Last updated November 8, 2019 at 1:52 pm
The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science recognise pioneering researchers and scientists for their impressive contributions to STEM.
Why This Matters: Australian innovators are doing some pretty incredible things.
The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are Australia’s most prestigious science awards. Seven prizes are awarded for outstanding achievements in scientific research, and research-based innovation, and excellence in science, maths or technology teaching.
This year’s awards night celebrated 20 years of the PM’s Prizes, and not only celebrated this year’s winners but previous winners as well.
The winners will share in $750,000 in prize money.
Here are the 2019 winners:
Prime Minister’s Prize for Science: Cheryl Praeger
Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger is awarded the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her internationally acclaimed research in mathematics.
Praeger’s innovative work also includes research into the mathematics of symmetry which has applications in improving search engine efficiency. Praeger is also known for her research and work on algorithms which have been incorporated into powerful computer systems.
“What I love about mathematics is the way that it explains the world. It makes sense of the world. And as our technology advances and our world changes, the mathematical challenges are there, and they continue on and on,” says Praeger.
But her work isn’t all about research. Praeger is an avid advocate for mathematics in schools, at all levels. She lives this passion through her teaching at The University of Western Australia.
“Receiving the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is a wonderful statement about the importance of mathematics. It also recognises the achievements of me and my colleagues and the students in the mathematics of symmetry.”
Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation: The team from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
The team from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research are at the forefront of the fight against cancer.
Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Professor Andrew Roberts are awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation for their contribution to the development of venetoclax – a breakthrough anti-cancer drug.
The drug is available as a treatment for thousands of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, both in Australia and around the world. The drug binds to the protein BCL-2 – which has been shown to contribute to cancer development – and inhibits it.
By collaborating and bringing their expertise together, the team was able to develop the drug in a remarkably short time frame, taking less than seven years from discovery to its first approval.
“The biggest impact of venetoclax in 2019 is for the hundreds of patients in Australia with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia who have had considerable benefit from having access to this new drug,” says Roberts.
“This really is a triumph of basic science and basic science discoveries moving rapidly through a process to generate a product that’s significantly beneficial for many people.”
Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year: Laura Mackay
Associate Professor Laura Mackay is a pioneer in the field of immunological memory – the ability of the immune system to quickly and correctly recognise an antigen before initiating an immune response.
Mackay’s work focusses on understanding tissue-resident memory T cells (TRMs) and is changing the way the world treats infectious diseases and cancers.
Mackay showed that these specific T cells found in tissues of the body were actually a critical first line of defence against infection. Previously, it was thought that immune responses were controlled by other elements in the blood.
“Immunological research has transformed patient care. Therapies are being improved all the time and my hope for the future is that our research will have translated into better outcomes and better treatments for patients suffering from a range of diseases such as malaria, influenza, and cancer,” Mackay says.
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year: Elizabeth New
Associate Professor Elizabeth New has launched the development of new chemical imaging tools. Through observing healthy and disease cells, New’s imaging tools can assist in the identification of potential treatments for aging diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. It’s an important breakthrough considering that these diseases affect approximately 50 per cent of the population and contribute to 85 per cent of deaths.
The imaging tools use molecules that act as fluorescent sensors, emitting light so that scientists can observe the processes in cells.
New describes it by using an analogy of a mobile phone. “If you’ve lost your phone in a cluttered bag, the solution, of course, is to call it, to let the sound signal its location. In the same way, the cell is very cluttered and it’s a challenge to find the chemical of interest. So, we use light to signal the location of a chemical within a cell.”
Prize for New Innovators: Luke Campbell
As co-founder of nura, Dr Luke Campbell has invented nuraphones – headphones that learn and adapt to your unique hearing. The headphones are completely automatic, and the personalisation can be done in less than a minute. The nuraphone is tailored to each individual in order to enhance the clarity of a user’s hearing. The device scans your ear, works out what sounds you hear well, and not so well and then retunes based on those results.
Some may ask: What’s the benefit to personalised sound?
For Campbell, he says its embodied in a song like Hotel California.
“When you hear the strumming of the guitar, you’re hearing an extra timbre and extra richness. You’re hearing just extra detail. You’re hearing instruments come out of directions you’ve never heard before. Your music is just being taken to the next level.”
nura has grown from a small start-up to a global company with over 60 employees worldwide. As well as his team, Campbell credits the creativity, innovation and research capability in Australia.
“Australia’s willingness to invest in research and innovation fosters an environment where we have creative people, we have imaginative people, we have people who are able to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions,” he says.