Mentoring inspires donation to honour outstanding Earth sciences research

The Anton Hales Medal gives career encouragement to young earth scientists.

A humble backyard barbeque in Canberra four decades ago sowed the seeds for a generous donation that honours one of Australia’s greatest Earth scientists and recognises outstanding research into the structure and workings of our Earth.

The Australian Academy of Science’s Anton Hales Medal is named in honour of the late Professor Anton Hales FAA. Originally from South Africa, the geophysicist’s impressive career spanned three continents and covered nearly nine decades.

What remains unknown to many is the gift that made the medal possible.

That story begins in 1973 when Professor Hales, aged 62, moved to the ANU from the United States to become foundation Director of the Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES).

Professor Hales relocated with his wife Denise, who recalls being welcomed to Canberra with a BBQ invitation from Professor Ian McDougall FAA and his wife Pam. That gesture initiated friendships that continue today.

McDougall was one of the first members of staff recruited to Hales’s new school, where they worked together over the following decades. Like Hales, McDougall is also an internationally distinguished earth scientist.

Following Hales’s death at the age of 95 in 2006, a gift from the McDougalls saw the establishment of the award named in his honour, following discussions with Kurt Lambeck, then President of the Academy and also Director of RSES.

Pam McDougall says the idea behind the award was to not only honour Hales but give career encouragement to young Earth scientists.  

The first recipient in 2009 was Professor Jeffrey Walker, a leading Australian expert on the remote sensing of soil moisture.

Walker has gone on to make further significant contributions in the field, including developing algorithms to derive high resolution soil moisture imagery from the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite of NASA. The orbiting observatory measures the amount of water in the top five centimetres of soil everywhere on Earth’s surface.

Associate Professor Juan Carlos Afonso was awarded the medal in 2017.

The ninth and most recent recipient of the Medal is Associate Professor Juan Carlos Afonso. He is at the forefront of revolutionising the way that geoscientists interpret the signals they obtain from deep in the Earth by geophysical methods.

Denise believes Anton would be pleased to see the boost that Ian’s gift has given to the recognition of Earth sciences research, his life-long passion.

“When I asked Ian recently what prompted the gift he spoke about Anton’s great capacity for mentoring,” Denise says.

“I hadn’t realised until now the great respect that Ian had for Anton. I know that Anton also held Ian in high regard because he was humble and a quiet achiever.”

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Past awardees

© 2018 Australian Academy of Science