Sydney researcher wins Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

12 October 2011

University of Sydney Associate Professor Min Chen has won the Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, part of the prestigious Prime Minister's Prizes for Science, for her contribution to our understanding of chlorophyll -- one of the building blocks of life on Earth.

Associate Professor Chen, from the University's School of Biological Sciences, received her $50,000 award from Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, at an awards dinner in the Great Hall of Canberra's Parliament House on 12 October 2011.

Having discovered the first new chlorophyll in 67 years in 2010, Associate Professor Chen won the award for her contribution to our knowledge of chlorophyll -- photosynthetic pigments found in plants, algae and cyanobacteria.

Chlorophyll is central to life on Earth -- it is the key molecule in photosynthesis, the process by which plants harness sunlight. Chlorophyll provides our food, our fossil fuels and the oxygen we breathe.

"I was surprised and pleased when I found out about winning the Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. I received a phone call telling me about the prize at 5am in the morning when I was at a conference in Finland, but I couldn't share my news with others at the time, because the news was confidential, so it was hard to keep quiet!" said Associate Professor Chen.

"The prize means a lot to me -- not only does it recognise my research, but it also recognises the importance of the research field of chlorophylls and cyanobacteria. It is very gratifying to have been selected for this prize by my scientific peers from Australia."

Associate Professor Chen with her team discovered the new form of chlorophyll -- called chlorophyll f -- in samples of single-celled cyanobacteria from ancient rock-like accumulations called stromatolites collected from Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Her discovery of chlorophyll f and work to determine its structure and function was published in the journal Science in August 2010, and attracted huge interest not only within the scientific world, but also in industries related to agriculture, biofuels and solar cells. The newly discovered chlorophyll is able to utilise lower light energy than any other known chlorophyll, with its ability to absorb far-red light, and therefore has excited industries where capturing light energy is key.

"Finding the new chlorophyll was totally unexpected -- it was one of those serendipitous moments of scientific discovery," said Associate Professor Chen.

"I was actually looking for chlorophyll d, which we knew could be found in cyanobacteria living in low light conditions. I thought that stromatolites would be a good place to look, since the bacteria in the middle of the structures don't get as much light as those on the edge."

Her work challenges our understanding of the physical limits of photosynthesis, revealing that small-scale molecular changes to the structure of chlorophyll allow photosynthetic organisms to survive in almost any environment on Earth.

University of Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Jill Trewhella congratulated Associate Professor Chen on her success.

"This fundamental research is a prime example of the potential for discovery science to have real-world impact, in this case by providing paths to more effective capture of solar energy for renewable energy applications and enhanced agricultural productivity," Professor Trewhella said.

Even before the discovery of the new chlorophyll made her name widely known in scientific circles, Associate Professor Chen -- still less than eight years out from her PhD -- had become a recognised authority on photosynthetic cyanobacteria and chlorophyll d.

Having completed her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in China, Associate Professor Chen moved to Australia in 1998 and completed her PhD in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney.

"I came to Australia with my husband as he'd been offered a job here as a chemist at the University of Sydney. At the time, there weren't any jobs available in plant physiology at the university, but Professor Tony Larkum in the School of Biological Sciences took me on as an honorary assistant in his lab," said Associate Professor Chen.

"This was great for me, as I learned more about chlorophyll and photosynthesis and really developed an interest in these areas in my work with Professor Larkum. After almost two years working as a volunteer at the University of Sydney, I got funding to do my PhD working on chlorophyll d, which was wonderful!"

Following her PhD, Associate Professor Chen was offered postdoctoral fellowships around the world, however, she chose to stay in Australia. She took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sydney, when she was successful in securing an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Postdoctoral Fellowship, which enabled her to continue her chlorophyll research.

"My science career in Australia has been an amazing journey -- from volunteering in a lab at the University of Sydney to completing my PhD here and now running my own lab here. Winning the Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year is truly exciting and an incredible honour."

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