Outstanding contributions to science have been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science with 24 of Australia’s leading scientists receiving a 2021 honorific award.
Professor Andrew Holmes is recognised for his world-leading contributions to the chemical synthesis of organic and polymeric substances for use at the interface with materials science and biology.
Plastics have traditionally been used as insulators or lightweight structural components. However, as a result of Professor Holmes’s contributions in developing plastics that emitted light when sandwiched between electrodes connected to a power source, the world now recognises that these materials can serve as semiconductors for flat screen TVs, for organic solar cells and in transistors.
Professor Holmes led the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium that delivered highly efficient solar cells and showed that they could be printed on plastic.
In the area of cell biology, Professor Holmes’s research group collaborated with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to attach their synthetic signalling molecules to beads that could be used as fishing lines to identify many key proteins involved in colon cancer cellular signalling.
Professor Cheryl Praeger’s work on the mathematics of symmetry has been in the vanguard of a mathematical revolution caused by the classiﬁcation of the ﬁnite simple groups, the atoms of symmetry from which all ﬁnite groups are built. She has elucidated the internal structure of these simple groups, and driven research on applying their immensely powerful classiﬁcation to study symmetric structures.
Professor Praeger has developed a theory of quasiprimitive groups which, via her innovative ‘normal quotient method’, established a new paradigm for working with symmetric graphs and exploited the simple group classiﬁcation.
Professor Praeger demonstrates an extraordinary ability to foster and inspire others, supporting women, advocating for mathematics in schools, and promoting mathematics in emerging economies.
Professor Thomas Maschmeyer’s research vision is driven by a strong desire to help address the many urgent physical challenges we face due to climate change and global resource limitations in combination with a growing world population. In this context, he sees catalysis as a key science and technology and has made seminal contributions to catalytic research that have transformed how we design, interrogate (under operating conditions) and use catalysts in (petro) chemical processing as well as photo- and electrocatalysis.
His work has led to fundamental breakthroughs in catalytic materials, in-situ characterisation, green chemistry, hydrothermal processing, ionic liquids and energy materials.
He has translated many of his successes from his laboratory to scale, with his inventions adopted in various industry sectors globally, to enable a circular economy, including (petro) chemical re-processing of (plastic) waste, utilisation of renewable chemicals and energy storage through his emerging battery technology.
Professor Mathai Varghese has made highly influential contributions to the field of geometric analysis, which relates geometric, analytic and algebraic properties of (possibly infinite dimensional) manifolds. Among these are his co-inventions of Fractional Index Theory and Projective Index Theory that have received international recognition for explaining the mystery of the analytic counterpart of the A-hat genus. His recent joint work extending the Fractional Index Theorem to infinite dimensional loop spaces is also of immense significance.
His joint body of work proves the conjecture that fundamental quantization commutes with reduction in the noncompact case. Also seminal is his joint work on twisted analytic torsion, where an analogue of the Cheeger-Muller theorem is proved, establishing the equality by using a new combinatorially-defined twisted torsion. A catalyst for much activity in the area is his joint work formulating the magnetic gap-labelling conjecture, which labels the spectral gaps of certain magnetic Schroedinger operators on Euclidean space. Evidence for the validity of the conjecture is given in 2D, 3D and for principal solenoidal tori in all dimensions, which is itself a breakthrough.
Professor John Church is one of Australia’s leading oceanographers whose theoretical and observational work on the dynamics of the oceans has led to a deep understanding of the physics of recent sea-level change, both globally and for the Australia–Pacific region. He has played a leading role in establishing a consistent and robust record of sea level change—integrating the traditional tide gauge records with satellite radar altimetry data; identifying its temporal as well as regional variability; developing a deep understanding of the processes driving this change; and providing quantitative projections of future change under different climate scenarios that he has been able to observationally test. His work has contributed to the assessments of the science of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change and to the World Climate Research Program, and in the public debate on the evidence and underlying science of climate change.
