2017 Category Prizewinners

Recipients of the 2017 NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering. Pictured (L-R): Professor Maria Kavallaris; Associate Professor Sarah Johnson; Mr Brett Mckay; Professor Gordon Wallace AO; Dr Wayne O'Connor; Mrs Linda Hurley; His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret'd), Governor of NSW; Professor Trevor McDougall; The Honourable Gladys Berejiklian MP, Premier of NSW; The Honourable Richard Colless MLC,  Parliamentary Secretary for Natural Resources and Western NSW; Professor Edward Holmes; Professor Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist & Engineer; Professor Sally Dunwoodie; Dr Brett Hallam; and Dr Susan Hua.

Excellence in Mathematics, Earth Sciences, Chemistry and Physics

Winner: Professor Trevor McDougall FAA, FRS
UNSW Sydney

Laureate Professor Trevor McDougall is an internationally renowned researcher whose discoveries have influenced our understanding of ocean dynamics and their key role in climate. Working at the juncture of applied mathematics and oceanic modelling, Trevor’s discoveries in ocean mixing processes and temperature and salinity variables have greatly improved ocean climate models and changed the way oceanographic data are analysed.  

Over the past five years, Trevor has developed a more robust and 20 per cent faster version of the universally used Newton’s Method, with this discovery being extensively applied to a broad range of minimisation problems in varied mathematical applications. Crucially, his recent work has also forced a major rethink of how the deep ocean moves, and how this impacts our understanding of future ocean change.

In early 2012 Trevor was appointed a professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales, where he is now Scientia Professor and ARC Laureate Fellow. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, CSIRO and the Australian Academy of Science. His work has been recognised with the Academy of Science’s 2015 Jaeger Medal, and in 2011 he was the first Australian to win the Prince Albert I Medal awarded by the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans. In 2009 he was awarded the Anton Bruun Medal by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Excellence in Biological Sciences
(Ecology, environmental, agricultural and organismal)

Winner: Professor Edward Holmes FAA, FRS
The University of Sydney

Professor Edward Holmes’ research focuses on the emergence, evolution and spread of RNA viruses, with special emphasis on revealing the genetic and epidemiological processes that underpin viral emergence, the molecular epidemiology of important human and animal pathogens, understanding the nature of global virus diversity, and the major mechanisms of virus evolution.

Eddie’s pioneering use of phylogenetic methods to understand viral evolution and spread gave rise to a new branch of population biology, ‘phylodynamics’, that has greatly improved our ability to predict and control infectious diseases. ln human health, he is recognised for revealing the origin and evolution of many important viral infections including influenza, dengue and Ebola. He has demonstrated how viruses evolve resistance to antiviral therapy and, in the case of influenza, why these viruses preferentially spread in particular regions. His insights enable predictions of disease outbreaks and allow intervention strategies to be optimally deployed, benefiting the NSW public health system, and provide a way for NSW farmers to rationally mitigate against the risk of vector-borne viruses affecting cattle.

Eddie is an NHMRC Australia Fellow at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney, with concurrent professorial appointments in the School of Life & Environmental Sciences and Sydney Medical School.

In 2003 he was awarded the Scientific Medal by the Zoological Society of London, in 2008 became a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences USA and in 2010 won the Faculty Scholars Medal in the Life and Health Sciences at Penn State. He will start an ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship in 2018 and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In 2017 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Excellence in Medical Biological Sciences
(Cell and molecular, medical, veterinary and genetics)

Winner: Professor Sally Dunwoodie
Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

Professor Sally Dunwoodie is a leading researcher in the discovery of the genetic and environmental causes of birth defects. Sally is using whole genome sequencing and sophisticated bioinformatics to identify the genetic causes of birth defects, and her insights into how environmental factors impact on gene activity in the embryo are foundational. Her discoveries have led to new genetic diagnostics and show the way to a future where birth defects might be prevented.

Over the past five years, Sally has made groundbreaking discoveries that have greatly changed our understanding of how birth defects occur and may be prevented. In addition to having identified all the genes known to cause vertebral defects in babies, she showed that one gene (TBX6) is the cause of 10 per cent of congenital scoliosis cases. Recently Sally discovered that deficiency in Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) in humans and mice causes birth defects and recurrent miscarriages. She showed in mice that overcoming the deficiency with a niacin/vitamin B3 supplement can prevent these defects and miscarriages.

