2016 Prime Minister’s science prize winners

Can the concept of backburning be applied to invasive species? Rick Shine, a herpetologist at the University of Sydney thinks so – and it’s work such as this that earned him the 2016 Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

“Some people love model trains, some people love Picasso; for me, it’s snakes,” he says.

The Australian Top End is being decimated by cane toads, which can fatally poison animals unlucky enough to gobble them up. So Shine has employed a variety of techniques, including behavioural conditioning, setting pheromone-laden traps and releasing smaller, less-lethal cane toads ahead of the main wave marching westwards in an effort to protect native species.

He found that quolls and lizards are discouraged from eating cane toads if the first one they eat is too small to poison and kill them. A single nausea-inducing meal discourages any further interest in the toxic toad.

By exposing these predators to small, non-lethal toads ahead of the main invasion front of larger, deadly counterparts, he and his team successfully buffered goannas against cane toads. 

Read on for more prize winners.

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation

Michael Aitken, at the Capital Markets CRC in Sydney, developed a software program which has made global stock markets fairer and more efficient. Now he’s applying the same technology framework and markets know-how to improve health, mortgage and other markets.

He says there are billions of dollars of potential savings in health expenditure in Australia alone, which can go hand in glove with significant improvements in consumers’ health.

Prize for New Innovators

The University of South Australia’s Colin Hall has created a new manufacturing process that allows plastic to replace glass and metal, making aircraft, spacecraft and even whitegoods lighter and more efficient. His team’s first commercial success is a plastic car side-mirror – and it all started with spectacles.

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Richard Payne, is re-engineering nature to fight for global health. He sees an interesting peptide or protein in nature, such as in a blood sucking tick, then recreates and re-engineers the molecule to create powerful new drugs, including anti-clotting agents to treat stroke.

His team at the University of Sydney is developing new drugs for the global health challenge including tuberculosis, malaria and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. 

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

The University of Queensland’s Kerrie Wilson can put a value on clean air, water, food, tourism and the other benefits that forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems provide. With that, she can calculate the most effective way to protect and restore those ecosystems.

For instance, in Borneo she and her colleagues have shown how the three nations that share the island could retain half the land as forest, provide adequate habitat for the orangutan and Bornean elephant, and achieve an opportunity cost saving of over $50 billion. 

Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

Suzy Urbaniak is a geoscientist who has turned classrooms into rooms full of young scientists at Perth’s Kent Street Senior High School, giving them the freedom to develop their own investigations and find their own solutions. 

Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Gary Tilley is mentoring the next generation of maths and science teachers to improve the way these subjects are taught in primary schools. He says once students are switched onto science, their literacy, numeracy and investigative skills all improve.

At Seaforth Public School in Sydney, he’s encouraged excitement and a love for science in his students who have painted almost every wall in their school with murals of dinosaurs and marine reptiles. 

Please login to favourite this article.