Outstanding contributions to science have been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science with 20 of Australia’s leading scientists receiving a 2019 honorific award.
Professor Gill has made both fundamental and applied contributions to the progress of quantum chemistry. His models for three-electron bonding and dication dissociation have been widely adopted by experimentalists. His developments in efficient two-electron integral algorithms, perturbation analysis, linear-scaling methodology, DFT functionals, the theory of excited states, and Coulomb-splitting techniques have all become mainstream tools in his community and, by implementing many of his ideas within his Q-Chem software package, he has ensured that his advances are rapidly translated to other areas of computational science, including pharmaceutical research and the design of new materials. His recent insights into electron correlation and the nature of the uniform electron gas are changing the underlying paradigms of density functional theory (DFT).
Professor Welsh has developed useful new methodology, derived the properties of these and other methods and clarified relationships between different statistical methods, all in a particularly wide variety of problems. He has developed innovative new models for count data with many zeros and compositional data, including for longitudinal and clustered forms of these data. He has made important contributions to inference, robustness, the bootstrap and model selection for mixed models. His research on applications of smoothing methods to clustered data demonstrated that remarkable improvements can be achieved by taking proper and careful account of the dependence structure when constructing a smoother. Professor Welsh contributed to resolving how to do maximum likelihood estimation for sample survey data and, in ecological survey analysis, he made especially important contributions to distance sampling and occupancy modelling. All this work, and more, has the characteristic of theoretical depth combined with substantial practical relevance.
Professor Müller is internationally renowned for leading the construction of a Virtual Earth Laboratory to ‘see’ deep into Earth in four dimensions (space and time). This laboratory draws together custom software, workflows and data to produce open-access models of Earth’s dynamic history. It has been accessed by users from 183 countries and many disciplines. Novel applications led by Professor Müller include the development of a deep-time global sea level model and combined geodynamic, tectonic and surface topography models unravelling the origins and history of continental landscapes, environments and sedimentary basins. He showed how the uplift of the eastern Australian highlands is dominated by dynamic topography due to plate–mantle interaction. He recently developed an innovative approach for understanding the deep oceanic carbon cycle by showing how variations in ocean bottom water temperature and tectonic cycles drive fluctuations in seafloor weathering, crustal CO2 storage and atmospheric CO2 content.
Dr Richard Manchester is a world leader in pulsar research. Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars with beams that sweep past Earth forming regular pulses of radio emission. These regular pulses can be used to investigate a wide range of astrophysical phenomena, including tests of Einstein's general theory of relativity, to search for gravitational waves from super-massive binary black holes in the early universe, to probe magnetic fields in our galaxy, and to explore the properties of supernova explosions. He has led the teams that have discovered more than half of all known pulsars, mainly using the CSIRO Parkes radio telescope, and used them to explore the universe around us. Among the pulsars they have discovered is the only known double pulsar which has given the best confirmation so far that Einstein’s General Relativity gives an accurate description of gravitational interactions in strong-field conditions.
Professor Jagadish has made pioneering contributions to semiconductor physics in particular materials physics and optical physics. He has developed semiconductor growth, processing and characterisation techniques to achieve many world firsts in terms of innovative optoelectronic devices such as semiconductor lasers, infrared and terahertz detectors based on quantum wells, quantum dots and nanowires. He has developed quantum well and quantum dot atomic intermixing techniques to develop integrated optoelectronics devices being used in industry. His work has led to the development of innovative optoelectronic and nanophotonic devices used in optical communication systems, biomedical imaging, defence and security applications. He has trained a large number of PhD students and early-career researchers and they are in leading positions in industry and academia.
Using cutting-edge screens whereby each gene of the genome is deleted individually in white blood cells, Professor Huntington established that the gene Cish impaired white blood cells from responding to the growth factor, IL-15. By deleting Cish in NK cells, his team made a breakthrough discovery that Cish acted as a ‘checkpoint’ or switch that shutdown the ability of NK cells to become activated and kill cancer cells. As such, ablation of this gene in pre-clinical models prevented melanoma, breast, prostate and lung cancer metastases from developing and reduced the onset and growth of solid tumours including sarcomas, breast and colon cancer. The discovery’s breakthrough status was sealed when inhibiting Cish function alone was more effective than the current gold-standard immunotherapies that have revolutionised cancer outcomes. An international drug discovery collaboration with European pharmaceutical company Servier is yielding small molecule drugs that inhibit this checkpoint for impending clinical trials.
Professor Batley has made major contributions to our understanding of the genetics and genomics of crops including canola (Brassica napus), a major source of edible oil. Her DNA markers have been critically important in the mapping and sequencing of genomes of canola, related Brassicas such as turnip and cabbage, and other crops including wheat, peas and lentils. In addition, she has developed new ways of looking at how pathogens interact genetically with crop plants. In these ways she has played a key role in pioneering biotechnological methods that are now being exploited by plant breeders worldwide. Examples of some successful commercial applications in canola include improvements in oil quality, reduced shattering of seed pods, and breeding for increased resistance to blackleg fungus infection. Her motivation to improve world food security and rural economies is being rewarded through such applications.
