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Cosmos Bright Sparks

The Science Show | 5 August 2006

Cosmos editor Wilson da Silva with his magazine’s inaugural list of scientific Bright Sparks, Australia’s top ten rising stars of science.


Robyn Williams: The other day, our federal minister for science and education, Julie Bishop, drew attention once more to our shortage or potential shortage in Australia of scientific and engineering manpower, but nevertheless we are still producing stars. The magazine Cosmos has done something about it in its latest edition, and here’s the editor, Wilson da Silva, to explain why.

Wilson da Silva: Australians love winners. And on the international stage of science, we have a lot to celebrate. Our men and women do rather well. Many perform impressive feats of Olympic proportions, garner reputations that are the envy of many, and are often better known and respected overseas than they are in their home country.

We should not expect anything different, I suppose. There are probably lawyers, architects and teachers with a solid following outside Australia who are equally obscure at home. Yet, for a country that worships its sporting heroes, and so clearly likes to win a contest, it seems puzzling that Australian scientists are so exceptionally successful, winning accolades and awards overseas, and yet are not celebrated, nor sometimes even noticed at home.

I know this is not a new observation. And I know that outside of a major cultural shift, it’s something that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. We are unlikely to see Australian scientists feted with ticker-tape parades upon winning a Nobel Prize, although this should have occurred when Western Australians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren picked up the Nobel for Medicine or Physiology in December 2005.

I edit a popular science magazine called Cosmos, and we turned one year old in June this year. One of the ways we at the office decided to celebrate was to do our bit to raise the profile of our scientists. We thought we’d try and bring to public notice the exceptional talent that exists in the country, and to do so in time for National Science Week. So, we asked the Cosmos editorial advisory board to nominate Australia’s top ten scientific minds under the age of 45. The board is made up of leading names in the sciences, including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, scientists and authors Paul Davies and Mike Archer, Judith Whitworth from the Curtin School of Medical Research, as well as a bloke called Robyn Williams.

And what a cacophony of talent they uncovered. We researched their backgrounds in order to consider their candidacy, and then had to select the final ten winners. It was more onerous than I thought. There’s so much talent out there, we could have made it the top 30 and still had an impressive collection of winners. But no, it had to be ten, if nothing else because we wanted to give a full page to each of the winners in the magazine, with an interview and a stylish portrait taken at the workplaces where they spin their webs of scientific magic. They would be installed as our inaugural ‘Cosmos Bright Sparks’, a feature we hope to make an annual event.

After much debate and discussion, the final choice was made between myself, my talented deputy editor Sara Phillips, and the chairman of the advisory board, the neuroscientist and entrepreneur Alan Finkel. For the record, this year’s winners are:

Abigail Allwood, a Melbourne geologist and PhD candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney, who’s rewriting the books on early life on Earth and made the cover of Nature recently. You may have heard her on this show in June.

Jonathan Carapetis, an Adelaide epidemiologist whose work on infectious diseases in indigenous communities probably helped him recently land the job of director of the Menzies School of Health at Charles Darwin University.

Marco Ghisalberti, an environmental engineer at the University of Western Australia who is applying the physics of fluid dynamics to some sticky problems in water flows.

Doug Hilton, a molecular scientist at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne who is impressing his colleagues with advances in immunology.

Vikram Khurana, a Sydney medical researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who’s chasing the genes that cause Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Tanya Monro, the piano and cello-playing photonics researcher at the University of Adelaide who is applied the physics of optics to a spectrum of new applications.

Michelle Simmons, a physicist at the University of New South Wales who is earning respect for her advances on quantum computing.

David Sinclair, a medical researcher at the Harvard Medical School who’s getting noticed for his work pushing back the boundaries of our understanding of ageing.

There’s Howard Wiseman, a Federation Fellow at Griffith University who’s trying to piece together how information is best transferred in the quantum world.

And finally, Stuart Wyithe, an astronomer at the University of Melbourne who’s trying to understand the first 500 million years of the universe’s history.

What emerges from reading their stories is a fascinating snapshot of the scientific talent Australia has to offer. They are inspiring stories, and show just what is possible when you have a bit of talent, a lot of determination and a willingness to press ahead. And I think their personal stories dispel the pervading myth that science is a dull endeavour, and that research is only done by men with beards wearing white lab coats.

Even a token of public recognition such as ours can have an impact. One of our Bright Sparks, David Sinclair, was moved by the honour when I contacted him, telling me that it made him homesick for Australia. So moved in fact, that two weeks ago, he decided to chuck in his job as head of a leading lab at Harvard and return to Australia. For those vice-chancellors listening, this is your chance to snap up a very bright spark by offering him a job and claiming him as yours.

Yes, we are giving our brightest young minds the kind of star treatment usually reserved for celebrities. And why not? Scientists contribute more to society than film stars. And however amusing may be the latest antics of a jet-set heiress or a B-list model, their stories are hardly the stuff of inspiration.

Science is more than a profession, and it isn’t just a career. It’s a way of changing the world. Reading our Bright Sparks profiles, one cannot help but be impressed as well as inspired. There are a lot of smart people out there, pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and working for the benefit of humanity. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Robyn Williams: And the celebrant is Wilson da Silva, editor of Cosmos science magazine.


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