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Mechatronic engineers Doctors Cheryl and Alison McCarthy from USQ have received awards as finalists in the 2015 Young Tall Poppy Science Awards.

Mechatronic engineers Doctors Cheryl and Alison McCarthy from the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) have received awards as finalists 2015 Young Tall Poppy Science Awards for their work which is helping to improve productivity and sustainability in agriculture.

An initiative of the Australian Institute for Policy and Science (AIPS), the awards recognise Australia’s outstanding young scientific researchers and communicators, and the Queensland winners were announced at the 2015 Science Celebration in Brisbane last night (August 20).

“It is great for my research to be recognised and I am looking forward to being involved in the AIPS outreach activities, and encouraging young people into agriculture and STEM — science, technology, engineering and maths,” Dr Alison McCarthy said.

“The award is great recognition for the cutting-edge research being funded by Australia's rural industries, and being conducted by Australian regional universities,” Dr Cheryl McCarthy said.

As part of the team at USQ’s National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture (NCEA), the McCarthy sisters have worked on projects funded by the sugar, cotton, grains, dairy and horticulture industries.

They are at the forefront of multi-disciplinary research into developing and incorporating software — including apps and smartphone functions — and hardware which can make better use of resources including labour, rainfall, irrigation and fertiliser.

USQ’s Professor Steven Raine said their research, and their ability to engage a wide range of audiences, have made them worthy recipients of Young Tall Poppy awards.

“Cheryl has performed demonstrations of mechatronic research equipment for scientific and non-scientific audiences which have been described as remarkable, and her leading role in the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education (PICSE) program has influenced STEM career choices for teenagers,” Professor Raine, Director of USQ’s Institute for Agriculture and the Environment, said.

Alison has also been a PICSE presenter, and has demonstrated the applications and benefits of her research at numerous workshops and field days.

“These presentations have built a greater public appreciation for, and understanding of, science, particularly in the areas of horticulture, irrigation and agriculture,” Professor Raine said.

“USQ is very proud of Cheryl’s and Alison’s achievements, and their ability to work with people from all walks of life in order to inspire an enthusiasm for the future of agriculture and its interface with technology through mechatronics,” he said.

As 2015 Young Tall Poppies, Cheryl and Alison are required to work with AIPS to inspire young Australians about the possibilities of science, and consider taking up tertiary study and careers in the sciences, as well as improve the scientific literacy of the Australian public.

Both Cheryl’s and Alison’s research involves liaising with farmers, industry and other researchers, and formulating algorithms which interpret digital information; for Cheryl, that means working with data collected by cameras mounted on drones and ground-driven machinery, and for Alison, it’s data about soil moisture and plant growth.

Alison’s work has been evaluated on cotton and fodder crops, and has been found to improve yields by 4-11 per cent, and reduce water use by 11-22pc; she is currently working on an automated irrigation real-time control system to save farmers time and deliver optimal amounts of water and fertiliser to crops and pastures.

Cheryl is involved in developing components for on-farm robotic systems, and modifying off-the-shelf equipment like sensors and cameras for farmers to use. Since 2011, Cheryl has received research grants via rural industries totalling $1.6m, and her work has attracted the attention of John Deere, an NCEA research partner.

Queensland Minister for Science and Innovation Leeanne Enoch said the 2015 Young Tall Poppy Awards have been given at an exciting time for Queensland.

“We have enormous scientific talent in the state, world-class research infrastructure and people — in government, in the community, in business and in our research organisations — who are dedicated to encouraging more young Queenslanders to follow careers in science, technology and innovation,” Ms Enoch said.

“Our $180 million Advance Queensland initiative includes a number of programs to support our young scientists, including funding support for early career researchers and PhD and Masters Scholarships.”