Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

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2019 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: don’t call us.

For information about the 2019 Prizes please visit www.industry.gov.au/pmscienceprizes.

We had a great run with the Prizes from 2004 to 2018. But all good things come to an end. So please don’t contact us for media information, go straight to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science at media@industry.gov.au. We will be at the dinner on 16 October waiting with bated breath to find out who the 2019 winners are. 

15 years ago, Peter McGauran, Gemma Allman and Virginia Cook placed their trust in us to publicise the Prizes when Science in Public was in its infancy. As awareness of the Prizes has grown so has Science in Public. Please read on for some comments on our journey with the Prizes and for our thanks to the many people who contributed.  Or jump to the next post to access profiles of past winners. 

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The breathing Earth, light beams, frogs, crystals, guidewires: The 2018 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

The 2018 recipients were:

Revealing the breathing Earth: The 2018 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Emeritus Professor Kurt Lambeck AO

Emeritus Professor Kurt Lambeck AO has revealed how our planet changes shape—every second, every day, and over millennia. These changes influence sea levels, the movement of continents, and the orbits of satellites.

Kurt’s original work in the 1960s enabled accurate planning of space missions. It led him to use the deformation of continents during the ice ages to study changes deep in the mantle of the planet. It also led to a better understanding of the impact of sea level changes on human civilization in the past, present and future.

Today’s highly accurate GPS-based systems build on his work and enable precision agriculture, new ways to explore for minerals, and the remarkable navigation tools we all use in our smartphones.

For transforming our understanding of our living planet, Kurt Lambeck receives the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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Switching light for faster, more reliable internet: The 2018 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation

The Finisar team: Dr Simon Poole, Mr Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken

Finisar have created technologies that make global internet connections faster and more efficient. About half of the world’s internet traffic travels through devices developed by the team and made in Sydney.

The global internet we rely on is carried by optical fibres that link continents, countries and cities. The speed and volume of internet traffic was limited by the need to convert data from light to electrical signals for switching and processing. To tackle the problem, the Finisar team created light-bending switches using prisms, liquid crystals and silicon, which have dramatically improved the capacity and reliability of the internet. One switch can handle a million simultaneous high-definition streaming videos. The team are now working on boosting the capacity of their devices further to meet the demands of 5G and the Internet of Things.

For creating and commercialising technologies that underpin the global internet, Dr Simon Poole, Mr Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken receive the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation. Their company, Finisar Australia, is based in Sydney.

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Saving frogs, and revealing new extinction threats: The 2018 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

Dr Lee Berger

Dr Lee Berger solved the global mystery of disappearing frogs and challenged paradigms about wildlife health, all in the course of her PhD.

Starting in the 1970s frogs disappeared in pristine habitats in Queensland and in Central America. Whole species vanished; there was worldwide concern. Was it pollution or UV from the hole in the ozone layer? Were frogs the ‘canary in the coal mine’? Would we be next?

Lee and her mentors thought that an introduced infection such as a virus could explain the pattern of declines. The dogma of the time was that infectious diseases don’t cause extinctions. Now, thanks to Lee, we know they do. She didn’t find a virus, but she did find a fungus growing on the skin of sick frogs. This chytrid fungus is now known to be the cause of a global mass extinction of frogs. Hundreds of species have declined, and at least six species have disappeared entirely in Australia.

It took over a decade of research and debate to persuade the sceptics. Today, quarantine protocols recognise the threat of disease to biodiversity, recovery programs are designed to reduce the risk of infection, and wildlife health experts are alert to the spread of diseases such as those found in bats and salamanders in recent years.

For solving the mystery of frog extinction, Dr Lee Berger receives the $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Lee is based in Townsville and holds Adjunct Research Fellowships at James Cook University and the University of Melbourne.

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Making flexible crystals and new separation technologies: The 2018 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Associate Professor Jack Clegg

Our smartphones, like all modern electronic devices, are packed with crystal semiconductors. When we drop them, it’s not just the screen that breaks. Crystals as we know them are brittle, but that will change in the future. Associate Professor Jack Clegg has designed new kinds of crystals that are so flexible you can tie them in a knot. These crystals use common elements such as iron, copper, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.

He has also created molecules that can be customised to act as sieves for a vast range of manufacturing processes from the oil industry to water filtration and pharmaceuticals. He hopes the first applications will be in drug production where much of the cost of making new drugs is in the purification process. About 15 per cent of the world’s energy use is for separation processes, so more efficient technologies will find eager customers.

For creating flexible crystals and new separation technologies, Associate Professor Jack Clegg receives the $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

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A steerable guidewire to improve the treatment of heart disease: The 2018 Prize for New Innovators

Dr Geoff Rogers

Dr Geoff Rogers has created a robotic guidewire that cardiologists can steer with a joystick through the body to reach a damaged artery.