Professor John Endler is a world leading evolutionary biologist. His research explores the interplay between ecological, behavioural and genetic factors, and how they affect geographic variation and the process of natural selection in natural populations. His contributions are wide ranging and seminal. His scholarly books on how geographical variation can develop despite movement between habitats and his hypothesis of Sensory Drive are classics. The latter proposes that the environment sets the direction of the combined evolution of senses and signals, as well as mate and microhabitat choice behaviour. He pioneered this new interdisciplinary field of sensory ecology. Professor Endler has worked with a variety of species, notably wild guppies and bowerbirds, and topics from population genetics and evolution through behavioural ecology and visual physiology. He defined the properties of bird and other animal eyes to understand visual perception and visual illusions and the importance of colour perception in mating success and sexual selection.
Professor von Caemmerer is the pre-eminent authority on modelling metabolic, physiological, structural and environmental aspects underpinning photosynthetic CO2 fixation in plant leaves. She changed the way we think about photosynthesis and gas exchange in leaves and remains at the forefront of this research. Her ability to combine mathematical modelling with experimental approaches and her progressive exploitation of ever more powerful molecular engineering methods throughout an outstanding career have refined and deepened our understanding of biochemical, physiological and environmental limitations to photosynthesis. Her research from leaf chloroplasts to global models of plant production aimed at enhancing photosynthetic rates in crop plants to increase their yields and adapt to climate change is now applied world-wide.
Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than 100 years ago. After 40 years of sustained experimentation, on 14 September 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected the death spiral of two stellar-mass black holes as the gravitational waves they emitted almost a billion years ago passed through two detectors in the US. Remarkably, the wave moved the mirrors in the 4 km-long detectors by a fractional amount equivalent to 1/1000th of the width of a proton, in so doing verifying one of the most challenging predictions of Einstein’s General Relativity.
Professor David McClelland carried major responsibility as the lead Australian investigator in LIGO and has made major contributions to this famous detector including work on ‘quantum enhancement’ which increased the observable volume of the Universe significantly.
Professor Dawson is a clinician-scientist whose research spans the breadth of basic discovery science to translational medicine and clinical trials. He is internationally renowned as a leader in epigenetics, which is the study of the processes that regulate access to the cell’s DNA template for gene expression, DNA repair or DNA replication. Epigenetic processes are conserved in all animals and plants and underpin normal development, tissue regeneration and ageing. When these processes are corrupted by DNA mutations, diseases such as cancer result. Professor Dawson’s ground-breaking research has provided several novel first-in-class cancer therapies which he has taken from laboratory discovery through to clinical application by leading several international clinical trials as Principal Investigator.
Associate Professor Teng’s research aims to harness the immune system to fight cancer. Her group performed the first preclinical experiments demonstrating that scheduling of immunotherapy before surgery to remove a tumour (called neoadjuvant immunotherapy) was much more effective in eradicating metastatic disease, compared to giving immunotherapy (called adjuvant immunotherapy) after surgery. This seminal finding served as the rationale to set up new comparative trials of neoadjuvant and adjuvant immunotherapy in many human cancer types. Recent neoadjuvant clinical trials of various cancers have verified the translatability of her research.
Professor Moles’ research is to understand the different strategies that plants have evolved to grow in ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to arctic tundra. She was the first to quantify global scale patterns in vital plant traits such as plant height, seed size and defences against herbivores. Her work has also revealed how quickly introduced plant species evolve when they are introduced to a new range with different environmental conditions. One such plant has changed so much since being introduced to Australia in the 1930s that it is becoming a new, reproductively isolated species. She is currently applying her understanding of the ways that environmental conditions shape plant ecological strategies to help understand the likely effects of climate change on Australian ecosystems.
Professor Moles is nationally and internationally regarded as a leader in global scale ecology, and is an outstanding mentor, advocate and role model for women in science.