Sally is Head of the Embryology Laboratory and the Chain Reaction Program in Congenital Heart Disease Research at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, and Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales. She was appointed to the International Rare Disease Research Consortium Task Force, founded the International Consortium for Vertebral Anomalies and Scoliosis, and established the largest research program identifying the causes of congenital heart disease in Australia.

Excellence in Engineering and ICT

Winner: Associate Professor Sarah Johnson
University of Newcastle

In a digital age where information privacy is key, Associate Professor Sarah Johnson is working hard to keep business, government, defence and your private information secure. The basis of Sarah’s research is digital information and digital signals processing. She has developed an international profile in error correction codes, which are essential to establishing and maintaining secure and reliable transmission of data, which improve the reliability and quality of digital technologies such as television, mobile phones and the Internet.

Sarah’s fundamental contribution to secure information communication systems has demonstrated national and international impact, in both theory and end-user applications. Her works in Low Density Parity Check Codes have significant implications for communications reliability, utilisation and simplified implementation.

In addition to making fundamental discoveries, Sarah actively engages with industry, most significantly collaborating with Quintessence Laboratories to develop ultra-secure quantum key-enabled communication. This aims to produce data communications systems with guaranteed security properties based on quantum technology. She is also extensively engaged in applying digital signal processing in the field of biomedical engineering, with a focus on developing new technologies to improve the brain’s recovery following injury or disease. Sarah is currently working on new sensor-enhanced motor-learning technology to assist during recovery from stroke.

Sarah is an electrical engineer and Associate Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computing at the University of Newcastle. She has been awarded a CSIRO postgraduate scholarship, an Australian Research Council Postgraduate Research Fellowship and an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. Sarah is the co-founder of HunterWiSE, a group dedicated to promoting and supporting girls and women in STEM.

Energy Innovation in NSW

Winner: Dr Brett Hallam
UNSW Sydney

Dr Brett Hallam’s research focuses on developing techniques for manipulating the charge state of atomic hydrogen in silicon to neutralise performance-limiting defects in solar cells. He has developed a novel approach to eliminating light-induced degradation in solar cells which can instantly improve performance by 10 per cent while being suitable for mass production.

Brett’s research interests include laser, metallisation and passivation processes for high-efficiency silicon solar cells. He has also further developed laser doping and advanced hydrogenation processes for silicon solar cells. Brett has managed multiple international collaborations with industrial solar-cell manufacturers and research institutes, achieving world-record silicon solar cell efficiencies. As a consultant for Suntech Power, Brett developed the innovative Pluto technology, and was part of the team which fabricated the world's first commercial p-type Cz silicon solar cell with an efficiency greater than 20 per cent. Through the fast-tracked translation of cutting-edge research, Brett’s work is resulting in a significant increase in the electrical output of solar panels which will lead to cheaper photovoltaic-generated electricity.

Brett is a 2017 ARC DECRA Fellow of Photovoltaic Engineering and Research Director for Advanced Hydrogenation at the University of New South Wales. Brett has received a number of international awards for this work including the 2016 Green Talent Award and the 2016 Ulrich Gösele Young Scientist Award for his contributions to sustainable development and photovoltaics. This year he was ranked in the top four recipients of ARC DECRA Fellowships and received the 2017 J.G. Russell Award from the Australian Academy of Science.

NSW Early Career Researcher of the Year

Winner: Dr Susan Hua
University of Newcastle

Dr Susan Hua works in the field of therapeutic targeting and nanotechnology-driven drug delivery. She applies this to highly specific medical interventions, designing digitally precise transport modules for pharmaceutical substances used in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. Susan’s work with nanotechnology is making existing and new medicines work better, with fewer side effects and toxicity.

Having independently established the first translational nanopharmaceutics laboratory in the Hunter region, Susan has built strong research collaborations both nationally and internationally. Among her outcomes are nanomedicines targeting reproductive pathologies, generating novel IP for the design and manufacture of the world’s first targeted drug delivery system to the uterus to improve obstetric complications. Susan has also developed new delivery models for drugs that target inflammatory cells in the gut, and novel treatments for pain – likely to help the lives of countless patients.

Susan is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy, and the group leader of the Therapeutic Targeting research program at the University of Newcastle. She is the recipient of the 2016 NSW Young Tall Poppy Science Award, 2016 Newcastle Innovation’s Excellence in Innovation Award and 2015 Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Early Career Researcher of the Year Award.

