Four pioneering UNSW researchers have been honoured with 2023 NSW Premier’s Prizes for Science and Engineering.
Prof. McDougall’s research explores the ocean’s role in climate and his discoveries have positioned Australia at the forefront of ocean physics. Photo: UNSW.
UNSW Sydney Scientia Professor Trevor McDougall has been named Scientist of the Year at the 2023 NSW Premier’s Prizes for Science and Engineering.
Dr Jodi Rowley has won the Innovation in NSW Public Sector Science and Engineering award, and Professor Shinichi Nakagawa has received the Excellence in Biological Sciences (Ecological, environmental, agricultural, and organismal) prize. For her research contributions to improving vaccine efficacy, Dr Deborah Burnett has also been named Early Career Researcher of the Year in the Biological Sciences category.
The awards recognise excellence in science and engineering, and honour leading researchers for innovative work that has generated economic, environmental, health, social or technological benefits for NSW.
Oceanographer wins top NSW Premier's Prize for Science and Engineering
Emeritus Prof. McDougall from UNSW Science took out the 2023 NSW Scientist of the Year prize for his contributions to understanding the fundamental physics of the ocean and his ground-breaking research in physical oceanography, transforming the field of ocean thermodynamics.
Prof. McDougall’s research focuses on the ocean’s role in climate, ocean mixing processes and the thermodynamics of seawater. His major discoveries have positioned Australia at the forefront of ocean physics and climate research. His work has improved modelling of the effects of climate change and has led to the discovery of new ocean mixing processes, and the development of new methods of analysing oceanographic data.
“It is a great honour to be recognised in this way,” Prof. McDougall said. “It’s tremendous that NSW has these awards to recognise and promulgate science and technology and the importance it has for the state, country, and the world.”
“I’ll take this award as recognition not only of my own work, but the wider team’s work, and also of the importance of this field of climate science broadly, because when I first had my PhD, we didn’t really appreciate the urgency of climate research and even El Nino hadn’t yet been discovered.”
Prof. McDougall’s dedication to advancing ocean modelling techniques has not only expanded understanding of the coupled atmosphere-ocean-ice climate system but has also opened new avenues for future research. His contributions to the field of oceanography include leading an international group of researchers in redefining the 30-year-old definition of seawater thermodynamics.
He has received significant recognition and awards throughout his career including the 2022 Prime Minister’s Prize and the 2016 Laureate Professorial Fellowship of the Australian Research Council.
“Winning the Laureate Fellowship was fantastic because it enabled me to build a team at UNSW and another career highlight was the Prime Minister's Prize for Science. However, what turns a scientist on are those Eureka moments and the incredible feeling that you’ve discovered something new which overturns the way people have been thinking for decades,” he said.
Leader in amphibian and reptile conservation biology
Dr Jodi Rowley won the Innovation in NSW Public Sector Science and Engineering award. She is a herpetologist at the forefront of biodiversity conservation, with benefits and outcomes from her research having impacts on a state, national and global scale. Her research directly contributes to the scientific understanding of amphibians, frogs in particular, especially classification, species distribution, threatening processes and using amphibians as sentinels of ecosystem health.
She is the curator of amphibian and reptile conservation biology at the Australian Museum and co-founder and Lead Scientist of the museum’s national citizen science project FrogID, engaging citizen scientists across Australia to record frog calls using the FrogID smartphone app.
In under six years, FrogID has gathered almost one million frog records across Australia. This is the largest frog dataset in Australia and is a powerful tool to monitor biodiversity, raise awareness of environmental impacts and inform policy for species conservation. Dr Rowley holds the first joint academic appointment between UNSW and the Australian Museum.
“It’s an absolute honour to be recognised with this award for my contributions to biodiversity,” Dr Rowley said.
“Throughout my work, particularly as lead scientist of the national citizen science project FrogID, I have learnt just how much difference people can make to conservation when they work together, and it’s given me so much hope for the future.”
Dr Jodi Rowley, an herpetologist at the forefront of biodiversity conservation, has received the Innovation in NSW Public Sector Science and Engineering award. Photo: Australian Museum.
Pioneer of animal behaviour and evolutionary ecology
Prof. Shinichi Nakagawa has received the Excellence in Biological Sciences (Ecological, environmental, agricultural, and organismal) prize. He’s made pioneering contributions to the fields of animal behaviour, behavioural ecology, and evolutionary biology, with his research profoundly impacting the transparency and reproducibility of results across the ecology and evolution fields.
Highlights from his work include describing a novel framework for research synthesis called ‘Research Weaving’, combining systematic mapping with bibliometrics, and establishing all-new avenues for future research synthesis. In pioneering new ways to enhance reproducibility and transparency, he is improving the quality and validity of all ecology and evolution research across NSW.
"The Premier’s Award means a lot to me in several ways. Firstly, it acknowledges the importance of basic science done by my group and my colleagues,” Prof. Nakagawa said.
“Secondly, it recognises the value of openness and transparency in science. Thirdly, it celebrates diversity and inclusiveness as many of my group members are not originally from Australia."
Prof. Shinichi Nakagawa has received the Excellence in Biological Sciences (Ecological, environmental, agricultural, and organismal) prize for his pioneering contributions to the fields of animal behaviour, behavioural ecology, and evolutionary biology. Photo: UNSW Sydney.
Trailblazer in vaccine research
Dr Deborah Burnett has been named Early Career Researcher of the Year in the Biological Sciences category for her research contributions to improving vaccine efficacy. Dr Burnett is an early career immunologist and Leader of the Protective Immunity Group at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. Her work focuses on B cells, on developing better models to understand how they respond to infectious threats and how to harness this knowledge to develop better vaccines.
She has made groundbreaking discoveries in antibody development, which have resulted in new research platforms to evaluate vaccine responses against specific infectious disease targets and have led to a strategy to generate future-proofed COVID-19 vaccines that can resist emerging viral strains.
“I am humbled and absolutely thrilled to have been awarded this Premier’s Prize. The award is a testament to what we can achieve when we collaborate and use our shared knowledge to answer the important research questions that will let us advance health outcomes,” Dr Burnett said.
Dr Deborah Burnett has made groundbreaking discoveries in antibody development. Photo: Garvan Institute of Medical Research.
UNSW Dean of Science Professor Sven Rogge said he was proud of the recipients of the 2023 NSW Premier's Prizes for Science and Engineering.
“Professor McDougall’s research has significantly improved our understanding of the fundamental physics of the ocean and its role in the planet’s climate system, allowing us to have more confidence in climate change predictions,” he said.
“I also congratulate Prof. Nakagawa who is a pioneer in the fields of animal behaviour and evolutionary biology and Dr Rowley, an eminent herpetologist recognised for her innovative work at the forefront of biodiversity conservation. I would also like to extend my congratulations to Dr Deborah Burnett, from the Faculty of Medicine, for her award recognising her innovative work in vaccine development. These awards are a validation of their outstanding work and contribution to the UNSW Science community.”
Read more about the 2023 NSW Premier's Prizes for Science and Engineering.