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Fund success for University of Canterbury research

7 September 2006

Marsden Fund success for University of Canterbury researchers

University of Canterbury researchers have been awarded more than $4 million in this year's Marsden Fund awards.

The awards, which are government funded, are administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Canterbury University has secured grants for six research projects, totalling $4.32million. The projects cover the disciplines of biological sciences, chemistry, electrical and computer engineering, mathematics, and physics and astronomy.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Town, who oversees research at the University, is welcoming the announcement.

"I congratulate those who have been awarded funding in this round. It is excellent to see some of our top researchers getting the support they deserve."

The largest award to a Canterbury researcher goes to Professor David Schiel (Biological Sciences) who will receive $826,398 over three years. Professor Schiel and his team of Drs David Taylor and Emily Lane (postdoctoral fellows), Roger Nokes (Civil Engineering) and Craig Stevens (Hydrodynamics, NIWA) are investigating how tiny reproductive propagules of New Zealand native seaweeds are transported and manage to attach to rocky reefs in turbulent coastal waters.

The research is important to understanding the fundamental processes allowing marine organisms to colonise and replenish populations along wave-driven coastlines.

The team will undertake a series of analyses in laboratory flumes and field-based experiments to find out how the interactions between biological, ecological and physical processes affect the settlement of microscopic organisms.

Dr Steve Durbin (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Dr Roger Reeves (Physics and Astronomy), along with collaborators at West Virginia and Buffalo universities, are investigating fundamental electrical properties of zinc oxide, a household compound known since ancient times and used in products ranging from skin creams to gas detectors. High-quality crystals of this semiconductor could be used to create cost-effective, low power solid state lighting to replace existing illumination technology, as well as compact ultraviolet laser diodes for next-generation data storage.

This multi-institution team will receive $780,000 over three years to unravel the secrets of zinc oxide and to control its electronic properties.

Associate Professor Matthew Turnbull (Biological Sciences) is heading a research team involving collaborators from Columbia University (USA), the University of York (UK) and the Weizmann Institute (Israel). They will investigate the role of the enigmatic enzyme alternative oxidase (AOX) in the acclimation of plant respiration to environmental change. The researchers will receive $776,000 over three years to determine whether plants utilise this additional oxidation pathway as a response to environmental stresses, which will have important implications for our understanding of plant responses to past and future climate change.

Associate Professor Alison Downard (Chemistry) is part of a research collaboration that has been awarded $725,000 over three years to explore a new approach in communicating with cells using embedded nanostructures. By ‘wiring up’ living yeast and mammalian cells with nanowires the scientists aim to extract detailed, real-time information on cellular functions and provide new methods for using cellular processes.

The potential applications for this research include biosensors, biofuel cells and synthetic-biological electronic components and it may offer insights into disease processes that could lead to new therapeutic methods.

Dr Jenni Adams and Dr Surujhdeo Seunarine (Physics and Astronomy) will receive $720,000 over three years to take a team of researchers to Antarctica to help construct a neutrino telescope under the ice at the South Pole.

The telescope, an international collaborative project, is known as IceCube. IceCube will open a new window on the Universe by detecting sub-atomic cosmic particles called neutrinos which originate in high-energy events such as gamma-ray bursts, exploding stars and black holes. Neutrinos rarely interact with other matter and can travel across the universe without interference, making them valuable astronomical messengers.

Mathematicians Professor Mike Steel and Dr Charles Semple have been awarded $493,431 over three years to develop mathematics that will help in the conservation of biodiversity.

Previously, the team has developed techniques for dealing with the large sets of DNA data that are used in biodiversity theory. Tackling what is known as the “Noah’s Ark problem”, the researchers will extend this work to calculate how best to maximise future biodiversity, given the extinction risk of each species. They will then develop and apply models to predict how biodiversity might decline under various extinction scenarios.

The team will work closely with biologists who wish to use their findings on their own sets of data, to help solve some of today’s big issues in conservation.

In addition to the six main projects, two other UC researchers are part of wider collaborations which will receive Marsden funding.

Adjunct senior fellow Dr Richard Holdaway (Biological Sciences) is principal investigator for an $825,000 project investigating the genetic structure, microhabitat and environment of four sympatric species of moa in North Canterbury.

Associate Professor Simon Brown (Physics and Astronomy) is part of a multidisciplinary team with an international reputation in nanoparticle research that has been awarded $730,000 to investigate the melting of metal nanoparticles. Drawing on theory, computer simulation and a suite of experimental techniques the researchers approach will provide new windows into the phenomenon.


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