University of Wollongong researchers win NSW Premier’s Prizes

Professor Zaiping Guo and Professor Antoine van Oijen.

Two University of Wollongong (UOW) academics have been named as recipients of New South Wales Premier’s Prizes for Science and Engineering in recognition of their pioneering research work.

Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen will receive the Prize for Excellence in Medical Biological Sciences and Distinguished Professor Zaiping Guo will receive the Prize for Excellence in Engineering or Information and Communications Technology.

NSW Minister for Planning and Public Spaces Rob Stokes will present the prizes on behalf of Premier Gladys Berejiklian at a ceremony at Government House, Sydney.

The prizes reward leading researchers for cutting-edge work that has generated economic, environmental, health, social or technological benefits for NSW.

UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Jennifer L Martin AC congratulated Guo and van Oijen on their awards.

“I am thrilled and delighted but not surprised that our internationally leading researchers have been recognised in these awards,” Martin said.

“Not only are Zaiping and Antoine trailblazers in their fields, but importantly they are tackling some of the biggest challenges we face and delivering research with real impact.

“Zaiping is developing innovative new batteries that will help us transition to a renewable energy future. Antoine is transforming our understanding of the inner workings of bacteria at a molecular level to combat the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance.”

Guo is a materials scientist whose work focuses on the applications of nanomaterials in energy storage and conversion technologies.

“This is really a big, big honour for me to receive this award,” she said. “If you look at the list of the past awardees, they are all top outstanding scientists. I’m very proud and very happy to be part of this list.”

Guo is at the forefront internationally of efforts to develop next generation batteries that are safe, clean, high performing and low cost, with the aim of finding the most promising large-scale electrical energy storage solutions for renewable energy.

Her research offers potential for applications in future green energy use in NSW, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and facilitating a more sustainable state and nation.

“We’re trying to achieve better batteries with higher energy density, higher power density, better fast-charging capability, long cycle life and high safety,” Guo said.

“By using batteries to store clean energy resource from sunlight, from water, [and] other clean energy resources, we can avoid a negative environmental impact from burning fossil fuel.

“So to reach this purpose we actually design, synthesise and process materials, then test them in battery cells to understand their electrochemical performance.”

A biomolecular physicist, van Oijen is a pioneer in the visualisation of biological processes at the single molecule level. He has developed a research program at UOW that has transformed our understanding of how bacteria copy and repair their DNA and the role these processes play in the development of drug resistance.

Antimicrobial drug resistance is one of the greatest health challenges facing humanity. Without a solution, it is predicted to eclipse mortality caused by cancer and heart disease within decades. As director of UOW’s Molecular Horizons, van Oijen is leading research efforts to tackle this and other health challenges.

“Molecular Horizons is a new research institute at the University of Wollongong where we try to understand how the molecules of life work so that we can start thinking about developing new drugs and new therapies,” he said.

“When disease strikes, often something goes wrong at the molecular level, so what we try to do in my research team and in the institute in general is understand how these molecules work [and] what goes wrong when molecules stop interacting with one another and stop functioning the way they should.

“We’re putting together physical approaches – high-end microscopes in particular – and biologists and chemists to really dive down to atomic-level detail and understand how molecules work and come up with better cures and therapies.”