Student innovators win McCusker Prize for new, lifesaving technologies

Engineering student Nicholas Bull won a McCusker Prize Humanitarian Engineering for his research on water purification in Timor-Leste. The other prize went to an ANU Computing team deploying AI to battle bushfires.

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Engineering student Nicholas Bull
Engineering student Nicholas Bull

The Australian National University (ANU) and the College of Engineering, Computing, and Cybernetics (CECC) have announced the recipients of the inaugural McCusker Prize in Humanitarian Engineering.

Immersed in clean water technology

Engineering student Nicholas Bull won a McCusker Prize for his research on water purification, and a team of Computing students earned the prize for enlisting artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline the deployment of firefighting resources.

“What is amazing about the McCusker Prize is it not only recognises the efforts and commitment of students but also increases the potential for students’ work to have direct positive impact beyond the classroom, for communities in Australia and our region,” said Dr Jeremy Smith, Director of the School of Engineering’s Humanitarian Engineering program.

The Prize is made possible by the McCusker Charitable Foundation, which aims to improve human health by supporting research and innovation.

As part of his undergraduate studies, Mr Bull engaged in two research projects that aim to improve water quality for households, hospitals, and schools in Timor-Leste.

Water treatment in Timor Leste

His work in collaboration with Abundant Water and Engineers Without Borders Australia investigated the effectiveness of portable ceramic water filters in treating contaminated ground and surface water. A second project involved the design and construction of an experimental configuration for a hollow fibre membrane filter. Both projects will help improve health outcomes by reducing water-borne bacteria.

“This award has provided me with the opportunity to conduct a research trip to Timor Leste in 2024,” Mr Bull said. “This will generate a deeper understanding of the context in which the filters are used, helping to identify the most appropriate experimental approaches and optimise the validity and humanitarian impact of our teams’ work.”

Mr Bull said the recognition and encouragement provided by this award has bolstered his drive to focus on Humanitarian Engineering after graduation. He also expects it to help him make connections in the engineering field.

Deploying AI in bushfire battles

FireApp was developed by a team of students participating in the School of Computing’s TechLauncher program in collaboration with industry client Accenture. The project was spurred by the Australian bushfire disasters of 2019 and 2020 known as the Black Summer Fires.

“I lived right at the cusp of a major national park in Sydney,” said Phillip La, FireApp’s Project Manager. “For months, there were new fires every day, and the smell of smoke at our doorstep.”

“When I joined FireApp, I knew that these events led me to work on this project. I’ve always dreamed of working with people at the centre of an engineering solution, and this was my chance.”

FireApp enables the rapid deployment of resources and assets during the early stages of bushfires when intervention has the highest likelihood of success.

Along with Mr La, the 2023 TechLauncher team consisted of seven ANU Computing students, including Ben McLean who served as Technical Lead.

The FireApp team

“I specifically sought out a position in the FireApp team because of its humanitarian connection,” Mr McLean said. “Like a lot of people my age, I’ve always been passionate about humanitarian and social causes.”

Mr McLean said he previously contributed technical expertise to COVIDSafe and Cornovirus Australia, which “opened my eyes to the transformational opportunity technology provides to the humanitarian space”.

Prize fuels student start-up

Upon learning about the McCusker Prize, Mr McLean said his first thought was the opportunity it would provide for FireApp.

“Our project being recognised and supported by the Australian National University and McCusker Charitable Foundation has helped secure the future of FireApp. For that I am grateful,” he said.

On 10 January 2024, the FireApp team launched a start-up company called Emergiq to further their work on FireApp, with permission from their industry clients at Accenture.

The team hope to expand the app to help with other natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, aiming to maximise emergency resources and minimise the human and environmental cost of natural disasters.

“We are also looking to expand beyond Canberra,” said Mr La. “Climate change is global, and investors worldwide are searching for solutions to limit climate-induced disasters.”

The McCusker Prize

The McCusker Prize in Humanitarian Engineering is an endowed prize launched in 2023. The aim of the Prize is to recognise and support undergraduate students striving to create social impact through Humanitarian Engineering. The Prize is supported by the McCusker Charitable Foundation every year, in perpetuity.


More about the Humanitarian Engineering minor at ANU:

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