Statistician Professor Terry Speed from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has been awarded the 2013 Prime Minister's Prize for Science for his influential work using mathematics and statistics to help biologists understand human health and disease.
The Prime Minister's Prize for Science is Australia's highest award for excellence in science research, and was presented to Professor Speed tonight at a ceremony at Parliament House. The award recognises the significant importance of bioinformatics in modern biomedical science.
Bioinformatics is a relatively new branch of science that combines maths, statistics and computer science to solve complex biological problems. Over the course of his 44-year career, Professor Speed has developed mathematical and statistical tools that enable biologists to make sense of the vast amounts of information generated by rapidly advancing (next-generation) genetic technologies.
Bioinformatics has made it possible to look at hundreds of genes in a DNA sequence at once to understand the genetic changes involved in complicated diseases such as cancers, and is integral to the genomics revolution that is driving the sequencing of whole genomes in record times. Professor Speed has developed tools to identify genes that are responsible for different traits, diseases or cancers by sifting through these enormous volumes of data.
In addition to developing tools to help biologists analyse and explain their results, Professor Speed is working with biologists to determine the genetic traits that make normal and cancerous cells different; developing tools to help determine if thyroid growths are benign or cancerous; and determining the risk children in malaria-endemic countries have of developing clinical malaria, which helps to inform prevention and treatment strategies.
Professor Speed said it was a great honour to receive the Prime Minister's Prize for Science. "Australia is full of many amazing and talented researchers, so it is humbling to be recognised in this way," he said. "Science is a collaborative effort and I would like to thank the many students, postdocs and colleagues that have supported me throughout my career. In addition, I would like to thank my wife, Sally, whose love and support over the past 50 years has enabled me to pursue my research with passion."
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said he was delighted Professor Speed's global contributions to bioinformatics and biology had been recognised by the Australian Government. "Terry is a champion for statistics and bioinformatics, and has been instrumental in educating the next generation of bioinformaticians," Professor Hilton said. "Not only is his scientific acumen first-class, he is a compassionate mentor and a true leader, demonstrated by his strong support for gender equality."
Professor Speed is head of the institute's Bioinformatics division and he still heads a small group at the University of California, Berkeley, US. He is also involved in The Cancer Genome Atlas project, an international collaboration that is identifying the genetic changes responsible for more than 20 types of cancer, in order to develop new diagnostics and treatments.
The 2013 Prime Minister's Prize for Science is the latest in a string of awards for Professor Speed. In May, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, UK, while in 2012 he was the recipient of the Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation and won the Thomas Reuters Citation Award in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for being the most cited Australian researcher in that field for the past decade. He also received the inaugural National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Achievement Award for Excellence in Health and Medical Research in 2007, an NHMRC Fellowship in 2009 and the Australian Government Centenary Medal in 2001.