The Australian Science Communicators is the peak body for science communicators and science journalists in Australia. Established in 1994, the Australian Science Communicators has grown to a national network of more than 1650 subscribers and 450 financial members working in science and technology communication, including science journalists and writers, public information officers for academic and research organisations, scientists, museum professionals, science educators, science film-makers, and many other diverse professions united by the common theme of making science accessible. We are a not-for-profit organisation.
- to foster professional communication of science and technology, especially through high standards in the crafts of journalism and other forms of communication;
- to promote national awareness and understanding of science and technology;
- to encourage discussion and debate of ethical, policy, economic and social issues related to science and technology;
- to provide opportunities for meetings between science and technology communication professionals.
We work towards achieving these through:
- An active email list of more than 1500 members and non-members working across the breadth of science communication in Australia;
- Social media forums for members to network, share information, and discuss issues relating to the communication of and about science and technology;
- State branch activities and meetings bringing local members together for networking, professional development, social activities and discussions;
- An annual national conference featuring plenaries, workshops, networking opportunities and social events;
- A monthly online newsletter Scope featuring the latest news from the organisation and the world of science communication;
- A competitive grants program to support members in professional development;
- An annual award honouring the Unsung Hero of Science Communication;
- A website bringing together online resources about science communication, from around Australia and the world.’
President: Craig Cormick (president *at* asc.asn.au)
Dr Craig Cormick has worked as a science communicator for several major organisations, including the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, CSIRO and Questacon. He is widely published on drivers of public attitudes towards new technologies. He has twice appeared in Best Australian Science Writing and edited the award-winning book Ned Kelly Under the Microscope (CSIRO Publications). In 2014 he was awarded the ASC’s Unsung Hero of Science Award.
Vice-President: Lisa Bailey (vp *at* asc.asn.au)
Lisa is Program Manager at RiAus, Australia’s Science Channel. Starting out in research she obtained her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Adelaide. She has worked as a science communicator at The University of Adelaide, with Bridge8 and with the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In 2009 she joined the brand new RiAus in Adelaide, where she now manages a varied science engagement program of online content, events and art exhibitions. Lisa was the the Inspiring Australia Manager for South Australia 2013-14.
Vice-President: Dr Phil Dooley (vp *at* asc.asn.au)
Phil is a science communicator for the ANU, and a freelance presenter of the ‘Phil Up On Science’ YouTube channel, with leanings towards astronomy and physics. As well as solo gigs on Pluto, climate change or purple grass, he MCs science nights such as the hugely popular Physics in the Pub nights for Australian Institute of Physics. He has also served as chair of the NSW and ACT branches of Australian Science Communicators.
Treasurer: Pete Wheeler (treasurer *at* asc.asn.au)
Pete is the Outreach, Education and Communications Manager for the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture of Curtin University and The University of Western Australia. Originally from South Wales in the UK, Pete studied Physics at Leeds University before becoming a Test Engineer for a London based company. In 2003 he immigrated to Western Australia and became a science communicator with Scitech, Perth’s Science Discovery Centre. Among other things, he has developed educational resources for WA teachers, managed the largest planetarium in the southern hemisphere, and coordinated large scale outreach and education initiatives. Pete has also been the treasurer for several volunteer associations including The Australasian Planetarium Society and the WA branch of the Australian Science Communicators.
Secretary: Teresa Belcher (secretary *at* asc.asn.au)
Teresa is a science communicator with over 20 years’ experience communicating science and engineering research and projects. Her initial university qualifications are biology, environmental science and environmental management, supplemented by a Masters in scientific communication from the ANU. Since 2010, she is back living in her hometown of Perth, after working in Canberra, Switzerland and the UK for 17 years. Teresa has a wide range of experience in corporate communication, public relations, journalism, web design and maintenance, new media, event management and training in both the public and private sectors. Her current job is the Communications Manager for Rangelands Natural Resource Management, which allows her to combine her background and interest in the environment with her skills in communicating, plus she gets to travel to some amazing places in the WA outback! In her spare time, Teresa does some freelance writing (previously for Science Network WA), enjoys travel and outdoors activities including rowing, kayaking, sailing, and fishing. She also spends a lot of the time in her garden and doing DIY.
Executive Officer: Kali Madden (office *at* asc.asn.au)
Kali has been immersed in all things sci-tech for 20 years or more, having had a blessed journey through industry IT, collaborative scientific research centres and not-for-profit industry associations. She has been involved in many satisfying projects include setting up a world class research facility; developing a benchmark national outreach program for collaborative research; creating and managing online communities, websites and digital spaces for teaching, training and professional development; and directing the last five transnational convergences for all those who make science accessible. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
National Projects and Portfolios
Scope magazine: Tara Roberson and Jessica Scholle (editor *at* asc.asn.au)
Tara is a communication and engagement officer at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems and a PhD student researching hype in science communication.
Jessica is passionate about science and science communication. After completing a Bachelor of Chemistry, in France, she embarked on a Master of Science Communication. She graduated in September 2014 after a six-month internship at the Western Australian Museum, in Perth, where she completed a thesis highlighting the benefits of using mobile applications to convey scientific information. Since then she’s been working as a freelance science communicator.
