Our top stories of 2021

Awards, medals, millions of dollars in funding, and even a big TV appearance – if 2021’s top headlines are to go by, it was a jam-packed year for IMPACT following on from the upheaval of 2020.

But what remains most consistent among all of our top stories for this year is the progress IMPACT’s research is making – solidifying our position as world-leaders in medical research and demonstrating the impact that our research makes once applied to the real world.

Here are our top news highlights for 2021:


$1m funding fast tracks COVID-19 treatments

IMPACT researchers from our Fundamental Biosciences team joined researchers at the CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Geelong to develop a drug screening tool that could rapidly screen existing drugs that could be used to treat COVID-19.

The project received $1 million in July from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), with the remaining contributed by CSIRO. The tool aims to identify and fast-track TGA- or FDA-approved drugs for phase 2-3 human clinical trials within a year. It would also minimise the need for animal trials.

This initiative builds on an ongoing systems biology collaboration on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 through the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, comprising Barwon Health, CSIRO and Deakin University.


$12m kickstarts new national network in mental health research

Australia’s new Mental Health Australia General Clinical Trial Network (MAGNET), spearheaded by project lead and IMPACT director Professor Michael Berk, received $12 million from the Federal Government’s MRFF’s Million Minds Mission in May as part of the Federal Budget.

Prof Berk said MAGNET, which will start as a five-year project, would bring together more than 100 of Australia’s lead research institutions, health services and lived-experience experts to develop much needed new treatments building on Australia’s research capacity in adult mental health.

“By creating lasting forums of knowledge and expertise, MAGNET will drive prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment and recovery in mental health and also provide the very costly, specialised resources needed to run the most ambitious, diverse clinical trials,” he said.

MAGNET includes researchers, consumer and carer groups, practitioner Colleges, research peak bodies, health systems and industry partners, insurers and Government agencies across all mental health conditions, from psychosis to eating disorders to addiction.


Adrienne O’Neil recognised with top Victorian award

Food and Mood Centre deputy director Associate Professor Adrienne O’Neil received a Victorian Young Tall Poppy Award in September for her innovative research on the role of lifestyle in mental and heart health.

The Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) award honours up-and-coming scientists each year for combining world-class research with a passionate commitment to communicating science.

A/Prof O’Neil is a behavioural scientist who has spent more than a decade investigating the link between mental and cardiovascular health and the role lifestyle can play in depression and heart disease. A/Prof O’Neil currently holds a Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship. Her research has contributed to more than 120 publications and contributed to big change in the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) guidelines for mental health clinicians and General Practitioners, which now explicitly recommends lifestyle (diet, exercise, sleep and substance use reduction) as foundational, or first-line, treatment for mood disorders.


Seetal Dodd makes ABC television appearance

Professor Seetal Dodd from our Mental Health and Neuroscience team made a star appearance on the ABC TV’s three-part series How to Live Younger. The series looked at scientific “hacks” that could help improve lives by wading through the “hype” out of the wellness industry to instead reveal robust scientific evidence that shows how people can really live longer. Prof Dodd was the expert on the second episode, Mind.

“The second episode Mind reveals how happiness, social connection, peace of mind, placebos and even how experiencing a sense of awe can change our lives for the better,” the ABC said.

“Scientists at the forefront of loneliness and stress research also reveal the damaging effects negative emotions can have on our bodies at the molecular level.”


OAMs for two IMPACT researchers

Professor Eugene Athan and Professor Felice Jacka were awarded the Order of Australia Medals (OAM) in June as part of The Queen’s Birthday Honours list. The Order of Australia recognises Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement.

Prof Athan, who is a member of the Fundamental Biosciences team and Professor of Infectious Diseases in the School of Medicine at Deakin University,  was awarded his OAM for service to infectious diseases medicine.

In 2020, Prof Athan led research into Victoria’s regional response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is now the Director for the Public Health Unit overseeing the successful contact tracing system and the vaccine rollout for the Barwon South West region. He was awarded a $1 million Victorian Government research grant for a COVID-19 case-control study that is now underway.

Prof Felice Jacka, the theme leader of IMPACT’s Food & Mood team and Food & Mood Centre director, was awarded her OAM for service to nutritional psychiatry research.

Prof Jacka has researched the links between diet and mental health disorders for more than 10 years. She is founder and president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR). Prof Jacka has published almost 200 scientific articles. In 2020, she was one of the ISI Highly Cited researchers, putting her research in the top 0.1% in the world for scientific impact.


Michael Berk joins the brightest minds in social sciences

IMPACT director Professor Michael Berk was elected as a Fellow to the Academy of the Social Sciences in November, joining the best and brightest minds from universities and research institutes across Australia.

The Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia was established in 1971 to recognise and champion excellence in the social sciences and to provide evidence-based advice to governments on a range of social policy issues of national importance.

According to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia president Professor Jane Hall, the new Fellows are at the forefront of social research and policy, and have made enormous contributions to our society as a whole.

Prof Berk has published more than 1200 papers and is the second highest cited bipolar disorder researcher in the world (Scopus). Nationally, between 2014-2020, he was the top ranked author in citations in Australia for the FOR codes Psychology and Cognitive Sciences (SciVal) and 19th globally. On the bibliometric resource expertscape, he is ranked #1 globally in the field of code psychiatry, and in both mood disorders and bipolar disorder, he is ranked second globally and first in Australia.


Six IMPACT researchers make Highly Cited list

Six of the nine Deakin researchers who made the Highly Cited Researchers™ 2021 list from Clarivate in November were from IMPACT – the highest number for the University included on the list since it began in 2013.

The highly cited researchers from IMPACT were: IMPACT director Professor Michael Berk; Mental Health Disorders and Neuroscience theme leader Professor Alison R. Yung; honorary researcher Dr Andre F. Carvalho; Food & Mood theme leader Professor Felice Jacka; Clinical Trials and Interventions theme leader Associate Professor Olivia Dean; and, Dr Michael Maes.

David Pendlebury, Senior Citation Analyst at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, said it was increasingly important for nations and institutions to recognise and support the exceptional researchers who were driving the expansion of the world’s knowledge.

“This list identifies and celebrates exceptional individual researchers IMPACT who are having a significant impact on the research community as evidenced by the rate at which their work is being cited by their peers,” he said.

“The research they have contributed is fueling the innovation, sustainability, health and security that is key for our society’s future.”


And that’s just the beginning

Beyond the top highlights, there was much more that IMPACT achieved in 2021. To read more on the news that came out of IMPACT this year, explore the articles on our news page.

Also, keep an eye out for our annual report, launching in 2022, for the complete picture of the year that was.