The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are the most prestigious science awards in Australia. A suite of seven accolades, they recognise achievement at high academic and commercial levels, and in secondary and primary schools.
The 2018 Prizes were awarded by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, on Wednesday October 17, at a gala dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra.
The winners are:
Prime Minister’s Prize for Science: Kurt Lambeck
Emeritus professor Kurt Lambeck has spent decades studying planet Earth. Some of his earliest work in the 1960s aided in the accurate planning of space missions. He studied the Earth’s gravity field and his results transformed previous views of terrestrial gravity, the global shape of the Earth and its internal structure.
He has studied the changes brought about by the last glacial cycle and how it affected sea levels, ice caps, and the inner planet. His findings revolutionised geoscience concepts.
For transforming our understanding of our living planet, Lambeck received the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.
Born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1941, he has been an Australian citizen since 1956. Along with a distinguished international career, from 1977 to 2007 he was a professor of geophysics at the Australian National University, where he still has tenure.
“Today we can see the breathing of the Australian continent on a daily basis,” he says.
“We can watch the land rise and fall with the tides and observe the straining of the old continent as it collides with South-East Asia. We can detect subtle variations in gravity that could indicate not only deep mineral deposits but also changes in groundwater through time.”
Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation: The Finisar team
In 2001, while multinational companies were spending billions of dollars trying to find the next big thing in internet technology, four men in Sydney came up with an idea that would transform telecommunications around the world.
After the dot.com collapse of 1995 to 2000, they “were looking for something to contribute”, says one of the four, Andrew Bartos. “We could see that there was huge scope for optics in the network, as a lot of other people could. So, we took a contrarian view. We looked for something completely different, something unorthodox, and we came up with this idea.”
“This idea” has helped Bartos, Simon Poole, Glenn Baxter and Steven Frisken claim the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for their company, Finisar Australia.
Their initial inspiration came from a data projector that used a technology called liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), which was initially developed for projection televisions.
“This technology was great for projecting images up onto a screen and I thought I could see a way that we could use it to project different colours of light into different fibres,” Frisken says.
“That set us on the path to creating an optical wavelength switch.”
The developers, who became part of the US-based multinational Finisar Corporation, developed devices that made fibre optics cheap to use over short connections and allowed internet traffic to grow in volume and drop in price.
From their Sydney base, the Finisar team recently introduced new tools and they’re continuing to work on ways of pushing still more data through optical fibres.
They are also involved in helping new technology companies in fields such as eye-care diagnostics, autonomous vehicles, and geophysical studies.
Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year: Lee Berger
The gastric brooding frog (from the genus Rheobatrachus), native to Queensland, became extinct in the early 1980s. It’s one of six Australian frog species that disappeared between the 1970s and 1990s. Around the world, hundreds of species of frog declined during that period. Today, the survival of many other species remains imperilled, but because of the work of Lee Berger and others, scientists now have a better idea about what’s killing them.
Berger commenced her PhD in 1995 at Queensland’s James Cook University (JCU), hoping to find the cause of the amphibian declines in the state. She discovered chytridiomycosis, a fungus, which is now recognised as being a catastrophic actor on biodiversity for its impact on hundreds of amphibian species.
As an adjunct senior research fellow at JCU and the University of Melbourne, Berger is the 2018 recipient of the $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.
Before she made her discoveries, it was generally believed that infectious diseases didn’t cause extinctions. But she and her mentors suspected an introduced infection such as a virus could explain the pattern of declines.
She didn’t find a virus; instead she discovered a fungus growing on the skin of sick frogs. It took more than a decade to persuade sceptics, but today quarantine protocols recognise the threat of disease to biodiversity, and recovery programs have been designed to reduce the risk of infection, while wildlife health experts are alert to the spread of similar diseases.
The awareness brought about by her discoveries have changed conservation practice globally.
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year: Jack Clegg
Jack Clegg likens chemistry to “a little bit like a cross between playing with Lego and cooking”.
“We can design very complex molecules from simple building blocks and then get into the laboratory and cook them up,” he says Clegg. “It requires creativity but also hard science.”
