2018 Category Winners

The recipients of the 2018 NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering (from left to right): The Hon Victor Dominello MP, Minister for Finance, Services and Property; Professor Alex McBratney, Category 2 winner; Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer; the Hon Gladys Berejiklian MP, Premier of NSW; Professor Anthony Weiss AM, Category 7 winner; Mrs Heidi Hammond, Category 9 winner; Laureate Professor Nick Talley AC, 2018 NSW Scientist of the Year; Jo White, representing Dr Cathy Offord, Category 8 winner; Professor Branka Vucetic, Category 4 winner; His Excellency, General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret'd), Governor of NSW; Professor Dietmar Müller, Category 1 winner; Dr James (Mac) Shine, Category 6 winner; Dr Xiaojing (Jeana) Hao, Category 5 winner; Benjamin Harvey, representing Professor Richard Harvey AM, Category 3 winner; the Hon Don Harwin MLC, Minister for Resources, Minister for Energy and Utilities, Minister
for the Arts.

Category 1: Excellence in Mathematics,
Earth Sciences, Chemistry or Physics

Professor Dietmar Müller FAA FAGU

The University of Sydney

After joining the University of Sydney, Professor Dietmar Müller built the EarthByte Research Group, with the aim of synthesising geological and geophysical data, both through space and time. He is leading the construction of a Virtual Earth Laboratory, which is assimilating the wealth of this geodata into an experimental planet.

Dietmar’s models are transforming our knowledge of Earth evolution – with a diversity of impacts. His open-source virtual globe software and data are benefiting universities, government organisations, industry and schools worldwide, with end-users across 183 countries.

With his long-term collaborator Patrice Rey, he leads the ARC Basin Genesis Hub, an Industry Transformation Research Hub with five industry partners, extending the technological innovation capacity of Australian exploration and service companies.

Novel applications include the development of combined geodynamic, tectonic and surface topography models to unravel the origins and history of continental landscapes, coastlines, environments and sedimentary basins.

Using spatio-temporal data mining, Dietmar’s team created prospectivity maps for iron ore, porphyry-gold deposits and Australian precious opal.

Dietmar’s work is also benefiting one of today’s greatest challenges: understanding past and future atmospheric CO2 levels. He recently showed how variations in tectonic and volcanic cycles drive long-term fluctuations in crustal CO2 storage and atmospheric CO2.

His research is frequently reported in the media, and his map of the age of the ocean basins is incorporated into many textbooks and exhibited in international museums.

Category 2: Excellence in Biological Sciences (Ecological, environmental, agricultural and organismal)

Professor Alex McBratney FAA

The University of Sydney

Currently the Director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture at the University of Sydney, Professor Alex McBratney has worked internationally with universities, governments, industry and farmers to transform our knowledge of soil composition, distribution and function.

Alex’s research is providing farmers, natural-resource managers and policy makers with new tools to map soil properties, on a scale ranging from the individual field right through to global. His innovations have shaped a transformational global soil data infrastructure that drives digital agriculture and ecology, and which is enabling soil management to overcome the challenges of food and water security, and of climate change. Hundreds of farms in NSW have already adopted methods based on his science.

Alex conceived and developed Digital Soil Mapping and Soil Security, both of which have significantly deepened the knowledge of soil science. He established new theoretical and empirical models that have revolutionised the availability of soil information, leading to improved agricultural practices, reduced environmental impact and enhanced soil security. His fundamental and applied advances are especially pertinent to Australian agriculture.

Alex is a founding partner in the GlobalSoilMap.net project, which is creating a digital soil map of the world at a resolution of 90 metres, to a depth of one metre.

Alex was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2016. He received the Dokuchaev Award from the International Union of Soil Sciences in 2014 (the highest honour in soil science, awarded once every four years), and has been recognised as a Highly Cited Researcher (Clarivate Analytics) in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Category 3: Excellence in Medical Biological Sciences (Cell and molecular, medical, veterinary and genetics)

Professor Richard Harvey AM PhD FAA FAHMS FRS

University of New South Wales and Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

Richard Harvey is one of the world's leading developmental cardiologists with a breadth and depth of achievements spanning his entire career.

His discovery of the master regulatory gene, Nkx2-5, provided the long sought after molecular entry point into mammalian cardiogenesis and congenital heart disease research – work that inspired an exponential expansion of worldwide efforts to address cardiac development, disease mechanisms, tissue engineering and regeneration.

Much of Richard’s work has been performed over the last 20 years at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in NSW and has been recognised by Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science, Australian Academy of Health and Medical Research, European Molecular Biology Organisation and Royal Society of London.

