Research opportunities

Available projects will be added to the site as they become available for the 2023 round. Please note that these are subject to change.

Lab head emails are for project specific queries only. If you have any general queries about the program, please email

Lab head Lab name Project summary Contact email
Daniel Heath Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Lab Biomaterials are used to fabricate biomedical devices, tissue engineering scaffolds, and cell- and organ-on-a-chip devices, and the interactions between the material and the biological environment is critical to the success of the device.  The Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Lab focuses on development new materials that exhibit improved interactions with the biological environment.

In this project, students will evaluate the performance of biomaterials through cell culture assays, advanced microscopy and image analysis techniques, and molecular biology studies.  Outputs from this work will lead to new materials that improve the performance of devices across a range of applications.
Senaka Ranadheera Probiotic Food Research Group The growing preference for functional foods favours the probiotic and prebiotic market growth and is expected to reach over USD 66 billion by 2024. Probiotics are live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer health benefits on the host through enhancing gut microbiome. Probiotics are associated with maintaining optimum microbial balance in the digestive tract with a number of well-documented health benefits. Therefore, these organisms such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria have been extensively incorporated into various food products over the last decade. Colonic foods, which encourage the growth of favourable bacteria, are referred to as prebiotics. There is an obvious potential for a synergetic effect when combining probiotics and prebiotics appropriately, because prebiotics promote the growth and activities of probiotics. Traditionally, probiotic delivery has been associated with dairy foods, however there is an increasing demand for non-dairy probiotic products due to vegetarianism, concerns over milk cholesterol content, and lactose intolerance. In order to provide beneficial health effects for the host animal, probiotic bacteria must survive through the gastrointestinal tract, tolerating acid, bile and gastric enzymes, and then adhere and colonize in the intestinal epithelium. These functional properties can be influenced by the type food carriers used in probiotic delivery. Hence, studies on influence of non-dairy plant-based food matrices on probiotic functional efficacy are crucial. Our recent work focus on the impact of various non-dairy food substrates on the gastrointestinal tolerance of probiotics (selected strains of lactobacilli & bifidibacteria) and their colonic fermentation in vitro. In addition, cell culture techniques with respect to probiotic adhesin into intestinal epithelium and basic molecular biological applications are also used. This study will evaluate the gastrointestinal tolerance and colonic fermentation of various probiotic species/ strain combinations in the presence of selected prebiotic food substances (inulin and fructooligosaccharides) in plant-based food matrices using in vitro techniques.
Jonathan White White Group Laboratory The student will work on a project synthesising a drug precursor which has been established to inhibit certain proteins associated with cancer proliferation. The precursor molecule will be radio labelled with the radioactive isotope 18-F for the purposes of positron-emission-tomography (PET)imaging of tumours at the Austin Hospital.
Prof Anthony Hannan Epigenetics and Neural Plasticity Lab We are interested in how genes and environment combine to sculpt brain development and function, in health and disease.  We have examined the role of various molecular and cellular mediators, and environmental modulators, as they influence healthy cognitive and affective function on the one hand, and cognitive and affective disorders on the other.  These findings have been extended to include environmental manipulations in models of various brain disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders. We have also discovered altered brain-body interactions, including the first evidence of gut dysbiosis (dysregulated microbiota) in Huntington’s disease, and a preclinical model of schizophrenia. Ongoing studies are exploring the gut microbiome as a therapeutic target and the possibility that specific environmental factors may modulate brain function via microbiota-gut-brain interactions. In a parallel program of research, we have been exploring epigenetic inheritance via the paternal lineage. We have discovered the transgenerational effects of various paternal environmental exposures. Our findings reveal significant experience-dependent effects on cognitive and affective function of offspring via epigenetic inheritance. We are investigating the relevance of these discoveries in mice to human transgenerational epigenetics and associated ‘epigenopathy’.  Our ongoing studies are exploring mechanisms whereby experience can modify germ cells and associated sperm epigenetics, and how these epigenetic modifications (of mice and men) may modulate offspring phenotypes and their potential susceptibility to various brain disorders.
A/Prof. Michael Hildebrand Translational Neurogenetics Laboratory Title: Genetic Testing of Small Tissue Specimens from Vascular Malformations for Molecular Diagnosis

Brief Description: An expanding range of treatments targeted at specific mutations are becoming available for children with severe vascular malformations. However, access to genetic testing and funding remain significant barriers to genetic diagnosis of these children. This is despite significant progress in understanding the molecular pathogenesis of these disorders in recent years. Here we introduce a new diagnostic strategy for children with vascular malformations to identify the underlying genetic cause in almost half of those tested by detecting somatic mosaicism at low variant allele fraction using DNA derived from small tissue specimens such as punch biopsies.

