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University of Melbourne PhD candidate Peta Freestone has won a UK Commonwealth Scholarship Commission award to the University of Edinburgh to further her work in investigating the development of a vaccine for tuberculosis.

Peta is one of only six Australians to receive a Commonwealth ‘Split-site’ Scholarship under the program, and one of only 18 across developed commonwealth countries including Canada, Cyprus, Singapore and Brunei. 

In Edinburgh, Peta will work alongside Dr James Smith, a prominent commentator on the International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and Dr Ian Harper, an expert in tuberculosis control, to continue her research into the actors and structures involved with the pursuit of a new TB vaccine. 

A research assistant in the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, Peta says she hopes the trip will enable her to speak to some of the world’s leading TB experts.

“I’m going to be doing data collection for my thesis while there, which will involve lab visits and interviews with TB vaccine scientists in several countries, including South Africa, Canada, Brazil, the USA as well as the UK.  These insights are an important part of my research, and will help contribute to informing policy on how vaccine research for poverty-related diseases can be better supported.”

“At the start of my PhD, I knew that I was interested in the 'why' and 'how' of scientific collaboration, innovation, success and failure.  Today, science can often be viewed as something that just 'is', and we can forget amongst scientific 'facts' that laboratories are still places of human interaction, both enabled and limited by the social, political and economic.” 

“Within this framework, I was most concerned with the global challenge of supporting science for innovations that are needed most by the world's poor - how do you garner support for innovations that won't make money for the innovators?”

She says her motivation for studying the TB vaccine was personal.  “I, like most Australians, tended to think of TB as a disease of the past, caught up in romantic notions of 'consumption' so often found in European literature of centuries ago.  It was only a couple of months into my candidature that I learned otherwise.  One of my best friends returned from overseas with a bad cough and a fever. She was admitted to hospital, where she spent weeks in an air-locked isolation room before the infectious disease specialists could confirm she had TB and diagnose the specific strain of the disease.  She commenced typical TB treatment - a year-long cocktail of super-strength antibiotics that gave her gout-like symptoms and put her at risk of liver-failure among other complications.  I was astounded - this was the best outcome for a TB sufferer in a developed country like Australia?” 

Commonwealth Split-site Scholarships support candidates who are undertaking doctoral study at a university in their home country to spend up to one year at a UK university as part of their academic work. The Scholarships in the UK are funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.   The 12 month award includes all tuition fees, associate travel costs, living expenses and partial funding for fieldwork outside the UK.