Outstanding contributions to science have been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science with 20 of Australia’s leading scientists receiving a 2022 honorific award.
Professor Steve Simpson has revolutionised the scientific understanding of swarming in locusts, with research spanning neurochemical events in the brains of individual locusts to continental-scale mass migration. Professor Simpson, with colleague David Raubenheimer, has also developed a powerfully integrative framework for nutrition called the Geometric Framework, which he devised and tested using insects. The Framework has since been applied to a wide range of organisms, from slime moulds to humans, and to problems from aquaculture and conservation biology, to dietary causes of human obesity and ageing. Since 2012, Professor Simpson has applied his biological and biomedical research and knowledge to ease the burden of chronic disease in humans through a unique, cross-disciplinary initiative at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
Dr Liz Dennis is a distinguished plant molecular biology researcher. She has addressed important basic questions in plant development, vernalisation-induced flowering and the increased yield of hybrid varieties. A feature of her research is that she has worked with Arabidopsis, a plant favoured in laboratory research, and then transferred her discoveries to crop plants. This has been a powerful strategy. Her analysis of the basis of hybrid vigour has been outstanding in Arabidopsis and subsequently in rice. The development of hybrid mimics in rice has removed the first-generation limit for hybrids and facilitates a continuity of high food grain production. The development of high yielding mimic varieties can be expected in many other crops.
Professor Christopher Barner-Kowollik’s work fuses the in-depth understanding of chemical processes that are induced by light with their use to prepare soft matter materials, with applications from 3D printing inks to photodynamic materials. His main body of work – based on an esteemed career in physical-organic chemistry – exploits light as a ‘molecular surgical tool’, where its colour and intensity are finely adjustable gates to ‘operate’ on the molecular structure of materials with unprecedented precision. This precision gives rise to materials whose mechanical strength and chemical composition can be readily adjusted without bringing them in contact with chemicals or heat. Professor Barner-Kowollik’s work has enabled new materials concepts, for example a material that is solely stabilised by light, so-called ‘light stabilised dynamic materials’.
Dr Kathy Ehrig is renowned for her insights into the complex geological events involved in the formation of the supergiant copper-uranium-gold-silver Olympic Dam ore deposit. Her leadership in this research has attracted global attention because her advances may contribute to further discoveries elsewhere. She has created highly innovative solutions in characterising in situ ore properties and predicting metal extraction in advance of mining, primarily in the context of the Olympic Dam mine. These solutions are based on her profound knowledge and understanding of mineral assemblages and have proven to be highly robust and transferable to other mines, thereby having a crucially positive impact on productivity. The foundation of her achievements has been her ability to integrate diverse datasets through harnessing cutting-edge research methods and novel approaches. Dr Ehrig’s diligence, enthusiasm and dedication to the pursuit of science combine to make her an exceptional research leader.
For over 50 years, Professor Richard Henley has been a leader in the development of understanding of how economic deposits of metals, especially copper and gold, were formed within large-scale hydrothermal systems in volcanoes and mountain belts. The fundamentals that he derived have provided the basis of exploration for epithermal through to orogenic gold deposits, the practical chemistry of fluids in active geothermal systems and many follow-up research programs around the world. He has been acknowledged for his direct contribution to a number of major discoveries including the giant Ladolam Au (Lihir Island, Papua New Guinea) and the Onto Cu-Au (Hu’u, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia) deposits. In the last few years, he has led the recognition of high temperature magmatic gas reactions with rock forming minerals as the principal control on the generation of porphyry copper deposits. He is currently focused on application of X-ray micro CT scanning to derive new and detailed understanding of water-rock interaction chemistry and the properties of rock materials.
Professor Tim Senden is a physical chemist whose pioneering research has provided new understanding of surface phenomena at the nanoscale, developing methods to quantify colloidal and molecular forces. For two decades, he was involved in the development of novel applications of radioactive nanoparticles for clinical use, which received strong commercial sponsorship leading to clinical trials. From the 2000s, Professor Senden was part of a major translational activity that continues to develop a novel imaging and analysis platform based on X-ray microtomography, leading to new insights into complex granular and porous materials. This activity has greatly enhanced applications in topics spanning papermaking, carbon sequestration, composites, and mineral and hydrocarbon extraction. Following an industry consortium of 23 energy companies, Lithicon was spun-off and became one of the most successful ANU companies.
Professor Andrew Roberts has made fundamentally important contributions to understanding the magnetisation of sediments, which provides the basis for use of paleomagnetism to reconstruct global plate tectonic movements and to understand variations in Earth’s magnetic field through its history. His work influences all aspects of understanding sedimentary magnetisation acquisition, and has particularly contributed to recognising that the previously poorly-known magnetic mineral greigite, and magnetic minerals produced by magnetotactic bacteria, make important contributions to the magnetisation of globally distributed sedimentary rocks. He is an international leader in the field of environmental magnetic analyses of climate change, and has developed new methods in rock magnetism that are used widely in solid state physics, materials science, the magnetic recording industry, and Earth science. His work in environmental magnetism has made significant contributions to understanding African monsoon dynamics, sea level variations, and Arctic and Antarctic glacial history.