Methods: We will apply a tiered diagnostic strategy to individuals with intractable vascular malformations prior to further genomic sequencing including: 1) reanalysis of existing clinical exome data utilizing our bioinformatic pipeline with somatic variant calling to interrogate genes associated with vascular malformations; 2) droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) for sensitive detection of low variant allele fraction mosaicism; and 3) Sanger sequencing of specific hotspot regions of genes associated with vascular malformations.

Preliminary Data: We have studied 29 patients with vascular malformations, identifying pathogenic somatic variants in 13/29 (45%). Solved cases included 12 low flow lesions and one high flow lesion. In two patients with prior non-diagnostic tissue-based exome sequencing, reanalysis of existing exome data identified the causative variant. We utilized ddPCR assays to identify known recurrent PIK3CA variants in 8 patients with variant allele fractions between 1-18% in affected tissue; a recurrent TEK variant was identified in one patient. In two patients Sanger sequencing identified pathogenic variants in GNAQ and PIK3CA respectively.

Rationale, Hypothesis and Aims: Children with severe vascular malformations may be eligible for trials of targeted therapeutic interventions based on the identification of specific pathogenic variants. We will demonstrate the efficacy of a flexible, tiered diagnostic strategy including ddPCR, a cost-effective and sensitive method for detecting recurrent low-level mosaic variants that are often present in individuals with vascular malformations. The application of ddPCR provides the opportunity to detect low allele fraction variants from very small tissue samples such as punch biopsies. At present, such testing is not typically available through government funded pathology centres in Australia. Specialists caring for these children could consider contacting tertiary vascular centres in order to access targeted ddPCR and sequencing. If a pathogenic variant is detected, the child may be eligible for a targeted therapy.

Hypothesis: Somatic mutagenesis plays an important role in causation of intractable vascular malformations and provides opportunities for targeted therapies

Aim 1: To demonstrate the utility of a tiered genetic screening methodology for patients with vascular malformations

Aim 2: To determine the clinical efficacy of two targeted therapies when given according to genetic diagnosis in patients with vascular malformations who are refractory to standard therapy
Lucy Palmer Neural Networks Laboratory Our goal is to understand the neural activity contributing to decision making, learning and memory in the mammalian brain. Individual neurons are continuously bombarded with thousands of synaptic inputs which must integrate to generate an internal representation of the external environment. We investigate how the brain processes this vast information by measuring the activity of neurons within the neocortex. In particular, we measure the activity of dendrites, which actively transform synaptic inputs into neuronal output.

We use various techniques to record from neurons in vivo including two photon calcium imaging, somatic and dendritic patch-clamp recordings and optogenetics. Through our work, we not only aim to reveal how sensory information is received, transformed and modulated in neurons, but also how this processing of synaptic input contributes to the overall neural network activity underlying learning and memory.
Megan Maher Maher research laboratory Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell providing the body with over 90% of the energy it needs to sustain life. Mitochondrial diseases collectively represent the most common inborn errors of metabolism in humans. These are debilitating and potentially fatal diseases that reduce the ability of the mitochondria to produce this energy. We are interested in studying mitochondrial diseases that result from defects in the biogenesis of Complex IV, particularly related to copper transport. Copper is an essential trace element for eukaryotes and mechanisms must be in place to enable its trafficking to prevent its toxicity. Defects in Cu incorporation into Complex IV are an active and rapidly growing area of research. This project will examine the role of a host of Complex IV assembly factor proteins. Our laboratory specialises in the technique of X-ray crystallography, which allows us to visualise the three dimensional architectures of these proteins and therefore understand how they work. We aim to study the structures and functions of these proteins so we can understand why dysfunction causes disease.
Dr Ivanhoe Leung Leung Research Group: Research at the Chemistry & Biology Interface Our research group conducts multidisciplinary research to study enzymes with a focus on structure, function and modulation. We aim to utilise our knowledge to help solve some of the world’s most urgent challenges. These include studying mutant enzymes that cause diseases such as cancers, targeting bacterial enzymes that cause antibiotic resistance, as well as harnessing the catalytic activity of enzymes to break down environmental pollutants.