Arguably one of his most significant achievements has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature. In a project led by senior postdoctoral fellow Gonzalo del Monte Nieto, Harvey's team formulated an entirely new model for the development of the heart's pumping chambers – the ventricles – resolving one of the unsolved mysteries in the field.

Their work documented in great detail the cellular and molecular mechanisms that define chamber architecture, leading to a paradigm shift in the conceptual framework for heart development and generating new insights into congenital heart disease pathophysiology.

The burden of cardiovascular disease is enormous and this milestone work, given its potential impact on both congenital and adult heart diseases, points the way to greater understanding of heart formation and the development of novel therapies that will alleviate suffering in many millions of individuals worldwide.

Category 4: Excellence in Engineering or
Information and Communications Technology

Professor Branka Vucetic FAA FIEEE FTSE

The University of Sydney

Professor Branka Vucetic has pioneered the field of adaptive coding theory. Her highly innovative work underpins all modern telecommunications technologies, from the development of 3G to 4G and 5G, and is helping to build the framework for the digital transformation of the Australian economy.

In her career to date, Branka has built an international reputation in leading wireless communications and coding theory research, pioneering breakthroughs in methods of error-control coding, design of cellular communications systems, and wireless transmission and energy transfer.

In 2013 she developed analogue fountain codes notable for their intrinsic ability to adapt to channel variations and for their powerful error-correcting abilities – technology which is fast becoming the new standard for wireless networks.

As mobile phone use grows exponentially, her codes continue to resolve persistent issues in wireless and cellular networks by significantly increasing the capacity, speed and reliability for data traffic; her new theoretical principles, published in 2015 and 2017, underpin the required reduction in latency.

Branka has recently invented a new framework for wireless energy transfer (published in May 2018), which enables transmission of multiple independent signals over multiple antennas with optimal signal-to-noise ratios – an innovation previously not considered possible, and which has attracted strong industry interest.

Her significant contributions are recognised by the academic community, through her ARC Laureate and IEEE Fellowships, over 13,300 citations and four advanced textbooks. Branka’s expertise has received equal recognition from industry, as demonstrated by her decade-long partnership with Huawei and new partnership this year with Telstra.

Category 5: Energy Innovation in NSW

Dr Xiaojing Hao

University of New South Wales

Dr Xiaojing (Jeana) Hao, Senior Lecturer, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, is at the international forefront in the field of kesterite photovoltaics.

Kesterite is a compound of earth-abundant elements – copper, zinc, tin and sulphur – which forms a semiconductor with a similar tetrahedrally bonded diamond-like structure to that of silicon semiconductors, but offering greater flexibility. Kesterite can be used to form photovoltaic cells as thin films and also in tandem cell stacks, where each stacked cell responds to a different spectral range of sunlight.

Over the last three years, Xiaojing and her group have set four new world records for kesterite cell efficiency. The first was in April 2016, where she set a new record of 7.6% efficiency for a large-area kesterite cell. This was subsequently improved to a new benchmark of 10.0% in March 2017.

Xiaojing also set a new record of 9.5% efficiency for a small-area kesterite cell, beating the record previously held by Toyota. Most recently, in March 2017, this efficiency was increased to 11.0%, a result which was published in Nature Energy earlier this year. All these results have been independently confirmed by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Xiaojing is a recipient of the ARC’s Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, an inaugural UNSW Scientia Fellow and has secured $17 million in external competitive funding, including seven ARC and seven ARENA grants. She has been identified as one of UNSW’s ‘20 Rising Stars’ and was a finalist for the prestigious Judy Raper Award for Leadership in Engineering in 2017.

Category 6: NSW Early Career Researcher
of the Year

Dr James (Mac) Shine

The University of Sydney

As Australia’s population ages and the ‘dementia crisis’ approaches, neuroscientist Dr Mac Shine has made a series of outstanding discoveries that help to explain how the patterns of failed communication in the human brain give rise to the cognitive disorders of ageing.

Mac has identified key mechanisms underlying two of the most devastating non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: freezing and visual hallucinations.

Using creative approaches that focus on the symptoms directly, he redefined freezing as a product of cognitive overload and not just a motor deficit. This directly led to new therapeutic strategies to improve quality-of-life in Parkinson’s disease: wearable electroencephalographic devices that alert patients to impending freezing events; and a simple seven-week cognitive training intervention that successfully decreases freezing severity.

Mac’s research is also attacking dementia at its core. Unlike traditional approaches that isolate active regions of the brain, Mac dynamically tracks coordination between brain regions while people perform challenging cognitive tasks. In doing so, he discovered an unexpected role for the arousal system – which is affected across many dementia syndromes – and proposed a new theory for how cognition is coordinated by the brain. This theory could not only radically alter our understanding of cognition, but also suggests diagnostic imaging strategies that could detect dementia before symptoms appear.