Professor Georgia Chenevix-Trench is a cancer geneticist, interested in both inherited and acquired genetic variants that contribute to the risk and development of cancer. Her main focus is on breast and ovarian cancer, but she has also made major contributions to inherited skin and gastric cancers. In the last 15 years, her main focus has been on genome-wide association studies to identify inherited genetic variants associated with cancer risk. These have identified over 200 regions of the genome associated with breast cancer risk. This information is currently being used in international clinical trials to stratify women for breast screening, but has also transformed our understanding of the biological basis of breast cancer. Professor Chenevix-Trench’s main focus now is to identify the relevant susceptibility genes in those 200 regions, to determine how they contribute to breast cancer risk, and whether this information can be used to treat breast cancer, or even to prevent it.
Professor Rebecca Guy is a renowned international authority in the implementation and evaluation of public health interventions related to HIV and sexually transmissible infections (STIs), particularly among vulnerable populations. Among her many achievements to date, she has introduced STI and COVID-19 point-of-care testing in remote Aboriginal communities and led the evaluation of HIV point-of-care tests that can be conducted by people in their own home (HIV self-tests). Serving as Head of the Surveillance Evaluation and Research Program at The Kirby Institute, as well as leader of both the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in the Accelerated Implementation of New Point-of-Care Technology for Infectious Diseases and the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub to Combat Antimicrobial Resistance, Professor Guy’s research has been highly inﬂuential on policy and practice, both in Australia and internationally.
Our continual need for cheap energy presents major challenges. Professor Vanessa Peterson’s game-changing research into the fundamental working mechanisms of energy materials is helping to solve these global challenges. Professor Peterson’s signiﬁcant research targets functional materials at the heart of energy technology such as batteries, fuel cells and materials for the separation and storage of energy relevant gases including hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Vanessa has pioneered methods to understand the atomic level function of materials, revealing in unprecedented detail how the arrangement and motions of atoms can be harnessed to make new and better sustainable-energy devices. Her work has led to discoveries that push the frontier of our understanding of energy materials, helping to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions and develop sustainable clean-energy systems. Professor Peterson is an internationally-regarded leader in materials characterisation, specialising in neutron scattering methods, and is an outstanding mentor, advocate and role model for women in science.
Understanding of the sources, transport and fate of trace atmospheric species is crucial for the development of evidence-based policies for the management of air pollution and to evaluate their contribution to future climate scenarios. Associate Professor Jenny Fisher’s research leads international efforts to model the atmospheric concentrations and transport of these species and to predict their response to future emissions and environmental change, and to quantitatively evaluate impacts of Australian and global environmental policies. The species include mercury, a neurotoxin that is distributed globally through the atmosphere. In recognition of its adverse effects, mercury is now regulated by the UN Minamata Convention on Mercury. Her work also provides new and crucial information on biogenic emissions and atmospheric chemistry of trace species from vegetation which play important roles in air pollutant formation.
Dr Francis Hui’s research focuses on the development of innovative, fast approaches for the statistical analysis of big data, particularly when many correlated variables are collected in space and/or time to produce richly correlated data. He has made substantial contributions to the literature on efficient approximate methods for ﬁtting multi-level models, techniques for data visualisation of many variables and scalable tools for ﬂexibly ﬁtting non-linear models and for selecting which predictors to include in complex correlated data settings. Dr Hui works at the interface between methodological and applied statistics, ensuring that his research has an immediate and substantial impact on the wider scientiﬁc community. His research has been particularly impactful in ecology, where his methods and software are applied by practitioners to project spatio-temporal change of species assemblages under climate change scenarios and for enhancing the understanding of terrestrial and marine ecosystems both across Australia and internationally.
Australia’s per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are among the world’s highest and the recent drought and bushﬁre crises clearly illustrate our vulnerability to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Although carbon dioxide geo-storage in deep coal seams can play a vital role in emission reduction, conversion of CO2 into a highly chemically reactive “supercritical CO2 (scCO2)” at such deep depths causes unpredictable CO2 ﬂow behaviours in coal seams while modifying its’ flow and mechanical properties. Dr Samintha Perera discovered the unique interaction between the coal mass and scCO2 and the resulting impacts on underground applications. According to her ﬁndings, all these unique scCO2 behaviours in coal seams are caused by the signiﬁcant coal matrix swelling resulted from the coal-scCO2 interaction. Regardless of that, she found the effectiveness of scCO2 as a fracking ﬂuid for coal reservoirs, which gave a great value to this problematic scCO2 as a reservoir stimulation agent.