A key step of our work involves the production and purification of recombinant proteins. In this summer project, you will conduct experiments to genetically modify microorganisms to produce recombinant proteins as well as optimising the procedure for protein purification. If time permits, you will also have the opportunity to use biophysical tools (such as mass spectrometry) to characterise the proteins that you will make.

There are no formal prerequisites although an understanding of basic molecular biology and an enthusiasm in enzymology will be helpful. Training and supervision will be provided throughout the summer period. You will be an integral part of our research group and contribute to the generation of new knowledge for scientific publications.

Examples of recent work from our group that include contribution from summer students (*):

Correddu, D.; Montaño López, J. d. J.*; Angermayr, S. A.; Middleditch, M. J.; Payne, L. S.; Leung, I. K. H. Effect of Consecutive Rare Codons on the Recombinant Production of Human Proteins in Escherichia coli. IUBMB Life 2020, 72, 266–274.

Correddu, D.; Montaño López, J. d. J.*; Vadakkedath, P. G.; Lai, A.*; Pernes, J. I.*; Watson, P. R.*; Leung, I. K. H. An Improved Method for the Heterologous Production of Soluble Human Ribosomal Proteins in Escherichia coli. Sci. Rep. 2019, 9, 8884.

Please feel free to contact me by email if you would like to find out more about our research!
Craig Hutton Hutton Lab The Hutton lab research interests include the development of novel synthetic methods for the assembly and functionalization of peptides, the synthesis of biologically active cyclic peptide natural products, and the development of radiolabelled peptides for cancer imaging.
Douglas Pires Pires Group Title: Computer-aided drug design: predicting and mitigating drug toxicity

Summary: A significant proportion of drug candidates fail clinical trials due to safety concerns denoted by poor toxicity profiles. Experimentally characterising different toxicity measures in vitro and in vivo is usually costly and time-consuming. Computational methods capable of identifying safe drug candidates early in the drug discovery process can assist in increasing the chances of success of a therapeutic, reducing cost and development time. This project aims to build the next generation of tools to predict and optimise toxicity profiles of drug candidates using machine learning and graph modelling, building on earlier efforts ( These will assist the drug discovery pipeline by identifying and mitigating potential toxicity effects early in development.

Keywords: Machine learning, Bioinformatics, Cheminformatics, Graph Modelling, Drug Discovery, Health Informatics
Professor Ross Bathgate Neuropeptide receptor laboratory G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are the most important cellular sensors in the human body and drugs targeting GPCRs account for ~40% of all prescription drugs. Conversely, over 85% (>310 receptors) of the GPCR family is not currently targeted by drugs. In particular neuropeptide GPCRs, although linked to the pathogenesis of many diseases, have proved to be especially difficult to target with drugs. The reason for this is that very little is known about the molecular mechanisms underlying GPCR binding and activation, thus hampering drug development. Our laboratory targets GPCRs for drug development utilizing state-of-the-art molecular pharmacology, biochemical and Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) techniques. These techniques enable us to map the native ligand binding sites of these receptors and determine the mechanisms of receptor activation as well their cell signalling characteristics. A complete understanding of the mechanism of ligand binding and activation is required to design drugs targeting these receptors. Furthermore, we are utilizing novel protein engineering techniques that enable these normally highly unstable proteins to be produced and purified for structural studies using advanced protein NMR techniques, crystallography and Cryo-EM. These studies are complemented by peptide drug development projects and small molecule screening projects with collaborators. Additionally, we are working with pharmaceutical industry partners (e.g. Takeda and Novartis) to facilitate drug development efforts.
Alex Andrianopoulos Fungal Molecular Genetics Lab Research in the lab is focused on understanding the molecular genetic mechanisms that control how genes are turned on and off. To do this we predominantly study two experimental systems:

– The first focuses on the human pathogen Talaromyces marneffei, a small eukaryotic fungus that infects humans and ultimately leads to death of the infected host if untreated. By understanding how the fungus infects humans and causes disease we can develop strategies to control and combat fungal diseases.
– The second focuses on the model organism Aspergillus nidulans, a small eukaryotic fungus that has been used to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms of many biological processes common to eukaryotes from fungi to humans.

