a producer of new, original knowledge. This involves a protracted engagement with uncertainty.

'Higher-order thinking exposes you to multiple perspectives, interpretations and explanations,' says Holbrook. 'The once solid epistemological ground beneath your feet can, on close and sustained scrutiny, give way, leaving you only with complexity and uncertainty. "Reality" can become difficult to establish, yet this is the pathway to originality and innovation.'

There can, however, be profound emotional and psychological repercussions. PhD students are more stressed than the general population, often feel intellectually isolated, and may even find their own sense of self destabilised and ultimately transformed by the doctoral experience.

'These intellectual and emotional challenges are a necessary part of the gestational process that produces transformative thinkers – the iconoclasts and innovators. But they're also largely responsible, unfortunately, for the very high attrition rate amongst candidates.'

This attrition rate has been the subject of national and international concern and was the initial stimulus for the group's research. In seeking ways to mitigate it, they have looked at how the quality of research training and supervision could be improved, how PhD students could be made more aware of the challenges they will face and how best to deal with them, and how university administrators and educational policymakers could develop a stronger appreciation of what students go through and of the fact that 'one size fits all' solutions do not work with this heterogeneous population.

Having spent many years establishing a solid evidence base about transformative knowledge processes in higher education, the group is now embarking on a new phase, with plans both to apply what they've learnt and to extend their work to other sectors. The creation of the new Research Training and Transformational Knowledge program in 2013 coincides with and gives additional impetus to, this 'transformation' of the group's own directions and energies.

The plans for applied work in higher education include training for supervisors, students and administrative staff, first at this university and then more widely, including the delivery of online assistance to students nationally. And in a couple of years' time they will bring together for the first time ever the world's experts in the field for an inaugural conference on the research learner.

The group's plans to extend their work to other sectors originate from preliminary work with obstetricians, who are constantly confronted with new information and high levels of uncertainty and stress. The group discovered that the transformational processes and experiences they had mapped in higher education apply equally to those who develop any major new knowledge. So they are now starting to examine what highly innovative individuals in professions are doing to transform their professional work.

They are also planning to create a new network specific to higher-order learning that will branch out from their normal educational contacts to include a targeted group of people working in these higher-level ways in the broader industrial arena, for example in defence, engineering, and international consultancy.

'When we started many years ago, there was minimal research being done on the psychology of higher-order learning and thinking. But now everyone realises how crucial it is to development, to tackling complex problems, to the future. So there's a great deal more interest in it, and in doing it well. There's been a build up to this. Now it's the time for change.'

Find out more

Higher Learning

The pros and cons of uncertainty

Professor Allyson Holbrook of the Research Training and Transformational Knowledge program looks at the huge intellectual and emotional changes that occur in Ph

Read more

Higher Learning

A new education research program examines how we prepare our best and brightest minds to participate in a knowledge-thirsty world.

"We hear a lot of talk about the new innovation society and the knowledge economy, but how are we preparing people to produce the creative solutions required in this challenging environment?" asks Professor Allyson Holbrook, the program leader.

"As we move into this innovation world we need to have a better perspective on how to teach people to fill those roles, to acquire that sort of higher-order thinking that creates new knowledge."

Building on earlier work done by Holbrook and other University of Newcastle researchers on how doctoral research should be benchmarked, the AKP program is concentrating on not only how to foster advanced thinkers in a university environment but also in the workplace.

Holbrook says one of the key attributes of adaptive knowledge producers is their ability to deal with uncertainty.

"We know from the substantial literature on creativity that people who are highly original are people who harness uncertainty," she says.

"They don't let it rule them - it is not a controlling force - they use it and turn it into something productive. Researchers deal well with that because to be a good researcher you have to deal with uncertainty every minute of every day."

AKP researchers have identified four markers that indicate when a learner is making the transition from being a user of knowledge to a producer of new knowledge. These are:

  • That they exhibit a need for epistemic community (a nurturing, learning community)
  • They engage in mindful uncertainty, which means that they no longer regard uncertainty as a barrier
  • They enter into a state of immersion in what they are doing
  • They experience what is called "epistemological rift", a feeling of being intellectually wrongfooted and alone that is a phase commonly reported by PhD researchers.

"That last one is really significant; it actually indicates that a person is at that breakthrough point to becoming a higher-order knowledge producer," Holbrook says.

"But it is often misinterpreted by supervisors in academia or industry as being an emotional problem, rather than an important part of the creative process."

While research groups elsewhere have studied aspects of knowledge production in the tertiary environment, the AKP program will break new ground by adapting the research for the workplace.

"What we have done is create diagnostics and tools to detect these higher-level knowledge-producing attributes in novice researchers; our big next step in Adaptive Knowledge Production is to take these into new contexts in industry," Holbrook says.

The potential for application in the professional sphere was recognised following a collaborative study with Dalhousie University in Canada, into the factors associated with decision-making by obstetricians performing cesarean sections.

"We see huge scope for this work to be applied in the professional sphere," Holbrook says. "Not just among people like software designers and scientists who might be considered research staff, but among doctors, teachers and other professionals who need to engage in that higher-order knowledge production."

"It's not just about teaching people to produce knowledge, it is about producing knowledge that is new and enabling them to continue to do this with different problems. Those are the key aspects."

Higher Learning

Higher Learning

A new education research program examines how we prepare our best and brightest minds to participate in a knowledge-thirsty world.

Read more

News

Global health and medical powerhouse

March 27, 2015

More than 650 of the world’s leading health and medical educators are in Newcastle for the ANZAHPE AMEA 2015 conference

Conjoint Associate Professor Eric Ho

Position

Conjoint Associate Professor
School of Medicine and Public Health
Faculty of Health and Medicine

Contact Details

Email e.ho@newcastle.edu.au
Phone (02) 4921 3658
Fax (02) 4921 3656

Office

Location Callaghan
University Drive
Callaghan, NSW 2308
Australia
Edit