Five wins at the NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering

30 October 2018
University of Sydney researchers have been recognised for their work by the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at an awards ceremony held at Government House, hosted by Governor David Hurley.
NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering winners: (clockwise from main) Professor Branka Vucetic; Professor Alex McBratney; Professor Dietmar Müller; Professor Tony Weiss and Dr Mac Shine.

NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering winners: (clockwise from main) Professor Branka Vucetic; Professor Alex McBratney; Professor Dietmar Müller; Professor Tony Weiss and Dr Mac Shine.

The University of Sydney has taken the lion’s share of awards at the NSW Premier’s Prizes for Science & Engineering at a ceremony held at Government House on Tuesday night.

Winning five of the seven categories available for university staff to enter in the NSW Premier’s Prizes for Science and Engineering is an outstanding achievement, which recognises the University of Sydney as the top scientific research organisation in NSW.  

Our five winners received their trophies and $5000 prize money each from the NSW Premier The Hon Gladys Berejiklian MP, and His Excellency General The Hon David Hurley, Governor of NSW, at the awards ceremony at Government House on 30 October.

The prizes recognise excellence in science and engineering, and reward leading researchers for cutting-edge work that has generated economic, environmental, health, social or technological benefits for NSW.

Our winners are:

Professor Dietmar Müller

Professor Dietmar Müller

School of Geosciences, Faculty of Science

Winner of the NSW Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Mathematics, Earth Sciences, Chemistry or Physics

“Receiving this prize is a great and unexpected honour – it is a marvellous recognition of the fundamental role geology and geophysics plays in keeping our planet habitable, and of our community’s contributions to understanding how the Earth works. This is a fantastic award for our entire EarthByte Research Group and all our collaborators in Australia and overseas,” said Professor Dietmar Müller.

Professor Müller is internationally renowned for leading the construction of a virtual earth laboratory to ‘see’ deep into the Earth in four dimensions (space and time). By merging diverse data types, his team has developed open-access models of Earth’s dynamic history, benefiting end-users in universities, government organisations, industry and schools worldwide, with end-users across 183 countries.

With his long-term collaborator Associate Professor Patrice Rey, he leads the ARC Basin Genesis Hub, an Industry Transformation Research Hub, extending the technological innovation capacity of Australian exploration and service companies. Novel applications include the development of combined geodynamic, tectonic and surface topography models unravelling the origins and history of continental landscapes, coastlines, environments and sedimentary basins. 

Professor Müller’s team created a prospectivity map for Western Australia’s iron ore, delineated Pacific rim porphyry-gold deposits, modelled the geodynamic and sedimentary history of Australia’s fuel-rich sedimentary basins, and produced the first model of the future evolution of Australia’s continental stress field, with applications for reservoir integrity and carbon storage. His work is also benefiting one of today’s greatest challenges: understanding past and future atmospheric CO2 levels. Professor Müller’s research is frequently reported in the media, and his map of ocean basin ages is incorporated into many textbooks and exhibited in museums internationally.

Professor Alex McBratney

Professor Alex McBratney

Sydney Institute of Agriculture and Faculty of Science

Winner of the NSW Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Biological Sciences (Ecological, environmental, agricultural and organismal)

“Soil and soil science are vital to NSW and Australia, but they rarely get recognition, so I am thrilled to receive this award on behalf of my fellow soil scientists,” said Professor Alex McBratney.

Professor McBratney has worked internationally with universities, governments, industry, and farmers to transform our knowledge of soil composition and function, providing farmers, natural resource managers, and policy makers with new tools to map soil properties, from individual farmers’ fields up to the global scale. His achievements, which impact all agricultural regions of NSW, have shaped a new transformational global soil data infrastructure that uses his innovations to drive digital agriculture and ecology; this is enabling soil management to overcome challenges of food and water security, and climate change. More than 300 farms in NSW have already adopted methods based on his science.

Professor McBratney conceived and developed digital soil mapping and soil security, which has significantly deepened 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. Since 2015 he has been a founding partner in the project, which is creating a digital soil map of the world at a resolution of 90 metres to a depth of 1 metre. His fundamental and applied advances are especially pertinent to Australian agriculture, pointing to ways of optimising the use of scarce water on farms.

Professor Branka Vucetic.

Professor Branka Vucetic

School of Electrical and Information Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies

Winner of the NSW Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Engineering or Information and Communications Technology

“The NSW Premier’s Prize is very special to me and I am very grateful to receive it. The award is a recognition not only of my achievements, but those of my team, my students and the University of Sydney,” said Professor Branka Vucetic.

Professor 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 to 5G, and is contributing to laying the framework for digital transformation of the Australian economy.

In her career Professor Vucetic has built an international reputation in leading wireless communications and coding theory research, pioneering breakthroughs in foundational methods of error control coding, design of cellular communications systems, and wireless transmission and energy transfer. In 2013 she developed analogue fountain codes for their intrinsic ability to adapt to channel variations and their powerful error-correcting abilities; this is groundbreaking and is fast becoming the new standard for wireless networks.

As mobile phone users grow exponentially in number, her codes continue to resolve persistent issues in wireless and cellular networks by significantly increasing the capacity, speed and reliability of data traffic; it is her new theoretical principles, published in 2015 and 2017, that underpin the required reduction in latency. She also invented a new framework for wireless energy transfer, published in May 2018, enabling transmission of multiple independent signals over multiple antennas with optimal signal-to-noise ratios – this was previously not possible and has attracted strong interest from industry.

Dr Mac Shine

Dr Mac Shine

Sydney Medical School, Faculty of Medicine and Health

Winner of the NSW Premier’s Prize for NSW Early Career Researcher of the Year

“I am extremely honoured to receive the prize this year, and would like to deeply thank my family and all of my collaborators for their support and encouragement,” said Dr Mac Shine.

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

Dr Shine 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.

His research is also attacking dementia at its core. Unlike traditional approaches that isolate active regions of the brain, Dr Shine 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.

Professor Tony Weiss

Professor Tony Weiss

Charles Perkins Centre, and School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science

Winner of the NSW Premier’s Prize for Leadership in Innovation in NSW

“I am thrilled, delighted and humbled by this great award. It’s an incredible honour to be recognised as the state’s innovation leader!” said Professor Tony Weiss.

Professor 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.

He 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. Second, he 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 clinical testing, this product repairs skin faster and better than any existing treatment, directly improving outcomes for patients. 

The Sydney spin-out company Professor Weiss founded to commercialise tropoelastin, Elastagen, was acquired in February at a value of several hundred million dollars by Allergan, one of the world’s 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.

Related articles