Brilliant ANU scientists take out Eureka prizes

Publication date
Friday, 8 Oct 2021
Cassandra Algy Nimarra and Felicity Meakins record director-matcher tasks with Jamieisha Barry Nangala, Regina Crowson Nangari and Quitayah Frith Namija. Image: Jennifer Green 2017
Professor Lindell Bromham and Dr Xia Hua

Dr Niraj Lal has won a Eureka Prize for his science communication work.

The brains behind a book aimed at inspiring children with a gravity-defying emu and the team helping to save endangered languages are among the winners of Australia's top science awards - the Eureka Prizes.

Professor Lindell Bromham and Dr Xia Hua have won the Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research - a win they share with colleagues from the University of Queensland and the Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation.

The award recognises their efforts to preserve language diversity and better understand how language evolves over time.

The team are combining the power of linguistics, evolutionary biology, maths and Indigenous knowledge to examine a new language that blends the traditional Gurindji from the Northern Territory and an English-based creole spoken across northern Australia.

It is the first time a linguist, biologist, mathematician and Indigenous community member have worked together to make sure we keep our languages strong.

"It was a big surprise for us given how amazing the other teams in our category were; we really weren't expecting to win but it was fantastic news," Professor Bromham said of the award.

"It's a great chance to shine a bit of light on Indigenous languages in Australia and how important it is for us to help keep Indigenous language strong.

"We hope our work will encourage others to work together across discipline boundaries! When you bring together Indigenous expertise, linguistic knowledge, evolutionary methods and mathematical tools, you can answer some really interesting questions."

Also announced overnight was Dr Niraj Lal's award of the Celestino Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science.

Dr Lal is an innovative and highly respected science communicator who has authored two books aimed at inspiring a love of science among children, including one about an emu that defies gravity and learns to fly.

He also hosts an ABC podcast, regularly appears on national TV and has presented a special program on Australia's renewable energy future for ABC TV's science program, Catalyst.

"I didn't expect to win!" Dr Lal said. "I was honestly happy just to be in such great company.

"There are so many people to thank - if this is the 'oscars of Australian Science', they'd have to cue the music on my acceptance speech. 

"But in particular I'd like to thank all the wonderful creative people I've been lucky enough to communicate science with.

"Communicating science for me isn't just about highlighting the wonders of our Universe, though that can be pretty great

"It's also about showing how the process of scientific thinking and evidence-based reasoning can help us decide what to believe.

"I especially like taking science to kids. My aim is not to only spark curiosity and wonder in our world, but to help give kids the tools to figure things out for themselves, so they make better decisions than the generations before them.

"The real value of awards like this is to help this kind of work continue in the future, and that's what I'll keep doing in promoting the understanding of science."

ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, congratulated all three ANU winners on their "remarkable achievements".

"Science is one of humanity's most profound forms of expression. It helps us understand the workings of the world and our place in it. It helps make our lives better," he said.

"In the case of Lindell and Xia, it helps save important and powerful elements of our culture and identity from extinction.

"In the case of Niraj, it sparks a sense of wonder and excitement in people of all ages, and charts a cleaner, greener future for our planet.

"Their work is vital. These awards are a wonderful recognition of this and the positive impact their science has every day.

"Please join me in congratulating all three on their well-deserved win."