Maria Donato received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her “service to the Italian community of South Australia”.

Born in 1938, Donato migrated from Picarelli, in the region of Campania, when she was 11 years old.

“My father left 18 months before us,” she said.

“I was happy to be reunited with my father but sad to leave my grandparents behind... I never saw them again.”

A young Donato and her family lived in Riverland for a few months before settling in Adelaide.

Donato has worked for most of her life, and retired in 2018 when she was 80 years old.

“When I was 12 years old, I’d work at the jam factory where my mother was employed during the school holidays,” she said.

She then joined the South Australian Housing Trust as a bookkeeper, but in those days when a woman got married she could no longer work for the government, therefore Maria had to change again and started collaborating with Mutual Hospital, a health insurance fund.

Except for during motherhood, when she took over the business of someone who’d temporarily gone to Italy, she never stopped working.

The last 28 years of her career were spent at Radio Italiana 531.

Donato is the golden example of a good person.

She has always offered her services to others, especially the Italian community.

Over the years, she has volunteered for the Red Cross, Italian clubs and even for the radio she worked at.

All her life, she’s wanted to give back what she considers good fortune – having come to Australia, torn between the desire to be with her father and the challenge of leaving her grandparents in her homeland.

Everyone who knows Donato talks about her gentle, kind, generous and humble soul.

“I never imagined I’d receive this honour; I often thought I was inadequate,” she said.

“When I found out, I thought it was a joke.

“Even today I can hardly believe it.”

The second Italo-Australian from South Australia to be honoured on the list is Professor Marcello Costa, who was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his “distinguished service to higher education, and to medical research, in the field of neurophysiology, and to professional scientific bodies”.

Costa is just one of 140 people in the country to have been given the prestigious title this year.

He is a professor of neurophysiology at Flinders University in Adelaide, one of the founders of the Australian Neuroscience Society, and the author or co-author of more than 280 publications.

Costa was born in Turin in 1940, and moved to Argentina at a young age.

 He migrated to Australia in 1970.

“I feel like I belong to three nations,” he said.

In 1960, he returned to Italy and studied medicine.

“I wanted to know how the brain worked; I always wanted to do research,” he said.

He moved to Australia to learn English, what he describes as the “lingua franca of science”.

During a serendipitous meeting at the entrance of a Venetian church with an Australian scientist – Geoff Burnstock, who was in Italy for a conference – Costa was offered the chance to go to Australia for 18 months to do research.

Costa first spent time in Melbourne, then was drawn to the newly opened Faculty of Medicine at Flinders University by his second mentor, Professor Laurie Geffen.

When the initial 18 months were up, he decided to stay in Australia with his wife Daniela.

“Laurie Geffen nominated me for the title of AO more than two years ago, but I didn’t hear about it until last Friday,” Costa said.

“I expected it a little, but the avalanche of almost unstoppable acknowledgments from friends and colleagues now makes me feel like a small happy being on this Earth.”

Costa not only works in science, but he divulges it, brings it to the public and promotes its history.

“My passion for science and spreading it stems from my belief that the more you know about science, the wiser you become,” he said.

“This disconnect exists only in popular culture.

“Science is humanity’s highest form of spirituality.”

In fact, it’s scientific humanism that leads to the greatest questions in life.

Costa is grateful to his first two mentors Laurie Geffen and Geoff Burnstock, who passed away peacefully just a week ago in Melbourne, and others he has met along the way, including John Chalmers, who organised his first personal chair, and Ian Chubb, his first colleague at Flinders and Chief Scientist of Australia from 2011 to 2016.

“You can’t do anything alone,” Costa said.

The admirable professor is still actively working in research, in the laboratories of his pupils, such as Nick Spencer and Simon Brookes.

Costa also holds the prestigious title of “Cavaliere” in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.