Kirby-led team named finalist for 2021 Eureka Prize

News | Published on 02 Sep 2021

A cross-faculty team at UNSW, led by the Kirby Institute’s Professor Raina MacIntyre, has been named a finalist in the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prize, an annual presentation of 17 prizes awarded across four categories including research and innovation, leadership, science engagement and school science.

The collaboration, called U-BREATHE – the UNSW Bioaerosol Research in Expired Airborne Trajectory of Human Emissions, is nominated for the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research. It comprises leading experts across UNSW Medicine and Health and UNSW Engineering, who together have developed state-of-the-art technology to measure and visualise aerosol particles from human emissions like sneezes and coughs.

Prof. MacIntyre, who is head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute in UNSW’s Faculty of Medicine and Health, says that understanding the spread of SARS-COV-2 requires a multidisciplinary approach. “The Biosecurity Program laboratory was established as a multidisciplinary platform to generate scientific evidence on airborne spread. The use of engineering and aerosol science in understanding pathogen spread has been missing in medical approaches to infection control, which is what the U-BREATHE team has changed.”

The U-BREATHE team have investigated the evidence supporting the physical distance guideline of one metre of spatial separation for healthcare workers to protect them from COVID-19 respiratory droplet transmission, as well as the effectiveness of face masks in preventing transmission. 

“Our work showed that the initial advice of one metre physical distancing was inadequate, especially for healthcare workers,” says Professor Con Doolan, Associate Dean of Academic Programs for UNSW Engineering. “It was important that we investigated the guidelines in the context of COVID-19, with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We found that the respiratory droplets could in fact travel several metres, highlighting the importance of adequate personal protective equipment, and much greater physical distance, especially in healthcare settings.” 

The Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research is awarded for an outstanding research outcome that was only possible as a result of the integration of two or more unrelated disciplines. The work involved two PhD students, Prateek Bahl from Engineering and Shovon Battacharjee from the Kirby Institute, who both had cross-faculty supervision and worked within the exciting environment created by U-BREATHE. Prof. MacIntyre says that the field of airborne transmission of viruses needs multidisciplinary collaboration to generate truly innovative and sustainable solutions to infection control. “The need for interdisciplinary research was never more urgent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we work across medicine and engineering, we have the ability to understand spread of infections from human aerosols more fully.”