Outstanding contributions to science have been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science with 22 of Australia’s leading scientists receiving a prestigious honorific award in 2023.
Professor Lidia Morawska’s 30 years of innovative work brings us closer to breathing safely. The fundamental science that she pioneered and advanced in the multifaceted ﬁeld of air pollution is critical for humanity to understand pollution and its impacts, and to build bridges translating science into public health applications. This work laid the foundation for the 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) Global Air Quality Guidelines, which included recommendations on ultraﬁne particles from combustion processes for the ﬁrst time, providing authorities around the globe with the basis to develop regulations to control this major pollutant to improve human health and save lives. Professor Morawska’s seminal work on particles from human respiratory activities became critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, in recognition of the importance of aerosol transmission, and convincing the WHO and national regulatory bodies to review public health policies and practices from schools to workplaces, making these environments safer for more people around the world.
Professor Jenny Graves is an international leader in comparative genomics of vertebrates, arguing that Australian animals are particularly valuable as “independent experiments in evolution”. She exploits the biology of Australian marsupials, monotremes and reptiles to dissect conserved genetic structures and processes, pioneering a comparative approach that has led to many fundamental discoveries. She produced unique data that successfully challenged accepted ideas, leading to new hypotheses about the origin and evolution of human sex chromosomes and sex determining genes. She showed that human sex gene and sex chromosomes evolved quite recently, and the Y chromosome is degrading rapidly and will disappear in a few million years. She made fundamental discoveries about how the X chromosome is genetically silenced in female mammals, showing that genes on the inactive X are not copied into RNA, and that DNA methylation suppresses transcription. She initiated and guided collaborative research on the epigenetic control of environmental sex determination in Australian reptiles.
Professor David Craik discovered a family of plant peptides called cyclotides and is a world leader in defining their structures, functions and applications as ecofriendly pesticides and molecular scaffolds in drug design. He has shown how their unique structure makes them exceptionally stable and resistant to enzymes that would normally degrade peptide-based drugs. The work is significant because peptides are widely regarded as exciting drug leads, potentially safer and more effective than existing classes of drugs. However, previous peptide-based drugs are prone to instability and need to be injected (like insulin) rather than orally ingested. Professor Craik’s work on cyclotides shows how peptides can be stabilised and made more drug-like, thereby unleashing their potential in drug design. The natural function of cyclotides is to protect plants from insects and Professor Craik’s work has led to companies exploring cyclotides as pesticides. A cyclotide-based product, Sero-X, is now an approved eco-friendly pesticide for cotton and vegetable crops.
Professor Richard Hartley has made important and pioneering contributions in the area of computer vision, both theoretical and applied, especially in the mathematical underpinnings of the ﬁeld. He is one of the founders of the research ﬁeld of multiview geometry, which is the technical foundation behind the computation of digital 3D models from sets of images or videos. This technology allows construction of models of cultural or archeological sites, as well as city and anatomical models. It also facilitates robot navigation in complex environments, and production of real (tangible) models of objects through scanning and 3D printing. The goal of his recent research is to provide a theoretical basis for ensuring that the models are correct and accurate. In one of his notable contributions he has identiﬁed the exact conditions under which available data is suﬃcient to allow unambiguous model creation. This work relies on advanced methods of algebraic and projective geometry.
Professor Matthew England is recognised as one of the world’s foremost experts on the ocean’s role in climate, spanning time-scales from seasons to millennia. His ﬁeld of research spans physical oceanography and climate dynamics, where he has written seminal papers on global water-mass formation, ocean-atmosphere-ice interactions, modes of climate variability, and ocean overturning processes. His work has afforded profound insights into the circulation of the Paciﬁc, Indian, and Southern oceans and their role in global and regional climate. He has quantiﬁed the Southern Ocean overturning circulation and its impact on climate, in both present and past climates; he identiﬁed the critical importance of the Southern Annular Mode in driving trends and variability in the coupled ocean – ice – atmosphere system; and he has shed new light on the teleconnections between the tropics and Antarctica.
Professor Terry Hughes has made a superlative and sustained contribution to marine biology and science leadership in Australia and globally. His early research pioneered new understanding of the population dynamics and life histories of corals, and of the ecology of coral reef ecosystems. Among his most signiﬁcant research has been his ground-breaking exploration of the resilience of coral reefs to pollution, overﬁshing and climate change, and on the dynamics of tipping-points and regime-shifts. Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Hughes’s research provides innovative and practical solutions for improving coral reef management and governance. He is also a Highly Cited Researcher with many publications in Science and Nature, and the founding Director and driving force behind the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, providing leadership and mentoring a large team of researchers of all career stages.
