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A record number of women were honored Wednesday in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Australia’s most distinguished awards for remarkable achievements in science.

Five out of seven prizes were awarded to women for their “outstanding scientific research, research-based innovation, and excellence in science, math, or technology teaching.” 

Australia’s Minister for Industry, Science, and Technology Karen Andrews said she hoped the female representation would inspire the next generation of Australian girls to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM). 

"We’ve gone from just one female recipient last year to five this year, the most ever represented in the awards,” she said in a press release. “I hope this will inspire even more girls and women to be involved in STEM.”

Cheryl Praeger, regarded as one of Australia's leading mathematicians, took home the awards’ top prize. 

Over a 40-year career, Praeger’s mathematics research into algorithms and group theory has contributed significantly to the way online search engines and computer systems function. 

"What I love about mathematics is the way that it explains the world. It makes sense of the world. And as our technology advances and our world changes, the mathematical challenges are there, and they continue on and on,” says Praeger. “Receiving the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is a wonderful statement about the importance of mathematics.”

Praeger hopes to now be an inspiration and show young girls that a distinguished career in science is realistic. 

"We need you. Australia needs you. There are so many creative, exciting careers which will be possible using mathematical and scientific skills," she told SBS News. "It's important to make use of all of our talents, and if we ignore half of the population, I don't think we're doing our best." 

Associate Professor Laura MacKay was also honored Wednesday, taking home the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. MacKay’s work has revealed that specific T cells in the human body are the first line of defense against infection. This discovery has changed the way scientists and doctors treat cancers and infectious diseases like malaria and influenza. 

Elizabeth New, who was awarded the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, has worked to create an innovative chemical imaging system that is able to view healthy and unhealthy cells. 

Victoria’s Samantha Moyle and South Australia’s Sarah Finney also took home prizes for science teaching. 

According to a 2018 study, published in peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology, women make up around 41% of Australia’s STEM workforce. Various global reports show that women in STEM are often excluded across awards, grant funding, and leadership titles. 

In April, the Australian government released a new ‘Advancing Women in STEM’ strategy — which is said to enable STEM potential through education, encourage women in STEM careers, and make women in STEM more visible.

The strategy also includes a new $1.8 million AUD injection into the Science in Australia Gender Equity Initiative.


Demand Equity

A Record Number of Women Were Just Honored With Australia's Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

By Madeleine Keck