ASC website editors: Ravindra Palavalli Nettimi (aka Ravi) and Jenn Cowman (web.editor *at* asc.asn.au)
Ravi is a PhD student at Macquarie University. When he is not wondering about how ants navigate, he blogs, tweets, hosts a podcast, makes short videos, writes for popular science outlets (e.g.: 1, 2), and doodles to communicate his science. He is passionate about teaching and has been involved in school outreach activities through STEM Professionals in Schools program (CSIRO). He is one of the recent recipients of the Outstanding outreach award from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage/Ecological Society of Australia.
Jenn, originally from Canada, moved to the warmer shores of Australia in 2007 where she completed a Master of Applied Science (Marine Biology) at James Cook University. She has experience working in the research management and science communication space and has worked at James Cook University, The Australian National University and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Jenn, who has a wide range of communication and marketing experience ranging from writing, editing and publishing to graphic design, web maintenance and social media management, currently manages communications for a busy North Queensland children’s charity and is a freelance science communicator in her spare time.
ASC Grants program: Dr Ian McDonald and Dr Miriam Sullivan (grants *at* asc.asn.au)
Dr Ian McDonald is a science communication professional who has a strong background in research, education and community engagement. He is currently employed as Communications Manager at the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, where he leads the implementation of the centre’s communications strategy to promote a diverse array of research projects. He is completing his Masters of Science Communication with the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) (end of 2017), and is also a freelance science communication consultant.
Miriam Sullivan coordinates the Science Communication program at the University of Western Australia. She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate units on presentations skills, science shows, exhibition design and science communication theory. Her research looks at animal welfare, blogging and the professionalisation of science communication.
Facebook Group: Dr Dustin Welbourne (media.facebook.grp *at* asc.asn.au)
During the working day, Dustin Welbourne is an Associate Lecturer at the University of New South Wales. His research interests span biogeography, statistics, philosophy, and science communication. After work, Dustin participates in the Scientists in Schools program, writes and talks about science (to whomever will listen), and thinks up ways to spend more time scuba diving.
Twitter: Paula Lourie (media.twitter *at* asc.asn.au)
Paula is a communications professional. Starting out as a research scientist in Sydney, she moved through different roles in different countries, and has a mix of academic, commercial and non-profit experience. She is passionate about working with talented people, creative ideas and continuously learning. Currently living in Perth, she is working on digital science engagement projects for Scitech, Western Australia’s science discovery centre. She started managing the @auscicomm Twitter account in 2014 as a way to get practical experience in social media and knowledge of the Australian science communication scene.
LinkedIn: Kali Madden (office *at* asc.asn.au)
Webmaster: Alex Jurkiewicz (web *at* asc.asn.au)
Alex works in IT as a devops engineer, and helps keep ASC’s computery stuff online.
The idea for a national organisation uniting science communicators and science journalists was sparked by a request for a conference paper.
In 1993, former ASC president (2005-07) Jenni Metcalfe was on a study tour in the US when she was invited to present a paper at the third international meeting of the Network for the Public Communication of Science and Technology in Montreal, summarising science communication activities in Australia.
Working with Toss Gascoigne (ASC president 2003-04), the pair quickly came to realise that the science communication community in Australia was very spread out, and many people that they spoke to expressed their frustration at being so isolated.
Email was just appearing over the horizon; science communication was an emerging profession; and with the exception of CSIRO, science communicators had few opportunities to network and exchange views. The time was ripe for an organisation that could bring this disparate community together.
There was so much enthusiasm for the idea that 375 individuals across Australia agreed to donate $25 to get the new body underway. In addition, a number of organisations – the Australian Academy of Science, CSIRO, the Institute of Engineers, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, and the Department of Industry, Science and Technology – contributed seed funding and on 26 September 1994, the first meeting of the Australian Science Communicators was held. The decision was made that the organisation should be open to anyone interested in science communication – not just professional science writers – and Julian Cribb was elected the inaugural President of the Australian Science Communicators.
Past ASC Presidents
Immediate Past President: Joan Leach (2014-16)
Claire Harris (Acting, 2013-14)
Rod Lamberts (2012-13)
Jesse Shore (2010-12)
Tim Thwaites (2007-09)
Jenni Metcalfe (2005-07)
David Ellyard (2004-05)
Toss Gascoigne (2003-04)
Wilson da Silva (2001-03)
Robyn Williams (1998-2001)
Ian Lowe AO (1997-98)
Alison Leigh (1996-97)
Ian Anderson (1995-96)
Julian Cribb (1993-94)
Unsung Hero of Science Communication
This Award is given annually by the Australian Science Communicators to recognise the work of a science communicator or science journalist, or group, whose outstanding achievements have largely been unrecognised and unrewarded by their peers.
The award was launched in 1994 to recognise outstanding Australian scientists, then it was reborn in 2012 as an award for science communicators and science journalists.
Winner: Geoff Crane
Highly Commended: Kylie Andrews
Winner: Kylie Walker
Winner: Frankie Lee
Highly Commended: Jeannie-Marie LeRoi and Dr Shane Huntington
Winner: Craig Cormick
Highly Commended: Frankie Lee and Dr Shane Huntington
2012: Guy Nolch
2007: Professor Aileen Plant
2005: Dr Colin Keay
2004: Dr Alan Wilton
2002: Dr Hugh Spencer
2001: Dr Estelle Lazer
2000: Carla Litchfield
1999: Dr David Jenkins
1998: Dr Malcolm Gill
1997: Dr Chris Crossland
1996: Joy Mitchell
1995: Dr Bobbie Vaile
1994: Dr Carolyn Mountford
2016: Geoff Crane
Geoff Crane is celebrated as the 2016 Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication for his significant and sustained contributions to science communication.
