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Australian of the Year awarded to UNSW quantum physicist

UNSW's Professor Michelle Simmons with members of her team. Source: UNSW

Education practitioners have dominated 2018’s Australian of the Year Awards, with a leading quantum physics professor being given the highest honour.

Professor Michelle Simmons from the University of New South Wales in Sydney was named Australian of the Year for her achievements in quantum computing, including creating the world’s first transistor made from a single atom and the world’s thinnest wire.

Along with the other Australian of the Year awardees, Simmons was presented with her trophy by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday night.

“Since arriving in Australia from Britain 18 years ago, Michelle has transformed the University of NSW Quantum Physics Department into a world leader in advanced computer systems,” said the awarding committee.

Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, Simmons is an “evangelist” for Australian scientific research and “actively encourages all students – girls and boys – to dream big, challenge themselves and to achieve ambitious goals in science.”

“With her scientific vision, she has established UNSW and Australia as an international leader in a key industry of the future – quantum computing – that will revolutionise most other industries,” said UNSW President and Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs.

Australia’s Local Hero for 2018 was Eddie Woo, head mathematics teacher at Cherrybrook Technology High School in western Sydney.

He now boasts more than 170,000 subscribers on ‘Wootube’, the YouTube channel he created back in 2012 to provide classes for a student sick with cancer unable to attend school.

“With infectious enthusiasm, the father-of-three’s unique and caring approach to teaching destigmatises mathematics as an inaccessible and difficult subject,” said the awarding committee.

Woo is also a volunteer facilitator with the University of Sydney’s Widening Participation and Outreach program where he has helped more than 1400 students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“A brilliant student, Eddie could have chosen any field, but in defiance of social convention and his parents’ wish for him to become a doctor, he followed his passion and opted for teaching. Today, he is using his vocation to “pay it forward” and make education equitable for all,” it said.

Meanwhile, Australian National University (ANU) biology professor Dr Graham Farquhar was recognised as Senior Australian of the Year for 2018.

“I would like to see an Australia that values creativity of all kinds – scientific creativity of course, but also technical, sporting, artistic, organisational creativity,” said Farquar when accepting his award on Thursday night.

Professor Graham Farquhar. Source: ANU

“To me, the most important things in life are to struggle to improve, to struggle to be honest, and to struggle to re-evaluate one’s prejudices.”

ANU acting Vice Chancellor Professor Margaret Harding said “on behalf of the university I want to thank Graham for his work during his distinguished career and his ongoing contribution to environmental and food sciences. He sets a great example to the next generation of scientists.”

Last year, Farquhar became the first Australian to be awarded the Kyoto Prize for his development of process-based models of photosynthesis and their contributions to the science of global environmental changes.

“Graham is tackling some of the most profound challenges facing humanity and the environment,” said the awarding committee.

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