Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: Sex, toothpaste and genes

Jenny Graves of La Trobe University . Image: Supplied

Six Australian scientists have shared $700,000 in the 2017 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science announced in Canberra tonight.

They are:

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science: $250,000 to Jenny Graves of La Trobe University for her pioneering investigations of the genetics of sex.

Professor Graves has transformed understanding of how sex chromosomes work and how they evolved, predicting the decline of the Y chromosome.

Her research has contributed to a deeper understanding of the immune system; prion diseases, blood proteins, and helped understand the tumour driving the Tasmanian devil to extinction.

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation: $250,000 to Eric Reynolds, The University of Melbourne/Oral Health CRC, for his work creating new products to further improve oral health.

Thirty years ago, a young dental researcher discovered a protein in dairy milk that repairs and strengthens teeth.

Today, that protein, sold as Recaldent, is used by millions of people every day as they chew gum and visit the dentist.

The inventor, Reynolds, now leads the University of Melbourne’s dental school and travels the world, working with Australian and global businesses to create new products to further improve oral health.

Products using Recaldent have generated sales of over $2 billion.

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year: $50,000 to Jian Yang, The University of Queensland, for creating ways to understand inherited traits and the human genome.

The publication of the human genome near fifteen years ago revealed that the human genome is complicated.

Jian Yang has created pioneering new techniques to unravel that complexity and solve the missing heritability paradox.

His work will enable researchers to determine the genetic factors behind complex diseases, opening the way to new drugs and better genomic risk prediction.

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year: $50,000 to Dayong Jin, University of Technology Sydney, for creating new technologies to image the processes of life.

New ways are needed to detect the early stages of disease and cancer.

Dayong Jin believes the key is for physicists, biologists, engineers and doctors to work together. And that’s what he’s doing with his team at the University of Technology.

He has created new kinds of microscopes to watch molecules at work inside living cells.

He believes that his technologies will enable portable devices to detect the first signs of disease, evidence of drugs, or of toxins in food and the environment.

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools: Neil Bramsen, Mount Ousley Public School, Wollongong, for his innovative partnerships with scientists, the community and other schools to foster students’ enthusiasm, knowledge and skills in science.

“The outdoor classroom is probably my favourite place to be,” says Bramsen, Mount Ousley’s assistant principal.

And it extends beyond the school. Students have talked with astronauts on the International Space Station and made global connections through Skype with schools in Africa and America.

Bramsen sees science as an enabler of learning across the curriculum. “It’s a way of hooking kids into learning. We want kids to enjoy school. It’s got to be a balance of fun and learning.”

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools: Brett McKay, Kirrawee High School, Sydney, for his achievements in inspiring his students to love science and to use it in their daily lives.

McKay is Head Teacher Science, at Kirrawee. As a physics and science teacher he has overseen a four-fold increase in students taking physics. Many have gone on to careers in science around the world.

He has inspired young women to consider science careers. A recent year 11 student recently said: “Thanks to Mr McKay .. I found my love and passion for science and a highly possible career path for me.”

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