The use of guidewires has replaced open heart surgery for many cardiac patients. However, about 20 per cent of cardiac patients can’t be treated using current guidewire technology, which the cardiologist has to twist and turn by hand to guide it through the arteries. The guidewires can’t always get through.

As an undergraduate engineering student Geoff heard a clinician express his frustration with the technology. So, for his undergraduate project and PhD Geoff invented a steerable guidewire with a diameter of just two human hairs. Following his PhD, he co-founded a company and worked with cardiologists at the Epworth and Melbourne Private Hospitals to develop the IntelliWire.

In 2017 the guidewire and the company were purchased by Merit Medical Systems, a global leader in surgical devices, which is now working to bring the guidewire to market.

Now Geoff is leading two new initiatives: the first as CEO of a biomedical start-up company developing new solutions to antibiotic resistance; the second is a real-time system to adjust car wheel alignment. He’s also mentoring future biomedical entrepreneurs.

For creating and commercialising his pioneering biomedical engineering, Dr Geoff Rogers receives the $50,000 Prize for New Innovators.

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A school where everyone teaches science: The 2018 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Mr Brett Crawford

Mr Brett Crawford has transformed science teaching at Warrigal Road State School in Brisbane. All the school’s 50-plus teachers now actively teach science in their classes.

Warrigal Road is a large primary school in Brisbane with more than 1,300 students. The students are from 54 cultures, English is a second language for 60 per cent of them, and there’s also a cohort of hearing-impaired children.

The local high schools have recognised that Warrigal Road students come to them curious about the world and ready for secondary science. Test results back that up, showing the school’s science performance is well above national averages.
Brett is the lead science teacher at the school. He believes that science teaching in primary schools is easy.

Primary school students are curious about the world. You can engage them with simple, inexpensive experiments.

But Brett also knows that many primary school teachers are anxious about teaching science.

So, at Warrigal Road he led a program in which he spent two days every week mentoring his fellow teachers.

The results speak for themselves and other schools are now picking up his ideas and programs.

For creating an environment in which every teacher is engaged in science, Brett Crawford receives the $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. Brett is the lead science teacher at Warrigal Road State School in Brisbane.

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Opening young eyes to careers in science, technology, engineering and maths: Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Secondary Schools

Dr Scott Sleap

Cessnock in New South Wales was traditionally a mining town, but today’s high-value jobs in the Hunter Valley are in agriculture, tourism and increasingly in aerospace. Williamtown is already a maintenance base for Australia’s F/A-18 fighters. Soon it will be a maintenance hub for the Joint Strike Fighter in the Asia-Pacific.

Many of Cessnock’s students don’t believe that the new jobs are for them. Dr Scott Sleap is opening their eyes and showing them that they can participate in the new economy. He’s done that by creating the Cessnock Academy of STEM Excellence, a partnership between Cessnock High School, its feeder primary schools, and local industry.

Students struggling with numeracy are catching up with the help of robotics. A team of Aboriginal girls are making and racing model F1 cars, mentored by Boeing engineers. And the number of students signing up for STEM subjects is growing. NSW Education is now rolling out similar programs in other regional centres.

Dr Scott Sleap receives the $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Secondary Schools. Scott is Deputy Principal, STEM, for the Cessnock Learning Community.

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2017 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

The winners of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are:

  • Jenny Graves (La Trobe University, Melbourne)—Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
  • Eric Reynolds (The University of Melbourne/Oral Health CRC)—Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
  • Jian Yang (The University of Queensland)—Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
  • Dayong Jin (University of Technology Sydney)—Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
  • Neil Bramsen (Mount Ousley Public School, Wollongong)—Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
  • Brett McKay (Kirrawee High School, Sydney)—Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

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2016 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

The 2016 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science recipients are:

  • Defending Australia’s snakes and lizards: Prime Minister’s Prize for Science Professor Richard Shine (The University of Sydney)
  • Making stock markets fair and efficient: Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation Professor Michael Aitken (Capital Markets CRC)
  • Re-engineering nature to fight for global health: Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year Professor Richard Payne (The University of Sydney)
  • Turning the next generation of primary teachers on to science: Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools Mr Gary Tilley (Seaforth Public School).
  • Creating new manufacturing jobs by replacing glass and metal with plastic: Prize for New Innovators Dr Colin Hall (University of South Australia)
  • Conservation that works for government, ecosystems and people: Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year Associate Professor Kerrie Wilson (University of Queensland)
  • Turning students into scientists, setting them up for jobs in mining, conservation, tourism and more: Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools Ms Suzy Urbaniak (Kent Street Senior High School)

Fairness underpins efficiency: the profitable innovations saving Australia billions. 2016 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation

Michael Aitken 

Michael Aitken (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)Global stock markets are fairer and more efficient thanks to the work of Professor Michael Aitken. Now he’s applying his information technology 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, that can go hand in glove with significant improvements in consumers’ health. [continue reading…]