During the first billion years, the first stars and galaxies formed and died, bathing the Universe in light and evaporating the hydrogen fog that existed beforehand. By using low frequency radio telescopes, Associate Professor Trott hunts for this needle-in-a-haystack signal from the time of the first generation of stars. She has pioneered methods to observe this weak signal and separate it from all of the radio light from other galaxies that formed in the past 12 billion years. Observation of this signal requires advanced knowledge of our telescopes, and painstaking work to collect the thousand hours of clean data required to find it. Trott is a world-leader in the hunt for this exciting, important and fickle signal that will transform our understanding of the Universe.
Dr Flament works at the interface between geodynamics and geology by novel 4D mathematical modelling of flow deep in Earth’s interior. He makes significant contributions to understanding our planet by connecting the evolution of the deep Earth with the evolution of its surface. He shows Earth was largely a water world for the first half of its history with little emerged land, with important implications for the oxidation of the atmosphere and the evolution of early life. He linked the evolution of Earth’s topography, including the Australian landscape and the formation of the Great Dividing Range, to the motion of tectonic plates over Earth’s dynamic interior. He also recently used an innovative synthesis of global geodynamic models with geophysical data to show how the evolution of the deep Earth is dynamic and linked to past configurations of tectonic plates, which is of fundamental importance to understanding the evolution of our planet.
Dr Coulembier’s research is in the field of mathematics known as representation theory, which studies how abstract algebraic structures are manifested as the solutions to concrete systems of linear equations. This field retains a strong connection to its origin as the study of geometric symmetry both discrete and continuous, but more recently has developed far beyond this in tackling curved and infinite-dimensional spaces and arbitrary number systems. One of Dr Coulembier’s most important discoveries was of a way to detect the presence of the classical type of symmetry known as an affine group scheme in a more exotic setting known as a tensor category; this problem had defied the efforts of some of the world’s top mathematicians for almost thirty years. He has also solved several other important problems in infinite-dimensional representation theory, and has discovered new unified proofs of major theorems concerning the invariants of groups and supergroups.
Dr Roshchina is an exceptional mathematician and emerging international leader in the field of non-smooth optimization. Her main interest lies in finite dimensional geometry, more specifically, open problems that originate from continuous optimization and related fields. Some significant problems of this kind are in the geometry of polytopes, for example the polynomial Hirsch and Durer conjectures, critical point problems (Fekete problem, Sendov's conjecture) and convex variational problems, such as asymmetric Newton's aerodynamic problem. Resolution of these challenges is critical for making progress with numerous applications, from engineering and economics to medical research and data analytics.
Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick is a world-renowned expert on heatwaves. She has dedicated her career to studying key features of these high-impact events, including their definition, their observed trends, future changes, underpinning physical drivers, and the role of anthropogenic influence behind observed events. She has also been at the forefront of the emerging field of marine heatwaves.
Associate Professor Eve McDonald-Madden aims to improve sustainable policy decisions in the face of inherent complexity in environmental problems – numerous, diverse interacting species, lack of knowledge about how systems work, the impacts of climate change and competing demands for energy, food, water, health, money and nature. The foundation of her work is to maximise the effectiveness of scarce resources while dealing with deep uncertainties. Associate Professor McDonald-Madden has pioneered new approaches to decision-making for key environmental concerns – deciding how to act under uncertainty about climate change, accounting for the reliability of predictions, evaluating the trade-offs in global land use planning to achieve sustainability goals and knowing when spending money to monitor or to learn about ecological systems is not helpful. Her work has far reaching implications for governments, NGO’s and others who manage the environment.
Associate Professor Marques is an emerging global leader in cardiovascular research, who has shown how more dietary fibre will improve our blood pressure and lower chances of serious disease. Uncontrolled high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can frequently lead to cardiovascular disease, and is the main risk factor for death globally. Yet in too many cases, hypertension is a direct result of our low-fibre, high-sodium Western diet. Through a series of influential and award-winning studies, Associate Professor Marques and her team have shown how gut microbes ferment fibre to create ‘cardio-protective’ molecules, which lower blood pressure and improve heart stiffness.
