Peter Mac students have taken out two of Victoria’s top prizes for PhD studies.

Dr Gabrielle Haeusler was awarded the Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in a PhD Thesis from the University of Melbourne, and Amanda Oliver has won the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre’s Picchi Award for Excellence in Cancer Research in basic science.

Gabrielle’s was one of only two prizes awarded from the field of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne, and one of just six awarded by the University overall.

The prizes celebrate the very best of PhD theses submitted to the University each year, and consider international recognition and impact of the research, research outputs, and recognition of the research, for example through other awards and invitations to present at conferences.

“It is a great honour to receive this award – truly a career highlight,” says Gabrielle.

“It really validates my investment to date, particularly as I am juggling a clinical career with research and raising a young family.”

Gabrielle’s PhD research focused on fever and neutropenia (FN) in children, a condition where numbers of neutrophil white blood cells reach abnormally low levels as a result of cancer treatments, increasing a child’s risk of infection.

FN is the most common complication of childhood cancer treatment. Management traditionally involves hospital admission for antibiotics until resolution of fever and recovery of neutrophil count.

However, not all children with FN are at high risk of serious infection, meaning that some children may be treated unnecessarily.

Gabrielle’s PhD aimed to improve understanding of the assessment and management of FN in children with cancer in Australia, and to facilitate treatment that is tailored to the patient’s risk of infection.

“My research has translated into practice in Australia’s first paediatric low-risk FN program. This program has significantly reduced hospital length of stay, contributed to substantial bed and cost savings and is planned for national scale up,” says Gabrielle.

Gabrielle’s PhD supervisor and Deputy Head of Peter Mac’s Department of Infectious Diseases, Prof Karin Thursky, says Gabrielle’s PhD research program has not only provided important knowledge about the occurrence and management of FN in children, but has led to the implementation of new clinical pathways of care that will lead to better patient outcomes.

“Gabrielle’s achievements during her PhD have identified her as the pre-eminent expert in infections in paediatric cancer in Australia, and she is a truly worthy candidate for this prize,” says Prof Thursky.

Another outstanding PhD student, Amanda Oliver, was recognised by the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) with the Picchi Award for Excellence in Cancer Research in the category of basic science.

The prestigious awards celebrate the top PhD students from across all of the VCCC alliance partner, recognising and rewarding potential emerging researchers towards research independence.

“I am incredibly honoured to be receiving the Picchi Award and with it the opportunity to interact with world-leaders in my field, kick-starting what I hope to be a prolific career in the fight against cancer,” says Amanda.

Amanda is in the final year of her PhD studies, in which she is defining a role for the tumour microenvironment in determining whether or not a tumour will respond to immune-based therapies.

Immunotherapies empower the body’s immune system to fight off cancers. While immunotherapy has shown unprecedented success against a range of tumours, some tumours do not respond, while others develop resistance to treatment over time.

Better understanding of how and why tumours respond to, or resist, immunotherapy will help to guide improved treatment strategies.

During her PhD Amanda has shown that tumours growing in different organs have distinct tumour microenvironments, which can impact immunotherapy responses. 

This research highlights the importance in defining tissue-specific response patterns in human cancers to better treat patients with current and future immunotherapies.

The Picchi Award will support Amanda to strengthen her networks and collaborations with international research leaders across the globe, with lab visits and conference attendances planned in the UK, France and Belgium North America and Europe. 

A/Prof Michael Kershaw, who co-supervises Amanda in her PhD along with Dr Clare Slaney and Prof Phil Darcy, agrees that this is an important opportunity to help Amanda establish herself and her research internationally as she embarks on her science career.  

“Amanda is a young scientist with outstanding abilities and potential who will benefit greatly from the award of this prestigious prize,” says A/Prof Kershaw.

Both Gabrielle and Amanda credit their supervisors and the strong research environment at Peter Mac for enabling their PhD success.

“This award also reflects the incredible clinical and research team at Peter Mac that I am fortunate to be part of. Special thanks to my inspiring PhD primary supervisor Prof Karin Thursky, and co-supervisors Prof Monica Slavin and Dr Bob Phillips. They have taught me to think beyond the hospital’s walls, to collaborate across disciplines and to translate my research into practice,” says Gabrielle.

“Of course, a PhD isn’t a solo venture,” says Amanda.

“My supervisors and the research environment at Peter Mac have enabled me to become an ambitious and independent researcher. Without the enormous support of my supervisors, colleagues and Peter Mac my research and this award would not have been possible."