Brilliant mathematician wins Australias top prize for science

10 Dec 2019 | 2 mins

The University of Western Australia’s Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger has won the prestigious Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for her contribution to the mathematical sciences.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tonight presented Professor Praeger with her prize at an Awards Dinner held in the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra. 

Professor Praeger said the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were an outstanding recognition of the excellence of Australian scientific research. 

“I regard it as a wonderful statement about the importance of mathematics and my achievements in mathematical research, along with my colleagues and students, in the mathematics of symmetry,” she said.

“The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is the top prize for science in Australia"

Professor Praeger said she had been lucky that early in her career an immensely powerful mega-theorem had been ‘born’, identifying all the mathematical ‘atoms’ or ‘building blocks’ of symmetry, the so-called finite simple groups. 

“I was one of the first to exploit this watershed result to build new fundamental theory and new methods to study groups and symmetrical structures like networks and designs,” she said. 

“New algorithms I developed were built into the computer systems GAP and MAGMA, and used by mathematicians and scientists worldwide.  Their reliance on the finite simple group classification means that they run incredibly quickly.”

Professor Praeger said the prizes made scientific research more visible around the country. She hoped this would inspire young people to study maths and science at school, and to consider one of the many exciting careers they could undertake in STEM.

“Mathematics is incredibly important in the world today; it underpins every part of our society and this includes the digital technology we use daily from our smart phones to the internet,” she said. 

“Mathematics also partners and supports research in medicine, agriculture, engineering and technology and I’m passionate about the way mathematics helps us understand the world. Throughout history new developments in science and technology have thrown up really important mathematical challenges and that has been true throughout my career and will certainly be true into the future. 

“For example when we have a quantum computer to use, there will be so many more new maths challenges for the new generation of young people entering science and the other STEM disciplines.”

UWA’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research Professor Robyn Owens, who nominated Professor Praeger for the award, said she had created a huge body of academic work and, most importantly, an equally large body of service in the generation of new mathematicians in Australia.

“Throughout her extensive career, Professor Praeger has had a remarkable influence in mentoring and developing mathematics in Australia,” Professor Owens said.  

“She has supported women in mathematics and science, while advocating for mathematics in schools at all levels and promoting the discipline in emerging economies.”

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater said Professor Praeger was ranked in the world’s top one per cent of highly cited mathematicians and had received many awards and honours during her highly successful career. These included being elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and an Honorary Member of the London Mathematical Society.

“Professor Praeger was also the first woman to be awarded the Australian Mathematical Society’s George Szekeres Medal, which honours those who have made an extraordinary contribution to the mathematical sciences over an extended period,” Professor Freshwater said.

“She is a marvellous role model here at UWA, around Australia and the world and we’re so pleased to see her receive this richly deserved honour.”    

The major prize is awarded for a significant advancement of knowledge through science and includes $250,000 in prize money.

Media references

Simone Hewett (UWA Media and Public Relations Adviser) 08 6488 7975

Stacey Molloy (UWA Associate Director, Corporate Communications) 0423 974 149 

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