A cane toad pioneer, an innovator who developed a $100 million software program that detects stock market fraud, a researcher looking to re-engineer peptides and protein into cures for diseases, and a conservationist working to help governments to find the most cost-effective way to be environmentally sustainable were just some of the winners of Australia’s top science honours last week.
The University of Sydney’s Dr Richard Shine and professor Richard Payne, Macquarie University’s professor Michael Aitken, and University of Queensland associate professor Kerrie Wilson all received Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science in Canberra last week. The University of South Australia’s Dr Colin Hall and school teachers Gary Tilley and Suzy Urbaniak were also awardees.
Dr Richard Shine, Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Shine received the award for his work on cane toads. He successfully taught native snakes and lizards in Western Australia that cane toads are toxic and that they shouldn’t eat them. Shine said he did his research because he loves snakes.
“Some people love model trains, some people love Picasso; for me, it’s snakes,” Shine said.
Professor Michael Aitken, Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Aitken, chief executive of the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre and finance lecturer at Macquarie, developed the SMARTS software tool, which enables real-time surveillance of stock markets at the rate of 2 million trades per second.
SMARTS has been adopted by more than 40 national exchanges and regulators and 150 brokers across 50 countries. Aitken eventually sold the software to NASDAQ, the world’s second largest stock-exchange hosted in the US, for $100 million.
He used a significant portion of the proceeds to set up a venture firm, which funds Australian technology start-ups and research scholarships.
“What excites me about my work is the work I do with PhD students, 130 of them; they will be the new round of innovators, they’ll take innovation to the world,” Aitken said.
Aitken won the award for SMARTS and for his other contributions to Australian innovation.
Professor Richard Payne, Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Payne, a USYD biochemist, received his prize for re-engineering peptides and proteins into drugs for curing diseases – including tuberculosis, malaria and emerging antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
His work has been picked up by researchers and pharmaceutical companies around the world, and is the subject of four patent applications.
Associate professor Kerrie Wilson, Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
Wilson, a UQ conservationist, is helping governments around the world save the planet – by putting a price on environmental sustainability. Wilson can put a monetary value on clean air, water, food, tourism and the other benefits that forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems provide.
Wilson can also calculate the most cost-effective way for governments to protect and restore these ecosystems.
On the island of Borneo, Wilson and her colleagues outlined how the three nations that inhabit the island could retain half the land as forest, provide adequate habitat for the orangutan and Bornean elephant, and achieve an opportunity cost savings of more than $50 billion.
Meanwhile, in Chile, Wilson and colleagues are helping to plan national park extensions that will bring recreation and access to nature to many more Chileans, while enhancing the conservation of native plants and animals.
Back home on Australia’s Gold Coast, they are helping to ensure that a multimillion-dollar local government investment in rehabilitation of degraded farmland is spent wisely – in the areas where it will have the biggest impact for the natural ecosystem and local communities.
Dr Colin Hall, Prize for New Innovators
Hall, from UniSA’s Future Industries Institute, and his team, created a process that will allow manufacturers of cars, aircraft, spacecraft and whitegoods to replace components of their products with lighter, more efficient materials.
One of the innovations was a combination of materials that bind plastic, which can then be used in a new type of car mirror that performs as well as glass and metal, for a fraction of the weight.
Gary Tilley, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Tilley, a specialist science teacher at Seaforth Public School in Sydney’s Northern beaches, was awarded the honour for mentoring younger teachers and Macquarie University education students on how to teach science to primary school students.
“Communicating science, getting children inspired with science, engaging the community and scientists themselves with science to make it a better place for the kids – that’s my passion,” Tilley said.
Tilley also said, “I’ve never seen a primary school student who isn’t curious and doesn’t want to be engaged in science.” He argued you just to need to teach the teachers how to effectively engage the students.
Suzy Urbaniak, Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Urbaniak, a geoscientist and high-school science teacher, claimed the prize for teaching science practically, not out of a textbook. Urbaniak was a geoscientist for 30 years before becoming a science teacher at Kent Street Senior High School in Perth.
She outlined that during her school science education, all she learnt was theory. When she began teaching, she said, she realised that nothing much had changed since her school years.
“I decided then that I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “I wanted to turn the classroom into a room full of young scientists, rather than students learning from textbooks. The science in my classroom is all about inquiry and investigation, giving the students the freedom to develop their own investigations and find their own solutions. I don’t believe you can teach science from worksheets and textbooks.”
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