Monash PhD student wins international early career researcher prize

Mr Steven Heaton

Monash PhD student Steven Heaton has beaten over one thousand applicants from around the world to win theSparrho Early Career Researcher Prize. This international prize recognises a researcher’s passion for their field and excellence in the communication of their ground-breaking scientific research.

Steven, who grew up in Dandenong, works at Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute, under the supervision of Dr Natalie Borg who heads the Immunity and Infection Laboratory, studying the mechanisms that cause cells to become infected. His work explores how cells ‘know’ they have become infected, and how they ‘choose’ their immune response out of hundreds of possible options.

“A cell has hundreds of thousands of proteins, whereas a virus only has about 12 or 10 proteins,” Mr Heaton said.

His research aims to discover how “these very small numbers of proteins” are able to manipulate and shut down the host cell in order to allow the virus itself to replicate.

Research in this area aims to inform the design of more effective antiviral therapies, not only for viral infections but also for inflammatory diseases and some types of cancer.

“By targeting these mechanisms, we are producing hundreds of marketable treatments,” Mr Heaton said.

Speaking about the path that led him into his field of research, Mr Heaton described how he became interested in immunology during his undergraduate degree at Monash.

“I wanted to understand the immune system and how infection takes place and how we can design therapies against it,” he said.

His ultimate career goal is to discover “not just individual proteins, but how entire [immune] pathways interact with each other.”

The monthly Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize is awarded to two researchers who have curated the highest quality ‘pinboard’, a collection of research papers accompanied by a concise, non-technical summary, about their research field on Sparrho’s online platform. Mr Heaton stood out from the crowd for his pinboard’s skilful and dynamic communication of complex science research. His full submission can be viewed here.

Mr Heaton wins a AUD $850 bursary to attend and speak at the Consortium of Biological Sciences (ConBio2017), in Kobe, Japan, in December 2017.

“This conference is a really significant opportunity for me because I would actually like to take my career and my research overseas, in particular to go to Japan,” he says. “The way they do science [and] the cultural significance of that country in science are things I’ve completely fallen for.”

Dr. Vivian Chan, chair of the judging panel and CEO of Sparrho, said: “Steve impressed us with his passion for communicating his research, the importance of his work in understanding what happens when cells become infected by viruses, and his aspirations to develop broad spectrum therapeutics that target multiple viruses. Our Early Career Researcher Prize was set up to help rising stars like Steve gain global recognition and also travel to conferences to experience different research cultures and further disseminate their work. We’re delighted to support Steve’s presentation at ConBio2017 and wish every success in his future career.”


Sparrho is a global science discovery platform making scientific knowledge more accessible, searchable and shareable. The Sparrho early-career researcher prize is open to PhD and post-doctoral researchers in any field of science and engineering to attend an academic conference of their choice. For more information on the prize, click here.