Terry Speed awarded PM's Prize for Science for work in bioinformatics


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    • Published by:Nicky Phillips(Nicky Phillips is a Science Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.)
  • Emeritus Professor Terry Speed has been awarded the 2013 Prime Minister's Prize for Science for his contribution to making sense of genomics and related technologies.
  • Their research topics couldn't be more distinct - one study's plants; the other, particles - but a pair of Sydney scientists now have something in common, they are recipients of two of the country's most prestigious science awards, the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science.
  • Engineer Andrea Morello, an associate professor at UNSW, was honoured for his groundbreaking work on quantum computers while evolutionary ecologist Angela Moles was awarded for her research on global patterns in plant life.
  • Dr Moles, also an associate professor at the University of NSW, said she was shocked to receive the $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year.

Mathemetician Terry Speed in his office at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Mathemetician Terry Speed in his office at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Photo: Penny Stephens

"The person who won the award I'm getting last year grew fully functioning breasts from stem cells, that is way cooler than what I do," she said.

  • The overall winner of the $300,000 Prime Minister's Prize was Melbourne statistician Terry Speed, whose mathematical expertise has been used in several high-profile court cases.
  • At the 1994 murder trial of American football player OJ Simpson, Professor Speed, now the head of bioinformatics at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, was an expert witness on DNA forensics for the defence. This involved calculating the odds of a chance DNA match, verses a real match of two blood samples.

Associate Professor Angela Moles, UNSW Faculty of Science, and Associate Professor Andrea Morello, UNSW Faculty of Engineering, on the UNSW campus.

Honoured: Associate Professor Angela Moles (left) and Associate Professor Andrea Morello on the UNSW campus. Photo: UNSW/Peter Morris

However Professor Speed, 70, describes his bit-part on the criminology stage as "just a sideshow" in his scientific life which has included two decades at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Sheffield, the University of Western Australia and CSIRO, where he was the head of statistics and mathematics division.

  • Professor Speed was present his award by Tony Abbott at a ceremony at Parliament House on Wednesday evening.
  • As part of the World Herbivory Project, Dr Moles she spent two years travelling to 75 ecosystems, visiting every continent bar Antarctica, to record the seed size of nearly 13,000 plants and the heights of 22,000 plants.
  • Her findings overturned several long-held ideas of ecology, including the notion that because the tropics contains the most species diversity, plants there would contain the most biologically active compounds - a source of potential new drugs.
  • Instead Dr Moles found plants closer to the poles, which have to tolerate harsher, more variable environments, had a greater variety of chemical defences.
  • More recently her work has shown introduced plants are quickly becoming more versatile invaders which have evolved to suit Australia's climate.
  • Across campus, Dr Morello - winner of the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year - and his team have made significant progress in global race to build super-powerful computers.
  • They use the bizarre properties of subatomic particles to perform calculations trillions of times faster than conventional computers.
  • In 2012 the team built the world's first quantum bit, the basic data unit in quantum computers, and the equivalent of 1s and 0s in conventional computers, based on a single phosphorus atom implanted in a silicon chip.
  • A year later they built even smaller, developing a quantum bit, or qubit, based on the core of a phosphorus atom, its nucleus.
  • Australia leads the world in research on quantum computing, with scientists, including Dr Morello's group, achieving several breakthroughs in the past five years.


Published by:Nicky Phillips(Nicky Phillips is a Science Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.)