Farewell to Burnet trailblazer, Melissa Churchill

Burnet Institute

21 September, 2016

Burnet has farewelled one of its longest-serving and groundbreaking HIV scientists, Associate Professor Melissa Churchill, who is taking up a research-only Professorial position.

A molecular virologist and Head of the HIV Neuropathogenesis Laboratory, Associate Professor Churchill came to Burnet 27 years ago when it was based in a shed near the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Fairfield in Melbourne. When she joined the AIDS molecular biology team it consisted of herself and one other Honours graduate.

She intended to stay only six months and to quit science after that, but said the profoundly moving experience of working near patients dying of AIDS during the epidemic, and of being mentored by great scientists, helped her find her calling.

“I consider myself extremely lucky to have been here from the start, when we were just a group of people. (Inaugural Director) Professor Ian Gust AO had a vision and it was up to us over the years to carry that out,“ she said.

“When I present my work overseas Burnet is so well looked upon, and that’s because of the people here, not the name on a building.”

Burnet Institute Director and CEO Brendan Crabb AC said Associate Professor Churchill embodied the unique culture of Burnet: “that rigorous scientific approach with humanitarian ideals.”

“Melissa has made a huge contribution to this organisation through her own stellar research successes, her commitment more generally to research excellence, her mentoring of junior staff as well as her broader contribution to Burnet.

“She has long been a passionate ‘Burnet citizen’ and on behalf of us all I’m very grateful for that.”

Burnet Deputy Director, Associate Professor David Anderson paid tribute to the impact and commitment to the Institute that his colleague of almost 30 years had made.

“Your influence in making Burnet the success that it is today can never be overestimated,” he said.

During her stellar career at Burnet, Associate Professor Churchill has been in various roles, as a research assistant, PhD student, junior fellow, senior fellow, lab co-head and finally lab head. Her research interests have been focused around HIV infection of the central nervous system and its implications for the development of HIV-associated dementia, as well as latent CNS viral infection.

She has been recognised internationally for her research, which has been published in a number of high impact journals and has led to significant changes in the way neurocognitive disorders associated with HIV are now treated.

She will take up an ongoing research-only Professorial appointment at RMIT, but will stay closely associated with our institute as a Burnet Associate.

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