AIMS researcher wins prestigious national award


16 December 2009

A prestigious national award that recognises the work of young, female scientists has been won by Dr Nicole Webster from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

The Dorothy Hill Award is announced annually by the Australian Academy of Science.

For Dr Webster, the award was particularly sweet, as she has raised three small children while breaking new ground in her field of expertise, where she is now considered a world leader.

Her work has focussed on marine sponges. Though primitive animals, sponges play a significant role in marine ecosystems. Sponges host a complex community of microbes in a mutually-beneficial relationship. Scientists such as Dr Webster are trying to understand how these microbes interact with their hosts and how the relationships are affected by environmental stress.

The work is being done through the AIMS Centre for Marine Microbiology and Genetics. A priority for the Centre is understanding the relationship between marine microbes, the smallest creatures known, and their marine hosts. These relationships drive many of the vital systems of life.

Dr Webster's most recent publication is the culmination of a hugely successful international collaboration that describes the highest bacterial diversity ever reported for an invertebrate host – up to 3000 bacterial genera inhabiting an individual sponge species.

Dr Webster is now a task leader in the AIMS research program titled "Understanding the role of microbes in the functioning of healthy and stressed reefs."

Dr Webster said: "I was completely surprised when I was told I'd won the award but it was also very timely.

When you have small children you're constantly asking yourself whether you are getting the right balance between work and family because it's a real juggling act. You want to make sure your children and your work both get the attention they deserve.

So it was very nice to receive acknowledgement that I had made a difference in my field of research."

The Dorothy Hill Award is awarded for scientific excellence by female researchers in the field of earth and marine sciences.

Dr Webster has led a team of six international scientists that conducted ice-diving field trips to Scott Base, Antarctica in the first assessment of bacterial symbioses in Antarctic marine invertebrates. She is a highly-qualified diver and has participated in 20 research cruises to the Great Barrier Reef. Dr Webster also speaks regularly about her work at national and international conferences as well as local primary and high schools.

The CEO of AIMS, Dr Ian Poiner said he was delighted Dr Webster's body of work in science had been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science.

He said AIMS currently employed 52 females and 81 males to work in scientific fields and was committed to supporting females working in science to achieve work and life balance goals.

"Our aim is to be an employer-of-choice for women. We recognise there is an international ‘talent war' for key research and support roles. If we can make it attractive for women to stay in their fields, rather than leave for family reasons, then science as a whole, benefits," he said.

Media contacts:

Dr Nicole Webster, Research Scientist, (07) 4753 4151; n.webster@aims.gov.au
Wendy Ellery, AIMS media liaison, 0418 729 265; w.ellery@aims.gov.au

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