Geoff is a science communication powerhouse. For many years he has passionately worked behind the scenes to engage Australia in science, including with National Science Week, Questacon and Inspiring Australia.
His recent achievements include over five years of phenomenal work as ‘Mr Science Week’, connecting with millions of people through events, online initiatives and social media. He is instrumental in leveraging both official funding and the considerable goodwill of volunteers and committees around the country. He helps people seeking to be involved with National Science Week to feel engaged, inspired and excited. His work extends far beyond the Week itself – Geoff works tirelessly year-round to promote and support science engagement events across the nation.
Through his active leadership, Geoff has helped transform National Science Week from a loose collective of volunteers into Australia’s biggest festival. He has brought professionalism to the event, giving it a public image and impact that extends exponentially beyond the direct funding it receives. He is as supportive of a small regional science events as he is of capital city extravaganzas.
Geoff promotes excellence in science communication and networks extensively to connect science communicators working in many different disciplines and physical locations. He is generous in sharing his time, knowledge, networks and energy and is well-known and highly respected in the science communication community.
Despite 25 extraordinary years of work in science communication, Geoff would never seek the spotlight. The judging panel described Geoff as an ‘unassuming mastermind’, whose important contributions to the field of science communication and engagement include boosting the confidence and prominence of other science communicators and building the success of countless initiatives across the country.
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2015: Kylie Walker
Kylie Walker was recognised as the 2015 winner of the Unsung Hero of Science Communication for her significant contributions to science communication and outreach.
During her time as Director of Communications and Outreach at the Australian Academy of Science, Kylie’s commitment and mentoring was instrumental in changing the culture of one of Australia’s leading science organisations. Her work has helped many Australian scientists value public engagement and a media-savvy approach.
Kylie works to showcase excellence in Australian science and creates opportunities to highlight local achievements, including ensuring the media can access some of Australia’s best and brightest scientists. Of particular note is Kylie’s work in building national partnerships with other leading science and science communication organisations, helping enhance the effectiveness and scope of Academy programs.
Outside of her formal role with the Academy, Kylie has chaired the National Science Week Coordinating Committee in the ACT (tripling attendance rates between 2011 and 2013), and works with the Australian National University Centre for the Public Awareness of Science to present to and mentor science communication students.
Much of Kylie’s influence is behind the scenes. She empowers scientists to present their work in interesting and engaging ways, by developing presentation materials for high profile events, training scientists for media liaison and government advocacy and mentoring those new to science communication.
Kylie’s innovative thinking has been instrumental in expanding the reach and impact of the Academy’s science, taking the Academy to new and unusual settings, including social media, livestreaming and national television through National Press Club addresses and the ABC’s Q&A program.
Kylie works to actively address issues facing the science and science communication communities, such as gender equality, by creating events and communication channels that increase the focus on female scientists.
Kylie has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to introducing scientists to the benefits of science communication. She works tirelessly, without personal or formal recognition, to support emerging science communication talent. Through her leadership and creative approach, she promotes excellence and innovation in science communication.
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2014: Frankie Lee
Frankie Lee is honoured as the 2014 Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication for her significant contribution to science promotion.
Frankie has worked tirelessly to engage audiences in science by managing varied and unusual science communication projects in Sydney and around Australia. She is also recognised for her work in developing the careers of emerging science communicators through connecting them with events and media opportunities.
As a project manager across a number of science communication projects, Frankie is creative and sets up science communication in unusual settings, ranging from the Woodford folk festival to online ‘weather detectives’.
Frankie’s ability to monitor trends in science and seek opportunities for effective science communication is reflected in her involvement with the ‘I F***ing Love Science Live’ and ‘Science Alert – Space Oddity’ events. In both instances, Frankie worked tirelessly to secure interesting local and international talent, creating successful events that achieved significant attendance and media coverage. Frankie has played a huge part in bringing science to the forefront in Australia and ‘making science cool’ for different and unexpected audiences.
During her time with the ABC, Frankie was the driving powerhouse behind the ABC’s successful science outreach programs. She worked with scientists, broadcaster and ABC staff to produce creative science programs which highlighted the work of the scientists involved, engaged high school students and promoted a range of science events.
Frankie is a founding member of the Ultimo Science Festival (a partnership between Powerhouse Museum, ABC, University of Technology Sydney and TAFE Ultimo) and project manages many of the events as part of the festival, having been involved since its creation in 2006. Frankie has also project managed Science in the Pub across Australia, contributed to the genre of science comedy with the Science Comedy night at Ultimo Science Festival and the series of “That’ll Learn You” at Giant Dwarf Theatre, Redfern in late 2014.
Frankie works with many well-known as well as new science communicators to produce events on radio, television and live events. Frankie puts science communicators in the spotlight while staying behind the scenes. She is the brain behind the operation, curating inspiring and engaging science events and bringing science communicators to the forefront. She makes science communicators shine by ensuring that they are taken care of and that events run without a glitch.
