The Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science and Prize for Innovation are announced today, along with a number of other awards for scientist and scion teachers.
They are the country’s pre-eminent awards for a significant advancement of knowledge through research and innovation and a tribute to the contributions Australian scientists have made in Australia and globally.
Each prize comprises an award certificate, a gold medallion and lapel pin, and prize money of $250,000. You can read more about them here.
In addition, the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year and the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year are awarded to scientists at early or mid-career investigation stages in their careers. You can read more about them here.
Science teachers are also recognised with the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Excellence in Science Teaching and for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools and Secondary Schools.
Here are this year’s winners.
Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Graham Farquhar’s work has transformed our understanding of the world’s most important biological reaction: photosynthesis.
His models of plant biophysics have been used to understand cells, whole plants, whole forests, and to create new water-efficient wheat varieties. His latest project will determine which trees will grow faster in a high carbon dioxide world.
His work has also revealed a global climate mystery. Evaporation rates and wind speeds are slowing around the world, contrary to the predictions of most climate models. Life under climate change may be wetter than we expected.
Graham is Distinguished Professor of the Australian National University’s (ANU) Research School of Biology and Chief Investigator of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.
University of Newcastle
Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Graeme Jameson’s technologies use trillions of bubbles to add billions of dollars to the value of Australia’s mineral and energy industries.
He created the Jameson Cell in the 1980s to concentrate base metals such as copper, lead, and zinc. And it’s all done with bubbles. Graeme took flotation, a century old technology developed in Broken Hill, and transformed it.
A turbulent cloud of minute bubbles are pushed through a slurry of ground-up ore where they pick up mineral particles and carry them to the surface.
The technology found many more applications, most profitably in the Australian coal industry, where the Jameson Cell has retrieved fine export coal particles worth more than $36 billion.
Now, Graeme Jameson is working on a newer version of his technology. The Novacell can concentrate larger ore particles, and save up to 15 per cent of the total energy expended in extraction and processing in mining—reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well.
Graeme is Laureate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Newcastle and Director of its Centre for Multiphase Processes.
University of New South Wales
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Cyrille Boyer uses light to make new and complex polymers. It’s the latest in a series of techniques that have enabled him to create materials which are being applied in areas as widespread as non-stick coatings, anti-fouling technology, precision drug delivery, medical diagnosis and imaging.
His ideas are built on the revolutionary RAFT techniques for which David Solomon and Ezio Rizzardo received the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. His latest technology uses light and chlorophyll to catalyse the creation of polymers using up to ten building blocks.
He’s using it to create nanoparticles that can carry drugs into the human body to break down bacterial biofilms associated with implants, cystic fibrosis, and sticky ear.
His patented technologies will herald a new era of smart polymers and eventually he believes he will be able to reconstruct complex polymers such as proteins and even DNA.
Cyrille is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of New South Wales.
University of Melbourne
Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
Jane Elith is one of the most influential environmental scientists in the world, though she rarely ventures into the field. She develops and assesses species distribution models, which are used by governments, land and catchment managers and conservationists around the world—in short, for applying the lessons of ecology.
In Australia for example her models can help farmers restore damaged soils, map the spread of cane toads, and compare the implications of development options in the Tiwi Islands for threatened plants and animals that have largely disappeared from the mainland.
Jane is an early career researcher, yet in the field of environment and ecology, she is the 11th most cited author worldwide over the past 10 years, and is the only Australian woman on the highly cited list, according to the information company Thomson Reuters.
Jane is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Biosciences and a member of the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis.
Casula High School
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Fifteen years ago Casula High School was just an average state school in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs with just eight students doing science at year 12. But something extraordinary has happened. Two-thirds of Year 11 and 12 students now choose science subjects and they are performing well above the state average.
The transformation is largely due to the work of Dr Ken Silburn, the head of science at Casula.
Ken has transformed the way his students engage with science, through extension programs, interactive and hands-on activities, and a great deal of encouragement.
In the classroom, Ken focuses on what his students are most interested in or fascinated by, and makes it a big part of his science teaching curriculum. A highlight is the use of space science as a core element of the classes.
Windaroo State School, Logan, Brisbane
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Fifteen years ago Rebecca Johnson, from Windaroo State School, initiated a new method for teaching science more effectively in primary schools without costing the government anything extra.
“No one ever questions the need to have specialist teachers for subjects such as music, physical education and languages other than English, in primary schools,” says Rebecca.
“Particular skill sets and qualities are required to teach these subjects effectively, and I believe the same applies to teaching science.”
With a fully-resourced science room Rebecca, with her teaching partner, teaches science to every student at Windaroo State School. Because of this designated space and the importance that has been assigned to this subject area, the children are able to experience a depth of science learning usually reserved for high school. And it’s all effectively done during the classroom teachers’ non-contact time, at no extra cost.
Almost a hectare of the school grounds have been turned into teaching gardens which, under Rebecca’s guidance, the students created and built. Here they work with real-life examples of what they are learning about in the classroom and they sell the harvest to staff.
This teaching model provides continuity and consistency across the vital key learning areas of science. By the time the students enter high school they have had consistent, engaging, positive introductions to all science strands, making them far more likely to continue on with these subjects at high school and beyond.
This model has now been widely adopted by other Queensland primary schools, and Rebecca now assists teachers to set up their own specialist science programmes. For her contributions to science teaching and fostering a love of science in her students, Mrs Rebecca Johnson has been awarded the 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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