Clegg is an associate professor in the school of chemistry and molecular biosciences at the University of Queensland. His “cooking” has yielded chemical breakthroughs for which he has been given the 2018 $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.
He has designed new kinds of flexible crystals that have the potential to revolutionise consumer electronics, such as phones and other “smart” products.
Another of Clegg’s creations involves molecules that can be customised to act as sieves for a vast range of manufacturing processes. He hopes the first applications will be in pharmaceutical production, where much of the cost of making new drugs is in the purification process.
“About 15% of the world’s energy production currently goes into the purification of industrial chemicals,” he says.
Clegg’s next task is to take his materials all the way to market.
He says winning the McIntosh prize gives him the opportunity to remind people of the role of chemistry in society.
“Everybody thinks chemistry is hard and maybe a little bit dirty. I hope this prize will allow me to highlight the real technologies we can develop with chemistry for the benefit of the Australian people.”
Prize for New Innovators: Geoff Rogers
Geoff Rogers has a passion for engineering that was nurtured by his mechanic father and inspired by his interest in fast cars. But as a university undergraduate, a presentation by a visiting surgeon convinced him that engineering could save lives.
Upon completing his PhD in mechanical engineering at Monash University, in Melbourne, Victoria, Rogers co-founded a company and worked with cardiologists at the Epworth and Melbourne Private Hospital to develop the IntelliWire, a 0.36-millimetre diameter, robotically steerable guidewire for use in cardiology, neuroradiology and other procedures.
Guidewires transformed cardiac surgery, replacing major operations with day procedures. In about 20% of patients, however, the wire can’t be manoeuvred through the passages, and the patient is referred for either open-heart surgery or pharmaceuticals.
Rogers’ versions are complex devices that can be more easily steered through the blood vessel system by remote control.
In 2017 he sold his invention and company to a US-based manufacturer of surgical devices, which is working to bring the product to market.
Rogers has now moved on, leading a biomedical start-up looking at antibiotic resistance, and a second business working on a real-time system to adjust car wheel alignment. He has also set up a mentoring program for biomedical entrepreneurs.
For creating and commercialising his biomedical engineering, Rogers received the $50,000 Prize for New Innovators.
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools : Brett Crawford
Teaching science to primary school students is easy, according to Brett Crawford, the winner of this year’s $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.
As the lead science teacher at Warrigal Road State School, a primary school in Brisbane, Queensland, Crawford uses simple, inexpensive lesson materials, and the students’ natural curiosity about the world, to engage them in science studies.
The difficulty in teaching science to young children isn’t the students, he found, but the teachers. So he created a program at in which he spent two days every week mentoring his fellow teachers.
This transformed science teaching at the school, so that all its 50-plus teachers now actively teach it in their classes.
“Primary school teachers can be scared of science if they haven’t had a good science experience themselves in primary school,” he explains.
“Kids have the two basic qualities you need for good science: they want to know everything about the world, and they want to play with really good toys,” Crawford says.
Crawford has linked up with Griffith University, CSIRO and local businesses, and works with teachers from neighbouring primary schools to pass on what he has learnt.
“It’s important for science and teaching to take a collaborative approach,” he says.
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Secondary Schools: Scott Sleap
As a young student, Scott Sleap was advised that he wasn’t suited for a career in science or engineering. Instead, he decided to be a teacher.
As the 2018 winner of the $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Secondary Schools, he clearly took some questionable guidance and turned it into a brilliant career.
Further, he’s used his teaching expertise to propel a great many young Australians into studies of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Based at Cessnock, in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Sleap is a central figure in the Cessnock Learning Community and the Cessnock Academy of STEM Excellence, a partnership between Cessnock High School, its feeder primary schools, and local industry.
The academy works to create transition programs for students entering high school, and also to develop a community of teachers with solid STEM understanding and future-focused teaching skills.
The academy structure has been adopted by three other NSW regions.
In 2013 he started working with Regional Development Australia to build a curriculum model that integrates STEM courses and includes real-world industry perspectives. The model, called iSTEM, has been adopted in more than 260 NSW schools.
“What I really love about my job is being able to make a difference in a young person’s life,” Sleap says.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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