2012 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes

Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2012

The 2012 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science winners:

PM’s Science Prizes recipients with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Senator Chris Evans. Credit: idphoto

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

An Australian who has truly made a galactic impact

Ken Freeman

In April 2010, an unusual party was held under the clear skies of the Namibian desert. It was an international science conference to celebrate the 70th birthday of Professor Ken Freeman, the Duffield Professor of Astronomy at the Australian National University’s Mt Stromlo Observatory, a man regarded internationally as Australia’s most renowned astronomer.

Among many other achievements, Ken is perhaps best known for putting “dark matter” on the galactic map. In 1970, he published a paper showing that what we see of galaxies—as stars, gas and dust—is only a small fraction of their mass. The rest is invisible, dark matter. It’s a finding which changed the course of astronomy. But that was only the beginning of his career.

More recently, in 2002, he became a founder of what today is one of the hottest fields of investigation in astronomy, galactic archaeology—determining the age and movement of stars in our own galaxy through analysing their chemical composition. The aim is to work out how galaxies were constructed. And the field has become a major driver in the commissioning of new ground and space-based telescopes.

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year

The physics of a gas-powered world

Eric May

Fifty years ago, natural gas was usually burnt off because it was too expensive to transport it long distances to customers. Then liquefaction became practical. That made the exploitation of Western Australia’s remote gas reserves possible. The gas can be transported as liquid natural gas (LNG) at 1/600th the volume of the original gas. Today, Australian LNG is powering the economic transformation of Asia. It’s the cleanest fossil fuel. And Professor Eric May is on a mission to make it cleaner still.

His work links the most accurate measurements of the thermodynamic properties of fluids with producing LNG from Australia’s vast offshore reserves efficiently and safely.

He has been treading the interface between physics and chemical engineering ever since his PhD studies when he invented a patented instrument that uses the techniques of experimental physics to measure the thermodynamic properties of natural gas condensates, which are critical to the engineering of extraction and production facilities.

At present Eric is heavily involved in studies to determine the feasibility of various geosequestration options—such as extracting the CO2 from raw natural gas and reinjecting it back into the gas field. This has a potential double advantage of squeezing out any residual gas and entrapping the CO2 so that it does not add to what is already in the atmosphere. He also continues to work at ensuring the smooth flow of gas from well to production facility and its efficient conversion to a safe and usable product that can be traded internationally and easily delivered to customers.

In 2009, at the age of 32, his work was deemed to be of such significance and value to the oil and gas industry, that Chevron Australia established a Chair in Gas Process Engineering for him at the University of Western Australia (UWA). At the time he was the youngest professor at any university in Australia. In 2011, Chevron endowed that Chair at UWA in perpetuity.

For his work in the measurement of fundamental fluid properties and their application in bringing Australia’s natural gas resources to market, Professor Eric May has now been awarded the 2012 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.

Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

Drawing ahead of cancer

Mark Shackleton

When he was five, Mark Shackleton’s grandmother asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. “I am going to cure cancer,” came the confident reply amid raucous family laughter.

Although he’s not there yet, the winner of the 2012 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, Dr Mark Shackleton, is already changing the way researchers view, approach and treat cancer.

In his PhD studies on breast cancer at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne, Mark demonstrated for the first time that an entire solid organ—a functioning breast—could be grown from a single cell, a stem cell. He thus proved that, although rare, stem cells exist in solid organs and contribute importantly to normal organ function.

Along with other research at the time, this strengthened a prevailing view that cancers were organised like normal organs, maintained by cancerous stem cells that drove tumour growth. Mark then proceeded, however, to destroy that view and in the process turned the field of cancer research on its head.

In post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan on the deadly skin cancer known as melanoma, Mark showed that a high proportion of the cells in these tumours—at least one in four—is capable of producing cancerous offspring. This meant that instead of trying to seek out and destroy rare cancer stem cells, effective treatments for melanoma needed a scorched earth policy, attempting to kill as many tumour cells as possible.

Mark is now at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne undertaking further work on melanomas that suggests these tumours are intrinsically dynamic, changing their behaviour—sometimes dramatically and quickly—over time. That has huge implications if we are to develop new cancer treatments that provide lasting benefit to patients.

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

The primary foundation of community awareness

Michael van der Ploeg

Students in the northwest of Tasmania are entering the wide world of science, thanks to Mr Michael van der Ploeg, assistant principal and specialist science teacher at Table Cape Primary School in Wynyard. His work is having an impact in schools right along the coast.

“…my children love Mr van der Ploeg’s science,” says one parent, “and they are teaching us things that we didn’t know.”

“…my child is taking me into the backyard to explore and do experiments,” says another.

“I was, for many years, a beneficiary of [his] highly informed students at Marist Regional College,” writes Ms Ann Burke, senior secondary science teacher at Hellyer College, Burnie, who is vice president of the Science Teachers Association of Tasmania. “Now at a senior college, I am meeting much older students who have been influenced in their early days by Michael.”

It is this influence that has for years been earning Michael’s students prizes at local, regional and national level in science-based competitions, as well as increasing enrolments in science and medicine at university. Now, Mr Michael van der Ploeg himself is being awarded the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.

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

Science schooling for students with special needs

Anita Trenwith

Anita Trenwith is a born teacher who thinks science should be fun—and that every student deserves a science education. Her current focus is science for special education students, a field in which she has instituted something of a revolution at Salisbury High School, north of Adelaide. It used to be principally a show-and-tell class. Under Mrs Trenwith it is a hands-on experience which teaches both knowledge and life skills.

Among other activities, for instance, her senior class runs science shows within the school and for the local primary schools. One autistic student was quite up-front beforehand. “I won’t do anything in front of anybody,” he said. OK, she told him, no problem. “Your role will be setting up—making sure the chemicals are in the right places and the beakers are out.” By the end of the year, when Channel Nine’s A Current Affair filmed a story on Anita’s work, he had developed so much confidence that he appeared on television with her.

Another student last year began the Agriculture class nervous around horses. She has now completed work experience at Riding for the Disabled.

Anita has been working at Salisbury High School for nearly 15 years. In her time, she has taught Chemistry, Biology, Agriculture and General Science from Year 8 to Year 12, Mathematics to Year 10 and Auslan (Australian sign language) to Year 11.

In 2008, she began developing an International Baccalaureate (IB) course in secondary science for students with special needs. The next year, two of her students were awarded Merits—a perfect score—in their South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) qualification.

For her contributions to teaching science she has been awarded the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.