Over the course of her extensive and diverse career, Frankie has made many significant contributions, but nearly always behind the scenes. It is for this reason the panel considers Frankie to be the definition of ‘unsung’ in creating and promoting excellent science communication in Australia.
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2013: Craig Cormick
Craig is honoured as the 2013 Unsung Hero of Australian Science Communication for two decades of deep engagement and powerful impact across the broad spectrum of science communication.
Currently Manager of National Operations, Education for the CSIRO, Craig has headed up several government science communication enterprises, including Biotechnology Australia, the Australian Office of Nanotechnology and the National Enabling Technologies Strategy within the Department of Industry. He has initiated or managed many quality science communications activities, including the education resource Biotechnology Online, and the Science and Technology Engagement Pathway (STEP) framework, and a co-convenor of the 2013 Big Science Communications Summit.
Craig has been particularly effective on developing community engagement around contentious technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, but has also been involved in climate change communication. He has been active in the broader debate on science communication through contributions to Best Australian Science Writing 2012, Cosmos, Ockham’s Razor and The Conversation.
Craig largely works behind the scenes, and freely provides his time and knowledge to others. He has developed and run many cross-agency forums and working groups that allow people working in similar areas to share information and work together for common outcomes.
Craig’s biggest impact has been in demanding more evidence-based rigour in science communication practice. He has been influential in communication strategies developed by regulators, government agencies and industries working on emerging technologies. He understands that science communications must begin from the perspective of the different audiences we seek to reach, and challenges science communicators to think outside their own ‘tribe’s’ values.
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2012: Guy Nolch
The winner of the Australian Science Communicators Unsung Hero Award of Science Communication for 2012 is Mr Guy Nolch, editor and publisher of Australasian Science
The judging panel selected Guy as the standout choice from a number of worthy nominees. The judges mentioned Guy’s many notable achievements and attributes:
his long period of distinguished science publishing (20 years publishing Australasian Science);
training and mentoring science communicators;
making scientists’ work accessible to and understood by the public;
dealing with controversial issues;
his major contributions to the discussion of science policy and scientific issues in Australia;
and for the fostering of good science journalism in Australia and for promotion of leading Australian scientists and their research.
Guy has been making his living as a science communicator for many years and as such he is a beacon to us all.
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2007: Professor Aileen Plant
The Australian Science Communicators is honoured to posthumously designate Professor Aileen Plant as its 2007 Unsung Hero of Australian Science. The award recognises her contributions to medical epidemiology, which have been of great benefit to the health and welfare of people in Australia and around the world. The Award was made at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne and subsequently announced at a reception at Government House by Professor Sir Gustav Nossal. It was accepted on her behalf by Dr Stephen Prowse, CEO Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease.
Aileen died suddenly of a heart attack at Jakarta airport while waiting for her plane back to Australia from a World Health Organisation meeting. While in Indonesia she had helped bring consensus on the challenging issues surrounding avian influenza virus sharing, and ensuring that developing countries will have access to influenza vaccine.
In recognition of her leadership in bringing the SARS epidemic under control in Vietnam Professor Plant had been awarded the National Medal of Honour by the Vietnamese Government in 2003. She was a national and international leader in her field of medical epidemiology, with vast experience in outbreak investigations, policy development and research in infectious diseases, and an advisor to the WHO, the Australian Government and other health authorities around the world, particularly in developing countries.
Aileen was also regularly consulted by health authorities in Australia and was at the forefront in developing Australia’s response to many infectious disease threats including avian influenza. Aileen provided advice to numerous policy groups including the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia, National Influenza Pandemic Action Committee and the National Arbovirus and Malaria Advisory Committee. She was a member of the National Influenza Pandemic Action Committee, chairing its Research Committee, and a member of the Expert Advisory Group for the Chief Medical Officer for Australia.
Aileen was also an outstanding teacher (Curtin University of Technology) and a loved colleague and mentor to Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine Trainees and Fellows around the country. Aileen played a key role in establishing the Masters in Applied Epidemiology course at the Australian National University.
She was passionate about her work and travelled extensively, often with great risk to herself, to help people and countries in need of her expertise. Aileen will be remembered by many friends and colleagues for her great personal warmth and her willingness to help and provide advice to anyone who sought it.
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The 2005 Unsung Hero is Dr Colin Keay from the University of Newcastle, honoured for his contributions to science and science communication, in particular in promoting informed debate about nuclear power.
A retired physicist from Newcastle is the 2005 Unsung Hero of Australian Science. The award, made annually by the Australian Science Communicators (ASC), has gone to Dr Colin Keay for achievements in science and science communication; in particular, his contribution to the debate over nuclear power.
“Dr Keay is no blind supporter of nuclear power,” says 2005 ASC President David Ellyard. “But he has worked very hard to make the debate as informed as possible, based on fact rather than misinformation and prejudice.
“In recent times he has been a vocal advocate of rational appreciation of the true risks (or lack of them) from nuclear radiation. He points out, for example, that you will routinely be exposed to more radiation living near a coal fired power station than near a uranium powered one.
“These and many other basic facts about nuclear power and radiation are set in four easy-to-read books that he has produced and distributed at his own expense. These have received praise from leading physicists. They are well researched and well regarded.
“To give one example, he has developed a table which allows a person to calculate their own annual radiation dose and compare that with national and international norms.
