Prizes: Celebrating the best

Associate Professor Angela Moles and Associate Professor Andrea Morello. Photo: Peter Morris
Thursday, 31 October, 2013
UNSW researchers Angela Moles and Andrea Morello have won two of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science – the nation’s most prestigious awards for excellence in science and science teaching.
Associate Professor Angela Moles, of the UNSW Faculty of Science, has been awarded the 2013 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year for her study of ecology at a global level.
Associate Professor Andrea Morello, of the UNSW Faculty of Engineering, was awarded the 2013 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, for advances in the development of a quantum computer.
Both $50,000 prizes honour early or mid-career researchers who have made outstanding achievements that can improve human welfare or benefit society. 
Prime Minister Tony Abbott presented the prize winners – five in all – with their awards on Wednesday evening at a formal dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament in Canberra.
“I was fascinated by how plants vary around the globe, so I had this plan to go to every continent except Antarctica and find out why. I am very grateful to the Australian Research Council for backing me,” said Associate Professor Moles, who is head of the Big Ecology Lab in the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.
“Quantum computers promise to solve complex problems that are currently impossible to answer with even the world’s biggest supercomputers. One day my research may change the world of information, but in the meantime teaching and motivating outstanding students is an immediate and tangible outcome of my work,” said Associate Professor Morello, of the UNSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications.
UNSW Vice-Chancellor Professor Fred Hilmer congratulated Associate Professors Moles and Morello on their achievements.
“UNSW is delighted that two of our outstanding researchers have been recognised nationally with Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science.
“It is particularly pleasing that UNSW has won both awards for early or mid-career researchers. This speaks volumes about the kinds of people that we are recruiting and the impact they will have in the long term,” Professor Hilmer said.
As part of her epic World Herbivory Project, Associate Professor Moles travelled to 75 different ecosystems across the planet in a two-year period – from the tundras of Greenland to the jungles of Central America. Her findings have revolutionised understanding of the way that plants evolve in different parts of the world.
In collaboration with international researchers, she has developed a computer database on more than 450,000 plant species from 40,000 different sites. Her research has revealed that plant species at the equator are about 30 times taller than those in temperate zones.
She has also found that seeds in the tropics are 300 times bigger on average than in colder climes, and, surprisingly, plants closer to the poles have more biologically active compounds than those close to the equator.
This research on global patterns of plant distribution could help predict the impacts of climate change on plants and the animals that depend on them.
Associate Professor Andrea Morello is developing the building blocks of silicon-based quantum computers – ultra-powerful devices that will be able to model atomic systems, such as biological molecule and drug interactions, search large databases, and solve complex optimisation problems.
He has given Australia a solid lead in this game-changing technology, in collaboration with his research students, fellow UNSW engineer Professor Andrew Dzurak, and other colleagues in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at UNSW.
Last year the team created the world’s first working quantum bit based on a single atom in silicon, demonstrating they could both read and write information using the spin, or magnetic orientation, of an electron bound to a single phosphorus atom.
This year the team achieved the very challenging feat of creating an even more reliable qubit using a single nuclear spin.
The top award – the $300,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science – went to Professor Terry Speed, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, for a life’s work using mathematics and statistics to solve real world issues. Sarah Chapman, of Townsville State High School, and Richard Johnson, of Rostrata Primary School in Perth, won the science teaching prizes. 
Media contacts
Angela Moles: 9385 8302
Andrea Morello: 9382 4972
UNSW Science: Deborah Smith, 0478 492 060,
UNSW Engineering: Myles Gough, 0420 652 825,