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Otago announces professorial promotions


Otago announces professorial promotions

The University of Otago has promoted 24 of its leading academics to full professorships.

Announcing the new professors, University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne warmly congratulated them on their hard-earned and well-deserved promotions.

“Otago has rigorous processes for conferring professorships that ensure only those with suitably strong records are selected. Staff applying must demonstrate that they have made outstanding and sustained contributions in key areas including research, teaching and service to the University and community,” Professor Hayne says.

Input from international experts is sought as part of the process to ensure that candidates’ contributions are indeed world class, she says.

“These appointments reflect the breadth and depth of the talent we enjoy here at Otago. The work of these individuals is of enormous value to the University and is often of considerable international significance.”

The following leading Otago academics have been promoted to full professorships, effective 1 February in most instances: Michael Albert (Computer Science); Michael Baker (Public Health, Wellington); Christopher Charles (Research Professor, Medicine, Christchurch); Steve Dawson (Marine Science); Susan Dovey (General Practice); Julian Eaton-Rye (Biochemistry); John Evans (Research Professor, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Christchurch); Sean Fitzsimons (Geography); Elizabeth Franz (Psychology); Russell Frew (Chemistry); Parry Guilford (Research Professor, Biochemistry); Jamin Halberstadt (Psychology); Gary Hooper (Orthopaedic Surgery and Musculoskeletal Medicine, Christchurch); Richard Jackson (National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies); Ian Jamieson (Zoology); Etienne Nel (Geography); Elaine Reese (Psychology); Alison Rich (Oral Diagnostic and Surgical Sciences); Anthony Robins (Computer Science); Jae Jung Song (English); Rachel Spronken-Smith (Higher Education Development Centre); Lisa Stamp (Medicine, Christchurch); Margreet Vissers (Research Professor, Pathology, Christchurch); David Wharton (Zoology).

A list of promotions to associate professor is also included at the end of this release.

Otago’s New Professors

Michael Albert
Department of Computer Science

Permutations, or rearrangements of sets of objects, are fundamental and ubiquitous mathematical concepts, indispensable in modelling phenomena such as symmetry, genome rearrangement, and data processing. Michael Albert’s research centres around how we can understand the structure of collections of permutations defined by the presence or absence of certain specific patterns. In particular Michael hopes to develop an understanding of the borderline between structure and disorder in such classes, and to refine the understanding of well-structured classes. A software suite called PermLab allows extensive experimental investigation of these classes even in the presence of a ‘combinatorial explosion’. He also hopes to use the tools he and colleagues have developed in this area to apply to similar problems about other sorts of discrete structures. A secondary area of his research is in the theory of combinatorial games; two person games of perfect information and without chance elements, such as chess.

Michael Baker
Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington

Michael Baker has been a public health physician for 20 years and has wide research interests in public health and epidemiology. A particular focus has been New Zealand’s unusually high rates of many infectious diseases and how to reduce them. In 2000 he co-founded the Housing and Health Research Programme which has successfully investigated multiple interventions to improve health through better housing. His recent Lancet paper identified the rising incidence of serious infectious diseases in New Zealand and contributed to the debate about how to respond to widening social inequalities in this country. He has published extensively on influenza, including the first description of a complete H1N1 pandemic wave in 2009. His work on our severe campylobacteriosis epidemic linked to contaminated chicken contributed to regulations which halved rates of this disease. He has received research funding from multiple sources including the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organisation, and Health Research Council.

Chris Charles
Department of Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch

Chris Charles is a long-term (25 years) senior member of the Christchurch Heart Institute (CHI), an internationally-renowned team of experts developing improved diagnostic tests, better prediction of outcomes in cardiovascular conditions, and discovering and trialling new treatments. Chris’ expertise is in pre-clinical physiology which bridges the gap between the laboratory and clinical investigative divisions of the CHI. His research is aimed at elucidating the role of novel hormones in controlling blood pressure, salt and water balance and heart function both in normal physiology and heart disease. He also has a particular interest in sympathetic nerve traffic directed to the heart and the role this plays in myocardial infarction and sudden cardiac death. New knowledge gained from these physiological studies not only increases our understanding of how the heart, hormones and nerves interact but underpins the search for novel therapeutic agents for the treatment of lethal cardiovascular diseases.


Steve Dawson
Department of Marine Science

Steve Dawson studies the ecology and behaviour of dolphins and whales, using science to identify, quantify and solve conservation problems. He co-leads a research group running three long-term projects, on the ecology, acoustic behaviour and conservation biology of Hector’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales. Steve’s research focuses on providing high-quality science to underpin and evaluate conservation management of Hector’s dolphins (and their North Island subspecies, Maui’s dolphin). This research was critical to the creation of New Zealand’s first Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and 20 years later, to the establishment of a 14,840 km2 gillnet-free zone to protect Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins. This is the largest marine protected area in the country — 45 times the combined area of our mainland Marine Reserves. One of his key research interests is acoustics, both to understand how whales and dolphins use sound, and to develop tools for surveying them using their own sounds.