Associate Professor Chris Greening’s remarkable discovery that bacteria can live on air has redefined what constitutes life. When bacteria exhaust organic energy sources, they can survive indefinitely by scavenging the unlimited supply of hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas present in the atmosphere. This survival mechanism has broad-reaching consequences for global biodiversity, infectious disease, climate change and public health research. Chris has revealed it supports the biodiversity of life’s soils and oceans, regulates greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and enhances agricultural productivity. He has also shown that these gas-eating bacteria provide a basis for life in continental Antarctica, where conditions are too extreme for plants to prosper. Yet similar survival mechanisms are also used by devastating human pathogens, including causative agents of tuberculosis and dysentery. By integrating his One Health microbiology laboratory with large-scale applied programs, Professor Greening is translating these fundamental insights into applied interventions that improve environmental and human health.
Professor Kerrylee Rogers has made an internationally significant contribution to one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: the impact of climate change on the world’s most threatened and ecologically important habitat, wetlands. Her work has demonstrated that coastal wetlands (mangrove and saltmarsh) respond dynamically to sea-level rise. By trapping sediment and building root systems, wetlands adapt to climate change but also help mitigate climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide. Professor Rogers has used these insights to show that the restoration of coastal wetlands is an effective climate change adaptation strategy that can yield financial benefits to landholders. Carbon captured through wetland restoration can be reported by governments as saved emissions and traded by landholders in emissions trading programs. These insights have been effectively communicated through management and policy-focused papers, presentations and expert advice.
All cellular organisms exchange information with their environment in the form of chemical molecules or light, electrical or physical stimuli. G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are primary information sensors at the cell surface and are major drug targets for a multitude of conditions. Dr Glukhova is using structural biology approaches to understand the biology of GPCRs and, specifically, how these receptors recognise chemical signals and how they transmit these signals inside the cell. Her research provided the first structural insights into the activation mechanism of the A1 adenosine receptor, a target for pain management and heart disease, opening possibilities for structure-based drug design. Her current work, in collaboration with researchers from Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, aims to understand the biology of other members of adenosine receptor family and identify novel mechanisms for targeting them, either through unconventional binding sites or by altering their signalling path. The current research in her lab at WEHI (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) is focused on understanding the structural basis of Wnt signalling that involves a different GPCR family that is a major target for cancer therapeutics.
Associate Professor Annan Zhou has made seminal contributions to the understanding and modelling of the fundamental hydromechanical behaviour of unsaturated soils. Any soil can be unsaturated with water due to either evaporation or engineering processes like excavation. Unsaturated soils have been widely blamed for many geotechnical problems like slope failures, dam collapses, pavement cracking and foundation failures since they may produce large deformation and even suddenly lose their strength in wetting events. Associate Professor Zhou has established a new modelling framework to tackle the most fundamental issues in unsaturated soil mechanics. Within this framework, many unanswered questions and seemingly conﬂicting behaviours related to strength, deformation, soil-water interaction of unsaturated soils can be reasonably explained and effectively modelled. Based on the novel constitutive modelling framework and robust numerical techniques, he has developed advanced numerical tools for better design and assessment of infrastructure involving unsaturated soils in Australia and worldwide.
Dr Hong develops chemical probes to detect dysfunctional cells. Proteins are the major component of cells in the human body and are essential for the maintenance of many of its functions. When the protein quality control process in the cell factory fails, the ensuing proteins that are not folded properly can not only lose their original functions, but also damage the cells. At worst this can lead to conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. With the aid of her chemical probes, Yuning studies how these proteins are generated and how they damage healthy cells. Her goal is to develop tests for the early diagnosis of, and treatments for, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr Keith Bannister is an exceptional scientist who has led several projects at the forefront of radio astronomy, especially in the area of fast radio burst (FRB) research. His great strength is that he has a deep understanding of both astronomy and radio-science engineering. These qualities enable him to envisage novel and powerful techniques to advance key science goals, to bring systems based on these techniques to fruition, and then to harvest the scientific returns. By exploiting the unique wide-field capabilities of CSIRO's ASKAP radio telescope, Dr Bannister and his team doubled the number of FRBs known at the time. He then went on to devise and implement a scheme to determine their precise sky positions, thereby identifying their source location in distant galaxies. These results provided vital clues on FRBs’ astrophysical origin and also identified the location of 50 per cent of the missing baryons in the universe.
Dr Yengo has developed novel theory and statistical analysis methods and applied those to 'big data' in human genomics to address questions about the causes and consequences of human behaviour. He has discovered thousands of DNA variants that are associated with human traits and showed that the pattern of those variants in the human genome are in part the consequence of people seeking partners who are like themselves, in terms of, for example, height and the level of education. This is direct evidence that human behaviour has an effect on the human genome in subsequent generations. In addition, Dr Yengo has developed better analysis methods to study the effect of homozygosity in the human genome and has shown that the larger the proportion of a person’s genome that is homozygous, the more detrimental effects it has on traits that are associated with disease.
Central to the purpose of the Academy is the recognition and support of outstanding contributions to the advancement of science.
© 2023 Australian Academy of Science