Dr Minh Bui and Prof Robert Lanfear Win Inaugural ARDC Eureka Prize for Research Software

We celebrate the winners of the first national prize for research software, the Inaugural ARDC Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software.
Dr Minh Bui and Professor Robert Lanfear from The Australian National University stand with their Eureka Prizes in black tie infront of a red background
Professor Robert Lanfear and Dr Minh Bui after winning the ARDC Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software. Credit: The Australian Museum

We are thrilled to announce the winners of the inaugural ARDC Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software, Dr Minh Bui and Professor Robert Lanfear from The Australian National University (ANU).

Rosie Hicks, CEO of the ARDC, presented the prize at the prestigious black tie award ceremony at the Australian Museum on Gadigal Country on 23 August 2023.

“This award recognises and celebrates the critical role of developing and maintaining software that underpins research and innovation in Australia,” said Mrs Hicks. “I congratulate the winners and all the finalists for making history as we recognise research software with a national prize for the first time.”

Dr Bui and Professor Lanfear combined their computer science and biology expertise to develop IQ-TREE2 – free, open-source software that turns DNA data into crucial evolutionary insights by quickly estimating the phylogenetic tree of any group of organisms. Used to investigate everything from the evolution of life on earth to the spread COVID-19 virus, this user-friendly tool, first released in 2019, has become a staple for life scientists worldwide. 

Not only has IQ-TREE2 been used to study living things – it has also been used in the study of transmission and evolution of cultural artefacts like language, music and cultural practices. It was recently used to analyse polyphonic music.  

Recognising Research Software on the National Stage

Rosie Hicks, Minh Bui and Robert Lanfear stand on stage at the 2023 Eureka Prizes.
The ARDC’s CEO, Rosie Hicks, presents Dr Minh Bui and Prof Robert Lanfear with the 2023 ARDC Eureka Prize for Research Software. Credit: The Australian Museum

“I’m really excited and very thrilled for this honour,” said Dr Bui. “For me, it shows the recognition of the Australian research community for our contribution to IQ-TREE2 – and in general, recognition for research software. 

“I’m sincerely grateful to the ARDC for sponsoring this new Eureka Prize.”

Prof Lanfear said, “There are hundreds of groups in Australia writing great software. It’s vital we raise the profile of software and convince people that research software is an important output of academic research.

“It’s also important to educate the research community and funders on what it takes to have good software. You need maintainers – we put in 2 to 3 person days a week just on maintenance of IQ-TREE2. We need to keep it running, update it, answer questions from our users and explore new uses that our users come up with.”

Likening software to more visible infrastructure, Prof Lanfear says maintaining software is similar to maintaining a big telescope. Like a telescope, software needs “people to develop new lenses and add bits on to improve it,” he said. “Yet it’s difficult to get funding from anywhere in Australia to maintain software.”

Both Dr Bui and Prof Lanfear agree that the prize will help their labs attract students. Prof Lanfear mentioned that within 48 hours of winning the prize he’d had a student in his Data Science for Biologists course approach him interested in working on research software.

IQ-TREE2 exemplifies how research software reaches a global audience of researchers. It is supported by the University of Vienna and the Australian National University and has received research funding from the Australian National University, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Simons Foundation. 

Congratulations to All the Finalists

A group of people in black tie gathered at the Australian Museum for the Eureka Prizes.
The finalists for the ARDC Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software – the teams from GPlates, mixOmics and IQ-TREE2. Left to right – Prof Dietmar Muller (GPlates), Assoc Prof Maria Seton (GPlates), Dr Ben Mather (GPlates), Dr Al Abadi (mixOmics), Max Bladen (mixOmics), John Cannon (GPlates), Prof Kim-Anh Lê Cao (mixOmics), Sabin Zahirovic (GPlates), Prof Robert Lanfear (IQ-TREE2), Dr Minh Bui (IQ-TREE2) and Dr Florian Rohart (mixOmics).

All the finalists in the ARDC Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software attended the award ceremony. 

Dr Tom Honeyman, Solution Architect at the ARDC, who led the development of the National Agenda for Research Software in Australia, said, “The enthusiasm for recognising research software at the Eureka Prizes this year was amazing. All the finalists were thrilled to be at the award ceremony. Many finalists have worked on research software for over a decade, and this was their first opportunity to be recognised for their immense contribution to Australian research at a national level.”

Along with Dr Bui and Prof Lanfear with IQ-TREE2, the finalists were:

GPlates, University of Sydney

GPlates is open-source software that brings geodata to life by tracing tectonic shifts over geological time. Through virtual models of Earth’s systems, GPlates helps researchers better understand our planet’s complex geological history and possible future. Broadly applied across science, education and industry, it has contributed to more than 1500 research papers. 

mixOmics, University of Melbourne

Created by statisticians, bioinformaticians and computational biologists, mixOmics is a statistical toolkit that gives researchers across academia and industry the ability to analyse large, complex datasets from cutting-edge biotechnologies. The software allows scientists to integrate data from a wide range of sources into a single, unified view, helping them make significant medical and biological discoveries.

Stay tuned for an in-depth interview with Dr Minh Bui and Prof Robert Lanfear in the coming months. In the meantime, read our interviews with others creating and maintaining research software.

Are you passionate about research software? Join the Research Software Engineering (RSE) Asia Australia Unconference online on 13-15 September 2023 –  register now.

Do you create or maintain research software? Apply for the 2024 ARDC Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software. Applications open in February 2024 – learn when it opens by subscribing to the ARDC Connect newsletter.

The ARDC is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support national digital research infrastructure for Australian researchers.