Australian Academy of Science honours our researchers

28 February 2019
Outstanding contributions to science have been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science today, recognising lifelong achievement and early-career success.

Four scientists from the University of Sydney have won medals from the Australian Academy of Science, in recognition of their outstanding contribution to human understanding of the scientific world: Professor Dietmar Müller, Professor Geordie Williamson, Associate Professor Liz New and Professor Steven Flammia.

The Australian Academy of Science awards recognise outstanding contributions to science, with the awards presented at the Academy’s annual celebration of science, Science at the Shine Dome, on 30 May 2019. The University of Sydney received the equal highest number of awards announced today.

Professor Dietmar Müller.

Professor Dietmar Müller.

Professor Dietmar Müller, from the School of Geosciences in the Faculty of Science, won the Jaeger Medal for lifelong achievement, which recognises research on the Earth or its oceans carried out in Australia or with a connection to Australian Earth science.

Professor Müller is internationally renowned for leading the construction of a virtual Earth laboratory, EarthByte, to 'see' deep into the Earth in four dimensions (space and time). This laboratory draws together custom software, workflows and data to produce open-access models of the Earth’s dynamic history.

"I have a fascination with geology, because it puts life into a perspective far beyond our everyday experiences. Geology reminds us that the current version of the world as we know it is ephemeral, but firmly connected to past and future worlds," Professor Müller said.

"Our EarthByte Group reconstructs the Earth as a system in which the slow convective churning of the deep Earth’s mantle is connected to moving continents and ocean basins, which are like biscuits floating on a warm toffee ocean. These reconstructions give us a framework to explore Earth’s mineral and energy resources and to understand past climates, landscapes and ocean circulation," Professor Müller said.

"Rocks tell us stories about past worlds. The age of big data and artificial intelligence now allows us to use computers to decipher what these rocks can tell us, and even to predict the future. Our interactive models and visualisations of the Earth’s dynamic history are shared with the community. They help us get a sense of geological time and why we need to think far beyond a human lifetime to understand possible future paths for Earth, and to keep it habitable."

Professor Müller is particularly honoured to receive the Jaeger Medal, as Professor John Jaeger had a close connection to the University of Sydney, completing his Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, and continuing his close connection to the University by collaborating with Professor Horatio Carslaw, chair in pure and applied mathematics at the University of Sydney, whom Jaeger met as a student. They both worked on the application of mathematics to the conduction of heat, and their textbook Conduction of Heat in Solids (1947) remains a classic in the field, and is the foundation of the theory of heat conduction in the Earth.

Professor Geordie Williamson.

Professor Geordie Williamson.

Professor Geordie Williamson, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science, has been awarded the Christopher Heyde Medal, which recognises distinguished research in mathematics and statistics. Professor Williamson is a world leader in the field of geometric representation theory.

Among his many breakthrough contributions are his proof, together with Ben Elias, of Soergel's conjecture – resulting in a proof of the Kazhdan-Lusztig positivity conjecture from 1979 – his entirely unexpected discovery of counter-examples to the Lusztig and James conjectures, and his new algebraic proof of the Jantzen conjectures.

“Mathematics allows you to understand the world in another way, and it’s beautiful to be able to switch on the mathematical viewpoint,” Professor Williamson said.

He launched the University of Sydney Mathematical Research Institute at the end of 2018 and is the institute’s director. Last year he became the youngest living Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Australian Academy of Science. Capping off a stellar year for Professor Williamson, he was also awarded the highest honour in Australian mathematics by his peers.

Associate Professor Liz New.

Associate Professor Liz New.

Associate Professor Liz New, from the School of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science, has been awarded the Le Fevre Medal, which recognises outstanding research in chemistry. Associate Professor New's research focuses on developing chemical tools that advance the understanding of the chemistry within cells.

An understanding of the fundamental chemistry of the body offers new insights into many of the key questions in medical research, including the location of disease-causing chemicals or drug molecules, the perturbation of chemical environments in disease, and the role of chemical signalling molecules in health.

Associate Professor New, who is also a member of the University of Sydney Nano Institute, prepares fluorescent sensors that emit light to visualise biochemical changes in the body caused by disease, lighting up where and how the body is experiencing oxidative stress. Her principal focus is on the diseases of ageing, where she explores the action of antioxidants in countering oxidative stress, but her sensors have found application across many fields of medical research.

Associate Professor New has reported 10 new sensors, one that is capable of indicating the effect of copper levels in Alzheimer's disease and another shows how oxidative stress is essential in fat breakdown and even in embryonic development. She has also developed sensors that observe how cancer treatments such as cisplatin have effect within the cell.

Professor Steven Flammia.

Professor Steven Flammia.

Professor Steven Flammia, from the School of Physics in the Faculty of Science, has been awarded the Pawsey Medal, which recognises outstanding research in physics.

Professor Flammia, also a member of Sydney Nano is a global leader in quantum information science, a field born at the interface between physics and computation. By marrying the classical theory of compressed sensing with quantum tomography, Professor Flammia’s work has succeeded in drastically reducing the number of measurements required to learn the types of quantum states and processes commonly found in laboratory experiments aimed at building scalable quantum computers.

This work is significant as, firstly, it has had a real practical impact, with numerous experiments already performed that show the advantages of his new approach and, secondly, the methods introduced have had an impact beyond physics in the machine learning community where the idea of compressed sensing originated.

Professor Flammia’s work has impacted both theory and experimental practise in the field, with direct influence on Australian efforts in quantum technology.

Katynna Parry

Marketing Communications Senior Specialist (Science)

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