Australia’s most outstanding scientists have been honoured at the 2017 Eureka Prizes.
The Australian Museum’s awards celebrate scientific breakthroughs ranging from robots who run farms, creating life-saving oxygen for newborn babies, ways to protect the Great Barrier Reef, a blood test to detect bowel cancer, and powerful lasers to defend Australia against drones and missiles.
Fifteen awards, with a combined value of $150,000, recognise excellence in science, research and innovation, leadership and engagement, and school science across environmental and innovative technologies, to national security, citizen science and, for the first time, data science.
“Australian scientists are world leaders in discovering ways to combat climate change, disease and threats to national security,” says Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay.
“Their scientific breakthroughs offer us insights into the innovations that will fundamentally change the way we live and work.
Helping babies breath
More than 1 million babies will die in their first month of life and another 3.3 million children a year will not reach their fifth birthday. More than two thirds die because of lack of oxygen at birth. A University of Melbourne team of global health experts, physicists and engineers, led by Dr Bryn Sobott, has won this year’s ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology for their technology — FREO2 Siphon concentrator — that easily and cheaply produces medical grade oxygen without electricity, crucial in countries where power supplies are unreliable.
Professor Salah Sukkarieh, a robotic expert at the University of Sydney, won the CSIRO Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science. His work has helped to make Australia a world leader in farm automation, in partnership with aerospace, transportation and mining industry end-users. He also leads the research and translational program for the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation and the Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems.
Clever skin patches
Madhu Bhaskaran, an RMIT University Associate Professor, has won the Macquarie University Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher. She has developed malleable electronics that will revolutionise wearable devices, such as electronic skin patches that can warn when the wearer has been exposed to too much sun or patches that can diagnose sleep ailments.
Professor Andrew Whitehouse, from the Telethon Kids Institute and the University of Western Australia, has been awarded the 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science. He has been researching autism since he met a young boy with the condition when he was studying for his Speech-Language Therapy degree. The experience led to an extraordinary career as an autism researcher and advocate.
Andrew Brooks, an Associate Professor, and the Catchment Sediment Budget Research Team from Griffith University in Queensland, have been awarded the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research for their studies into what may be Australia’s best chance of doing something timely to help save the Great Barrier Reef. They have identified new ways to dramatically reduce the damaging impact of sediment runoff, one of the most significant threats to the natural wonder next to climate change.
A blood test for bowel cancer
A national team of scientists has won the Johnson & Johnson Eureka Prize for Innovation in Medical Research for the development of a blood test that is twice as effective as existing non-invasive blood testing methods at detecting recurrent bowel cancer. Post-surgical recurrence of bowel cancer occurs in up to 40% of cases, most often in the first three years following initial diagnosis and treatment. Dr Peter Molloy, Dr Jason Ross and Susan Mitchell, CSIRO, Sydney, NSW; Dr Susanne Pedersen and Dr Lawrence LaPointe, Clinical Genomics Pty Ltd Sydney, and Professor Graeme Young, Flinders University, developed the Colvera test which became commercially available in the US last year.
Protecting against drone attack
The discovery that diamonds can massively extend the range, quality and power of lasers has led to Macquarie University’s Associate Professor Richard Mildren being named winner of the Defence Science and Technology Eureka Prize for Outstanding Science in Safeguarding Australia. If we are to be able to defend against modern threats from drones and missiles, we need something that is accurate and powerful enough to destroy an object that is a great distance away. While lasers are the obvious candidate, their development has been limited by insufficient power from the core laser material. Using man-made diamonds, Associate Professor Mildren has developed lasers with extended power and wavelength. The patented technology has attracted funding from US defence agencies.
Professors Elena Ivanova and Saulius Juodkazis, from Victoria’s Swinburne University of Technology, have won the UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for a novel material able to kill the bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacteria that causes conditions such as the deadly golden staph infections is becoming a global problem because of its ability to develop resistance to antibiotics. Rather than developing a new chemical structure that can be commercialised into a drug, the team have instead developed a new nano-material by mimicking the surfaces of insect wings, such as the dragonfly and the cicada, which are naturally self-sterilising.
We study the Country
Macquarie University scientists and 300 Aboriginal elders and youth in the South-East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area have collaborated to develop Ngukurr Wi Stadi bla Kantri (We study the Country), a unique project aimed at managing local natural and cultural assets. The team of Dr Emilie Ens, Macquarie University, Ngandi Elder Cherry Wulumirr Daniels, the Yugul Mangi Rangers, Ngukurr School and members from the remote Aboriginal community of Ngukurr, have been awarded the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.
Big data on little computer
Professor Geoffrey Webb, from the Monash University eResearch Centre in Melbourne, has won the inaugural University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Excellence in Data Science for his research developing programs that take enormous amounts of raw data and extract information to improve the health of Australians. He generally just uses his laptop when the majority of big data miners use supercomputers. His work has been critical to the development of advanced machine-learning techniques that can determine blood pressure from skin micro-patches. Able to be worn all the time, these patches provide real-time monitoring of heart rate and hypertension in patients who are at risk of heart attack.
A map of Indigenous Australia
A collaborative project between the University of Adelaide, the South Australian Museum, and Aboriginal families and communities has been awarded the UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research. The Aboriginal Heritage Project, led by Professor Alan Cooper from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, is using DNA to construct the first map of Indigenous Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans and has revealed the continuous occupation of this country for about 50,000 years.
Scabies affects more than 200 million people, particularly children, having its greatest impact on people in low and middle-income families, yet the methods of treatment have remained unchanged for decades. A research group from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, and the Ministries of Health of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, led by the MCRI’s Associate Professor Andrew Steer, has won the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research for their studies into the prevalence of the disease and their world-first studies that almost eradicated scabies from communities in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
In recognition of the importance that mentoring plays in developing Australia’s young researchers into the next generation of lab leaders, industry heads and directors of research institutions, the University of New South Wales’ Professor Justin Gooding has been named as the winner of the University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers.
Becoming Superhuman is a two-part documentary produced by The Feds Australia that aired on ABC TV’s Catalyst program and has won the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Science Journalism. Becoming Superhuman details how biomedical engineer Dr Jordan Nguyen works with 13-year-old Riley Saban, who has cerebral palsy, to develop a technology to help Riley do things he had previously been unable to do, such as switch on a light, operate a TV and even drive a car. It’s the second win in a row for writer/director Mr Wain Fimeri, who collaborated with The Feds Australia Julia Peters, Ili Baré and Lizzy Nash on this documentary.
Year 4 students from the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Sydney, Caitlyn Walker and Amelia Lai, are the winners of the University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize for Primary students. The nine-year-olds made their winning film, Icy Cold But Toasty Warm, to explain how the penguins of Antarctica stay warm. Their entertaining short film details experiments and models to show how the birds use feathers, blubber, counter-current heat exchange, size and huddling to survive extremely cold conditions.
For the second year in a row, students from St Monica’s College in Cairns have won the University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize for Secondary students. Year 11 students, Claire Galvin and Anna Hardy, (who won the same category last year) were joined by Eliza Dalziel and Georgia Hannah, from Year 12, to create a film that explains the importance of dung beetles in our ecosystem. With their film, Manure You Know, they explain — using animation, video and experiments — how one of the world’s hardest-working insects has helped farmers on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland improve their farming practices.
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