Professor Jenny Graves has won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. (Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: WildBear)
A geneticist who uncovered how sex chromosomes work and a dental researcher who invented a substance to strengthen teeth are among this year’s recipients of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.
The awards, recognising Australia’s top scientists and science teachers, have been announced in Canberra.
The six winners share in a prize pool of $700,000.
The end of the male sex chromosome?
Did you know that the Y chromosome — which is carried by males — could be on the decline?
That’s one of the predictions of Professor Jenny Graves, whose pioneering research into the genetics of sex have won her the top prize.
But don’t worry; there’s still a few million years left for the male sex chromosome.
“We know from our comparisons that the Y chromosome is degrading very fast, it started off with 1,000 genes on it, it’s only got 27 left — and at this rate it will be all gone in about 4.5 million years.”
Professor Graves has spent more than 50 years studying how sex chromosomes have evolved.
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have babies, so it’s important for all animals and we need to know more about sex and how we develop sexually,” she said.
An invention used all around the world
Professor Eric Reynolds receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation. (Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: WildBear)
Professor Eric Reynolds’ 30 years of research has led to major breakthroughs in the fight against tooth decay.
He identified a calcium-rich protein in milk and then developed a way to make it easier to absorb into tooth enamel, making teeth stronger.
With the help of the University of Melbourne’s commercial office, Professor Reynolds and his colleagues patented their invention, which they called Recaldent.
Today, it’s a global product.
Chewing gum containing Recaldent is sold around the world and is also used in a product called Tooth Mousse, which is often used after dental work and can strengthen chalky teeth and reduce tooth sensitivity.
Recaldent is still made from Australian dairy farmers’ milk.
“It’s taken a long time but in this journey it’s now in a range of products that are being used by millions of people now in over 50 countries worldwide,” he said.
Creating ways to understand genetically inherited traits
Professor Jian Yang receives the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. (Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: WildBear)
Professor Jian Yang has developed pioneering techniques to unravel the complexity of the human genome.
Your genome is your complete set of DNA, including all your genes. Since the human genome was completely mapped in 2003, scientists have been able to quickly read a person’s entire genetic code.
However while the genes for some traits such as red hair or haemophilia are “simple”, most inherited traits are far more complex.
To understand them you would need to analyse the genomes of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.
People assumed that would be impossible and the calculations would be too complex for computers. Professor Yang worked out how to do it.
He’s now made his statistical tools available to other researchers, opening the way for a new era of genomic analysis that could lead to the development of new drugs, and better predictions of genetic disorders.
Peering into our living cells
Professor Dayong Jin receives the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year. (Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: WildBear)
Professor Dayong Jin has created a kind of microscope that allows scientists to watch molecules at work inside living cells.
At the moment, he said, biologists searching for one infected or cancerous cell among millions of healthy cells were merely equipped with the equivalent of an old-fashioned paper map — his microscope would be like giving biologists GPS and smartphone maps.
Such devices are called “nanoscopes”. They work by attaching antibodies to molecules with fluorescent properties.
However most nanoscopes are too hot to image living samples and too expensive to be used as diagnostic devices.
Professor Jin has created “super dots” out of rare earth elements. By using them, his nanoscope does not require the same heat and is cheaper to operate than other nanoscopes.
This could enable scientists to watch the inner workings of the immune system or see how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
Professor Jin has already shown that his microscope can find one diseased cell in a million healthy cells.
His work has also led to a new device for routine screening of cancers using urine samples instead of biopsies.
Bringing scientists, the community and schools together
Neil Bramsen receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools. (Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: WildBear)
Neil Bramsen creates hands-on opportunities for students in outdoor classrooms.
He developed a marine debris project where students surveyed what had washed up on the beach.
Mr Bramsen then arranged for them to Skype researchers who were out at sea to discuss the impact of plastic debris on wildlife.
When his students wanted to know: “Do magnets work in space?”, Mr Bramsen encouraged them to create an experiment to answer the question.
The experiment used a small cube that was launched into near-space on a NASA sounding rocket and then returned to the students to see how their experiment worked.
The results were inconclusive but prompted students to refine the experiment the following year.
“That’s the great thing about science, you have to keep failing forward,” Mr Bramsen said.
Inspiring students to love science and use it every day
Brett McKay receives the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in Secondary Schools. (Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science: WildBear)
Brett McKay found ways to link the curriculum to the outside world.
He uses every opportunity to introduce his students at Kirrawee High in Sydney’s south to working scientists, including lectures at observatories, the Australian Institute of Physics and UNSW.
As a result of his efforts, a quarter of year 10 students at the school seek out science-BOOKr.VIP work experience.
This has led to more students doing rigorous science courses in year 11, including four times as many students taking physics — and more girls.
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