His work has been hailed as more impressive than the moon landing and now Alan Mackay-Sim wants to use his new title as Australian of the Year to put science on the national agenda.
The 65-year-old Queensland biomolecular scientist used his acceptance speech on Wednesday night to call for Australia to prioritise its spending so it can look after the disabled and diseased and afford future radical treatments.
He was "proud and shocked and horrified" to be named the 2017 Australian of the Year.
He expects retirement will be a lot busier now.
Prof Mackay-Sim has spent his career looking at the regenerative properties of stem cells found in the nose, how they can be used to repair damaged spinal cords and understand brain disorders like schizophrenia and Parkinson's disease.
He was the first in the world to try taking cells from the nose and putting them into the spinal cord and in 2014, his research playing a crucial role in the world's first successful restoration of mobility in a quadriplegic man, helping paralysed Polish firefighter Darek Fidyka walk again.
Accepting his award from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Prof Mackay-Sim said he'd use it to speak out about the importance of research on spinal cord and rare brain disease.
He said there were more than 10,000 Australians with a spinal injury.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could treat spinal cord injury and reduce the cost and reduce the suffering and increase the productivity of all of those people with spinal cord injuries?" he said.
Australia was one of the first countries to move away from the idea that spinal cord injuries could not be treated and intense research in the past 20 years provided hope future spinal injuries would be treated early and the effects minimised, he said.
"We must, as Australians, prioritise our spending so that we can afford not only to look after the disabled and the diseased in our community but to look at future radical treatments that will reduce future health costs," he said.
"As a nation, we must be part of this and we must invest in young scientists and give them great careers.
"Researchers need a long view, much longer than the political horizon."
Mr Turnbull praised the finalists of this year's awards as change-makers who had made an indelible imprint on the nation's story.
"However much we celebrate the remarkable, peaceful and diverse nation that we have built together, we always strive to be better.
"Our Australians of the Year have always shown us how."
The award for Senior Australian of the Year went to Northern Territory nun Sister Anne Gardiner, for her work helping the people of the Tiwi Islands for 62 years.
Young Australian of the Year went to South Australian fashion designer Paul Vasileff, for achieving international success in the fashion world from his hometown of Adelaide, while Victorian woman Vicki Jellie was named Australia's Local Hero.
After her husband died of cancer in 2008, Ms Jellie campaigned and fundraised, securing $30 million to open a new cancer centre in Warrnambool in 2016.