Professor Santos works at the interface between coastal oceanography, hydrology and geochemistry. He is a world leader in groundwater-surface water connectivity research, and has developed innovative analytical approaches that put him at the forefront of the field. He has created disciplinary bridges to reveal that submarine groundwater discharge is a major hidden water pathway driving water quality and significant carbon fluxes in iconic Australian estuaries, mangroves, beaches, and coral reefs. His research linked water worlds that are often investigated separately but require integration for optimal management. His influential contributions and extensive engagement with research end users have real world applications, resulting in more effective management of coastal water quality. Isaac is not only a highly regarded Earth scientist, but also an outstanding mentor of students and a candid advocate on environmental issues of major public interest including water quality, carbon sequestration and draining of wetlands.
Professor Williamson is a world leader in the field of geometric representation theory. Among his many breakthrough contributions are his proof, together with Ben Elias, of Soergel's conjecture—resulting in a proof of the Kazhdan-Lusztig positivity conjecture from 1979; his entirely unexpected discovery of counter-examples to the Lusztig and James conjectures; and his new algebraic proof of the Jantzen conjectures.
Dr Menviel is an exceptional early career researcher who has made major contributions to our understanding of the oceanic circulation, its variability and its impact on global climate, the carbon cycle and the cryosphere. Widely considered as a leader in our understanding of abrupt climate change, Dr Menviel has made a series of ground-breaking discoveries in several topical areas of earth science: detecting past changes in oceanic circulation; understanding the role of ocean circulation in past and future abrupt climate change; evaluation of the impact of changes in oceanic circulation on the carbon cycle; and constraining the stability and variability of the Antarctic ice sheet.
Walking through any forest, one is struck by the variety of plant forms coexisting. Given that all plants compete for the same basic resources, why is there not a single winner? Through explicit modelling of community assembly, driven by physiological trade-offs and competition for light, Falster’s work shows how particular trade-offs in the functioning of leaves and allocation of energy to reproduction enable distinct species to coexist, even while competing for a single resource. Combining multiple trade-offs predicts correctly the proliferation of shade-tolerant species and enables forests of considerably greater diversity than was previously thought possible. By adding selection into vegetation models, Dr Falster is pioneering a framework that makes first-principles predictions for the combination of traits favoured under any given environment. Combined with the large-scale datasets he has compiled, this work promises to transform community ecology into a predictive and data-oriented science, underpinning effective ecosystem management and restoration.
Associate Professor Mackay’s work contributed to identifying a subset of immune cells, called tissue-resident memory T cells, which provide front-line defence for the body against repeated infection. Her work represented a paradigm shift in thinking about T cell immunity as these tissue-resident memory T cells reside permanently within body tissues and are distinct from the blood populations that are primed in lymphoid organs. Tissue-resident T cells have been found in a variety of tissues throughout the body and Associate Professor Mackay’s ongoing work has provided a new understanding of the body’s immune defences and their role in combating infectious disease. Associate Professor Mackay’s future research is directed toward harnessing these cells to create new therapies for infectious disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
Professor Yu is the leader of a new generation of Australian researchers in applied/engineering mathematics whose research has yielded remarkable applications in networked autonomous systems and sensors. Theories and algorithms he developed for Defence Science and Technology (DST) have enabled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to fly in formations to better safeguard our borders. His co-invention with DST scientists has led to development of a direction finder that improves multiple radio signal localisation and rejection of spurious signals within a complex electromagnetic environment, which have been cited as improving the effectiveness of the ADF’s direction finding systems. His Australia-originated research now enjoys a global impact. For example in China, his UAV allows a regulatory authority to monitor pollution levels associated with factory chimneys by hovering over a chimney to sample the exhaust; this means that falsification of data from chimney-mounted sensors can be detected.
Associate Professor Anna Giacomini has pioneered research in rock mechanics and rockfall analysis as applied to civil and mining engineering. She is committed to innovating, promoting and improving the safety in mining environments, and along our major transport corridors, by reducing rockfall hazards. Her nationally and internationally renowned work has significantly improved safety within the Australian mining industry, where rockfalls threaten human lives, the portal structures for underground entry, and damage to machinery. Her research is also essential for the safety and stability of Australia’s major highways and railways, and in stabilising cliff faces along our highly populated coastline. Based on excellent scientific engineering methodologies, Associate Professor Giacomini has translated her findings into innovative workplace interventions to provide safer working environments in Australian mining operations, across our coastline and in major civil transport infrastructure projects.
