UNSW solar innovator, world-leading oceanographer and molecular tech entrepreneurs awarded Prime Minister's Prizes for Science

22 Nov 2022
UNSW solar innovator and world-leading oceanographer awarded Prime Minister's Prizes for Science

It’s the first time UNSW academics have been honoured with the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science and the Prize for New Innovators in the same year.

UNSW Sydney Scientia Professor Trevor McDougall has been named the winner of The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science and Associate Professor Brett Hallam has received the Prize for New Innovators at the 2022 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.

The prizes are Australia’s most prestigious awards for outstanding achievements in scientific research, research-based innovation and excellence in science teaching. They recognise those who have made a significant contribution to the nation’s scientific and commercialisation capabilities, science teaching, and the country’s social and economic well-being.

UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Attila Brungs congratulated Prof. McDougall and A/Prof. Hallam on their achievement.

“The impact of both academics’ work towards our fight against climate change cannot be overstated,” he said.

“Professor McDougall’s discoveries have greatly improved the understanding of the role of the ocean in the planet’s climate system, allowing us to have greater confidence in climate change projections.

“Associate Professor Hallam’s research meanwhile has helped engineer the next generation of Australian-made solar energy technology. His work has had – and continues to have – a significant impact on the global energy sector.”

Scientia Professor Trevor McDougall AC

Prof. McDougall from UNSW Science was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, with $250,000 in prize money, for the significant advancement of knowledge through science and research.

He is recognised as the world’s authority on ocean thermodynamics and a leading expert in the field of ocean mixing. His work focuses on discovering what role the ocean plays in regulating climate and he is responsible for greatly improving the ways that oceanographic observations and model output data are analysed and interpreted.

“It is an amazing honour to be recognised in this way,” Prof. McDougall said. “Such an award would not be possible without the brilliant work of many early career researchers with whom I’ve had the privilege of working and the incredibly supportive atmosphere at UNSW. 

“I feel this award also shines a light on all the researchers who work so hard to understand and warn about the implications of our addiction to fossil fuels on the evolving climate and weather of our planet.”

Prof. McDougall’s impact on the field of oceanography has been transformative. His theoretical work has frequently overturned century-held assumptions of how the ocean works. Similarly, his work on the thermodynamics of seawater has led to new temperature and salinity variables that have been adopted as the international standard in marine science.

The ocean is an integral part of the climate system, Prof. McDougall said.

“For example, 92 per cent of the extra heat that the planet has received with global warming is in the ocean. The ocean is the thermal flywheel of the climate system,” he said.

“The ways in which the ocean absorbs heat and moves it from place to place depend on how much mixing occurs in the ocean, and this mixing occurs at very small scales that cannot be modelled directly. This means that our knowledge of these processes must be directly input into ocean models. I’ve worked on understanding how the ocean mixes, and this knowledge has informed how ocean models are constructed.”

Prof. McDougall’s day-to-day motivation comes from discovering new things about the ocean and having these ideas accepted by the ocean research community.

“It can be exhilarating to know that something you have found is a brand-new idea, and then you have to test the idea on your colleagues before you can allow yourself to think that it might be an important idea,” he said.

Associate Professor Brett Hallam 

A/Prof. Hallam from UNSW Engineering received the Prize for New Innovators. The prize, which includes $50,000 in award money, recognises an early achievement towards commercialisation of scientific research with substantial economic, social and environmental benefits.

A/Prof. Hallam is recognised as a global leader in the field of hydrogen passivation in solar cells. His discoveries and patented technologies have dramatically improved solar cell performance and boosted Australia’s renewable energy economy.

“It's a really big honour to receive this award, particularly for the topic I was working on with the (inventor of solar cell technologies), the late Professor Stuart Wenham,” A/Prof. Hallam said.

“My team developed a technology to improve the performance of industrial solar panels, make them more reliable, and cheaper. In particular, we found a way to stop a form of ironic degradation when solar panels are installed in the field.”

A/Prof. Hallam’s discoveries have improved the performance of solar cells by 10 per cent, a significant increase in the field. In 2021, technologies A/Prof. Hallam founded  provided benefits to Australian consumers of approximately $500 million and $17 billion globally. These figures are rapidly increasing as the industry continues to expand. 

A/Prof. Hallam said he loves working to solve problems.

“I grew up in country Victoria and my dad’s a plumber. When I was growing up, I spent time installing solar hot water systems with him and I was always fascinated about how they could turn sunlight into electricity.”

“I hope my work can help inspire other researchers as they continue to grow and fall in love with science,” he said.

“My goal now is to help address some of the biggest problems as we continue to deploy renewable energy technologies like solar at scale. This is important as the solar industry continues to expand by a factor of 10 over the next decade.”

Adjunct Professor Alison Todd and Adjunct Senior Lecturer Dr Elisa Mokany

Prof. Todd and Dr Mokany from UNSW Science were joint winners of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation, which recognised their outstanding contribution to public health through the invention of highly advanced molecular diagnostic tests, which are now distributed worldwide through their company SpeeDx.

SpeeDx tackles two major problems of modern medicine – cancer and antibiotic resistance. The company’s molecular technology has revolutionised opportunities for personalised clinical diagnosis and improved treatments for a range of infectious diseases and cancers. Their faster, more accurate and cost-effective solutions analyse and interpret genetic information, empowering clinicians to make more informed treatment decisions.

Prof. Todd said the pair were extremely honoured and humbled to receive the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

“This award represents acknowledgement for 30 years of collaboration with like-minded thought leaders who also believed that the secret to selecting the optimal therapy for individual patients was hidden within the DNA of genomes of the cancer cells,” she said.

“Thirty years ago, people didn’t believe that it would be possible to take a simple blood test and use genetic information to determine appropriate therapy and monitor how their disease was tracking.”

Prof. Todd and Dr Mokany are recognised as trailblazers for women in science and technology as co-founders of a female-founded Australian biotechnology company. Their commercialisation efforts have also helped establish Australia as a global leader in molecular diagnostics, while giving Australian scientists the opportunity to work with large multinational healthcare companies.