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29 Sep 2020

Geneticist Professor Vanessa Hayes selected as Eureka Prize finalist

Professor Vanessa Hayes is a finalist for the 2020 UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.

By bringing together a team of paleo-geologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists and climate change researchers, a 2019 landmark study led by Professor Vanessa Hayes pinpointed the homeland of modern humans in southern Africa. The findings provide a window into the first 100,000 years of modern human history and suggest how climate change may have driven the original migrations.

For this breakthrough discovery, Professor Vanessa Hayes, who is Head of the Human Comparative and Prostate Cancer Genomics Lab at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Petre Chair of Prostate Cancer Research Medicine at the University of Sydney, has been selected as a finalist for the UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.

A unique approach to one of the biggest questions

Professor Hayes has identified modern human’s most diverse lineages, tracing back to our earliest divergence from a shared global ancestral population. As such, her team has addressed one of the biggest scientific questions of all times – ‘where did we come from?’

In a study published in Nature in 2019, Professor Hayes combined the power of genomic data with regionally relevant geographic and climate data, to pinpoint a shared human ‘homeland’ in Botswana, while describing the first reported human migrations.

What made her approach unique was her ability to merge generated genetic data with complementary disciplines including linguistics and anthropology, geology, archaeology, historical accounts, and climate physics.

Global recognition

Professor Hayes has been a critical player in bringing new genomic-based technologies and expertise to Australia. This included establishing human genetics at the Garvan Institute in the early 2000’s, in 2008 establishing Australia’s first next generation sequencing research-based laboratory and leading the way to make human genome sequencing a reality for the Australian research community.

Her landmark study pinpointing the homeland of modern humans caught the attention of audiences worldwide, spurring over 1,500 media reports, and was recognised in the Global Altmetric Top 100 articles and the Australian Science Media Centre’s Top 10 publications for 2019.

Perhaps more significantly, it rewrote the history books on human evolution.

“It has been a privilege to work with the local communities in Namibia and South Africa to reveal this chapter of our human evolution,” says Professor Hayes. “The study would not have been possible without the vast range of disciplines that came together to answer the question of where we all came from. Interdisciplinary research was at the heart of our discovery. To be nominated for this Eureka Prize is a huge honour.”

The winners of the Eureka Prizes will be announced at the Eureka Prizes Award Ceremony on Tuesday 24 November.

Learn more about Professor Hayes’ 2019 breakthrough research paper: