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As a teenager growing up in Australia, Eve McDonald-Madden embraced discipline and hard work from an early age, rising at 4:30 a.m. to train for competitive water polo, spending after-school hours intensively practicing clarinet for orchestra, and still squeezing in time for study and socializing with friends. A challenging regimen, but useful: “It was in this part of my life that I found this passion in myself,” she says, “and learned how to harness it to achieve my goals.”

Later, this passion found another outlet: a love of nature and the study of ecology and environmental science—animals, their evolution and behavior, and the particular niches they occupy in an ecosystem. Her hope that this knowledge would allow her to contribute to conservation soon gave way to a deeper view.

“Pragmatic Passion”

“I went into the real world, into a government management department, and the way I approached life changed,” she says. “It was here that I found a passion for numbers, problem solving and the satisfaction of finding solutions. I realized that it was one thing to have an understanding of nature, and quite another to manage nature and our interactions with it. I began to believe that the bridge between this divide would be built by clearly presenting the problems and then using both ecology and math to help solve them. You might say I found a passion for pragmatism.”

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Today, McDonald-Madden continues to channel this “pragmatic passion,” as she calls it, in her post at the University of Queensland’s School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management, part of the Australian Research Council’s inter-organizational Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions. In lieu of studying wildlife in the field, she now works with data collected by others, employing the theories of applied mathematics and economics to determine the optimal allocation of resources in order to save species in the face of climate change and other threats.

She has examined the plight of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and assessed how to protect it from poachers. Another project centered on the Tasmanian devil and the management of facial-tumor disease affecting the species. She has also studied the matter of deciding when the best course is to relocate a species to a new area if the effects of global warming are irrevocably altering its current habitat. Whatever the phenomenon or problem, the imperative is the same: To frame the matter in quantifiable terms.

Math turns our predictions about the future into numbers that help us work out what the outcomes of these predictions might be, how different management actions might impact those outcomes, and, thus, which actions could lead to the best outcomes given what we want to accomplish.

Achievement Down Under

The work of McDonald-Madden and her colleagues—“improving the survival of plants and animals in a warming world,” as she puts it— is just one example of Australia-based research and innovation that are reverberating far beyond the nation’s shores and registering strongly in the world community.

To recognize Australian contributions to emerging fields of research, as well as distinction in innovation-related entrepreneurship, Thomson Reuters recently held the 2015 Citation and Innovation Awards – Australia. Eleven research teams, comprising more than 40 scientists from a range of disciplines, were honored. Also receiving awards were eight institutions representing the academic, commercial, and governmental spheres.

The process of selecting winners was based on a methodology much more scientific than one or more judges attempting a subjective assessment of candidates. Instead, Thomson Reuters information tools were brought to bear. These resources, by directly reflecting research activity and the collective opinion of researchers themselves, provide the most authoritative means for identifying and assessing the world’s significant scientific and scholarly work, as well as for tracking patents, concrete markers of innovation achievement.

Clusters, or nodes, representing closely related research, are formed when a group of foundational papers are frequently cited together by later papers, becoming the ‘core’ of a specific, distinct area of investigation. Thomson Reuters calls these clusters ‘Research Fronts’. The makeup and characteristics of a Research Front’s core conveys important details about the research itself. A large core denotes an active, populous field. A Research Front with comparatively recent (or ‘young’) core papers tends to signify a fast-moving field undergoing rapid growth and development.

Emerging Fronts

Thomson Reuters analysts looked for emerging Research Fronts whose younger core literature featured substantial participation from Australian authors and institutions. Once these research topics were identified, analysts identified the key Australian contributors to the key papers for each topic. In making the ultimate selection of topics and groups, special attention was given to cross-disciplinary groups such as centers of excellence or joint facilities. In all, the focus of the awards was more on research topics and groups rather than on individual performers and institutions.

McDonald-Madden and her colleagues, for example, contributed to foundational papers in a Research Front devoted to ‘Effects of climate change on habitat loss and conservation decisions.’

In addition to the work of McDonald-Madden and her fellow team members, the awards honor research in a range of areas, including drug discovery, cancer biology, materials, radio astronomy, and earth sciences. The social sciences and the arts and humanities, meanwhile, are represented by research into online gambling and the risk of addiction, as well as on language and its role in social interactions.

Graph – Number of Patent Documents by Activity Area

Patenting Prowess

Along with recognizing basic research, Thomson Reuters acknowledged distinction among Australian institutions in the step that typically follows research and discovery in the innovation cycle: protection via patenting. Analysts assessed patenting achievement as measured by consistent performance in four indicators: Volume (prolific patent filings); Success (the number of granted patents); Globalization (reflecting the value that a company places on its patent portfolio); and Influence (the frequency at which a company’s patents are cited).

As with the citation awards, the selections represent a variety of areas, including biomedicine, materials, and agriculture.

Graph – Number of Patent Documents by Activity Area

The qualities displayed by Eve McDonald-Madden—a passionate curiosity and a desire to tackle the world’s most pressing problems—surely inform all the Australia-based groups and institutions whose impact has been recognized. For McDonald-Madden, the significance is clear: “To be recognized for our contribution to environmental research is a fantastic honor and achievement for us all. It makes our collaboration feel significant and solidifies for us how important collaboration is for achieving cutting-edge science outcomes.”