University of Sydney wins big in science and engineering

NSW Premier's Prizes for Science & Engineering winners: (clockwise from main) Professor Branka Vucetic; Professor Alex McBratney; Professor Dietmar Müller; Professor Tony Weiss and Dr Mac Shine.

The University of Sydney has taken the lion’s share of awards at the NSW Premier’s Prizes for science and engineering at a ceremony held at Government House on October 30.

The university won five of the seven categories available for university staff to enter in the NSW Premier’s prizes for science and engineering.

The five winners received their trophies and $5000 prize money each from the NSW premier  Gladys Berejiklian, and Governor of NSW David Hurley.

The prizes recognise excellence in science and engineering, and reward leading researchers for cutting-edge work that has generated economic, environmental, health, social or technological benefits for NSW.

The university’s winners are:

Professor Dieter Müller – School of Geosciences, Faculty of Science 

Müller won the prize for Excellence in Mathematics, Earth Sciences, Chemistry or Physics.

“Receiving this prize is a great and unexpected honour – it is a marvellous recognition of the fundamental role geology and geophysics plays in keeping our planet habitable, and of our community’s contributions to understanding how the Earth works. This is a fantastic award for our entire EarthByte Research Group and all our collaborators in Australia and overseas,” said Müller.

Professor Müller is internationally renowned for leading the construction of a virtual earth laboratory to ‘see’ deep into the Earth in four dimensions.

By merging diverse data types, his team has developed open-access models of Earth’s dynamic history, benefiting end-users in universities, government organisations, industry and schools worldwide, with end-users across 183 countries.

Professor Alex McBratney – Sydney Institute of Agriculture and Faculty of Science

McBratney won the prize for Excellence in Biological Sciences.

“Soil and soil science are vital to NSW and Australia, but they rarely get recognition, so I am thrilled to receive this award on behalf of my fellow soil scientists,” said McBratney.

He has worked internationally with universities, governments, industry, and farmers to transform our knowledge of soil composition and function, providing farmers, natural resource managers, and policy makers with new tools to map soil properties, from individual farmers’ fields up to the global scale.

His achievements, which impact all agricultural regions of NSW, have shaped a new transformational global soil data infrastructure that uses his innovations to drive digital agriculture and ecology.

Professor Branka Vucetic – School of Electrical and Information Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies

Vucetic won the prize for Excellence in Engineering or Information and Communications Technology

“The award is a recognition not only of my achievements, but those of my team, my students and the University of Sydney,” said Vucetic.

She has pioneered the field of adaptive coding theory.

Her work underpins all modern telecommunications technologies, from the development of 3G to 4G to 5G, and is contributing to laying the framework for digital transformation of the Australian economy.

In her career, Vucetic has built an international reputation in leading wireless communications and coding theory research, pioneering breakthroughs in foundational methods of error control coding, design of cellular communications systems, and wireless transmission and energy transfer.

In 2013 she developed analogue fountain codes for their intrinsic ability to adapt to channel variations and their powerful error-correcting abilities; this is groundbreaking and is fast becoming the new standard for wireless networks.

Dr Mac Shine – Sydney Medical School, Faculty of Medicine and Health

Shine won the prize for NSW Early Career Researcher of the Year.

“I am extremely honoured to receive the prize this year, and would like to deeply thank my family and all of my collaborators for their support and encouragement,” said Shine.

As Australia’s population ages and the ‘dementia crisis’ approaches, neuroscientist Shine has made a series of outstanding discoveries that help explain how the patterns of failed communication in the human brain give rise to cognitive disorders of ageing.

He has identified key mechanisms underlying two of the most devastating non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: freezing and visual hallucinations.

Using creative approaches that focus on the symptoms directly, he redefined freezing as a product of cognitive overload and not just a motor deficit.

This directly led to new therapeutic strategies to improve quality-of-life in Parkinson’s disease: wearable electroencephalographic devices that alert patients to impending freezing events; and a simple seven-week cognitive training intervention that successfully decreases freezing severity.

Professor Tony Weiss – Charles Perkins Centre, and School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science

Weiss won the prize for Leadership in Innovation in NSW.

“I am thrilled, delighted and humbled by this great award. It’s an incredible honour to be recognised as the state’s innovation leader,” said Weiss.

His research on tropoelastin and elastin – the biological ingredients that give human tissue its elasticity – have led to his invention and commercialisation of biological treatments that decrease scarring and accelerate the repair of wounds.

This is a success story for NSW science, culminating this year in one of the largest commercial transactions in Australian healthcare history.

Weiss pioneered the end-to-end creation of this product, which is based upon an entirely novel approach to the problem of tissue repair.

First, he patented ways to industrially scale tropoelastin production, a prerequisite for the development of synthetic elastin biomaterials for clinical applications.

Second, he used his team’s basic biomedical discoveries, such as how the protein interacts with cells and initiates wound repair, to develop a unique tropoelastin-based ‘synthetic skin’. In clinical testing, this product repairs skin faster and better than any existing treatment, directly improving outcomes for patients.