ECM Faculty Focus
Ground-breaking work on human lactation by a computer expert and a biochemist from The University of Western Australia has won a prestigious international award - the UK Rank Prize for Nutrition.
UWA Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Research Training) Professor Robyn Owens - the computer expert - and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Professor Peter Hartmann will travel to The Royal College of Physicians in London in February to receive their award and almost $160,000.
The Rank Prize was established by the J.Arthur Rank Group Charity for research into human and animal nutrition and crop husbandry and optoelectronics - fields of interest to Lord Rank (1888 - 1972), the British film industry figure.
The award lauds the UWA researchers' collaborative Computerised Breast Measurement System, a project that also received the Asia Pacific IT Award for Best Research Project in 1999.
The system combines Professor Owens' expertise in adapting ‘Moire topography' (where an image of stripes is projected onto an object so the object's structure can be deduced) and Professor Hartmann's world-leading research into human lactation. It provides an understanding of the short-term (hour to hour) synthesis of milk in nursing mothers, the first system to do so.
Professor Hartmann joined UWA in 1972, a time when breastfeeding in the Western world was at its lowest point with only 48 per cent of WA women breastfeeding their babies. He had extensive experience in animal lactation from institutions including the University of Sydney, the University of Pennsylvania and the UK's National Institute for Research in Dairying.
After receiving a Doctorate in Mathematics at Oxford University, Professor Owens returned to UWA in 1982 to work on robotics and computer vision.
Professor Hartmann and Professor Owens met after he read a news story about her work. He believed together they could devise a system, which accurately recorded the volume and function of the lactating breast. In the early stages, Professor Owens was both researcher and one of the hundreds of nursing mothers who gave up her time to have her breastfeeding assessed.