Professor Catherine Lovelock is a leading global expert on the impacts of climate change on coastal wetlands and the role of coastal ecosystems in mitigating climate change. Her research demonstrates the important role coastal wetlands (mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass) play in mitigating climate change. Achieved by assimilating atmospheric carbon within living wetland plants, a proportion of this plant material is stored in sediments for long periods of time and is known as blue carbon. Professor Lovelock has been pivotal in driving international research and policy regarding blue carbon,and was instrumental in developing a voluntary blue carbon market in Australia that will play a central role in Australia’s efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change on Australia’s coasts. Professor Lovelock’s research emphasises the important role of coastal wetland plants in accumulating substrates, a process that is particularly important in a changing climate where sea-level rise will increase erosion and inundation frequency along shorelines. Despite this important role, she has cautioned that the capacity of coastal wetlands to adjust to climate change will become increasingly limited throughout this century, unless planning decisions reduce pressures and facilitate landward retreat.
Professor Susan Scott is an internationally recognised mathematical physicist who has made fundamental advances in our understanding of the fabric of space-time in general relativity, and in gravitational wave science. Her ground-breaking discoveries probe the existence and nature of singularities and the global structure of space-time, and possible initial and final end states for cosmological models representing our Universe. Professor Scott has also been a pioneer in the analysis of astrophysical signatures in gravitational wave experiments, including the searches for gravitational waves from asymmetric neutron stars and from inspiralling binary systems of black holes and neutron stars. She has played an important role in the development and promotion of gravitational research worldwide, and a leading role in Australia’s participation in the first direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015.
Technological, biological, social and logistical networks are a ubiquitous feature of modern life. Professor Nick Wormald is a world leader in the ﬁeld of random graph theory, which combines advanced probability theory, combinatorics and theoretical computer science to produce deep insights into the nature of such large and complex networks. The mathematics that he produces leads to greater understanding of the structure of real-world networks and to new methods for modelling them. This in turn leads to versatile tools of widespread use in algorithmic computer science and network optimisation, with other applications in physics, coding theory for communications, underground mine design and genetics. Professor Wormald is responsible for an impressive number of major breakthroughs in these areas and several standard methods used today were his invention.
Professor Yu is an immunologist whose research focuses on the function of T cells. He is internationally renowned as a leader in follicular helper T cells, a specialised subset of T cells that essentially control B cells to produce antibodies. His landmark discoveries reveal the key molecules (transcription factors and post-transcriptional regulators) and pathways (differentiation and cell death) for T cell function in health and diseases. Based on his fundamental research breakthrough, he partnered with physician-scientists and led clinical research on lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, allergic rhinitis, inﬂuenza and HIV infections, which have enabled new and improved diagnoses and therapies for autoimmune, allergic and infectious diseases, and the improvement of human vaccine eﬃcacy.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers responsible for cellular communication in the brain, a fundamental process that underlies everything we do including moving, thinking, reading and speaking. Professor Renae Ryan’s research focuses on neurotransmitter transporters – nanoscale vacuum cleaners that suck chemical messengers back into cells after they have sent their message on. In diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and stroke these vacuum cleaners can break down, leading to confusion in cellular communication and, ultimately, cell death. Her internationally recognised research has revealed the molecular architecture and choreography of these miniature vacuum cleaners, allowing us to start to understand why they stop working in disease states, and providing the basis for the development of new medications to treat brain disease. Professor Ryan is a globally respected leader and advocate for gender equity, diversity and inclusion, and a sought-after supervisor, mentor and role model for women in science.
Dr Teresa Ubide studies volcanoes by looking at the crystals in previously erupted volcanic rocks. Using the chemistry of the tiny crystals she can decipher the inner workings of volcano plumbing systems and what triggers volcanic eruptions. The aim of this research is to ultimately forecast future eruptions. The research is of utmost importance to millions of people living close to, or visiting, active volcanoes around the world. Her research also explores the link between volcanoes and critical metals that are essential for the development of renewable energy technology, such as wind and solar energy. Dr Ubide loves to communicate her science and was part of the Superstars of STEM program, and has given national and international talks and media interviews about her work on volcanoes.
