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Marsden Fund awards announced


Marsden Fund awards announced

For the first time ever, funding for an iwi-based collaborative research project has been granted by the Fund. This proposal, which had to undergo rigorous evaluation, could provide a new model for the development of further such partnerships in other areas of the country. This project, initiated by Ngati Hine, will trace the history of pre-treaty Bay of Islands by synthesising European and Maori collective histories. "This exemplifies the ground-breaking work that the Marsden Fund is associated with," said Dr Diana Hill, Chair of the Marsden Fund Council.

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and funded by the Government.

"This year, $43.8 million was granted to support 105 projects over three years, 19 more than last year. This represents 14.2% of all applications, an increase from 10.7% last year. This increase is due to an extra $1.95 million from the 2003 budget and the remainder came from the Royal Society reserves," said Dr Hill. This is also the first time that funding for five years - long term support that will allow greater research continuity - has been offered. Three projects have been selected for this longer term funding.

The variety of research initiatives funded is spectacular. Ranging from stick insects to sticky seaweed and ancient Greece to the Chatham Islands, research ideas have been selected for their exciting potential. Racing against time to save dying languages, robot research, and studies into fertility and Parkinson's disease all feature. "This year an unprecedented amount - $2.7 million - has gone to emerging researchers of outstanding potential," added Professor Hill. The Fast-Start Marsden grants, first funded in 2001, give $50,000 each year for up to two years.

The 28 Fast-Start projects for 2003 include Massey University's Dr Chris Wilkins' study of the role gangs play in the illicit markets for cannabis, amphetamine and ecstasy and Dr Christine Cheyne's work on New Zealander's interactions - or lack thereof - with local government.

Included with this press release are specific details of studies that will be of strong interest to your audience. A complete list of the 105 grants, including the name of the principal investigator, and the institution, will be on the Royal Society website from Wednesday afternoon http://www.rsnz.org For more information contact Don Smith, DDI 04 470 5776, after hours 021 984 873, email don.smith@rsnz.org, or Peter Gilberd, DDI 04 470 5778, after hours 025 614 1416, email peter.gilberd@rsnz.org. Each story has the contact details of the primary researcher involved.

STICK INSECTS STICK AROUND

It's been a while since some stick insects had sex. Say, a few million years. So, how do they manage to - well, stick around?

Out of New Zealand's 22 species of stick insect, one group (Acanthoxyla) has seven species that clone themselves to survive. Asexual species have been believed to be evolutionary dead ends because not only don't they adapt, but eventually mutations in the gene stock accumulate until the species dies out.

But it appears that these stick insects may have been going strong for more than a million years. And, despite not having sexual reproduction to rely on, several different species of asexual stick insect have evolved - an extremely rare event in animal biology. What's going on?

Dr Thomas Buckley is determined to find out. The recipient of a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant for recently-graduated researchers, he will collect and examine genetic variation in the New Zealand stick insects. Then, he will look at what has happened to their close cousins - stick insects that do reproduce sexually. With his results, he hopes to find out why some stick insects are sexy, and some aren't.

Researcher: Dr Thomas Buckley Landcare Research, Auckland 09 815 4200 x 7423 buckleyt@landcareresearch.co.nz

Associate: Dr Benjamin Normark, University of Massachusetts

Funding: $50,000 per year for two years

REDUCING RAT RISK - A MODEL APPROACH

Islands remain one of the last refuges of endangered and unique species such as the kakapo and tuatara. But once a refuge has been successfully established, the ever present threat of rat invasion remains. How strong is this threat? If just one pregnant rat landed on an island, would she quickly create a new army of rodents that would wreak havoc and destruction?

Science relies on data and research to build models that will allow risks like this to be measured and assessed. Dr Rachel Fewster, a statistician from the University of Auckland is going to create just such a model. By using data obtained from another study which placed a pregnant rat on an island and monitored its progress, she will define what factors affect the likelihood of rats re-colonising an island after eradication.

