2013 PM's Prize for Science: Terry Speed
Emeritus Professor Terry Speed has been awarded the 2013 Prime Minister's Prize for Science for his contribution to making sense of genomics and related technologies.PT3M36S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2wgwz 620 349 October 30, 2013
The winner of this year's Prime Minister's Prize for Science has had his fair share of run-ins with the law. As a result Terry Speed is just as comfortable in the office as he is in a courtroom where, it should be stressed, his appearances have been limited to the witness box.
A statistician, Professor Speed's expertise has provided crucial information during high-profile trials.
At the 1994 murder trial of American footballer O.J. Simpson he was an expert witness on DNA forensics for the defence. This involved calculating the odds of a chance DNA match versus a real match of two blood samples.
Interested in everything: Statistician Terry Speed in his office at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Photo: Penny Stephens
Earlier in his career, Professor Speed was called upon for Ronald Ryan's 1966 murder trial. His analysis of the downward trajectory of the bullet that killed prison guard George Hodson suggested Ryan (at 1.73 metres tall) could only have fired the fatal shot if he were 2.55 metres tall.
"It was just basic geometry," Professor Speed said ahead of receiving the top honour, the $300,000 Prime Minister's Prize for Science, at a black-tie dinner in Canberra on Wednesday night.
His evidence made little difference to the outcome. Ryan was sentenced to death by hanging – the last person legally executed in Australia.
However, Professor Speed, 70, describes his bit-part on the criminology stage as "just a sideshow" in his scientific life, which has included two decades at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Sheffield, the University of Western Australia and the CSIRO, where he was head of statistics and the mathematics division.
Now head of bioinformatics at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research, Professor Speed likes the diversity of his work which, he said, is a natural fit for a man who is "interested in everything".
"You see a wide range of interesting things and that's why I love statistics. That's why I never say no to a problem," he said.
Professor Speed, who was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London this year, has used statistics to make sense of data in diverse fields: from the imprisonment rate of aborigines to the size distribution of Argyle diamonds.
His career has coincided with a boom in genomics and a time when advances in technology have produced masses of dense data. Within a few years scientists went from being able to scan a few genes to scanning 20,000 at once, producing more data than biologists could handle. That's where Professor Speed comes in.
"When the volume of data changes so dramatically it can change the game," he said. "If a biologist has a hundred samples and they measure 50,000 things on each of those samples, that's way more than any biologist wants to deal with on an Excel sheet."
Also honoured on Wednesday night was engineer Andrea Morello, an associate professor at the University of NSW, who received the $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for physical scientist of the year for his groundbreaking work on quantum computers. Evolutionary ecologist Angela Moles, also an associate professor at UNSW, was honoured with the $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for life scientist of the year for her work revealing global patterns in plant life. Dr Moles said she was shocked by her win.
"The person who won the award I'm getting last year grew fully functioning breasts from stem cells, that is way cooler than what I do," she said.
with Nicky Phillips