In addition to the fundamental knowledge about how organisms function, the work also has important implications for developing new or improved applications for the use of fungi in biotechnology.
Natalie Wee Bone Cell Biology & Disease Skeletal health is determined by the strength of our bones and how well they can resist breaking. We are interested in studying the specific cell types within bone that promote bone formation. These include periosteal cells on the outer layer of bone, and those embedded within bone known as osteocytes. To be identify these cells and examine their spatial localisation within bone, we have genetically tagged mouse models with fluorescent reporters specific to bone-forming cells. This project will investigate key questions including identifying where these cells are, how many there are in each location, and how they respond to a known stimulus. This project will focus on sectioning frozen bone, mounting and staining sections, scanning sections, and evaluating them for differences. There will also be opportunities to participate in primary cell culture and fluorescent genotyping, as well as to observe other bone research methods being used by others in our research team.
Rachael Richardson Optogenetics Research Group Optogenetics is a biological technique to control the activity of neurons with light. This is achieved by expression of light-sensitive ion channels specifically in the target cells. The optogenetics program at the Bionics Institute encompasses projects with the broad aim of using optogenetics for precise and selective neuromodulation.

Optogenetics is a technology that overcomes the lack of specificity of electrical neuromodulation by modifying selective target neurons in a mixed neural population with light sensitive ion channels. These ion channels can be excitatory or inhibitory, providing unprecedented control over neural activity that is difficult to achieve safely with electrical stimulation. Moreover, light can be confined more easily than electric fields, thus providing higher resolution with fewer side-effects.

We are applying optogenetic technologies to sensory prostheses, deep brain stimulation and the peripheral nervous system. Our work involves genetic manipulation of neural populations in rodents, implantation of biomedical devices, electrophysiological recording and analysis, and behavioural assays. This project will suit a student with an interest in neuroscience and biomedical engineering.
Prof Colette McKay Human Hearing Group This is a unique opportunity to explore the intersection between neuroscience, clinical practices, and a disorder seriously affecting 400 million people.

Hearing loss is one of the most common neurological disorders in the world, manifesting in many different forms. People suffering from hearing loss face many difficulties in everyday life: it impacts language acquisition for children and speech recognition for adults. The Human Hearing Research team at the Bionics Institute explores objective ways to measure different neurological limitations related to hearing loss. We are a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, clinicians, and scientists who work with people ranging from normal hearing infants to grandparents with cochlear implants to better understand their hearing journey. To do so, we use state-of-the-art technologies such as functional near infrared spectroscopy and direct electrode stimulation of the auditory nerve. We devise new clinical protocols and use the data gathered to build machine learning models which improve the diagnostic capacity of neurological conditions for people suffering from hearing loss.

