Australian Academy of Science’s Shine Dome was designed to reflect the inquiring and innovative nature of science. Adi Chopra DJI/Australian Academy of Science , Author provided

Colloid science, tackling superbugs and light lead the 2017 Shine Dome Awards

One of Australia’s leading scientists heads a list of honorific award winners set to be celebrated by the Australian Academy of Science at the annual Science at the Shine Dome conference this week.

Professor Barry Ninham (AO FAA), from the Australian National University, will be awarded the Matthew Flinders Medal for his substantial contributions to colloid and surface science.

Colloids are mixtures made up of particles spread throughout another substance - for example, milk is a colloid in which particles of butter fat globules are suspended in a liquid.

But understanding how colloids work goes beyond naturally occurring substances. Colloid science has revolutionised many of our industries, including minerals extraction, water purification and drug delivery.

Professor Barry Ninham. Australian Academy of Science, Author provided

Professor Ninham is the developer of an accepted theory of “amphiphilic molecular self-assembly”, or how molecules naturally arrange themselves to form stable structures. It’s a body of work that has been vital in development of nanotechnology.

Along with colleagues, Professor Ninham’s research has underpinned developments in drug delivery, water purification, desalination and the removal of metal pollutants like arsenic and nuclear waste.

Colloid science is highly interdisciplinary, relying on expertise in physical, chemical, and biological sciences.

“Anywhere you have tiny particles interacting, colloid science helps you understand and control that,” said David Beattie, Associate Professor at the Future Industries Institute at University of South Australia.

“Barry Ninham has made an enormous contribution to colloid science over the last 50 years, and his work is one of the reasons that Australia has a global reputation in the area.”

Rejigging old drugs for new purposes

Professor Jian Li will be awarded the Jacques Miller Medal for Experimental Biomedicine.

Drug-resistant “superbugs” are an increasingly worrisome issue for the scientific and medical communities. Professor Jian Li works on a class of antibiotics known as polymyxins.

Professor Jian Li. Australian Academy of Science, Author provided

“Using modern pharmacological approaches, we are re-developing ‘old’ polymyxins, the last-line defence against rapidly emerging bacterial superbugs. As no novel antibiotic will be available in the near future, we have to deal with this urgent unmet global medical need,” he said.

“Our research has led to a change in clinical practice in Europe, the US, and many other countries. Clinicians have started using our dosing recommendations to improve the clinical outcomes in critically-ill patients.”

“We are also developing new, safer polymyxins,” he said.

Light as a unit of secure information

Associate Professor Igor Aharonovich’s research into light-based technology has earned him the Pawsey Medal in physics for 2017.

His research focuses on single photon sources for coding and communication. A photon is a particle of electromagnetic energy.

Associate Professor Igor Aharonovich. Australian Academy of Science, Author provided

“A single photon source is a light source that emits only one photon at a time,” said Professor Aharonovich.

“This is unlike LED globes or other light sources (like the Sun) that emit many photons all together.

"You encode your information into the photon and then you can achieve absolutely secured information because nobody can breach it or clone it because you can’t split a photon.”

“My research basically aims to deliver absolutely secure information in the future,” said Professor Aharonovich.

Professor Aharonovich explains his research.

Treating kids with tuberculosis

Professor Ben Marais is the recipient of the 2017 Gustav Nossal Medal for Global Health. Professor Marais’ work focuses on the thousands of children around the world who suffer from tuberculosis.

In adults, tuberculosis is often diagnosed by microscopic examination of a sputum sample for the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

“Children can’t produce sputum, so if you only diagnose children using a microscope, you will never treat them,” he said.

“Most poor countries have never even attempted to treat children [with TB].”

Professor Ben Marais. Australian Academy of Science, Author provided

Professor Marais’ research has been crucial in helping to provide funds for the production and distribution of child-friendly drugs to combat tuberculosis, and in changing treatment practises in tuberculosis-endemic countries.

“I think one good thing that has come from the research is that there’s been awareness, and that since 2012 the World Health Organisation started to report on child tuberculosis estimates as well,” he said.

The Science at the Shine Dome conference runs May 22 to 25 2017 in Canberra.

Other prizewinners

Career honorifics

David Craig Medal — Professor David St Clair Black, UNSW

Hannan Medal — Dr Frank Robert de Hoog, retired (ACT) CSIRO

Jaeger Medal — Emeritus Professor Ross William Griffiths, ANU

Thomas Ranken Lyle Medal — Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn, University of Sydney

Mid career honorifics

Nancy Millis Medal for Women in Science — Associate Professor Kerrie Ann Wilson, University of Queensland

Early career honorifics

Anton Hales Medal — Associate Professor Juan Carlos Afonso, Macquarie University

Dorothy Hill Award — Dr Joanne Whittaker, University of Tasmania

Fenner Medal — Professor Simon Ho, University of Sydney

Gottschalk Medal — Associate Professor Kathryn Elizabeth Holt, University of Melbourne

John Booker Medal — Professor Dayong Jin, University of Technology Sydney

Le Févre Memorial Prize — Dr Deanna D'Alessandro, University of Sydney

Moran Medal — Associate Professor Joshua Ross, University of Adelaide

Ruth Stephens Gani Medal — Dr Sarah Medland, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Also this week, the Academy announced 21 new fellows in recognition of their contributions to science and scientific research.