“This reveals that a very large part of our annual radiation dose comes from within ourselves, from the food we eat and the places we chose to live. Next in importance are our choices in terms of travel and then the consequences of medical investigations.”
Dr Keay recently retired as an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Newcastle. As well as being an academic, he has been a science communicator, founder of the local chapter of the Skeptics, public advocate of bikeways, and a popular speaker on astronomy.
His research on meteorites (and fireballs), done near the end of his career, let he explain why observers sometimes hear the sound of a meteor entering the atmosphere immediately rather than after a short time delay (as between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder). This discovery would have gained much more recognition if he had made it as a much younger researcher with more opportunity to travel and talk on the matter.
Nonetheless he has already received one “high” award. His work in promoting astronomy has resulted in an asteroid, orbiting the Sun between Jupiter and Mars, being named after him.
Dr Keay was nominated for the award by Professor John O’Connor, who heads up physics at the University of Newcastle.
“I know of physicists who have changed fields rather than face the negative perceptions of being a nuclear physicist. Colin has not only faced up to this challenge but has presented many talks on the issue, and has prepared his most valuable books.
“It is that sense that I consider him to be a “Hero of Australian Science” He deserved to be recognized for having the courage to take up this most sensitive of issues. His books deserve greater exposure so that a sensible, adequately informed debate can be held on the dangers and benefits of nuclear power.”
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2004: Dr Alan Wilton
Fraser Island could have the last pure dingoes according to DNA testing by Dr Alan Wilton, the 2004 Unsung Hero of Science.
“We’ve been DNA testing dingoes throughout Victoria, NSW and Qld. All the populations we tested show a large proportion of hybrids – crossbreds between dingoes and domestic dogs – except Fraser Island,” says Alan, a researcher at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales.
“I fear/believe that the dingo is doomed to extinction: within a few generations pure- bred dingos will be lost to our world as dog/dingo genetic hybrids take over from pure dingos in our wild places.”
It’s a sad ending for a national icon and will mark the end of a 5,000 year natural experiment which started when a small number of dingos – possibly just one female – arrived in the Australia. The dingo replaced the thylacine and became Australia’s top order predator. Today, dingos are now needed to maintain ecological balance.
If dingos are supplanted by modern wild dogs the consequences could be severe for the ecology of Australia. And the bush could become a more dangerous place. Wild dogs are bigger, breed more often and are more aggressive with less fear of humans.
“We need to identify other pure populations and then work out how to keep them pure before it’s too late,” says Alan.
Despite initial ARC funding, Alan’s eight year investigation of dingo genetics has been run on the smell of an oily rag.
“The dingo is both pest and national icon,” Alan says. “Governments don’t want to spend money on conserving an animal that many regard as a pest. So we’ve largely relied on support from dingo conservation groups. We appreciate their help – but it won’t be enough to save the dingo,” he says. Alan’s research into dingos grew from his research into human population genetics disease mapping. Ten years ago he was asked by the Border Collie Club to look for the mutation responsible for a nerve degeneration disease (CL) in collies. The research fired his interest in dingos and led to collaboration in Dogmap – the international effort to map the dog genome.
Surprisingly, the Border collie research is also casting light on a similar human disease known as Batten disease.
Alan is a true Unsung Hero of Australian Science, says Toss Gascoigne, President of the Australian Science Communicators. “Despite enormous public interest, his research has been poorly supported and recognised. Dingos are not of global importance and so many researchers working on dog genetics view his research as peripheral.”
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2002: Dr Hugh Spencer
Dr Hugh Spencer, founder of the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station, is the 2002 Unsung Hero of Australian Science.
By creating the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station, he has pioneered tropical rainforest research and conservation, and supported the work of scientists and volunteers from around the world.
And he’s passionate about bats – devising high technology methods of separating farmers and flying foxes, and using GPS to track flying fox journeys.
The award will be presented in Canberra today by Wilson da Silva, President of Australian Science Communicators (ASC).
“The Daintree lowland rainforests have a pedigree of over a hundred million years,” Hugh Spencer says. “It’s one of the last remnants of the giant Gondwanan rainforests. It is incredibly species rich and worth conserving both for its intrinsic value, for its commercial value – bioprospecting plants, animals and fungi for unique compounds, and the fact that it is one area of rainforest in the world that can really be saved”.
Hugh has put his money where his mouth is. In 1988 he left a tenured position at the University of Wollongong to establish a tropical research station in the rainforest of Cape Tribulation in Queensland.
Not relying on government or university funding, Hugh and his wife Brigitta sold their house, cashed in their entire savings and bought a strip of cleared land – once pristine rainforest – running from the highlands almost to the water’s edge.
Their dream was to create a not-for-profit facility for researchers from many disciplines and many parts of the world. They hoped that their discoveries would increase scientific knowledge and help support efforts to protect the unique Daintree lowland rainforests.
Hugh and Brigitta’s hard work has paid off. Dozens of scientists from five countries have used the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station, along with over one thousand volunteers. Moreover, the once damaged station property is now almost completely reforested, and serves as a reforestation model.
Meanwhile, Hugh has continued his own research. He has revealed the critical role fig wasps play in the pollination of cluster fig trees, a “keystone” species in the area; increased knowledge of poorly-studied rainforest bat species; developed sophisticated radio tracking technology, and much more.
