Quantum physicist named 2018 Australian of the Year

Quantum physicist Michelle Simmons has been named 2018 Australian of the Year, in recognition of her work in the "space race of the computing era".

The University of New South Wales professor is leading the development of a new type of computer, which would allow humans to solve problems in minutes that might otherwise take thousands of years. A "quantum computer", which could look at all possible outcomes simultaneously, has the potential to change approaches to areas such as weather forecasts, stock markets, facial recognition, self-driving cars, traffic flows and drug development.

With other countries also vying to build a quantum computer, the work has been compared to the space race of the 1950s and 1960s.

"It's nail-biting, it's exciting and it's happening here right now in Sydney," Professor Simmons has previously said.

Accepting the award in Canberra on Thursday evening, she said her team at UNSW was "pushing the frontiers of technology".

"We want to build not just a quantum computer, but a quantum computing industry."

The London-born, British-educated physicist arrived in Australia in 1999 at the start of her research career. While she had also applied for work at prestigious universities such as Britain's Cambridge and America's Stanford, she describes the decision to come to Australia as an easy one.

"To this day, I am delighted with my choice and firmly believe that there is no better place to undertake research," she said in a speech last year.

"Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue goals that are ambitious."

Professor Simmons, who became an Australian citizen in 2007, is a passionate advocate for rigorous science education and for girls to build careers in science and technology.

"As a physicist, I'm a woman in a man's world," she told the Parliament House audience on Thursday, noting it is dangerous if people start to believe what others think of them.

"I am a fan of ensuring that all young people, both male and female, pursue what they love."

Professor Simmons also said young people should be proud of their country, adding there were as many opportunities in Australia as there were elsewhere in the world. "Unlike me, you don't have to go overseas to realise your dreams."

Award a 'total surprise'

The Sydney-based professor described her award as "a huge honour and to be honest, a total surprise". She is the second scientist in as many years to be named Australian of the Year, taking over from 2017 winner, biomedical scientist, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim.

At a morning tea for nominees on Thursday, ahead of the awards ceremony, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull praised all the state and territory award winners.

"What you all have in common is a commitment to changing Australians' lives for the better," he said.

Professor Simmons, 50, beat out high-profile nominees NRL legend Johnathan Thurston and actor and cancer research fundraiser Samuel Johnson for the top prize. Other nominees included craniofacial surgeon Professor David David and Indigenous psychologist Dr Tracy Westerman.

The Australian of the Year is selected by the nine-member National Australia Day Council board, chaired by Olympic hockey gold medallist and sports administrator Danni Roche.

Soccer star, biophysicist and maths teacher also honoured

Thursday night's ceremony also saw soccer player Samantha Kerr named as Young Australian of the Year.

Kerr, 24, first represented Australia in the Matildas at 15. Playing in both Australia and the United States, she recently became the all-time leading goal scorer in America's National Women's Soccer League.

The soccer star said she was "truly humbled" by the award.

"I truly view this ... as not just for me but rather as an endorsement of the achievements of the Australian women's football national team and more broadly, Australian women's football and women's sport in general."

Australian National University scientist Dr Graham Farquhar was announced as the Senior Australian of the Year for his work on photosynthesis and food security. Dr Farquhar, who was described by colleagues as one of the leading biophysical scientists in the world, spoke of the need to embrace creativity. "To me the most important things in life are to struggle to improve, to struggle to be honest and to struggle to re-evaluate one's prejudices," he said.

NSW high school maths teacher Eddie Woo was named Local Hero for his online "Wootube" channel, which aims to make maths more accessible for students.

Accepting his award, Mr Woo said he was a proud representative of every teacher in Australia.

"Education can radically change the trajectory of a child's life."

Mr Woo added that while mathematics was hard, "it's something everyone wants to understand".

The story Quantum physicist named 2018 Australian of the Year first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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