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Psychology - Faculty of Science
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Three Australian Academy of Science award winners

3 March 2020
The outstanding contributions to science of three of our researchers have been recognised by the Australian Academy of Science.

President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Shine, congratulated all the award winners for their inspiring research.

"Recognising outstanding scientific contributions is important, as award recipients are the STEM role models for the next generation," said Professor Shine.

Our winners are:

Associate Professor Muireann Irish

Associate Professor Muireann Irish, Faculty of Science
- Gottschalk Medal

"This award is a huge honour and marks a real milestone for all that my lab has achieved since we joined the University of Sydney in 2017,” said Associate Professor Muireann Irish, from the School of Psychology, and the Brain and Mind Centre.

"I am absolutely thrilled that our hard work is being recognised and hope that we can continue to make significant strides in tackling the problem of dementia.”

Dementia is one of the most pressing concerns for our aging society. Despite significant advances in dementia research, it remains challenging to accurately screen for subtle changes in behaviour and cognition at the earliest stages of the disease.

Associate Professor Irish’s research has systematically mapped how alterations in the brain’s grey and white matter contribute to memory dysfunction across different dementia syndromes. Her ground-breaking work has further uncovered that in parallel with loss of memory for the past, individuals with dementia have marked difficulties thinking about the future. 

Associate Professor Irish is now developing novel approaches to screen for the earliest signs of underlying brain pathology, long before overt signs of dementia emerge. Her research vision is to advance early detection and swift intervention in dementia to improve quality of life for all affected.

Associate Professor Ivan Kassal

Associate Professor Ivan Kassal, Faculty of Science
- Le Févre Medal

"I'm very honoured to receive the Le Fèvre Medal and to find myself in the distinguished company of the past recipients. This medal recognises terrific work by my brilliant students and collaborators over many years, without whom I’d not have made it this far,” said Associate Professor Ivan Kassal, from the School of Chemistry.

"It's also a vote of confidence by the Academy in my future potential and I do hope I live up to their expectations. 

"More broadly, I am pleased to see this award recognising fundamental science, because basic research remains crucial for ensuring our long-term prosperity. The award also shows how chemistry is becoming an increasingly interdisciplinary endeavour, with my own work spanning chemistry, quantum science and computing.”

Associate Professor Kassal develops new theoretical and computational tools for simulating the dynamics of complex chemical systems, especially those where quantum effects make conventional calculations difficult and time consuming. He has designed algorithms that would allow future quantum computers to dramatically accelerate the simulation of chemical processes, as well as designing quantum simulators, purpose-built devices for solving particular difficult problems.

His methods have been widely used and implemented experimentally, contributing to chemistry and materials science being recognised as the likely first applications of quantum computers. He has also studied the transport of energy and charge in disordered materials that lie at the boundary between quantum and classical behaviour, making them difficult to describe.

Associate Professor Kassal’s contributions have included explaining quantum effects in light harvesting (and how to engineer them to improve performance), discovering significant quantum effects in photosynthesis, and clarifying fundamental mechanisms of how organic solar cells operate.

Adjunct Professor Alexandra Martiniuk

Adjunct Professor Alexandra Martiniuk, Faculty of Medicine and Health
- Gustav Nossal Medal for Global Health

“My passion in research is to improve the health and well-being of people worldwide, and in particular to work on research that increases equity in health, in communities such as, for example indigenous communities, and in low-and-middle-income countries,” said Adjunct Professor Alexandra Martiniuk.

"This award is important as it serves to further highlight the value in using health services research and action where the science exists for change, but change is not yet occurring."

Adjunct Professor Alexandra Martiniuk is an epidemiologist in the Sydney School of Public Health, in the Faculty of Medicine and Health, engaged in health systems and mental health research for children living in disadvantaged contexts, such as global health and Aboriginal communities.

She is a leader in global research in health systems in low- and middle-income countries and remote Indigenous communities in Australia and Canada. Alexandra uses her pioneering research to identify and deliver solutions to enable better access to primary health care for disadvantaged populations.

By shedding light on inequalities and inefficiencies in models of funding between high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries, she is enabling greater transparency and informed decision making to build stronger health systems.

Her innovative approach to solving global health problems, and her ability to partner with a wide spectrum of key stakeholders, and work with the people on the ground, have led to policy change for lay health workers in Malawi, revised referral practices in the Solomon Islands, a new educational approach to HIV prevention in all high schools in Belize, and co-development of a large primary care program for low- and middle-income countries.