Australia’s premier science awards celebrated scientific breakthroughs from around the country, ranging from robots that are making Australia a world leader in farm automation, to technology that can reliably produce life-saving oxygen for newborns in hospitals.

Fifteen awards - worth $150,000 in prize money - were presented on Wednesday night (August 30), recognising excellence in science, research and innovation, scientific leadership and engagement, and school science across a broad spectrum – from environmental and innovative technologies, to national security, citizen science and for the first time, data science.

Eureka Prizes winners included scientists and researchers who have:

  • discovered ways to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the significant environmental damage caused by sediment runoff;
  • developed a blood test that is twice as effective at detecting recurrent bowel cancer as existing methods;
  • designed low-cost and reliable technology to help save the lives of newborn babies who die from a lack of oxygen and related lung infections, such as pneumonia;
  • developed a nanoscale sterilizing material mimicking the surface of insect wings, to kill the bacteria that causes deadly golden staph infections;
  • developed commercial robotic systems to boost Australia’s competitiveness in the fields of farming, aerospace, transportation and mining; and
  • developed super-powered lasers to defend Australia against modern threats from drones and missiles.

Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay AO said the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes represent the very best of Australian science.

“The Australian Museum Eureka Prize winners are helping to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing humanity and the planet,” she said.

“Australian scientists are world leaders in discovering ways to combat climate change, disease and threats to national security. Their scientific breakthroughs offer us insights into the innovations that will fundamentally change the way we live and work. The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes also recognized the importance of often-overlooked areas, such as scientific mentorship and school science,” she said. “Our award winners are fostering the nation’s next generation of scientific leaders and researchers.”

The winners of the 2017 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes were announced at a gala ceremony at the Sydney Town Hall on August 30, which was attended by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO, NSW Governor David Hurley, NSW Minister for Resources, Energy and Utilities, and the Arts Don Harwin MLC, NSW Minister for the Environment, Local Government, and Heritage Gabrielle Upton MP, NSW Chief Scientist Professor Mary O’Kane AC and leaders from the fields of science, government, industry, academia, research and innovation, and the media.

Winners of the 2017 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes

More than 1 million babies will die in their first month of life – up to half on the first day – and another 3.3 million children a year will not reach their fifth birthday. More than two thirds die because of lack of oxygen at birth (birth asphyxia), subsequent lung infections such as pneumonia or conditions associated with low blood oxygen levels or hypoxaemia. The University of Melbourne FREO2 team of global health experts, physicists and engineers, led by Dr Bryn Sobott, has won this year’s ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology for their technology that easily and cheaply produces medical grade oxygen without any electricity, which is crucial in countries where energy production is unreliable.

Internationally recognized expert in the research, development and commercialization of robotic systems, the University of Sydney’s Professor Salah Sukkarieh, has won the CSIRO Eureka Prize for Leadership in Innovation and Science. His work has helped to make Australia a world leader in farm automation, in partnership with aerospace, transportation and mining industry end-users. Professor Sukkarieh leads the strategic research and industry engagement program in the world’s largest field robotics institute, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. He also leads the research and translational program for the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation and the Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems.

By combining oxide materials with stretchable, rubber-like membranes, the winner of the Macquarie University Eureka Prize for Outstanding Early Career Researcher – RMIT University’s Associate Professor Madhu Bhaskaran – has developed malleable electronics that will revolutionise wearable devices, such as electronic skin patches that can warn when the wearer has been exposed to too much sun or patches that can diagnose sleep ailments.

Professor Andrew Whitehouse, from the Telethon Kids Institute and the University of Western Australia, in Perth, has been researching autism since he met a young boy with the condition when he was studying for his Speech-Language Therapy degree. The experience led to an extraordinary career as an autism researcher and advocate, for which he has been awarded the 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science.

Associate Professor Andrew Brooks and the Catchment Sediment Budget Research Team from Griffith University, in Queensland, have been awarded the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research for their studies into what may be Australia's best chance of doing something timely to help save the Great Barrier Reef. They have identified new ways to dramatically reduce the damaging impact of sediment runoff, one of the most significant threats to the natural wonder - next to climate change.

A national team of scientists has won the Johnson & Johnson Eureka Prize for Innovation in Medical Research for the development of a blood test that is twice as effective as existing non-invasive blood testing methods at detecting recurrent bowel cancer. Post-surgical recurrence of bowel cancer occurs in up to 40 per cent of cases, most often in the first three years following initial diagnosis and treatment. Dr Peter Molloy, Dr Jason Ross and Susan Mitchell, CSIRO, Sydney, NSW; Dr Susanne Pedersen and Dr Lawrence LaPointe, Clinical Genomics Pty Ltd Sydney, NSW, and Professor Graeme Young, Flinders University, Adelaide, SA developed the Colvera™ test, which became commercially available in the United States last year, to detect recurrent disease in patients previously treated for bowel cancer.

