La Trobe biochemist and finalist in last year’s Australian Eureka Science Prize, Dr Alex Maier, has been awarded Iran’s highest scientific honour by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Dr Maier – whose laboratory is part of the new La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science – specialises in malaria research. His work has revealed a key adaptive strategy used by the malaria parasite to survive in, and cause damage to, its human host.
In February he was one of three international scientists to receive the Khwarizmi Award at a ceremony in Tehran.
The award was set up to honour Iranian scientists and has been expanded to include foreign laureates. It is named after Mohammad Ibn Mousa Khwarizmi, the great 9th century Iranian mathematician and astronomer, widely recognised as the founder of algebra, and from whose name and work the term ‘algorithm’ was derived.
The award recognised Dr Maier’s ‘dedication, excellence and sustained hard work in the field of research’. Receiving an award named after Khwarizmi was not without a certain irony, he concedes, ‘given that high-level maths was never one of my strong points’.
At the ceremony Dr Maier shared the lime-light with 21 local and two other international Laureates chosen from applicants from 46 countries.
‘One was an Italian medical scientist attached to a number of international institutes and the other an Uzbekistan physicist involved in satellite imaging used for geological exploration.’
With President Ahmadinejad widely condemned in the West for his comments about Israel and for developing Iran’s nuclear capacity, Dr Maier expected that this would be an ‘unusual and interesting’ journey.
‘It certainly was a very memorable event, and well worth sitting for two days in aircraft,’ he says. After the ceremony he was interviewed by Iranian media about his research and current work at La Trobe.
Dr Maier found Iran ‘more complex and multi-layered’ than he had anticipated. ‘People expressed a far wider range of views on many issues than I would have expected.
‘For example, the director of country’s Institute of Advanced Technology (IAT) – Iran’s equivalent of the CSIRO) – who spoke at the ceremony, is a woman. From what I saw during my brief visit, I suspect there are probably more women in senior science roles in Iran than there are in Australia.
‘Obviously it was very important to observe things like dress codes. Although the advance literature sent to us advised against shaking hands with women, the IAT director shook mine when I left.’
While the US has no diplomatic relations with Iran, Dr Maier says Australia has an ambassador in Teheran.
The Khwarizmi International Awards have received support from UNESCO as a ‘special window of contact’ for outstanding researchers and innovators, highlighting that scientific links between nations often continue in the face of ideological differences, much as they did during the long years of the Cold War, when Western scientists maintained links with their Soviet counterparts.
Dr Maier says his forays into preparing nominations for two recent awards have also opened his eyes to the importance of trying to explain the complexities of advances in biological research to wider audiences.
‘That’s often easier said than done, but the reality is that in most countries, the lion’s share of scientific work is funded by taxpayers who are interested in how their money is spent.’