Her study will also look at the genetic variability of rats on islands to give an analysis of the ability of rats to disperse by swimming, hitching a ride as well as what effect the isolation of the island and terrain have on rat recolonisation. Once the research is completed, Dr Fewster will construct a computer program that will predict re-invasion risks for islands and ensure that conservation resources are targeted to islands that have the best chance of remaining rat-free after eradication.

Her program will allow managers to:

· maximise the number of rat-free islands in an area · maximise the total area of rat-free island space · minimise the invasion risk for a specified set of islands.

Researcher: Dr Rachel Fewster Department of Statistics, University of Auckland (09) 373 7599 ext 83946 r.fewster@auckland.ac.nz

Associate: Associate Professor Mick Clout School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland (09) 373 7599 ext 85281 m.clout@auckland.ac.nz

Funding: $50,000 per year for two years

SINGING AND SEX: A BIRD'S EYE VIEW

When they heard the Pied Piper of Hamlin play, all the rats had to run away. Although that's a fairy-tale, the idea of music compelling action is surprisingly true in the animal world.

When male birds sing during breeding season, an available female does more than just flutter her eyelashes. She is compelled to perform a 'solicitation display'. If it attracts the male, they breed.

But outside breeding season, no such luck. The male bird will get no response to his song.

What makes the difference? Do hormones take the brain and body hostage to ensure breeding? How are the brain's activity and the body's reactions hot-wired together?

Using the canary as an example, Associate Professor J M Wild from the University of Auckland will try to discover the switch that controls this compelling behaviour.

Researcher: Associate Professor Martin Wild, Faculty of Medical and Health Science, University of Auckland, (09) 373 7599 extn 86054 jm.wild@auckland.ac.nz

Associate Dr A Van der Linden, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Funding. Year 1 $275,000 Year 2 $275,000 Year 3 $275,000 + funding for Year 4 & 5

THE PLANT PUZZLE Vegetation response to climate change during greenhouse worlds

As the earth has warmed and cooled over millions of years, plants have silently responded. During the early Cenozoic (60-50 million years ago) 'greenhouse' world, two trillion tons of methane gas seeped into the atmosphere, evolution altered course as primates appeared and global warming peaked when the temperature rose 5-8°C over 10,000 years. It's predicted that in the next 100 years, another global warming explosion spurred by human activity will again increase the world's average temperature - but this time, at least 10 times faster than before.

What will happen by the end of this century? Will plants take a sudden peak in global warming in their stride? Or will the temperature increase of 2-5°C over the next 100 years threaten their survival?

Clues to how vegetation might respond to this dramatic change are hidden 50 million years in the past where fossil records have archived the surprisingly modest impact on vegetation change.

Dr Erica Crouch of Lower Hutt's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences is the scientific sleuth who will predict the response of New Zealand plants by putting together the fossil clues that remain in the sedimentary rocks of central Westland and North Canterbury.

By comparing and contrasting the microfossil (spores and pollen) records found in New Zealand with fossil records collected from North America, Europe and Australia, Dr Crouch hopes to discover how critical the length, speed and size of climate change is to plants. Her work may help food producers planning their crops in the upcoming era of climate change.

Dr Crouch is one of the 28 selected researchers to receive Fast-Start funding for recently-graduated researchers.

Contact: Dr Erica Crouch, GNS, (04) 5704 810 e.crouch@gns.cri.nz

Other researchers Dr Scott Wing, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington.

Funding: $50,000 per year for two years

BRAINY SNAILS

Strokes are the third most common cause of death in New Zealand. Is the key to their prevention busy munching lettuce at the bottom of the garden?

University of Otago researcher Dr Paul Donohoe has made a remarkable discovery that snails have a unique ability. When their brain cells detect a drop in oxygen levels, the cells rapidly dial down their need for it. In contrast, our brain cells die.

Using a Marsden Fund grant, Dr Donohoe will research how the snail brain cells both sense the lack of oxygen and then alter the cell's behaviour to cope. Once these processes are understood, the principles may lead to the saving of lives.

The project is being funded by a Fast-Start grant, awarded to recently-graduated researchers.

Researcher: Dr Paul Donohoe Dept of Physiology, University of Otago (03) 479 7300 paul.donohoe@otago.ac.nz

Funding: $50,000 a year for two years.


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