Science educators honoured on Australia Day

Leading Australia Day Honours have been awarded to maverick fossil hunter and conservationist Professor Rod Wells and popular Flinders University physics teacher Associate Professor Maria Parappilly.

They are among prominent and successful people – including Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) recipient, Flinders graduate and University Convocation medallist Professor Anthony Thomas – acknowledged in today’s Australia Day Honours List.

Professor Thomas – who completed BSc ’70, BSc(Hons) ’71, PhD(PhysSc) ’75 at Flinders University – is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Elder Professor of Physics in Adelaide, was one of five Australians to take a top AC honour this year.

He was acknowledged for eminent service to scientific education and research, particularly in the field of nuclear and particle physics, through academic leadership roles.

Professor Thomas AC FAA, who is chief investigator of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Dark Matter Particle Physics Laboratory at the University of Adelaide, attended Flinders University with his wife, Dr Joan Thomas (BSc(Hons) ’71, DipEd ’72), where he found highly qualified and enthusiastic teachers.

“Let me just say thank you to everyone who has helped and supported and taught me,” he says, adding: “No-one either in my family or my wife’s ever finished secondary school, often because of financial pressures.”

“It is a privilege to work in fundamental science and from time to time be the first person to really understand one of nature’s secrets. It is also an honour to share access to that scientific world with my students and benefit from their enthusiasm.”

Professor Thomas is also Deputy Director of the Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale and Vice-Chair of ANPhA (the Asian Nuclear Physics Association), which aims to encourage and stimulate research collaboration and education in fundamental nuclear physics. He was awarded 1991 the Inaugural Silver Jubilee Commemoration Medal at Flinders University.

Former Flinders staff member Dr Linley Martin, will receive a prestigious Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to education, particularly to student equity, educational standards and academic administration.

Emeritus Professor Roderick Wells, whose palaeontology career started with the discovery of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Naracoorte Caves, will receive a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to education, and to the biological sciences.

Flinders Professor Wells has studied SA megafauna fossils from several SA locations. He was instrumental in obtaining the official listing of the Naracoorte Caves as a World Heritage site 25 years ago.

Another Flinders Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, Emeritus Professor Acram Taji, PhD(BiolSc) ‘79, also received an AM for significant service to education, particularly to horticultural science and plant biotechnology.

Associate Professor Maria Parappilly’s OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia) was awarded for service to science education, and to women after introducing strategies such as LEGO racing cars, inquiry-based learning, research oriented self-designed labs and team-based learning and student quizzes to enliven physics classes.

“Physics is often considered one of the most difficult subjects to learn,” says Associate Professor Parappilly, who moved to Australia from southwestern India in 1998.

“It contains basic and traditional material of a mathematical nature, and most students struggle in their first year – which adds to the decline in Australian uni enrolments in the subject in recent years.

“By introducing group problem-solving in class, and practical experiences such as LEGO car racing, we have made progress in engaging both the advanced and less advanced students.

“I have seen these innovative strategies positively impact on the retention, success and progression of physics students in the critical first year at uni.”

Commitment to assisting more women with gaining a tertiary physics education saw her start the STEM Women Branching Out initiative at Flinders, and introduce national STEM Enrichment Academy events to South Australia. She recently added another international award to her long list of achievements, returning to Kochi in India as part of the ACEEU 2020 Asia-Pacific Triple E Awards.

“This award really motivates me to inspire more girls into STEM by helping them perform science; enriching and  empowering young women to progress and to dream big in STEM,” says Associate Professor Parappilly, who completing a PhD in Theoretical Particle Physics in 2006.

Associate Professor Maria Parappilly OAM is highly commended for her teaching innovations in physics, including with a Flinders College of Science and Engineering Dean (Education) Teaching Excellence Award in December 2019.

The 50 years since Professor Wells and fellow cave explorers entered the famous Victoria fossil cave in 1969 was celebrated by SA last year – and his long contribution to Flinders was marked by the University’s Inaugural Wells Lecture in Palaeontology in 2018.

“I am a bit stunned and bit overawed but it’s a nice warm feeling to know I’ve made a contribution that’s valued by people,” says Professor Wells, citing the foundation of the Brookfield Conservation Park and ongoing research on Lake Eyre Basin fossils among other career highlights.

Professor Wells enthusiastically remembers the thrill of the early exploration and the tonnes of impressive megafauna and other fossils hidden below the ground, including the remarkable marsupial ‘lion’ and extinct leaf-eating kangaroos.

“It was a life-changing moment when we broke into the Victoria Fossil Cave. I knew exactly what we’d stumbled across,” he says. “I guess I’ll keep playing with fossils ‘til I die,” he laughs, adding he’s the first person in his family to gain a university education.

Flinders also congratulates other successful graduates in this year’s Australia Day Honours:

They include outstanding Flinders graduate and Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, children’s book publisher Ms Jane Covernton (BA ’72), who will also add AM to her name for significant service to the literary arts as a published or children’s books.

Flinders University Bachelor of Arts graduate (1983) and one of the University’s 50th anniversary ‘Fifty Creatives’, Ms Helen Leake, joins the University’s long list of highly acclaimed and accomplished creatives with an AM in the General Division for significant service to film, and to professional organisations.

Other recipients in the Flinders ‘family’ include:

Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)

  • Dr Adele Chynoweth, former staff member: For service to public history.
  • Dr Anthony (Tony) Lian-Lloyd, graduate (BM, BS ‘88), former staff and academic status: For service to medicine, and to the community.
  • Dr David Marshall, former staff member : For service to orthopaedic medicine.
  • Ms Brenda Rayner, graduate BA(Hons) ‘96: For service to music.
  • Dr Kim Rooney, graduate MPallC ‘00: For service to medicine.

Public Service Medal

  • Dr Dale Lambert, graduate PhD(EHLT) ’97, BA ’89, BA(Hons) ’85, BSc ’83: For outstanding public service in the use of artificial intelligence in surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, intelligence and autonomous platforms.
  • Dr Edward Mah, graduate (DM ’94, BM,BS ‘84), former staff member and academic status: For outstanding public service to public health in South Australia.
  • Mr Gregory Shanahan, graduate Bec ‘80: For outstanding public service to the justice system in the Northern Territory.

The Governor-General and Chancellor of the Order of Australia, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd),  announcing 1099 awards in the Australia Day 2020 Honours List, says: “Behind every medal and citation is a story.

“Whether through their service, sacrifice or significant achievement, these people help others and make our towns, communities and nation better.

“They’re extraordinary but also, in the best possible way, ordinary. The fantastic thing, the inspirational thing, is that we all know people like those who have been recognised today – people who look out for each other and, day-in-day-out, serve their communities in ways big and small.

“We have seen countless examples of this sort of service during the bushfire crisis.

“These outstanding Australians represent the best of who we are as a nation.”

A full list of recipients is available


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