The discovery that diamonds can massively extend the range, quality and power of lasers has led to Macquarie University’s Associate Professor Richard Mildren being named winner of the Defence Science and Technology Eureka Prize for Outstanding Science in Safeguarding Australia. If we are to be able to defend against modern threats from drones and missiles, we need something that is accurate and powerful enough to destroy an object that is a great distance away. While lasers are the obvious candidate, their development has been limited by insufficient power from the core laser material. Using man-made diamonds, Associate Professor Mildren has developed lasers with radically extended power and wavelength. The patented technology has attracted the attention of defence stakeholders worldwide, including funding from US defence agencies.

Professors Elena Ivanova and Saulius Juodkazis, from Victoria’s Swinburne University of Technology, have won the UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for a novel material able to kill the bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacteria that causes conditions such as the deadly golden staph infections is becoming a global problem because of its ability to develop resistance to all existing antibiotics. Rather than developing a new chemical structure that can be commercialised into a drug, the team have instead developed a new nano-material by mimicking the surfaces of insect wings, such as the dragonfly and the cicada, which are naturally self sterilising.

Macquarie University scientists and 300 Aboriginal elders and youth in the South-East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area have collaborated to develop Ngukurr Wi Stadi bla Kantri (We study the Country), a unique project aimed at managing local natural and cultural assets. The team of Dr Emilie Ens, Macquarie University, Ngandi Elder Cherry Wulumirr Daniels, the Yugul Mangi Rangers, Ngukurr School and members from the remote Aboriginal community of Ngukurr, have been awarded the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.

Professor Geoffrey Webb, from the Monash University eResearch Centre in Melbourne, has won the inaugural University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Excellence in Data Science for his research developing programs that take enormous amounts of raw data and extract information to improve the health of Australians, generally using just his laptop - when the majority of big data miners use supercomputers. His work has been critical to the development of advanced machine-learning techniques that can determine blood pressure from skin micro-patches. Able to be worn all the time, these patches provide real-time monitoring of heart rate and hypertension in patients who are at risk of heart attack.

A collaborative project between the University of Adelaide, the South Australian Museum, and Aboriginal families and communities has been awarded the UNSW Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research. The Aboriginal Heritage Project, led by Professor Alan Cooper from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, is using DNA to construct the first map of Indigenous Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans and has revealed the continuous occupation of this country for about 50,000 years.

Scabies affects more than 200 million people, particularly children, having its greatest impact on people in low and middle-income families, yet the methods of treatment have remained unchanged for decades. A research group from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and the Ministries of Health of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, led by the MCRI’s Associate Professor Andrew Steer, has won the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research for their studies into the prevalence of the disease and their world-first studies that almost eradicated scabies from communities in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

In recognition of the importance that mentoring plays in developing Australia’s young researchers into the next generation of lab leaders, industry heads and directors of research institutions, the University of New South Wales’ Professor Justin Gooding has been named as the winner of the University of Technology Sydney Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers.

Becoming Superhuman is a two-part documentary produced by The Feds Australia that aired on ABC TV’s Catalyst program and has won the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science Eureka Prize for Science Journalism. Becoming Superhuman details how biomedical engineer Dr Jordan Nguyen works with 13-year-old Riley Saban, who has cerebral palsy, to develop a technology to help Riley do things he had previously been unable to do, such as switch on a light, operate a TV and even drive a car. It’s the second win in a row for writer/director Mr Wain Fimeri, who collaborated with The Feds Australia Julia Peters, Ili Baré and Lizzy Nash on this documentary.

Year 4 students from the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Sydney, Caitlyn Walker and Amelia Lai, are the winners of the University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize for Primary students. The nine-year-olds made their winning film, Icy Cold But Toasty Warm, to explain how the penguins of Antarctica stay warm. Their entertaining short film details experiments and models to show how the birds use feathers, blubber, counter-current heat exchange, size and huddling to survive extremely cold conditions.

For the second year in a row, students from St Monica’s College in Cairns have won the University of Sydney Sleek Geeks Science Eureka Prize for Secondary students. Year 11 students, Claire Galvin and Anna Hardy, (who won the same category last year) were joined by Eliza Dalziel and Georgia Hannah, from Year 12, to create a film that explains the importance of dung beetles in our ecosystem. With their film, Manure You Know, they explain – using animation, video and experiments – how one of the world’s hardest-working insects has helped farmers on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland improve their farming practices.


Photographs of winners available via Getty Images from 7:30pm AEST Wednesday 30 August.

Australian Museum Research Institute Medal

In addition to celebrating the winners of the Eureka Prizes, the 2017 Australian Museum Research Institute Medal was awarded to Dr Anne Hoggett AM & Dr Lyle Vail AM, the directors of the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station. The medal is presented to an individual staff member, senior fellow or team from the Australian Museum for outstanding science and communication of their research outcomes.

Dr Hoggett and Dr Vail have been recognized for their outstanding work managing the Lizard Island Research Station for close to three decades, helping bring the plight of the Great Barrier Reef to the fore.

Australian Museum Eureka Prizes

In their 28th year, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s premier national science awards, honoring excellence in research and innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science. This year, 15 prizes worth $10,000 each were awarded across four categories.

Australian Museum’s 190th Anniversary

In 2017, the Australian Museum (AM) celebrates 190 years, marking its significant role as the nation’s first museum. In the lead up to its bicentenary, the AM is embarking on major transformation plans to secure its place as the leading natural science and culture museum in the region.

Tania Ewing, TE+A
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