Big ideas that are shaping nation for the better

February 27, 2024


A fire-retardant paint to save homes from bushfires and an easy-to-use blood sugar indicator that will change the lives of people with diabetes are among the transformative university projects honoured in the inaugural Shaping Australia awards.

The seven Shaping Australia winners, who were presented with their awards by federal Education Minister Jason Clare in Canberra on Tuesday night, were chosen from 18 finalists who have contributed to the nation in one of three areas of university endeavour: research, teaching or engagement with the community.

The awards, conceived by Universities Australia and supported by The Australian, were judged by an eminent panel chaired by former Education Department secretary Lisa Paul. They include a People’s Choice category chosen by popular vote in which more than 35,000 people participated.

Ms Paul said the awards showed “how universities are going the extra mile to make a difference to their communities, to Australia and indeed to the world”.

Other judges were former governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove, GO Foundation chief executive Charlene Davison, Paralympian Kurt Fearnley, The Australian editor-in-chief Michelle Gunn, special envoy for Southeast Asia Nicholas Moore and former Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt.

University of NSW engineer Guan Yeoh said his fire-retardant paint, which won the People’s Choice award in the Problem Solver category for research projects, started in 2018 when a company approached the university looking for a “game changer” product to resist bushfires.

“After three years, in 2021, there was a eureka moment. We managed to get a formulation which protected the wooden substrate. I said ‘wow, this is fantastic’,” Professor Yeoh said.

The resulting product, FSA Fire­coat, is rated to resist a bushfire attack level of 40 and is commercially available to protect buildings in bushfire-prone areas.

University of Newcastle scientist Paul Dastoor said the Problem Solver award to his team – for a technology that can measure sugar levels in the body by a user licking a plastic strip – is the result of nearly three decades of research. The technology is being commercialised through IBS, a Nasdaq listed company, and soon will undergo clinical trials.

La Trobe University’s Nexus program, which trains people in professional careers to be teachers in schools in disadvantaged areas of Victoria, was the judges’ choice for the Future Builder Award, which recognises excellence in university teaching.

The University of South Australia’s Arjun Burlakoti and his team won the People’s Choice in the Future Builder Award for a teaching program that has lifted students’ enthusiasm and interest in anatomy, a necessary subject for allied health students but often one they find challenging.

In the Community Champion Award judges chose joint winners: Central Queensland University’s program to give disabled people access to the beach and the University of South Australia’s ifarmwell project to improve mental health and end the epidemic of rural suicide.

CQUniversity physiotherapist Sasha Job said many of her patients were missing out on important events, such as weddings and birthdays, held at beaches because of their disabilities.

“Beach culture is extremely important where I live and I was finding more and more that some of my patients couldn’t attend the beach,” she said. The U-BEACH program gives practical help with equipment such as a special model of walker designed for sand and hoists to help enter the water.

UniSA psychologist Kate Gunn grew up on a farm and said that whenever she went home she saw serious mental health issues in farming communities with not much support available for them.

Dr Gunn launched a website with information, podcasts and five online 30-minute learning modules. After doing each module, people practice skills for a few weeks before doing the next one.

Curtin University’s tax clinic, in which students (under supervision) give tax advice to people without the resources to use a tax agent, was the People’s Choice as Community Champion.

Accountancy academic Annette Morgan started the clinic in 2018 and the concept was so successful that, supported by the Australian Taxation Office, there are now tax clinics in all states and territories with 14 universities involved.