An understanding of the fundamental chemistry of the body offers new insights into many of the key questions in medical research, including the location of disease-causing chemicals or drug molecules, the perturbation of chemical environments in disease, and the role of chemical signalling molecules in health. Associate Professor New's research focusses on developing chemical tools that advance the understanding of the chemistry within cells. She prepares fluorescent sensors that emit light to visualise biochemical changes in the body caused by disease, lighting up where and how the body is experiencing oxidative stress. Her principal focus is on the diseases of ageing, where she explores the action of antioxidants in countering oxidative stress, but her sensors have found application across many fields of medical research. Associate Professor New has reported ten new sensors, one that is capable of indicating the effect of copper levels in Alzheimer's disease and another shows how oxidative stress is essential in fat breakdown and even in embryonic development. She has also developed sensors that observe how cancer treatments such as cisplatin have effect within the cell.
Dr Goerigk works in the field of Density Functional Theory (DFT), a major computational chemistry technique used routinely by chemists to support experiments and predict their outcomes. Currently, DFT suffers from the large dilemma that hundreds of methods with varying accuracy exist, which makes their reliable application difficult. Dr Goerigk's work helped solving this dilemma by providing new guidelines that enabled easier and more robust computational strategies. His methods now belong to the most accurate in the field. He used them to provide chemists with new insights into the role of how interactions between molecules affect the outcome of chemical reactions. His other contributions include the development of an improved way to determine biomolecular structures, more reliable analyses of reaction mechanisms, and predictions leading to the development of novel smart technologies. Dr Goerigk's work has had substantial international impact and will influence how chemists will use DFT in the future.
The main focus of Dr Lê Cao’s research is to develop statistical and computational methods that are applicable to high-throughput biological data arising from frontier technologies. The emergence of these new platforms is generating a vast amount of data with enormous potential to help understand the functioning of the human body in health and disease, as well as the health of animals, plants and our environment more generally. Her expertise in multivariate statistics, combined with her deep understanding of molecular biology, put her at the forefront of cutting-edge biological research. Dr Lê Cao has a track record of success in biological data analysis, in developing novel statistical methods, in implementing them in efficient software, and in disseminating the software and encouraging its uptake by the relevant research community. She plays a critical role in several local, national and international collaborative studies with researchers from diverse bioscience disciplines.
Associate Professor Leslie has made major contributions to mathematical genetics. The thrust of his research is developing methods for analysing modern genetic/genomic data, focusing on understanding the role of genetics in human disease and how genetics informs studies of human population history. He applies novel approaches to genetic data to understand the history of populations and infer past migration events. Stephen’s work on the British population is a landmark in the field, impacting history, archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics. It is a blueprint for studies in other populations and a benchmark for understanding natural genetic variation in human populations, crucial for disease studies. In other work he has revolutionised the study of immune-system genes, particularly those crucial to the body’s mechanism for detecting ‘self’ (one’s own tissues) from ‘non-self’ (such as viruses and bacteria), by enabling these genes to be included in large studies for the first time. This work has led to important discoveries associating these genes to serious diseases.
Quantum information science (QIS), a field born at the interface between physics and computation, has impacted all areas of physics. Increasingly it is impacting technology. By marrying the classical theory of compressed sensing with quantum tomography, Professor Flammia’s work has succeeded in drastically reducing the number of measurements required to learn the types of quantum states and processes commonly found in laboratory experiments aimed at building scalable quantum computers. This work was significant as, firstly, it has had a real practical impact, with numerous experiments already performed that show the advantages of the new approach, and secondly, the methods introduced have had an impact beyond physics back to the original machine learning community where the idea of compressed sensing originated. Professor Flammia’s work has impacted both theory and experimental practice in the field, with direct impact on Australian efforts in quantum technology.
Our DNA stores genetic information akin to an encyclopedia, and genes are the paragraphs. Like paragraphs, which are separated by spaces, our genes also contain spacer sequences known scientifically as introns. All of these features are important to ensure that messages are conveyed accurately in our cells. Dr Wong has made a significant discovery that the natural accurate positioning of spacers is important to control how genes are turned on or off. He has also discovered that a ‘punctuation mark’ called DNA methylation can instruct the accurate usage of spacer sequences. When these punctuation marks are applied, the spacer sequences are used to control what information is ‘whited out’, that is, which genes to turn off. The work by Dr Wong uncovers a novel way to control gene expression with vast therapeutic potential for cancers and other genetic diseases.
Central to the purpose of the Academy is the recognition and support of outstanding contributions to the advancement of science. The honorific awards were established to recognise distinguished research in three categories: awards of medals and prizes to early-career scientists up to 10 years post PhD, mid-career scientists 8 to 15 years post PhD, and the prestigious career awards which are made to scientists for life-long achievement. All honorific awards offer a medal, and some offer honorariums and/or lecture tour funding.
For more information on these and other Academy awards and funding schemes, see Academy's opportunities for scientists.
© 2019 Australian Academy of Science