Atoms and spider venom win big at science awards

A former Australian of the Year whose discoveries are pushing the world into the quantum age, and a pest-averse spider venom collector have won the country’s most prestigious science awards.

University of NSW professor Michelle Simmons was awarded the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science on Monday night for creating the field of atomic electronics.

Using a scanning tunnelling microscope, Professor Simmons manipulated atoms to create new devices at an inconceivably small scale.

Over time, her research helped create the world’s first single atom transistor, which forms the basis of a new approach to quantum computing that could revolutionise drug design, improve delivery and logistics systems and even create better fertilisers.

“I’m just over the moon,” Professor Simmons said as she thanked other scientists and engineers who contributed to her research.

“When we started our quantum computing program, many people said what we were trying to achieve was just impossible – No one had ever done it before.

“At that time, I thought well if no one has tried it, how do you know?”

Her discoveries mean she is part of the global race to create the world’s first error-corrected quantum computer.

Using principles of quantum physics, it is predicted quantum computers will be able to solve extremely complex problems in seconds that would otherwise take thousands of years.

Fellow scientist Professor Hugh Bradlow called the discoveries “uniquely imaginative scientific achievements, enabled by brilliant, long-term scientific work.”

“Professor Simmons has given the world an unparalleled capacity to control nature at the atomic limit,” he said.

In other awards, Professor Glenn King from the University of Queensland, won the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation after discovering peptides in funnel-web spider venom could be used for sustainable crop protection and human therapeutics.

“We began to think about whether there were more environmentally sustainable ways to protect crops from insect pests,” he said.

“And we decided to turn to the best insect killers on the planet – spiders.”

He has since commercialised his invention and now provides farmers with a solution to the food production crisis through insecticides which are safe and eco-friendly.

Professor King also discovered molecules in the same venom could protect human brains after a stroke and limit damage to the heart during a heart attack and has begun developing treatments that will go into clinical trials from 2024.

Associate Professor Lara Herrero received the $50,000 Prize for New Innovators after developing a world-first drug which has the potential to treat viral arthritis in less than a decade.


Kat Wong
(Australian Associated Press)


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