Women sweep this year’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

Female scientists have won four of the seven Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science this year, including the top award worth $250,000, presented to quantum scientist Professor Michelle Simmons AO.

The 2018 Australian of the Year was recognised for her pioneering contributions to quantum computing, including her creation of the country’s first quantum computing company, Silicon Quantum Computing, which she founded in 2017.

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) professor was presented with her award on Monday night, describing the win as “a really special and wonderful thing.”

“I’m over the moon to receive the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science,” she said. “Yet figuring out how to make electronic devices with atomic precision is not something I could ever have done on my own.”

Professor Simmons, who is the Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at UNSW, credits her team for helping her develop an innovative way of making atomic electronics that can revolutionise quantum computing.

Her discoveries will likely improve the manufacturing of therapeutic drug designs, fertilisers for agriculture, logistical patterns to reduce fuel costs and shortened delivery times.

“For 25 years, I have worked with many amazing scientists and engineers – and I am enormously grateful to all of them,” she said.

“I would add a particular thank you to my current team. They are the most exceptionally talented group I have ever worked with. I can’t imagine a better group of people or a more likely team to deliver an error-corrected quantum computer for the benefit of Australia and the world.”

Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic praised Australians for putting “huge stock in our world-class scientists.”

“[Our country] understands science and innovation is at the heart of human progress,” he said.

Congratulating Professor Simmons on her win, Husic acknowledged the importance of her research and work.

“Quantum computing has the power to transform industries and solve important challenges,” he said.

“From automation on factory floors to rapidly advancing AI, the science and innovation sector is creating secure and well-paid jobs.”

Professor Simmons told Guardian Australia she was initially drawn to the field because she was interested in “building things that have not been made before, with the potential to have a huge impact on computing power”.

At her company, Silicon Quantum Computing, the ARC Laureate Fellow is working to engineer the world’s first error-corrected quantum computer – something which the Professor said was “unimaginable 20 years ago.”

“We’re the only company in the world that can manufacture with atomic precision,” she said. “My belief is that precision is what you need to create this error-corrected quantum computer.”

“We’ve been able to put down individual atoms of phosphorus in silicon and encode information on both the electron and the nucleus of the phosphorus atom,” she said.

“It’s something that was kind of unimaginable twenty years ago, that we would know how to manipulate and build devices where we’ve got atomic precision … in all three dimensions.”

UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Attila Brungs described Professor Simmons as an “internationally renowned” science leader, known “for creating the field of atomic electronics, pioneering new technologies to build computing devices in silicon at the atomic scale.”

“She is one of a handful of researchers in Australia to have twice received an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship,” Brungs said. “She is a global superstar and I applaud her achievements in receiving the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prize for pioneering this important field.”

Since 2000, the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science have been recognising outstanding individuals across scientific research, innovation and teaching.

This year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools was awarded to Judith Stutchbury, a teacher at Kalkie State School in Bundaberg, Queensland.

A longtime teacher activist for the environment, Stutchbury’s efforts have won her multiple state awards, including the 2018 Australia Day Green Spirit Award, and the Education Queensland North Coast Region Teacher of the Year Award.

Teaching students about the importance of marine turtle conservation in the Great Barrier Reef, Stutchbury said that she was inspired to write her educational book, Hatch Saves the Reef, which was published earlier this year and includes several on-line interactive games.

“I’m extremely honoured to win Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools,” Stutchbury said in a promotional video. “It recognises teachers trying to make a difference for our next generation.”

The Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools was awarded to Donna Buckley, the Assistant Director of Maths and cybersecurity teacher at John Curtin College of the Arts in Fremantle, WA.

“My role is to engage students for a love of programming and engaging girls through that,” she said.

“I’ve made connections for my students to the real world to their passions to the arts so I can relate maths to them.”

Buckley went back to university as a mature aged student in order to teach her students a course in cybersecurity.

“It’s so important from a young age for cyber safety messages. We also need to show students there are possibilities for careers in this industry and from a diverse range of backgrounds and it’s that diversity that will help us overcome the challenges that are ahead.”

Finally, the Prize for New Innovators was awarded to Associate Profesor Lara Herrero from Griffith University.

The virologist is leading an interdisciplinary team in the Institute for Glycomics at the university to study the way viral infections are diagnosed, treated and managed.

Specifically, her research focuses on mosquito-transmitted viruses associated with arthritis, such as Ross River virus (RRV) — the most common mosquito-transmitted disease in the country, with more than 5000 infections reported each year.

Professor Herrero contracted RRV herself a number of years ago — an experience that left her with excruciating pain to her muscles and joints.

Dissatisfied with the traditional drug discovery which can take up to two decades ‘from bench to bedside’, Associate Professor Herrero is trying to repurpose known drugs that can minimise the harrowing pain of viral arthritis.

“We found one that was called Pentosan polysulfate that was traditionally used for bladder inflammation,” she explained.

“That shared a lot of the mechanisms to RRV-induced arthritis.”

Professor Herrero decided to return to university to study medicine, “in order to understand how to get a drug all the way to a patient.”

She secured a patent on her invention before partnering with Australian ASX-listed biotechnology company, Paradigm Biopharmaceuticals, to get the drug through clinical trials and into patients.

“It’s a great achievement,” Professor Herrero said of her innovation. “There are no real big discoveries that are on the shoulders of only one individual, it’s a big team effort.”

“[Receiving the PM’s prize] gives me a new sense of hope for the work that we’re doing and the work that we’ll do in the future.”


SOURCE: https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/women-sweep-this-years-prime-ministers-prizes-for-science/

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