ANU researchers win nation’s most prestigious funding award

7 July 2021

Sharon, Yun and Naomi are world-class researchers who are examining some of the most fundamental and pressing issues we face today.

The fate of galaxies, building health equity for all and making new materials from "crystal chemistry" will be the focus of three major research projects at The Australian National University (ANU) receiving more than $9.7 million in Federal Government funding.

Professor Naomi McClure-Griffiths, Professor Sharon Friel and Professor Yun Liu have all won prestigious Laureate Fellowships from the Australian Research Council - the nation's top research funding award.

The three join 14 other Australian-based researchers sharing more than $53.7 million in funding. Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt congratulated all three ANU winners.

"ARC Laureate Fellowships are Australia's most prestigious research funding scheme, recognising the very best of the best," he said.

"Sharon, Yun and Naomi are world-class researchers who are examining some of the most fundamental and pressing issues we face today.

"They epitomise the spirit of ANU - research that transforms our understanding of the world and the development of new knowledge that makes all our lives richer and better.

"I congratulate all of them on this highly-deserved recognition and can't wait to see what these fascinating and important projects deliver." 

All three ANU researchers will now embark on ambitious, multiyear, multimillion dollar projects to answer some of the most complex questions we now face.  

Professor Liu, from the ANU Research School of Chemistry, has been named the 2021 ARC Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship. Her $3.1 million project will examine how to use crystal chemistry to build new functional materials for industry.

"Traditional crystal chemistry can no longer meet the demands for development of new functional materials - the foundation of modern industry. This program aims to overcome this challenge," Professor Liu said.

"We hope to build new crystal chemistry that includes nanoscale-interactions and deep machine-learning to improve the predictability of material properties.

"Our work is trying to understand how to better control the properties of materials for optimal functionality and do this at a scale much smaller than previously possible.

"Potential outcomes of the program include enhanced capacity for revolutionary materials development thus keeping Australia's leading position in innovative technology."

Applications include solar panels, carbon capture technology and sensors in smart devices.

Professor Sharon Friel, from the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance, will use her $3.4 million project to explore how we can achieve planetary health equity - the "environmentally sustainable and equitable enjoyment of good health".

She will use a new approach to address existing global health inequities with a focus on food and energy, and in particular, climate change.

"If transformative action on climate change is not taken soon, the risks to human health, health inequities, and indeed human survival will be immense," Professor Friel said.

"The effects of climate change are profound, with more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, species extinction, and increasing food and water insecurity, all contributing to heightened risks to health.

"COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the deep and entrenched social and health inequities that we experience in Australia and across the world. These inequities are only going to get worse under climate change unless there are marked improvements in the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.

"My Laureate will improve the understanding of how to address the systemic drivers of both health inequities and climate change."

Shifting from Earth to the night sky and much further afield, Professor McClure-Griffiths will use her $3.2 million project to examine how gas and magnetism determine the fate of galaxies.

"This program aims to reveal how gas and magnetic fields interact to set the fate of galaxies," Professor McClure-Griffiths, from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said.

"The question of how galaxies evolve is one of the most fundamental in all of astronomy."

Gas is one of the fundamental building blocks of galaxies. Magnetism shapes the gas in galaxies and how are formed - "like scaffolding".  

"Magnetism, alongside gravity, is one of the most influential forces in determining the evolution of galaxies, and yet one of the least understood," Professor McClure-Griffiths said.

"So what we want to understand is how much magnetism shapes the way galaxies are structured and how much it changes the way they evolve."

Professor McClure-Griffiths will use Australia's newest telescope - the Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder - to explore the inner workings of our own Milky Way and its galactic neighbours, the Magellanic Clouds.

Her project will help position Australia at the centre of international efforts to understand how galaxies work.