Hugh is especially proud of the miniaturised automatic radio-tracking technology, which has just been adopted by three German universities for the study of little thumb-sized bats. “Until now, the researchers had been unable to investigate just how these tiny, but critical, little animals used the environment,” he says.
His accomplishments have come at great personal and financial cost. Hugh has endured personal attacks, caught up in academic back biting and turf wars, ongoing financial uncertainty, not to mention mosquitoes, humidity and cyclones!
Hugh’s passionate campaigns on environmental issues have appeared in the media. However, he remains “unsung” for his scientific achievements and his perseverance in maintaining this unique research facility—the embodiment of many novel approaches to operating in a tropical environment.
According to Prof Michael Archer, Director of the Australian Museum, Hugh’s research is first rate and highly innovative.
“In a time of bottom-line accounting and scientific conservatism, it’s absolutely crucial that we acknowledge people who, like Hugh, think outside the square and take risks,” he claims. “I’m delighted that the Australian Science Communicators have named Hugh Spencer this year’s Unsung Hero of Science.”
”It’s individuals like Dr Spencer who remind us that, if it wasn’t for the passion and dedication of unsung scientists like him, much great research would never happen, “ says Wilson da Silva, President of the Australian Science Communicators. “We commend him, and thank him for his commitment. “
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2001: Dr Estelle Lazer
A classical and forensic archaeologist who did her apprenticeship at the morgue, Dr Estelle Lazer, was awarded the “Unsung Hero of Australian Science” for 2001.
The Award is made annually by the Australian Science Communicators (ASC). It will be announced at the opening of the ASC Conference in Sydney by Senator Helen Coonan.
Dr Lazer studies human skeletal remains, and is able to uncover much about the original person and their lifestyle.
“Human bones are plastic and they are remodelled in the healing process after injuries and by activities throughout a person’s life. A huge amount of information is stored in our bones,” she said. “My work is a sophisticated kind of voyeurism!”
Her life is not without its hazards. She has been spat upon by tubercular goats in Bahrain, locked up daily with thousands of human bones in Pompeii, and lashed to the mast as the iceberg spotter while travelling the Southern Ocean.
There is more: a dislocated shoulder at frigid Mawson’s Huts in Antarctica, not to mention the health risks associated with charging elephant seals and snow-filled colonial graves in NSW.
She did her PhD in Pompeii, in Italy, characterising the population of this ancient city before it was suddenly overtaken by a volcano. That involved determining the sex, height, age at death and relationships of the inhabitants from statistical studies of disarticulated (scattered) bones.
When a cemetery at Cadia (near Orange) was relocated, Estelle was part of a team called in to excavate and analyse the site. There were more bodies than headstones, and they had to be matched before the skeletons were re-interred. Her part was to do the skeletal analysis.
“I spent my days lying face down in a grave, carefully retrieving old skeletons,” she said. “It’s about then I realised you have to be a bit weird to work in this field.”
Dr Lazer is a freelance archaeologist. She spends some time at the morgue, working on research projects with the forensic dental unit. She teaches at the Universities of Sydney and NSW, and is involved in an archaeological dig in Broadway, one of Sydney’s main streets.
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2000: Carla Litchfield
An animal behaviourist studying the great apes of Africa, Ms Carla Litchfield, was announced as the winner of the “Unsung Hero of Australian Science” Award for 2000.
Ms Litchfield designs enrichment and foraging techniques for chimpanzees and caracals (a medium sized cat) in zoos, to encourage them to engage in natural behaviours. This is part of her PhD studies at Adelaide University (Psychology Department).
“We challenge them to find their food,” she said. “It may involve solving a puzzle for chimpanzees, or leaping for food as it whizzes by on a flying fox for caracals.”
She said that these challenges create social activity among animals, and cut down their abnormal behaviours (like copraphagia – eating their own excrement). “Zoos have to take care of the psychological as well as the physical well-being of their animals,” she said.
Ms Litchfield also works in Uganda to preserve the three African great apes – chimpanzees gorillas, and bonobos. She said a thriving tourist industry is the best protection for the great apes, because it employs locals and emphasises the value of the apes and their environment.
She is just back from three weeks in Uganda revisiting chimpanzee and mountain gorilla sites. She wanted to see if the tourist massacre at Bwindi had affected tourist numbers, and to get first-hand experience of the crisis facing chimpanzees.
“The great apes could become extinct in five years, unless we address the problems of rapid deforestation and bushmeat trade,” she said. “Orphan chimpanzees are a real problem.”
“Fieldwork with chimps in Uganda is not a glamorous lifestyle! We live in huts with no water, no power, no flush toilets, and eat only vegetables, beans and rice. But you have to watch out for the snakes and water-filled elephant footprints in the swamps.”
She would like to take her young daughter Kaitlin Afrika to Uganda but it is a challenging place, and young children are banned from visiting wild chimpanzees and gorillas because of the danger of transmitting infectious childhood diseases to the great apes.
Robyn Williams, President of Australian Science Communicators and ABC science journalist, said Ms Litchfield’s infectious enthusiasm made her a wonderful communicator.
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1999: Dr David Jenkins
Parasitologist and backyard scientist Dr David Jenkins was announced as the winner of the “Unsung Hero of Australian Science” Award for 1999 by Australian Science Communicators (ASC).