Dr Valentina Wheeler is a geometric analyst who has made major contributions to the ﬁeld of elliptic and parabolic partial differential equations. In particular, her work focusses on geometric ﬂows called curvature ﬂows. These describe the movement and/or evolution of a curve or surface through space and time via continuous geometric deformation determined by curvature. Valentina’s contributions include resolutions of open conjectures regarding partition problems and existence of minimal hypersurfaces; completely novel types of singularities for curvature ﬂows; the ﬁrst global analysis of the Helfrich functional; and a powerful new Harnack convergence argument for fully nonlinear curvature ﬂows with non-smooth speed. Her results include direct applications to real-world problems including modelling for the blood disease spherocytosis, behaviour of other biological membranes, and motion and evolution of merging ﬁre fronts.
Discovering what makes a mineral, investigating how minerals form in systems as diverse as coral reefs and the human body, and how they interact with various chemicals, is the focus of Dr Raffaella Demichelis’s research. Her team’s work involves using supercomputers to model the atomic structure, crystal growth and chemical reactivity of different types of minerals. She has led landmark research that opened new perspectives in the ﬁelds of chemistry, geochemistry and mineralogy, providing quantitative evidence in favour of non-classical nucleation theory and a solution for numerous debated mineral structures. Harnessing and mimicking the rich chemistry observed in nature offers insights into, among other things, the mechanics of carbon-dioxide sequestration and coral reef preservation, how kidney stones form, and how to control scale formation in industry. Dr Demichelis also contributes to the development of computational tools that are now used in academic and non-academic laboratories conducting research in the ﬁelds of chemistry and Earth science worldwide. She also volunteers a considerable amount of her time to inclusion and diversity causes, advocating for accessible and sustainable research careers, and to science outreach.
Associate Professor Emily Wong’s work contributes to our understanding of an overarching question in genetics – how does the genome specify animal form and function. This is a complex problem because, unlike genes that encode proteins, gene regulatory elements cannot be easily deﬁned based on comparative analysis of their DNA sequence alone. The elements that make up these regions remain unclear despite our ability to sequence genomes and map active regions that control gene expression. Associate Professor Wong has used systems biology approaches combining evolutionary, computational and molecular biology skills to interrogate how the non-coding genome determines cell identity. Her work has provided detailed understanding of the complex relationships between the genome and gene activity, including insights into how cis-regulatory elements evolve, and the non-linear relationship between genetic variations and their impact on chromatin structure and gene expression.
Professor Si Ming Man’s work has significantly advanced our understanding of inflammation as an underlying mechanism of health and disease. His achievements are focused in three areas: (1) Identifying the parts of microbes that cause inflammation during infection and the molecules in our immune system that trigger this response. This work may lead to targeted treatments for diseases caused by too much inflammation, for example sepsis, food poisoning and gout. (2) Uncovering previously unknown molecules made by our bodies that directly attack microbes and working out if these can be turned into treatments that will work against bacteria, including those that are resistant to current antibiotics. (3) He discovered that some of the same molecules used by our immune system to detect and respond to microbes by initiating inflammation are also important in preventing cancer. This discovery might be useful in diagnosis or predicting outcomes in cancer or may offer clues to cancer prevention.
Humans have had glass technology since ancient Egyptian times, yet understanding the nature and structure of glass remains a grand scientific challenge. Glasses are materials that retain the disordered structure of liquid when they solidify during fast quenching from the melt. Fundamentally, it is not known why glasses are solid. When crystals solidify from the melt, their rigidity is linked to the symmetry of their atomic arrangements. In contrast, for a glass, the transition to a solid phase is not signalled by any obvious new order. Dr Amelia Liu’s research addresses the central conundrum of the ‘glass problem’ with the development of new experimental tools to measure the structure of glass. In her most recent work, she demonstrated that even in globally disordered glass structures, there is a strong link between local structural symmetry and rigidity. This work illuminates the atomic-scale causes of ageing and brittle failure in glasses. Dr Liu’s new characterisation methods are a step towards engineering the properties of glasses from the atomic level.