We welcome you to join our research team during your break. As a part of the team, you will explore how different neurological limitations manifest in a variety of hearing outcomes
A/Prof Andrew Wise Bionic Auditory Neurosciences Group Hearing loss related to noise exposure or ageing is associated with the loss of hair cells, auditory neurons and synapses formed between them. There currently is no drug treatment for hearing loss and therefore a significant demand for the development of a therapy to regenerate synaptic function. The aim of this project is to develop therapeutic drug delivery technology using nanoengineering to treat hearing impairment.
Prof James Fallon Peripheral Interfaces & Neuromodulation Group The use of electric medicine devices to stimulate the autonomic nervous system has given rise to a broad range of promising new treatments for autoimmune diseases and chronic conditions and has gained significant momentum in the medical research community. However, most devices used to deliver bioelectric therapy are open-loop and provide a fixed level of stimulation that does not respond to individual needs. The next generation of bioelectric neuromodulation devices aim to provide closed loop (adaptive) control, in which the level of stimulation adjusts to a patient’s rapidly changing needs. The Peripheral Interface Neuromodulation Team at the Bionics Institute are developing a range of vagus nerve devices to prevent the recurrence of Crohn’s disease; and are developing similar devices to reduce inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis; and lower blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes, in addition to a peripheral nerve device to improve bladder control. This approach offers exciting possibilities for the future treatment of autoimmune diseases and chronic conditions.
Paul Donnelly Donnelly Lab Research in the Donnelly lab focuses on synthetic inorganic chemistry and its application to biology.
Mark Rizzacasa Organic Synthesis The main focus of our research is the asymmetric synthesis of bioactive natural products and analogues and the development of new synthetic methods in organic chemistry. This includes synthesis of oxygen containing heterocyclic compounds and the application of pericyclic reactions in the synthesis of natural products. We are also have a program of analogue synthesis and medicinal chemistry and well a total synthesis inspired by biosynthesis or ‘biomimetic’ synthesis.
David Jones Organic Electronics Laboratory A/Prof Jones develops new organic electronic materials for printed solar cells. His laboratory focuses on the development of new materials with exciting new properties. It is expected the student will, depending on their interests, with synthesise new singlet fission materials or complete a study looking at the spectroscopic properties on new singlet fission materials. Singlet fission is a fundamental process where two new quantum coupled states are generated from a single excited state and promises to significantly enhance the efficiency of solar cells.
Wallace Wong Organic Materials Lab My group is primarily involved in the synthesis of materials for applications in light harvesting, energy conversion, and chemical sensing. Our approach to research includes the following steps: 1. an application or problem is identified; 2. the design of new materials is conceived; 3. Compounds are synthesised and 4. the materials are tested, and results are used to make improvements. This means good understanding of synthesis, characterisation and applications is essential.
1. Novel fluorophores for chemical sensing and biological imaging.
2. Fluorophores for luminescent solar concentrators and organic lasers.
3. Improving solar cell efficiency by photon refinement: organic dyes for triplet fusion upconversion.
Georgina K Such Functional Materials LAb Engineering Smarter Nanoparticles for Nucleic Acid Delivery Nucleic acids have significant potential for modifying the function of cells however they are limited by low stability in biological conditions. This has led to the development of nanoparticle technology as delivery systems. Stimuli-responsive nanoparticles are particularly attractive for this application as they can be engineered to evade detection by the immune system, target specific cells and to control cargo release in response to specific stimuli. However, one of the critical challenges in achieving efficient nucleic acid delivery is effective delivery of the therapeutic cargo in the target region of the cell. In this project we will design a series of polymer nanoparticles with different stimuli-responsive moieties and load them with nucleic acid cargo. These nanoparticles will be used to probe the impact of different stimuli-responsive moieties on trafficking of the nanoparticles into the active region of the cell. This work will allow the development of nanoparticles with improved delivery of nucleic acids and thus these systems will be attractive for further study in gene delivery applications.
Alistair Legione and Paola Vaz Asia Pacific Centre for Animal Health Rapid detection of infectious diseases can improve the outcomes for those species suffering from them, or improve our biosecurity response to minimise further transmission. Our work will look at developing molecular rapid diagnostic tests using loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) techniques. These tests allow for detection of genomic material of our pathogen of interest using highly sensitive and specific methods, and can produce results in under an hour. These methods are ideal for testing for infectious viruses that affect wildlife, as decisions need to be made rapidly and traditional diagnostic techniques can take several days to return a result compared to point of care rapid tests. This project will look to develop a LAMP assay for diagnosis of a viral disease affecting wildlife, and compare the test to currently available molecular testing. ,
Dr. Suzie Sheehy Particle Accelerator Laboratory The Medical Accelerator Physics group has two experimental opportunities available for summer 2023 to work using real particle accelerators for research projects that will contribute to the future of either particle collider technology or new medical technologies e.g for more precise cancer treatment using ‘particle therapy’. – The X-LAB: X-band Laboratory for Accelerators is like a mini-CERN in the basement of the School of Physics. In fact, the lab is literally a part of CERN and developed in collaboration with them! Starting up in late 2022, this newly established lab is the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and will work toward compact particle accelerator technologies for the future of particle physics, but also for societal applications. – TURBO: Technology for Ultra-Rapid Beam Optimisation, is a novel concept to speed up patient treatment using ultra-precise form of radiotherapy, i.e. particle therapy. A student will have the opportunity to work with the team on experiments using a real proton accelerator known as a ‘pelletron’.
Assoc-Prof Jenny Gunnersen Neuron Development and Plasticity Our broad research goal is to understand how neurons become connected to each other to form functional circuits. We investigate the formation of dendritic branches and synapses, the connections between neurons, in order to understand these processes in development and disease. Changes in the number and strength of synaptic connections (plasticity) are vital for the development of effective neuronal circuitry and for learning and memory in the healthy brain. On the other hand, abnormal synapse numbers and activity are defining features of neurological disorders. Learning more about dendrite and synapse development and function in the healthy brain will help us decipher the aberrant molecular pathways responsible for cognitive disorders such as mental retardation, epilepsy, schizophrenia and dementia. Research in the Gunnersen laboratory is focussed on: the molecular and cellular mechanisms controlling synapse development, synapse loss in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease and how this might be slowed or prevented, synapse formation/strengthening and how these processes contribute to the pathology of psychostimulant abuse and neuropathic pain.;