David Jenkins is a most unusual parasitologist, and wages the fight against hydatids in Australia almost single-handed.
He has battled against the indifference of funding bodies and a lack of public understanding. When funding for his research ran out he moved to the family garage, and spent $500 on wiring it in order to continue his work from there.
The disease is carried by dingoes and wild dogs, and although they are on the increase, Dr Jenkins’ hydatids work has to be piggy-backed on to other project funding.
He says about one hundred Australians are diagnosed as having hydatid cysts every year, and they contract the cysts by coming into contact with infected dogs, dingoes or foxes.
“The tapeworm eggs invade people in all sorts of ways,” he says. “It can be as simple as patting a dog which has rolled in the grass, and then wiping your mouth, or eating an apple or chewing a twig picked up off the bush floor.”
“People walk through dog excrement and carry the eggs into the home and on to the carpet. You can even catch it from flies resting in the corner of your eyes or mouth.”
About 90 per cent of dingoes and wild dogs in SE Australia are infected by hydatids. The dogs harbour tapeworms, and eggs from these worms are deposited when the dogs defecate. If the eggs land on grass they will be viable for a year, and can be picked up by kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and other animals, to infect those animals in turn.
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1998: Dr Malcolm Gill
CSIRO bushfire specialist Dr Malcolm Gill was named “Unsung Hero of Australian Science” for 1998 by the Australian Science Communicators (ASC).
A fire ecologist with CSIRO Plant Industry, Dr Gill won the Award for 25 years work studying the effects of bushfires on ecosystems from forests to deserts.
“Fire is a tool man has been using in Australia for at least the last 40,000 years. In today’s world where cities and wildlands meet, the effects of bushfires have sometimes been socially disastrous,” Dr Gill says.
“When managers of forests, conservation reserves, water catchments and areas of bush next to the city can understand the effects of fires, they can use fire as a tool with much more confidence,” he says.
Dr Gill’s work has helped provide managers with answers to questions such as how often they should burn, and at what time of the year, to achieve their goals.
“Questions of management of our flora and fauna using fire only seem simple at first sight,” he says. “When the vast numbers of plant and animal species are considered together with issues such as economic and social protection and the diversity of climate and vegetation types across the country, the task of answering such questions is put in perspective.”
The use and place of fire in Australia is a controversial subject. Dr Gill says that different patterns of prescribed burning can have significantly varying effects on the biodiversity of an area.
“Although repeated fires in different combinations can be to the advantage of some plants and animals in the environment, they can also disadvantage others. We really know very little about the reactions of most of our flora and fauna to the fires that occur across the nation.
“Australia really needs to redress this situation if we are to look after our natural heritage.”
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1997: Dr Chris Crossland
Dr Chris Crossland, Director of the CRC Reef Research Centre, was today announced as the winner of the “Unsung Hero of Australian Science” Award by Australian Science Communicators (ASC).
The award was made for his outstanding contribution in making the science of Australia’s greatest natural attraction interesting and relevant to everyday Australians, and for his tireless work in encouraging scientists to speak more with the public.
Ian Lowe, President of ASC and Professor of Science at Griffith University, said that Chris Crossland’s great skill lay in making science work for ordinary people.
“The Great Barrier Reef is an international treasure and Chris has to gain the understanding of everyone who uses it, from recreational fishers to international scientists and overseas tourists,” he said. “It’s a delicate job which places great demands on his communication skills.”
He said that Professor Crossland had been a “trailblazer for communication” with the national CRC Program.
“His CRC was among the earliest to recognise just how important it is to keep the public informed. The Reef is a very important part of the working and recreational life of many people, and they want to be consulted about issues relating to its management.”
Professor Crossland took a leading part in organising the Fenner Environment Conference last year, a special meeting at the Academy of Science which examined ethical issues associated with experiments in high-value conservation areas.
“The right of scientists to do what they like is coming under increasing scrutiny these days,” Crossland said. “The public has a right to know what’s going on, and they are becoming increasingly vociferous in exercising that right.
“As scientists, we need to recognise that all forms of authority are being called upon to explain themselves. The ability to talk to public audiences is no longer an optional skill for scientists.”
The Minister for Industry, Science and Tourism, John Moore, said that he was encouraged to see more scientists taking up their responsibilities to communicate with the public and industry about their work.
“Communication is the key to Australia’s benefiting from our considerable investment in science. People need information on our programs, investment and research and development to ensure that science is a leader in the 21st century,” he said.
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1996: Joy Mitchell
Joy Mitchell was the 1996 winner of the “Unsung Hero of Australian Science” Award for her outstanding contribution in making science interesting and understandable to everyday Australians.
Joy Mitchell has been the senior researcher for the ABC television science show, Quantum, since it began in 1985.
“Joy has a particular ability to pick stories which show how science works,” said Ian Anderson, Australasian editor of New Scientist magazine. “Her capacity for lateral thought and her sheer passion for the scientific method have helped her shape the Quantum agenda. ”
Joy Mitchell has been directly responsible for more than 600 Quantum stories, including “The Search for Gravity Waves”. This won the Best Science Film in Paris in 1990 and a Bronze Medal in New York in 1991.
