Prime Minister’s Science Prizes 2011 – the winners in brief

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were presented by the Prime Minister and the Innovation Minister at the Prize Dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament House on Wednesday 12 October 2011.

Click on the prize name to get taken through to a full citation.

The winners in brief

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Ezio Rizzardo, CSIRO Fellow from CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering and;

David Solomon, Professorial Fellow, Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering,The University of Melbourne

Changing the world one molecule at a time

In the coming years when you buy a tyre, lubricant, adhesive, paint, computer or any one of hundreds of other products, there’s a good chance that some of its component materials will have been produced using revolutionary chemical theories and processes invented in Australia by research teams led by Professors Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon.

Their techniques are employed in almost every university chemistry department, and the laboratories and factories of DuPont, L’Oréal, IBM, 3M, Dulux and more than 60 other companies.

Their work has been cited more than 12,000 times in the scientific literature and is an integral part of more than 500 patents and counting. The processes developed by the duo will influence the production of about half the tonnage of polymers—mainly plastics—encountered in everyday life.

However it wouldn’t have happened without the meeting of two great minds at CSIRO. One is David Solomon, born in The Great Depression and who began working for a paint company in Sydney at age 16. Now 81, he is still pursuing research as a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. The other is Ezio Rizzardo, who came to Australia from Italy as a teenager without a word of English. He entered the world of chemistry as a refugee from medicine, and is now a CSIRO fellow at the Division of Materials Science and Engineering in Melbourne.

Together they were able to harness the power of organic chemistry to provide unprecedented control over the structure, composition and properties of the polymers that are now used in almost every facet of our lives. In essence, they devised a means of custom building plastics and other polymers for tasks at the cutting edge of technology—from producing plastic solar cells to delivering drugs precisely to their site of action in the body. Many of the compounds developed using their techniques would have been inconceivable in the past. And their technologies are also transforming traditional polymer applications such as paints, adhesives and lubricants.“The impact of this outstanding body of work cannot be overstated,” says Professor Craig Hawker, director of the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It is rewriting the book on polymer synthesis, dramatically impacting many diverse and important areas of academic and industrial research. Their creativity reaches out far beyond the stellar science. I see no limits to what can come from this work and am very proud to be able to say that it is home-grown Australian science through and through.”

For their role in revolutionising polymer science, Professors Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon jointly receive the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

View the full profile including the video and photos here.

The Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

Min Chen, Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney

A new chlorophyll – redefining photosynthesis

Among the single-celled cyanobacteria—formerly known as blue-green algae—which live in the ancient rock-like accumulations called stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia, Associate Professor Min Chen of the University of Sydney last year found the first new form of chlorophyll in 67 years.

Chlorophyll is central to life on Earth. It is the key molecule in photosynthesis, the process by which plants harness sunlight. It provides our food, our fossil fuels and the oxygen we breathe. But this new variant, chlorophyll f, is particularly significant for our sustainable future because it harvests far red light, which is lower on the energy spectrum than visible light. So it broadens the range of light that can be used for photosynthesis, and opens the way to more efficient energy collection in solar cells and crop plants.

Even before the discovery of the new chlorophyll made her name widely known in scientific circles, Min Chen, still less than eight years out from her PhD, had become an acknowledged authority on photosynthesis. “Dr Chen is now the unquestioned world expert on the biology and biochemistry of photosynthetic cyanobacteria that utilise alternative pigments to chlorophyll a,” writes Professor Robert Blankenship of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

For her contribution to our knowledge of chlorophyll and cyanobacteria, Associate Professor Min Chen receives the Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

View the full profile including the video and photos here.

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

Stuart Wyithe, Professor, The University of Melbourne

How did the Universe light up – filling a billion years of cosmic history

The Universe was born in a hot Big Bang. But after 300,000 years of expansion it became a cold dark place—no galaxies, no stars, no light. A billion years later nuclear fusion lit up the Universe as hydrogen atoms clumped to form stars and galaxies.

We can still detect the heat of the Big Bang. And our best telescopes can see the light of the early galaxies. But how did the first stars and galaxies form? What triggered the cosmic dawn? What happened during the Universe’s billion-year Dark Age?

This is one of the great unknown eras of cosmic history—particularly because there is no light nor other forms of high energy radiation to analyse. Stuart Wyithe’s theories may lead to some answers.

The ideas that this young theoretical physicist is generating on pen, paper and desktop computer will guide the questions to be asked by a new multi-billion-dollar generation of telescopes including the Square Kilometre Array, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the Giant Magellan Telescope.

For his work on the physics of the formation of the Universe, Professor Stuart Wyithe receives this year’s Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

View the full profile including the video and photos here.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Brooke Topelberg, Science Specialist Teacher/Year Four Classroom Teacher, Westminster Primary School, Western Australia

Puppets break the science language barrier

In 2003, Mrs Brooke Topelberg—only three years out from an education degree and just back from two years’ teaching in inner London—was appointed science coordinator of Westminster Primary School. The school is set in a high immigrant, low socio-economic suburban area in northern Perth. Science was a low priority at the school.

Within five years, due largely to Brooke’s drive and leadership, Westminster Primary was adjudged Western Australia’s Science School of the Year. Last year, Brooke herself became the WA Primary Science Educator of the Year.

Now she has gone one step further, winning the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. And she’s done it with the help of puppets, a garden, good organisation, the support of her colleagues, boundless enthusiasm, and an initial science budget of just $1,500 a year.

View the full profile including the video and photos here.

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

Jane Wright, Science Coordinator, Loreto College South Australia.

A part of her students’ lives

Students at Adelaide’s Loreto College have been investigating extra-sensory perception, finding the best way to neutralise spills of household cleaners, and testing the antibiotic effects of Manuka honey. They present their results not just by writing reports, but using talks, videos, role-plays and stories. Their activities are typical of the practical, can-do attitude of their science coordinator, Dr Jane Wright. It’s an attitude she’s also applied in her leadership of her chosen profession.

“Jane is highly regarded for her outstanding contribution to science teaching,” says Ms Jan Althorp, a former Executive Director of the Australian Science Teachers Association. “Her (very) active involvement within her school, the state and national professional associations has been extraordinary over 20 years. I don’t think she sleeps!”

For her work in developing curriculum, teachers and a generation of young women, Dr Jane Wright receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.

View the full profile including the video and photos here.

For further information, photos and interviews please contact:

Niall Byrne, 0417 131 977,
supported by AJ Epstein, 0433 339 141,

The full details are posted Please use this address in publications.