Fulbright scholar bitten by science bug

14 May 2013

While most people run as far away as possible from spiders, US biology graduate Cecilia Prator travelled to the other side of the world to find them.

Ms Prator joined The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) last August on a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarship, which supports American students to conduct research within an Australian postgraduate program for 8-12 months.

She worked with IMB’s Professor Glenn King and his laboratory to harness the chemistry of venoms from spiders, scorpions and centipedes to develop environmentally friendly insecticides.

“Arthropod pests, such as insects, ticks and mites, are responsible for destroying one-third of the world’s food supply, as well as transmitting a diverse array of human and animal diseases,” Ms Prator said.

“The growing resistance among pests to chemical insecticides, along with their perceived risks to human health and the environment, is a significant concern to Australia and the US.”

“We hope our work will go a long way in safeguarding agricultural crops and preventing the spread of disease here and around the world.”

Ms Prator advanced the IMB’s work into developing more effective insecticides by screening compounds found in venom to assess if they are suitable to be used as a bioinsecticide.

“Professor King and his team have shown that spiders produce a cocktail of insecticidal toxins with the potential to control insect pests, while centipedes and scorpions possess a largely unexplored repertoire of venom components that also target insects.

“With this in mind, countless numbers of toxins are waiting to be discovered and could someday be developed into the next environmentally friendly insecticide,” Ms Prator said.

US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich congratulated Ms Prator on her Fulbright Scholarship and encouraged both Australian and American students to consider applying for the prestigious program.

“The Fulbright Scholarship program is a wonderful opportunity for talented postgraduate students from the U.S. and Australia to research and study in each other’s countries, exchange ideas and develop lifelong connections to address common issues,” Ambassador Bleich said.

“The research Cecilia is involved with at the IMB is important to both Australian and US agriculture because of the unmet demand for safe insecticide alternatives in both countries.”

Ms Prator, an alumnus of Occidental College in Los Angeles, was inspired to join Professor King’s laboratory after travelling to a conference in Queensland and hearing him speak about eco-friendly insecticide development.

“I was thinking about doing a PhD after my degree, but I didn’t want to jump straight into it,” Ms Prator said.

“The Fulbright Scholarship has given me the fantastic opportunity to travel to Australia and experience what it’s like to live and breathe science every day as a full-time researcher, as well as explore a stunning part of the world.

“I’ve found Brisbane similar to LA, with the proximity to beautiful, wild and natural spots and the humidity.”

During her studies, Ms Prator won awards such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Fellowship as well as a prestigious Fletcher Jones Science Scholar Award.

She is also a skilled musician in snare drums, has competed in equestrian events and enjoys scuba diving, joining UQ’s dive club to take advantage of her time in Queensland.

The prestigious Fulbright program is the largest educational scholarship of its kind, created by U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright and the U.S. Government in 1946.

Aimed at promoting mutual understanding through educational exchange, it operates between the U.S. and 155 countries.

In Australia, the scholarships are funded by the Australian and U.S. Governments and corporate partners and administered by the Australian-American Fulbright Commission in Canberra.

You can support researchers like Ms Prator in creating safer insecticides and stopping the spread of disease by calling (07) 3346 2132 or donating online at www.imb.uq.edu.au/donate

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing personalised medicine, drug discovery and biotechnology.

Media contact: Bronwyn Adams, Communications Officer – 0418 575 247 or 07 3346 2134