Associate Professor Rona Chandrawati is internationally recognised as an emerging leader in the ﬁelds of nanosensors and nanoparticle-based drug delivery. She has achieved world-class – and frequently ﬁrst in world – research results in the synthesis and development of colourimetric nanosensors and nanozymes for nitric oxide delivery. As the country’s leading researcher in colourimetric polymer sensor technology, her patent-pending nanosensors have enabled the detection of target analytes without the need for specialised equipment; indeed, her colourimetric nanosensors are highly sensitive, with quantitative and qualitative results able to be determined based on colour changes visible to the naked eye. These have been used to monitor food spoilage and contamination, contributing to reducing the nation’s $10 billion worth of edible food waste each year. Furthermore, her synthesis of nanoparticles and nanozymes for nitric oxide delivery have signiﬁcant therapeutic implications, particularly for the treatment of glaucoma – a condition affecting 1-in-10 Australians.
Green solutions are urgently needed to harvest, store and utilise renewable energy sources. The effects of climate change and energy shortages have become an urgent issue for our society. Non-sustainable human activities, such as the overuse of fossil fuels, have affected the environment in an irrecoverable way. Professor Tianyi Ma’s research addresses these issues using a function-directed materials fabrication involving rich surface chemistry and delicate nano-architecture; the materials are used for key energy-related catalytic reactions leading to eﬃcient renewable solar energy, electricity, and chemical energy conversion. Lab-scale catalytic reactions of kilogram-scale hydrogen, methane, ethanol and other value-added chemical production have successfully been driven by pure renewable energy; this can be up-scaled to industry-level demonstrations and pilot plants. Professor Ma’s numerous novel initiatives have led to scientiﬁc breakthroughs positively impacting society by enabling alternatives for industry to move towards renewable energy sources.
A web of complex models underpins modern life. Models are used to predict traﬃc patterns, help control invasive pest populations and mitigate the spread of disease. These models are driven by unknown quantities, and so statistical inference is used to quantify and understand these unknowns, with Bayesian statistical inference methods often applied in such settings due to their interpretability. However, in many cases the underlying models and data are so complex as to render standard Bayesian methods intractable. In such cases, the best we can hope to do is perform statistical inference using ‘approximate’ Bayesian methods, which seek to deliver tractable Bayesian inferences in challenging modeling settings. Much of Associate Professor David Frazier’s research has focused on establishing the statistical behaviour of approximate Bayesian methods in a wide variety of contexts, including approximate Bayesian computation, Bayesian synthetic likelihood, and variational Bayes methods. The overarching goal of his work is to ensure practitioners can reliably apply these approximation methods to derive meaningful inferences, make reliable decisions and obtain reproducible results.
Working at the interface of theoretical statistics, computational statistics and data-driven applied ﬁelds, Dr Rachel Wang has pursued a diverse research trajectory emphasising both rigorous theoretical development and practical relevance to interdisciplinary scientiﬁc problems. She has made contributions to statistical inference problems in network models, enabling model selection and parameter tuning to be performed with provable guarantees. Her theoretical work on local convergence issues in variational approximation and scalable MCMC has led to a deeper understanding of how algorithms navigate a high dimensional, non-convex landscape, addressing a prevalent problem in all large-scale machine learning tasks. Leveraging her expertise in theory and computation, she has developed novel statistical and computational tools for extracting new biological knowledge from genomics data, seeking to improve our understanding of gene regulatory mechanisms and the inner workings of cells.
Modern information technologies are increasingly focused on the development of integrated opto-electronic devices with compact footprints and integrated functionalities. Key in the downscaling of integrated opto-electronic devices to the nanometre scale has been ultra-thin, two-dimensional (2D) ‘quantum’ materials. Professor Yuerui Lu’s team at ANU has developed new types of atomically thin 2D materials and devices with peculiar optical and electronic properties, enabling new applications in electronics, photonics and space. These novel materials facilitate devices that are significantly smaller, less massive, and require much lower power to operate. His discovery could introduce new materials and devices in applications ranging from smaller and fast-speed 3D cameras for future smartphones, and low-weight and high-quality satellite electronics – making future space missions more accessible and cheaper to launch. His work was chosen by the Australian Research Council (ARC) to be a national highlight in 2020.
Central to the purpose of the Academy is the recognition and support of outstanding contributions to the advancement of science.
The 2024 awards are now open. Find out more about these and other Academy awards and funding schemes.
Read the Academy’s media release announcing the 2023 honorific awardees.
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