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Girls & Women

This Badass Scientist Just Won Australian of the Year

Michelle Simmons, a quantum physicist who has helped Australia become a world leader in computer science, has earned the 2018 Australian of the Year award. She is the first female physicist to earn the country’s top civic honor, which recognizes someone who serves as a role model for all Australians.

The National Australia Day Council said they selected Simmons for her role in positioning Australia at the heart “of the space race of the computing era.”  

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In 2012, Simmons led a team that developed the world’s first transistor made from a single atom as well as the world’s thinnest wire.

"Such a discovery has the potential to revolutionise drug design, weather forecasting, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence and much more," the University of New South Wales said in a statement.

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Though she was born and raised in the UK, Simmons chose to pursue her studies and scientific career in Australia after turning down offers from top American and UK universities.

"To this day, I am delighted with my choice and firmly believe that there is no better place to undertake research," she said last year. "Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue goals that are ambitious."

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Simmons wasn’t the only woman honored by her country Thursday. Australian women’s soccer star Samantha Kerr also took home the prize for Young Australian of the Year.

In her acceptance speech, Simmons said Australia’s openness fosters creativity, cultural exchange, and strong scientific research.

"We have proven time and again that Australian researchers have some unique advantages," she said. "We collaborate across boundaries but we also compete hard. We're down to Earth, we are judged by results, and we believe in what is real.

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Yet, many Australians say that inclusiveness does not extend to the country’s indigenous people who have experienced systematic oppression since British colonists first arrived on the island in 1788.

Tens of thousands of Sydney residents plan to protest the observance of Australia Day on January 26, the anniversary of the colonists’ arrival and a date indigenous Australians and their advocates refer to as “Invasion Day.” Additional protests will occur in cities around the country.

"Australia must acknowledge our past. We must understand the impact on our first peoples," Australian settler Richard Di Natale told Reuters. "Until we do that, we will never be able to truly reconcile our history with who we are today, a multicultural nation."