Although only receiving his PhD in 2013, Mac has been appointed to the NeuroImage Editorial Board, secured two Fellowships and published 92 articles, with over 2300 citations.

Category 7: Leadership in Innovation in NSW

Professor Anthony S. Weiss AM

The University of Sydney

Professor Tony Weiss’s research on tropoelastin and elastin – the biological ingredients that give human tissue its elasticity – have led to his invention and commercialisation of biological treatments that decrease scarring and accelerate the repair of wounds. This is a success story for NSW science, culminating this year in one of the largest commercial transactions in Australian healthcare history.

Tony pioneered the end-to-end creation of this product, which is based upon an entirely novel approach to the problem of tissue repair. First, he patented ways to industrially scale tropoelastin production, a prerequisite for the development of synthetic elastin biomaterials for clinical applications. He then used his team’s basic biomedical discoveries – such as how the protein interacts with cells and initiates wound repair – to develop a unique tropoelastin-based ‘synthetic skin’. In preclinical and clinical testing, tropoelastin products repair skin faster and better than any existing treatment, directly improving outcomes for patients.

The Sydney spin-out company Tony founded to commercialise tropoelastin, Elastagen, was acquired in February by Allergan, one of the world’s 20 largest biopharmaceutical companies. As a direct result, the tropoelastin products are rapidly moving to market. This story is an exemplar of what our research and biotechnology sectors can achieve – it has been used by Austrade to encourage overseas investment and by the NSW Ministry of Health to promote the success of its Medical Devices Fund.

Category 8: Innovation in Public Sector Science
and Engineering

Dr Cathy Offord

Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust

Dr Cathy Offord is an internationally recognised conservation biologist whose expertise in plant germplasm contributes to global best practice for managing threatened plant species worldwide.

Over her 30-year career at Australia’s oldest living scientific institution, Cathy has made significant scientific contributions to safeguard threatened plants in NSW. Her peer-reviewed publications have translated to practical plant propagation and translocation methods, and innovative seed and tissue culture techniques to protect plants from extinction.

Cathy is a leader in seed biology, ex situ conservation and translocation science, and her pioneering conservation work to protect the Wollemi Pine is a global model for threatened species management. She led the successful translocation of Australia’s ‘living fossil’ to gardens around the world and insurance populations in the wild.

Her expertise contributes to the NSW Government’s $100 million ‘Saving our Species’ program to secure the future of other threatened NSW species. Cathy also leads the Rainforest Seed Conservation Project and her cutting-edge work is creating new cryostorage technologies to preserve rainforest species facing extinction in the wild.

Cathy is a Principal Research Scientist at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. She was a key driver behind the establishment of the Australian PlantBank in 2013, an integrated plant science facility incorporating the NSW seedbank, tissue culture and cryostorage facilities. Cathy has also shaped the Australian PlantBank into a hub for plant conservation in NSW and she regularly convenes conferences and workshops.

Category 9: Excellence in Science or Mathematics Teaching in NSW

Mrs Heidi Hammond BSc MEd

East Hills Girls Technology High School

For over two decades, Mrs Heidi Hammond has been inspiring girls to participate in science at high school, which has had a major effect on the number of female students progressing to undertake tertiary studies in science and engineering.

As the Head Teacher, Science in an all-girls high school, Heidi has set the bar high to ensure that her students engage with science. Under her guidance and leadership, the Science Faculty now offers an amazing 15 senior classes for Years 11 and 12 and an elective ‘iSTEM’ class for both Years 9 and 10. The faculty also oversees a cross-curricular project for Stage 4 in sustainability, working with the STEM Enrichment Academy at the University of Sydney.

Heidi has a strong history of implementing programs to promote science as a hands-on subject, including the establishment of a greenhouse to teach plant science. Heidi shares ideas and resources with primary schools in her network, particularly around the authentic integration of technology.

Heidi is a graduate of the US Space Academy for Educators program. Her enthusiasm for breaking down the barriers faced by girls in studying male-dominated subject areas has seen her students attend the Liverpool Area Zone Science Teachers Association (LAZSTA) iSTEM Advanced Space Academy Program in the US.

Heidi equips her students with confidence and experience, which has allowed them to speak at the International Women’s Day FitT (Females in Information Technology & Telecommunications) Conference about their coding experiments on the International Space Station.

Heidi’s expertise in STEM teaching, and as an Apple Distinguished Leader, has seen her in demand as a presenter at various teacher conferences.

As an executive member LAZSTA, Heidi has also been personally responsible for the running of several teacher workshops to increase the skills and networking opportunities for teachers.