In presenting the Award, Peter McGauran, Minister for Science and Technology, said that Joy Mitchell was an “Unsung Hero” in the real Australian tradition.
“Her quiet unassuming backroom work is not publicly known, but it has had a profound influence in helping create a scientifically literate Australia. That’s crucial if Australia to play a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Dr Caroline Mountford, Director of Sydney University’s Institute for Magnetic Resonance Research and inaugural winner of the “Unsung Hero” award, said she was thrilled to hear of Joy’s success.
“She is so smart! I have never known a person without science training who can pick up and run with scientific concepts so quickly, and to understand the vision behind them.”
Former Executive Producer of Quantum, Alison Leigh, said that Joy Mitchell’s knowledge was formidable. “Joy’s work is the foundation on which Quantum’s reputation has been built.
“Awards usually go to presenters and producers, but the end product is only as good as the final research. That’s where Joy excels.”
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1995: Dr Bobbie Vaile
Dr Bobbie Vaile was a computer-packing scientific evangelist who was convinced that even physics can be fun. And now she has the award to prove it.
At ANZAAS in September 1995, ASC honoured the University of Western Sydney MacArthur physicist with this year’s Unsung Hero of Australian Science Award.
ASC gave Dr Vaile, 36, the award for her enthusiastic and often unconventional efforts to make “hard” science easy.
For example, along with a MacArthur campus colleague, Dr Frank Sootman, Dr Vaile developed a course for undergraduate students based on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.
“SETI offers an extraordinary catalyst for our search for better education,” Dr Vaile said, adding that this is because the skills of many different disciplines – from chemistry and computing to biology – are needed in the quest for ET and his intergalactic siblings.
The course has been so successful that other universities in Australia, Israel, South America, Sweden, France and the US want to use the idea to lure their own reluctant scholars.
Dr Vaile’s efforts to make physics “user friendly” and relevant include books, lectures and an open door to legions of baffled reporters, wondering how life starts, how many earth-like planets exist in the cosmos and how astrophysicists search for them amid the billions of stars in the universe.
Her work is particularly remarkable because, six years ago, Dr Vaile learnt she had an inoperable brain tumour that affects the communications centre of her brain.
“With cancer, my understanding of the precious time of life, is of course enhanced, ” she said. She added that the best way to describe her career was “to learn, to strive to improve personally”.
Bobbie Vaile succumbed to cancer in 1996 after a seven year battle. A minor planet, discovered in 1989 at the Siding Springs Observatory in NSW, has since been named Planet Bobbievaile in her memory.
(First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sep 1995, written by Leigh Dayton).
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1994: Dr Carolyn Mountford
Dr Carolyn Mountford, winner of the inaugural ASC Unsung Hero of Australian Science award, said the award sends a clear message to young people that daring to be different can pay off in the long term.
“The award has been significant both to myself and the work of my research team,” she said. “I am also convinced that it has altered the perceptions of Australia’s youth.”
Mountford works in the Department of Medicine at the University of Sydney where she has been pioneering the use of magnetic resonance to detect subtle chemical changes in body cells that are the precursor to cancer.
Carolyn won the award because she was not afraid to defy current opinion to reach a goal she believed in. Against the scepticism of her peers, Carolyn succeeded in her quest to find a technique that would predict when human cells are likely to become cancerous. Ultimately, her persistence may lead to new diagnostic tests that can better identify malignant breast cancers.
In the early days of her research, when magnetic resonance was so new, some senior scientists said this was impossible, and that it could not happen. “What was essentially a vision was given a hard time to be proven or disproven experimentally,” Carolyn said. “I had to fight to get funds to do it experimentally.”
“As a result of this award, young Australians now understand that it is not ‘uncool’ to be different; that by being different an opportunity exists for a scientific advancement which may be important for Australia’s future.”
Carolyn thanked the ASC for the award. “It has given me a platform to expound philosophies that were not the norm, but certainly those which students and teachers are interested in hearing,” she explained. “The award made our difficulties and our efforts to retain Australian technology for development within this country known to others. In particular, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology recognised that we were genuine in our efforts to remain here.”
Her research was initially funded by the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Medicine when Carolyn worked there in the early 80’s, but when the Sydney branch folded, she was back out looking for funding. Although equipment needed for her research was only available at 2.00 am, and Carolyn had a young family, she was not about to be daunted in her quest.
“At the time, I found it easier to get innovative science funders through the American government than the Australian government,” Carolyn explained. “It was hard to get the establishment to take it seriously here.”
Carolyn is quick to acknowledge a vast difference between past and present attitudes to scientific research and technology. The ASC award was the icing on the cake for Carolyn, who is confident that attitudes to innovative R&D are flowing in a more favourable direction.
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The Australian Science Communicators is a national incorporated association consisting of state branches and governed by a National Council and National Executive.
The state branches are each governed by elected councils consisting of a President, Secretary and Treasurer.
The National Council – which meets four times a year – is made up of the President, Immediate Past President, and a representative of each state branch.
The Executive – which meets six times a year – is made up of the elected President, two Vice-Presidents nominated by the President, a Treasurer and a Secretary.
The Australian Science Communicators’ Annual General Meeting is held each year in November. Read our 2013 Annual Snapshot report.
The Australian Science Communicators’ Constitution was first adopted in 2003. It has since been amended in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2015. ASC Constitution 2015
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