Immortal moment for Sonya
Sonya Pemberton. Picture: Marc Bryan-Brown.

In the past two weeks, filmmaker Sonya Pemberton has rubbed shoulders with Morgan Freeman and brought home an Emmy and it's all thanks to her Perth upbringing.

The executive producer and director of Genepool Productions travelled to New York this month to attend the News and Documentary Emmy Awards where her documentary Immortal won the Outstanding Science and Technology Programming category.

Pemberton and her family moved to WA from Ireland when she was nine and she attended Applecross Senior High School before studying film and television at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University).

Despite throwing away her long-time dream of studying medicine for film, science is in her blood. Pemberton's father - who now lives on a property between Pemberton and Manjimup - was a doctor at Princess Margaret Hospital and her grandfather a medical scientist.

She then spent a year at Channel Seven learning to edit and the nuts and bolts of television and now lives in Melbourne with her husband and cinematographer Harry Panagiotidis.

"I find it really humbling to think of the journey over nearly 20 years from Western Australian Young Filmmaker of the year to winning an Emmy in New York City in front of the 1000 top television makers in the world," she tells The West Australian.

Broadcast on SBS in 2010 as part of its Secrets of the Human Body season, Immortal was retitled Decoding Immortality for the American audience and broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel last year.

Immortal has now won more than 20 major accolades and won Pemberton the 2011 National Press Club Health Journalist of the Year.

Pemberton - who wrote and directed the 90- minute doco - started to follow Immortal's subject Professor Elizabeth Blackburn's work seven years ago.

"I tried to contact Liz and she didn't want to have anything to do with the media," Pemberton says. "She didn't want to make a film and so for two years I plagued her."

After a trip to the Australian-born molecular biologist's home in San Francisco and dozens of calls and letters, she finally met her in Melbourne.

Then, 18 months later in 2009, Professor Blackburn and her team's discovery of an enzyme deep in the DNA of a single-celled pond creature, the so-called "immortalising enzyme", was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

"What she accidentally discovered … was basically the use-by date of our cells. If you stop your cells ageing basically you can stop yourself ageing … and that's essentially what the film is about," Pemberton explains.

Pemberton is now working on a 90-minute documentary called Jabbed about the science of vaccinations for SBS and PBS in the US.

The West Australian

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