COVID-19 pioneer awarded PM's Prize for Science

Thursday, 04 November, 2021

COVID-19 pioneer awarded PM's Prize for Science

An evolutionary biologist and virologist who played a significant role in the global scientific response to COVID-19 has won this year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science have been described as Australia’s most prestigious awards for outstanding achievements in scientific research, research-based innovation and excellence in science, mathematics or technology teaching. Recognising achievements across diverse disciplines and career stages with a total of $750,000 in prize money each year, they serve as a tribute to Australia’s world-class science community, as well as the critical role that teachers play in inspiring the next generation of Australian scientists and innovators. The 2021 awards presentation was held virtually on Wednesday, 3 November.

Professor Edward C Holmes from the University of Sydney received the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for almost 30 years of pioneering research on genome sequencing data, providing invaluable insights into diseases such as HIV, Ebola, SARS and, most recently, COVID-19. Last year Prof Holmes was the first person in the world to publicly share the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence — which enabled scientists to start vaccine design within days.

“Professor Holmes’ contribution to accelerating the development of the COVID-19 vaccine — doses of hope, as I call them — saved countless lives,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

“For over 20 years, the Prizes have recognised remarkable Australians whose dedication to scientific research and innovation has led the way in shaping the future of our country, and Professor Holmes exemplified why we placed our trust in science to effectively respond to COVID-19.”

The $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation was meanwhile awarded to Professor Anthony Weiss, also from the University of Sydney, for his trailblazing research into synthetic tropoelastin-based biomaterials, which can accelerate and improve the repair of human tissue. In 2008, he founded Elastagen to commercialise his research and inventions; 10 years later the company was sold to biopharma leader AbbVie for $334 million, in one of the largest transactions ever completed in Australia’s life science sector.

Additional prizes presented on the night were as follows:

  • The $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools was presented to Scott Graham, Head of Agriculture at Barker College (NSW), for changing the way agricultural science is taught by developing unique programs to engage students and emphasise the positive difference agriculture makes to society.
  • The $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools was presented to Megan Hayes, STEM specialist and primary teacher at Mudgeeraba Creek State School (Qld), for her outstanding work in championing the importance of STEM education in her local school community and at a national level.
  • The $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year was presented to Professor Sherene Loi, Medical Oncologist and Head of the Translational Breast Cancer Laboratory at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, for her work to translate scientific findings into innovative treatments that can improve the survival of breast cancer patients in Australia and around the world.
  • The $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year was presented to astronomer and engineer Dr Keith Bannister, whose work using CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope to solve the mystery of Fast Radio Burst radio waves is now helping solve several of the big astronomical mysteries of our generation.
  • The $50,000 Prize for New Innovators was presented to Associate Professor Michael Bowen, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer for Kinoxis Therapeutics and from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, for his work to drive scientific discoveries relating to serious brain disorders (such as opioid use disorder) that lack effective treatments.

“I would like to thank this year’s recipients for creating a more productive and more prosperous future for all of us through their research achievements, and for inspiring our next generation of scientists and innovators,” said Minister for Science and Technology Melissa Price.

The Prime Minister concluded, “On behalf of all Australians, congratulations to the scientists, innovators, educators and research organisations being recognised for their dedication to solving the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

The awards ceremony can be viewed in full below.

Image caption: Professor Edward Holmes. Image credit: Louise Cooper/The University of Sydney.

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