Leadership in Innovation in NSW

Winner: Professor Maria Kavallaris FAHMS
UNSW Sydney and Children’s Cancer Institute

Professor Maria Kavallaris is internationally recognised as an authority in cancer biology research and therapeutics, her research having identified clinically important mechanisms of resistance to cancer therapies. She has made seminal contributions in the
understanding of both the actions of anti-cancer agents and how resistance is developed against them. Her studies have identified how some tumours can grow and spread in the body and she has applied this knowledge to develop effective and less toxic cancer therapies, particularly beneficial in treating childhood cancers where safer therapies are desperately needed. Maria has combined her knowledge of cancer with an innovative multidisciplinary approach to develop these therapies using nanotechnology.

A key recent example is Maria’s gene-silencing nanoparticle delivery system targeting pancreatic cancer, which draws together medicine, engineering and science to develop and deliver therapeutic solutions. Her studies on the skeleton of cells or ‘cytoskeletons’ revealed new ways proteins control tumour growth, cancer cell survival and metastasis. She has subsequently discovered new protein interactions in cancer and the development of targeted improved cancer therapies which cause less toxicity to the patient. Importantly, her discoveries have also led to patents as well as industry and clinical linkages in NSW for the
development of cancer therapeutics and devices.

Maria is Head of the Tumour Biology and Targeting Program at the Children’s Cancer Institute and Founding Director of the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine at the University of New South Wales. She is a National Health and Medical Research Council Principal Research Fellow and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. She is also a Life Member and past-President of the Australian Society for Medical Research. Recognition of Maria’s leadership in innovation is reflected by being named among the 2015 AFR/Westpac 100 Women of Influence (Innovation category) and as one of the inaugural Knowledge Nation 100. Maria’s work has been recognised via a prestigious American Association for Cancer Research Award and an Australian Museum Eureka Prize.

Innovation in NSW Public Sector Science and Engineering

Winner: Dr Wayne O’Connor
NSW Department of Primary Industries

Dr Wayne O’Connor has 30 years’ experience with NSW Fisheries promoting and supporting the development of NSW aquaculture. His research has established commercial propagation techniques for a range of shellfish species including edible and pearl oysters, and Wayne has developed selective breeding technologies to improve oyster growth and survival. This work has now expanded to the development of marine fish farming in NSW and is ensuring the continued availability of these commercially and ecologically crucial resources in the future.

Wayne’s research with oysters has underpinned our understanding of disease processes in oysters and is being used to develop new genetic selection approaches. The oyster breeding program he has established and extended to industry is world-leading in producing disease-resistant, faster growing stock. He has produced ocean acidification-resistant oysters that are set to ‘climate-proof’ the industry into the future.

A new focus for his team is to support the re-establishment of natural oyster reefs in NSW. Production and breeding technologies developed by Wayne are currently used to produce 25 per cent of NSW’s edible and pearl oysters and he now leads a team working to establish marine fish farming in NSW.

Wayne is a Senior Principal Research Scientist with the NSW Department of Primary Industries. He is Director of the Port Stephens Fisheries Institute, a Conjoint Professor at the University of Newcastle and an Adjunct Professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast and a Visiting Fellow at Macquarie University.

Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education in NSW

Winner: Mr Brett Mckay
Kirrawee High School

Brett Mckay shares his passion for science with students, teachers and the community. He firmly believes students can only discover their own passion for the subject if they are able to witness scientists at work across a broad range of disciplines. Accordingly, Brett provides multiple opportunities for students to interact with scientists and see science in action. Brett is also an active member of the science teaching profession, sharing his innovative methods at multiple professional learning events.

Part of Brett’s teaching method focuses on using complex events – often with competing facets – to provoke students into challenging their own understanding, developing questions to clarify this understanding, and then designing and conducting experiments to support their explanations. Brett believes this helps students to become scientific thinkers, rather than merely rote learners of scientific fact. His unique approach has resulted in the development of a Shire-wide challenge on critical thinking among the local high schools.

Brett is the Head Teacher of Science at Kirrawee High. He is a committed promoter of teachers being active participants in professional learning and mentors them to engage with professional communities. He organises teacher conferences across the state and runs HSC study days for rural students in person and online. Brett received a Highly Commended Certificate in the 2016 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. In 2013 he received the Professional Teacher Council’s Outstanding Professional Service Award.

Already in 2017, Brett has taken out the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.