These findings are important, because they mean we could treat or prevent cardiovascular disease through better diets and improved gut health.
Dr Gayen is highly recognised internationally for his cross-disciplinary research across fluid dynamics, environmental engineering and climate processes by addressing the basic physical mechanisms. His ground-breaking computer simulations of turbulent flow over ocean bottom topography have improved knowledge of the energy cascade from tidal motion to internal gravity waves and subsequent dissipation. He has provided the first turbulence-resolving simulations of the complex ice-ocean boundary layer and ablation of icesheets, leading to a new understanding of the mechanism controlling the submarine melting rates and accurate predictions for the dependence of melting rates on ocean conditions. His research also includes development of the first-ever ocean models with fully resolved turbulent convection and boundary layer processes, which provides important new insights to the role played in global ocean circulation by convection below the sea surface in polar seas.
Associate Professor Debbie Silvester-Dean is a global leader in the field of room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs), a new class of salt-like materials that are liquid at unusually low temperatures. Her research is focussed on their application as superior electrolytes in electrochemical reactions. Specifically, she has developed robust gelled sensor materials containing ionic liquids to detect toxic gases and explosives. These overcome the drawbacks of liquid-based electrolytes and will soon be tested in vehicles used in the WA mining industry. The sensors make people safer at home and work and can be used in various applications, including fumigation, refuelling, exhaust monitoring, and entering confined spaces. Associate Professor Silvester-Dean studies the fundamental behaviour of dissolved materials in RTILs. The results are used worldwide to understand electrochemical reactions, mechanisms, kinetics, and gas behaviour. They inform designs for batteries, capacitors, and transistors, as well providing smart materials for miniaturised, low-cost, high-performing sensors.
Almost every field of science requires sophisticated data analysis, and this in turn requires increasingly sophisticated methods for intelligent data collection and efficient computation. Professor Drovandi's research contributes substantively to both of these areas. He has created new methods for optimal design of experiments that facilitate more cost-effective, data-substantiated decision-making. His innovative research into synthetic likelihood estimation have freed traditional constraints of likelihood-based statistical modelling and computation. His application of these methods to diverse problems in computational biology and exercise science have generated new insights for scientists and managers in these fields.
Dr Scealy’s research focuses predominantly on developing new statistical analysis methods for data with complicated constraints including compositional data (vectors of proportions which sum to one), spherical data, directional data and manifold-valued data defined on more general curved surfaces. Her work has led to important new insights in a diverse range of applications. Her new flexible compositional model was applied to predict the proportions of total weekly expenditure on food and housing costs in Australia. Janice used a manifold data transformation to help identify geochemical processes acting on the surface of the Australian crust. She has developed multiple new statistical techniques for analysing noisy paleomagnetic datasets and her methods have led to improvements in uncertainty measurements of Earth’s magnetic field.
Associate Professor Xiaojing Hao, is a world leader in next-generation kesterite photovoltaics; utilising green (earthabundant, environmentally-friendly) thin-film semiconductor materials to harvest sunlight.
Over the past four years she has led her group in setting four world records for sulfide kesterite solar cell efficiency as confirmed by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Her kesterite solar cell breakthroughs represent major advances in developing high bandgap thin film solar cells that are flexible, stable, cheap and non-toxic, showing clear societal impact as photovoltaics emerge as the front-runner in supplanting fossil fuels.
An individual’s chance of developing a disease or health condition is due to differences in their DNA. These differences mean that some people develop diseases such as diabetes, while other do not. Professor Powell’s research is focused on understanding how these differences in DNA act at the level of individual cells – the building blocks of the human body. Gene expression – the mechanism by which information from DNA is translated into proteins – underscores the genetic risk for most diseases. Gene expression is controlled at an individual cell level, so ideally, analysis of gene expression should be performed using single cells. Professor Powell’s research uses single cell sequencing technology to investigate why diseases arise in different cell types, and how early-stage diseases can be diagnosed and treated by targeting the specific disease driving cell populations.
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.
© 2022 Australian Academy of Science