Last updated October 25, 2017 at 4:46 pm
Professor Jenny Graves AO is the recipient of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her work transforming our understanding of how vertebrate animals, including humans, evolved and function.
Over the span of her career she has kick-started genomic and epigenetic research in Australia, and predicted the disappearance of the male chromosome.
Jenny’s research has used Australia’s marsupials, monotremes, birds and lizards to understand the complexity of the human genome and to reveal new human genes. Australia’s pouched and egg-laying mammals, such as wallabies and platypus, are a fantastic source of genetic variation because they last shared a common ancestor with placental mammals so long ago.
“Marsupials are just far enough distant from the mouse and man to be interesting and to provide us with variation, but they’re close enough to share the same control systems” says Jenny. “Virtually everything I’ve done has used comparisons between different groups of mammals, and most of it has turned out to be wonderfully interesting.”
Jenny has transformed our understanding of how sex chromosomes work and how they evolved, determining that the human XY sex chromosome system only evolved recently. She discovered the origin of the Y chromosome and sex determining gene in mammals, with her research suggesting that as we evolve the Y chromosome may completely disappear in the future. She also demonstrated the genetic mechanism that switched could switch of an X chromosome in mammals, now known to be a key mechanism is general gene regulation.
Even more impressively she has discovered 14 novel human genes, including one which is critical for brain development
She has also been the driving force behind sequencing the first marsupial and monotreme genomes. Her research has contributed to a deeper understanding of the immune system – prion diseases, blood proteins and even the chromosome changes involved in the fatal transmissible facial tumour driving the Tasmanian Devil to extinction.
In a collaboration between La Trobe University and The University of Canberra, she’s studying how bearded dragons change sex in response to temperature, a critical issue as the climate warms and affects the life cycles of animals across the planet.
Jenny wasn’t personally interested in science until her last year of school, when her biology teacher told the class about genetics, genes and breeding budgerigars. “I was hooked from that time on, and decided I’d do science at university,” she says.
From there she completed a Master’s degree in genetics at the University of Adelaide and then a PhD in cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Upon returning to Australia she then established herself as a leading researcher and she now works from La Trobe University. She has published more than 440 scholarly works which have been cited more than 17,000 times and her first paper, from her Honours research in 1967, is still cited today.
She has also been incredibly generous with training the next generation of scientists, having trained 56 PhDs, 25 Postdocs and hundreds of honours students and research assistants. Many of them now occupy senior positions in science, medicine, industry and academia. Beyond this, Jenny has used her position as Secretary of Education at the Australian Academy of Science to advance inquiry-based school science programs in Australia to enable young people to engage with science at an early age.
Jenny has been an excellent role model for girls and women in science in Australia. She was first to introduce measures into the Academy to remove gender bias from election to Fellowship. This was the forerunner of several highly effective equity programs spearheaded by the Academy.
Congratulations Jenny! What an incredibly accomplished and distinguished scientist and worthy winner of the $250,000 2017 Prime Ministers Prize for Science.
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