Australian scientist claims Young Innovator of the Year at Falling Walls Berlin

November 11, 2019
Rhys Pirie (second from right) with University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj, and Australian Academy of Science representatives Professor Hans Bachor and Professor Andrew Holmes.

An Australian scientist has won Young Innovator of the Year at one of the world’s premier conferences for research and innovation, the first time an Australian has won the Falling Walls Lab award.

Rhys Pirie from the University of Queensland won the prestigious competition with his presentation ‘Breaking the wall of broken glass’. In his winning pitch, Rhys explained how his work took the broken glass currently unable to be recycled and headed to landfill to create the valuable product sodium silicate.

The Falling Walls Conference is a global gathering of innovators and scientists, brought together to share their breakthroughs and plans to impact science and society. Each year the conference is held on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with this year celebrating the 30th year since the wall fell. On the first day of the conference, Falling Walls Lab showcased 100 young innovators from more than 60 countries, who presented their ideas to the high-level jury in just three minutes. This year, Falling Walls Lab featured three Australian innovators.

Mr Pirie had just three minutes to show how he is ‘breaking the wall’ of broken glass.

Dr Elena Schneider-Futschik from the University of Melbourne presented her talk titled ‘Breaking the wall of cystic fibrosis pharmacology’. Elena riveted the audience with her work in developing a test which can monitor medication interactions for patients with cystic fibrosis, who take as many as 40 different medications every day.

Dr Elena Schneider-Futschik on ‘Breaking the wall of cystic fibrosis pharmacology’

Kate Secombe from the University of Adelaide challenged the audience to think about the value of their poo in her talk ‘Breaking the wall of personalised cancer treatment’. Kate’s work looks at the gut microbiome of patients receiving chemotherapy treatment, with the aim of reducing side effects that can reduce quality of life and prevent patients from being able to work.

Kate Secombe on ‘Breaking the wall of personalised cancer treatment’

In a separate event, Paul Richards, Director of Communications at the Australian Academy of Science, was selected as a judge for Falling Walls Engage, the international forum for breakthroughs in science engagement. Paul was selected as a result of the unique success of the Academy in communicating science to the general public.

The Academy’s Paul Richards (left), judging Falling Walls Engage, which aims to highlight the scientific community’s responsibility for the common good and spread scientific literacy, with a special focus on ‘hard-to-reach’ target groups

Past President of the Academy, Professor Andrew Holmes, noted that what makes Falling Walls unique is “the opportunity to meet and discuss challenging topics in the physical, mathematical and social sciences with world leaders”. Secretary Education and Public Awareness Professor Hans Bachor sees the event as “a powerful gathering of minds. I saw so many stimulating ideas and was filled with a sense of urgency to act. Falling Walls presents many ideas and techniques for change.”

The Australian competitors Rhys Pirie, Dr Elena Schneider-Futschik and Kate Secombe with Academy representatives Professor Andrew Holmes and Paul Richards

The conference had a huge impact on the young Australian researchers, Dr Schneider-Futschik said. “The days we got to spend here felt like a rapid bootcamp where like-minded creative and innovative people get to compete but also motivate and support each other. We were able to show how we tackle scientific problems and Falling Walls gave us an international platform to share our ideas. This truly was an incredible experience.”

Each year, the Academy hosts Falling Walls Lab Australia to select the Australians to participate in the international finale in Berlin.

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