Anya Zhao awarded Royal Society of New South Wales Scholarship

First year PhD student Anyang (Anya) Zhao. Image: Calo Huang
8 December 2022

No matter who we are and where we live, we all need food to stay alive.

However, not all foods we consume are safe to eat. One in every ten people fall ill after eating unsafe food, causing 600 million cases of foodborne diseases and 420 000 deaths worldwide.

Amongst these foodborne diseases is Listeriosis, a serious condition caused by a genus of bacteria called Listeria.

“While Listeriosis is relatively rare, its severe form has a high mortality rate of up to 20%-30%,” said Anya Zhao, PhD student at the Innate Immunity and Inflammasomes Lab at JCSMR.

“This has placed an extra burden on high-risk populations such as pregnant women, immunocompromised people and elderly people.”

Focusing her PhD research on Listeria, Anya is committed to turning things around.

Image of Listeria (blue) damaging a cell (red) . Image: Anya Zhao

When infected with Listeria, crucial biological processes such as inflammation and cell death take place to overcome the infection.

However, excessive inflammation initiated by the immune system is a double-edged sword, explained Anya.

While fighting off the foes, the process can also hurt our friends–our healthy cells–and lead to sepsis and even death.

By deciphering exactly how the Listeria bacteria infect cells and cause disease, Anya seeks to find novel ways to inhibit excessive inflammation.

A believer in hard work and passion, Anya has had a productive first year of her PhD. In the past year, she optimised a new protocol for studying Listeria infection, brought new findings to a conference, and co-authored articles in Cell Host & Microbe, Science Immunology and Nature Communications.

The work of this young researcher has been recognised with the Royal Society of New South Wales Scholarships for 2022, as the Society announced in its Ordinary General Meeting and Open Lecture on 7 December.

It was a surprise,” Anya said, “I was very happy to see my research recognised by this interstate multidiscipline scholarship.

“Anya is one of the finest and most promising PhD students I have come across. I’m proud to see her achievements being recognised this way,” remarked Anya's supervisor Professor Si Ming Man.

Every year, three students in the first or second year of their HDR in New South Wales or the ACT receive scholarships of $500 and a complimentary year of Associate Memberships of the Society.

The recipients also get a chance to present their work at the General Meeting of the Society in early 2023, which turns out to be another reward to Anya.

“I enjoy communicating science as part of my life,” she said.

Earlier this year, Anya participated in the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition of the Canberra Health Annual Research Meeting (CHARM) 2022 and won the second prize.

To her, it’s crucial that outside the lab a scientist can share science in a way that the general audience can appreciate the excitement and value of what scientists are doing.

“Hopefully, we can inspire more people to join us and solve more scientific problems—which may one day make a difference between life and death,” she said.