Sex and powders: Academy rewards excellence

Rob Brooks
Friday, 7 May, 2010
Bob Beale

One of them is shedding new light on the battle of the sexes and the other is helping Australian industry come to grips with its own powdery products, but two UNSW researchers do have something in common: their excellence has been recognised with major awards from the Australian Academy of Science.

Professor Rob Brooks, of the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, has won the academy's Fenner Medal, which recognises outstanding young researchers in biology (excluding biomedical sciences). It is the second time the award has gone to a UNSW scientist. Professor Brett Neilan won the medal in 2005.

Professor Aibing Yu, of the UNSW School of Materials Science and Engineering, has won the academy's Ian Wark Medal and Lecture for applied research.

The academy also recognised a former UNSW staff member, Dr Peter Pockley, with its Academy Medal for his many years of service as a science communicator. The awards were presented yesterday at a ceremony in Canberra.

Professor Brooks is a recognised international leader at the intersection of four vibrant fields: evolution, genetics, ecology and behaviour. He joined UNSW in 2001 and set up and heads the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre. He has held ARC Postdoctoral, QEII and Professorial Research Fellowships.

"Males and females tend to maximise their evolutionary fitness in very different ways," Professor Brooks says. "As a result, sex-dependent selection drives the evolution of sex differences in most, if not all, traits. If my research career has one overall goal it is to understand the evolution of these differences, including the evolutionary consequences of sex differences. "

His research has generated several new, unique, or important insights into high-profile problems in biology, including the evolution of sex chromosomes, the biology of ageing and longevity, risks of extinction and the genetic benefits of mate choice. He has pioneered or developed a variety of techniques for understanding the complex tradeoffs between reproduction and lifespan, the role of diet in linking reproduction, lifespan and ageing and the experimental measurement of selection.

Professor Brooks is credited with fundamentally changing the way scientists and the public think about the complex yet fascinating relationships between sex, death and diet. His work has been highly cited and adopted in fields as diverse as genome evolution, human behaviour and conservation biology.

Professor Yu is a world leader in the field of particle/powder technology, especially particle packing, particulate and multiphase processing, and the simulation/modelling of particulate systems.

His research has not only greatly expanded the scientific knowledge base in that field but has been extensively applied, creating significant economic benefits in the mineral, metallurgical, chemical and material industries, most notably steel and coal.

"Particulate science and technology is a rapidly developing interdisciplinary research area with its core being the understanding of the relationships between micro- and macroscopic properties of particulate materials," Professor Yu says.

"It is now emerging as a core competency of paramount importance to many sectors of our modern economy. For example, a recent survey indicates that an estimated minimum of 40%, or US$61 billion, of the value added by the chemical processing industry is linked to powder/particle technology in USA. This is particularly so in Australia in view of its heavy dependence on particulate processing operations, e.g. the handling and processing of minerals such as coal and metal ores. This economic need provides a strong and continuing driving force for powder technology research in Australia."

Professor Yu has attracted more than $15million in external research funds to UNSW in the past decade through the Australian Research Council and other competitive schemes, and successfully established a world-class research team in his Laboratory for Simulation and Modelling of Particulate Systems, which responds to Australian industry.

He has published more 500 papers in international journals and conference proceedings and delivered numerous invited plenary/keynote presentations at various international conferences.  Among his many awards and honours an Outstanding Overseas Chinese Scholar (China); a CSIRO Postdoctoral Fellowship; an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship; an Australian Professorial Fellowship and a Federation Fellowship.

His medal recognises research which contributes to the prosperity of Australia, where that prosperity is attained through the advancement of scientific knowledge and its application. The award is normally made every 2 years. Recent recipients include Alan Reed, former director at the CSIRO Institute of Energy and Earth Resources, and Professor Graham Clark, inventor of the bionic ear.

Media contact:
Bob Beale, UNSW Faculty of Science - 0411 705 435