James Riley
November 1, 2013

Prof Terry Speed, Australian hero

Prof Terry Speed, Australian hero
 

There were a ton a science prizes handed out in Australia this week. So in the interests of acknowledging the superb calibre of our science community – and these winners in particular – here is a column devoted to this cream of the science crop.

There have been calls for years of the need to treat our best science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals as heroes. So please read this column as an ode to the best of them.

To Prof Terry Speed, the Melbourne-based mathematician and statistician from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, he is my hero of the week on two counts. First, because has has been awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and second because he has dedicated this prize to trying to break down the barriers to entry into science for women.

Professor Speed’s work with statistics and mathematics has helped farmers, miners and criminologists. And more recently his statistical work has helped in the treatment of cancers, determining which cancers can be terminal and which may not require surgery.

Which is of course incredible. This man’s work as a mathematician has been applied to biological research and biomedical research. His algorithms have been used to analyse plant and animal material, and most recently in looking at molecular and genetic data associated with different organisms.

The application of this deep mathematics – coupled with the massive compute power available today – is having a huge impact in plant and animal genomics. This is a huge contribution to knowledge.

But anyone who listed to a fabulous interview with Professor Speed on ABC Radio National’s AM program this week could not have helped being impressed by the other dimensions of this man – particularly his call to “fully encourage women to stay on in the scientific workforce.”

His big contribution was merely in acknowledging that the problem exists: “There are lots of barriers (to women)”, some are artificial, some are attitudinal, and some are related to a non-inclusive workforce.

So there you go. Which makes it all the more exciting that the 2013 Florey Medal was this week awarded to Prof Ruth Bishop, the first woman recipient of the medal. She was awarded the medal for her work over a 40 year period discovering and then describing the rotavirus – the cause of one of the most common types of gastro – and then creating a vaccination that has saved countless children from around the world.

The Florey Medal is awarded by the Australian Association of Medical Research Institute.

Meanwhile, four other categories in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were also awarded this year.

Associate Professor Angela Moles from UNSW was awarded the $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Prof Moles’ work is transforming understanding of the plant world including where plant defence will be most aggressive, why plant seeds range from a speck of dust to a coconut, and how ecosystems will adapt to a changing climate.

Associate Professor Andrea Morello from UNSW receives the $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year. Prof Morello’s work to make quantum computing a reality could transform searching, modelling and cryptography.

Mr Richard Johnson from Rostrata Primary School in Perth receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. Mr Johnson has been a teacher for thirty years. His work to create a model science laboratory that makes science fun for students and for teachers has been adopted by more than 40 schools.

Ms Sarah Chapman from Townsville State High School receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools. Ms Chapman’s work to provide a learning experience where students can see and touch the science they are studying has led to big improvements in Year 12 science results.

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