Winners of The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are Australia’s most prestigious science awards. Seven prizes are awarded for outstanding achievements in scientific research, research-based innovation, and excellence in science, maths or technology teaching.

This year’s award night celebrated 20 years of the PM’s Prizes, applauding this year’s winners along with previous prize recipients.  

Here are the 2019 winners:

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science: Cheryl Praeger

Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger is awarded the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her internationally acclaimed research in mathematics.

Praeger is recognised as one of Australia’s leading mathematicians. Her 40 years of research includes fundamental contributions to group theory, permutation groups, and combinatorics.

Praeger’s innovative work includes research into the mathematics of symmetry which has applications in improving search engine efficiency. Praeger is also known for her research and work on algorithms which have been incorporated into powerful computer systems.  

“What I love about mathematics is the way that it explains the world. It makes sense of the world. And as our technology advances and our world changes, the mathematical challenges are there, and they continue on and on,” says Praeger. 

But her work isn’t all about research. Praeger is an avid advocate for mathematics in schools, at all levels. She lives this passion through her teaching at The University of Western Australia. 

“Receiving the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is a wonderful statement about the importance of mathematics. It also recognises the achievements of me and my colleagues and the students in the mathematics of symmetry.”

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation: The team from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

The team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research are at the forefront of the fight against cancer. 

Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Professor Andrew Roberts are awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for their contribution to the development of venetoclax – a breakthrough anti-cancer drug.

The drug is available as a treatment for thousands of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, both in Australia and around the world. The drug binds to the protein BCL-2 – which has been shown to contribute to cancer development – and inhibits it. 

By collaborating and bringing their individual expertise together, the team was able to develop the drug in a remarkably short time frame, taking less than seven years from discovery to its first approval. 

“The biggest impact of venetoclax in 2019 is for the hundreds of patients in Australia with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia who have had considerable benefit from having access to this new drug,” says Roberts. 

“This really is a triumph of basic science and basic science discoveries moving rapidly through a process to generate a product that’s significantly beneficial for many people.” 

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year: Laura Mackay

Associate Professor Laura Mackay is a pioneer in the field of immunological memory – the ability of the immune system to quickly and correctly recognise an antigen before initiating an immune response. 

Mackay’s work focusses on understanding tissue-resident memory T cells (TRMs) and is changing the way the world treats infectious diseases and cancers.

Mackay showed that these specific T cells found in tissues of the body were actually a critical first line of defence against infection. Previously, it was thought that other elements in the blood controlled immune responses.

Her work has contributed to new vaccines for malaria and HIV, which incorporate TRMs in Phase 1 clinical trials. Targeting TRMs has also been invested in as an anti-cancer strategy.

“Immunological research has transformed patient care. Therapies are being improved all the time and my hope for the future is that our research will have translated into better outcomes and better treatments for patients suffering from a range of diseases such as malaria, influenza and cancer,” Mackay says.

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year: Elizabeth New 

Associate Professor Elizabeth New has launched the development of new chemical imaging tools. Through observing healthy and disease cells, New’s imaging tools can assist in the identification of potential treatments for aging diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. It’s an important breakthrough considering that these diseases affect approximately 50% of the population and contribute to 85% of deaths in Australia.

The imaging tools use molecules that act as fluorescent sensors, emitting light so that scientists can observe the processes in cells.

New describes it by using an analogy of a mobile phone. “If you’ve lost your phone in a cluttered bag, the solution, of course, is to call it, to let the sound signal its location. In the same way, the cell is very cluttered and it’s a challenge to find the chemical of interest. So, we use light to signal the location of a chemical within a cell.”

Prize for New Innovators: Luke Campbell

As co-founder of nura, Dr Luke Campbell has invented nuraphones – headphones that learn and adapt to your unique hearing. The headphones are completely automatic, and the personalisation can be done in less than a minute. The nuraphone is tailored to each individual in order to enhance the clarity of a user’s hearing. The device scans your ear, works out what sounds you hear well and not as well, and then retunes. 

Some may ask: What’s the benefit to personalised sound?

For Campbell, he says its embodied in a song like Hotel California.

 “When you hear the strumming of the guitar, you’re hearing an extra timbre and extra richness. You’re hearing just extra detail. You’re hearing instruments come out of directions you’ve never heard before. Your music is just being taken to the next level.”

nura has grown from a small start-up to a global company with over 60 employees worldwide. As well as his team, Campbell credits the creativity, innovation and research capability in Australia.

“Australia’s willingness to invest in research and innovation fosters an environment where we have creative people, we have imaginative people, we have people who are able to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions,” he says.

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools: Sarah Finney

Sarah Finney, from Stirling East Primary School in South Australia, has introduced hundreds of children of all ages to science. 

“The most important thing that children should remember about science is that it’s everywhere. It doesn’t only exist in the classroom,” she says. 

One of her most notable achievements is leading an in-depth science inquiry unit at her school. For the past three years, students are encouraged to pick topics relevant to their local area, or interests before they engage with an audience of scientists and present their findings to parents.

Another notable achievement is raising student interest in science. In 2016, only nine students from her school participated in Australia’s Oliphant Science Awards. That number rose to 58 students in 2019.

“Children are born scientists and it’s my job to help them harness that curiosity and exercise it in all areas of their lives.”

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools: Samantha Moyle

For Dr Samantha Moyle from Brighton Secondary School, STEM learning is vital. That belief has led her to strive to make science fascinating and relevant to her students.

Moyle uses real-world links – such as comparing Iron Man suits with real-life exosuits that help paraplegics walk, to inspire her students.

“I inspire students to love science through creative, hands-on, and dynamic approaches to learning science. I want it to be fun and exciting for them and have a genuine enthusiasm and passion for the subject,” she says.

Outside of the classroom, Moyle’s work doesn’t stop. She runs a Facebook page that promotes science trends, hints and helpful learning tips. She also runs a YouTube channel with helpful videos for students on science report writing and calculating statistics in Excel.

Moyle also leads the school’s Think Bright program for integrated learning in STEM. 

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