Science jumps to the forefront of Australia Day!

I’m starting to write this on Australia Day, but it’ll probably be Monday by the time you read it! I’ve just heard on the radio and read in ‘The Australian’ about our Australians of the Year and was absolutely delighted to recognise some names: Professor Michelle Simmons (Australian of the Year), leading Australia’s quantum computing team, Dr Graham Farquhar (Senior Australian of the Year), a biophysicist, and maths teacher Eddie Woo (Australia’s Local Hero) with brilliant YouTube videos explaining many mathematical concepts.

Out of the four awards (there is also a Young Australian of the Year which was awarded to Samantha Kerr), three of these were given to the scientists and mathematician mentioned above. I think that’s very exciting, given that the awards don’t specifically target STEM professionals, instead the criteria for selection are:

  • Demonstrated excellence in their field
  • Significant contribution to the Australian community and nation
  • An inspirational role model for the Australian community

So you can see. Not specific to STEM, just being an awesome Australian! In fact, since 1960 when the awards began, only 6 of the 62 awards were given to scientists.

Australian of the Year Awards
Australian of the Year by discipline from 1960, table sourced from Wikipedia

In light of this, I think it’s really great to hear about 2 scientists and a maths teacher in the newspapers and on the radio this year. Perhaps Australia’s willing to recognise that science is every bit cooler than sport. Isn’t recognising 14 sportspersons and only 6 scientists discrimination? In our increasing ‘politically correct’ world shouldn’t we be closing that gap … 10 sports, 10 science?

But now, talking about prejudice, Prof Michelle Simmons is that rare female scientist who’s risen through a male-dominated field to lead Australia into “the space race of the computing era”. But what I like best about her is that she doesn’t care too much about that. In her speech on Friday she addressed this issue, “Throughout my career, I found people often underestimate female scientists. In some ways for me that has been great, it has meant I have flown under the radar and have been able to get on with things.”

To me, that sounds amazing. She’s been underestimated, but simply ignored it and now she’s at the top she’s keen to encourage women and other Australian scientists.

“Women think differently and that diversity is invaluable to technological and research development.” –Simmons

She makes it clear that we’re not just some big island on the other side of the world, but a place where ideas can flourish and grow.

Dr Graham Farquhar is an example of that. At the age of 70, he’s had a long and successful career in biophysics, which was recognised when he became the first Australian to win the Kyoto prize last year, an award equivalent to the legendary Nobel prize. His work includes developing sustainable agriculture and solving climate change problems … those are really important things that are so relevant today. In doing this work, he’s helping prepare Australia for a future with even less predictable weather (as if that could happen!).

And speaking of preparing for the future, the other STEM award was ‘Australia’s Local Hero’ given to Eddie Woo, “Australia’s most famous maths teacher”. His YouTube videos are taken directly from recorded classes he teaches, sharing his exciting and inspiring teaching style with the whole world. If you watch any of these, it’s pretty clear that he’s helping Australia’s future by preparing the scientists and mathematicians of tomorrow!

 

Preparing a Future

This year’s awards have shown us that we have a future in STEM:

High-tech and research development: Professor Michelle Simmons is leading Australia to building a quantum computing industry to solve some of the world’s biggest problems in healthcare, energy efficiency, climate models and so much more that current computers can’t.

Preparing the next generation: Eddie Woo is helping Australia’s senior maths students understand and love their subject, laying important groundwork for future science and math careers.

Keeping our world safe: Dr Graham Farquhar’s work is going to help us understand and work with climate change, while his agricultural work helps Australia to continue growing food despite severe drought.

I’d say we’re going to see the next generation of STEM in Australia absolutely flourishing!

 

You can read about the awardees and listen to their speeches here.

 


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