Susan Dovey
Department of General Practice

Susan Dovey has been a general practice researcher for 26 years, addressing a wide range of clinical, policy, and educational topics within the broadly scoped general practice discipline. Since 1999 patient safety in general practice has been a key research interest and Susan also has long-term interests in diabetes management and general practice fees, charges, and professional roles. She has strong links with general practice researchers internationally, especially in Canada, the United States, and Europe, that provides new insights into how our health services in New Zealand are and could be configured. Currently she is working on research to investigate the epidemiology of harm arising from healthcare management in general practice, the use of decision support tools for diagnosis and treatment decisions about Transient Ischaemic Attacks (TIAs) and stroke, the role of practice accreditation in prompting higher quality healthcare, and why general practitioners do and do not teach medical students.


Julian Eaton-Rye
Department of Biochemistry

Life on our planet is driven by Photosystem II that captures sunlight and extracts electrons from water enabling plants to “fix” carbon dioxide into sugars while releasing the oxygen we breathe. Julian Eaton-Rye’s laboratory concentrates on understanding how this molecular machine is assembled inside plants and related photosynthetic bacteria and how the proteins from which Photosystem II is constructed bring about the chemical reactions that enable life on our planet to thrive. The core reaction of Photosystem II is the chemical splitting of water; this provides not only the oxygen we breathe but also hydrogen ions that offer the promise of a clean source of hydrogen fuel from water. Since the sun provides more energy in one hour than our entire global energy consumption in one year, he and his team are also working on metabolic engineering to couple the harvesting of light by photosynthetic protein complexes to the efficient production of biofuels.


John Evans
Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Otago, Christchurch
John Evans and his team are studying how cells in our bodies are stimulated and inhibited so that we operate. He is studying the way the pituitary gland functions in female fertility, and has demonstrated that many small proteins affect the release of pituitary hormones that then act on the ovary. He is also investigating how cells of the uterus are involved in implantation of a fertilised egg into the womb. In certain circumstances incorrect functioning of cells may cause cancers and he is investigating those of the ovary and the lining of the womb. An interesting property of cells is that they push and pull on cells next to them, and these mechanical forces alter what a cell does. John is studying these events in collaboration with the nanofabrication group at Canterbury University. The forces may be extra factors that alter cell growth during cancer development and thereby be susceptible to supplementary methods of treatment.


Sean Fitzsimons
Department of Geography

Sean Fitzsimons studies earth surface processes and has broad interests in Earth system science. He received his BSc(Hons) from the University of Canterbury, his PhD from the University of Tasmania, and joined the Department of Geography at the University of Otago in 1991. Sean’s research is motivated by a fascination for the processes that shape alpine and polar landscapes. Much of his past and current work is directed at understanding mechanical and chemical processes at the beds of glaciers, the formation and deformation of basal ice, and processes of erosion beneath glaciers in Antarctica and the Arctic. More recently he has become interested in the structure and behaviour of ice shelves in Antarctica and in the drivers of landscape development in the Southern Alps. His published work includes studies of the glacial geology, reconstructions of climate and landscape change in the Southern Hemisphere and the role of subglacial processes in regulating the behaviour of glaciers.


Liz Franz
Department of Psychology

Liz Franz’s research explores the psychological and neural processes underlying actions of the left and right hands in humans. A primary focus involves identifying the precise cognitive and motor parameters that are altered with focal damage to the brain (e.g., stroke), following specific neurosurgical interventions (such as the so-called ‘split-brain’), or in association with certain neurological diseases or congenital disorders. By examining the specific effects of these known conditions and diseases, she and her colleagues have been formulating a neural model of adaptive learning. They conduct their investigations by recording brain activity non-invasively using a variety of brain imaging techniques combined with carefully designed experimental tasks, and with the generous collaboration of numerous individuals from our Otago community and beyond, who volunteer their time and participation in our studies which otherwise would not be possible. Liz is very grateful to the University and surrounding community for creating such a vibrant atmosphere and for making this research possible.

Russell Frew
Department of Chemistry

Russell Frew’s research focus is on understanding connections in the natural environment. He uses chemical measurements as a type of ‘fingerprint’ thereby tracing the substance through the various pathways and processes. This has included measuring trace metals at parts per billion levels in the oceans in studies on the control of plankton growth, or for reconstructions of past climates. Other work involves measuring subtle differences in ratios of stable isotopes. These differences are imparted by the environment the substance was formed in and provide a tracer of its origin and history. Applications include linking illicit drugs batches to a common source and determining the origin of invasive species. Currently he is working at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna applying these technologies to verify the integrity and origin of foodstuffs. As the isotopic ratios are an inherent part of the product they form a natural label that cannot be counterfeited hence providing a high assurance of origin.

Parry Guilford
Department of Biochemistry

The overall aim of Parry Guilford’s research is to use new-generation genetic technologies to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The research involves four areas: early detection, drug development, personalised medicine and prevention. The early detection research is developing new, minimally invasive tests to diagnose cancers of the bladder, prostate and uterus. These tests are using extremely sensitive genetic techniques to search for isolated cancer cells shed from small tumours. The drug development work involves identifying new treatments for a specific subset of stomach and breast cancers that carry mutations in a tumour suppressor gene known as E-cadherin. The personalised medicine research aims to develop methods to tailor cancer treatments to individual patients, based on their cancer’s underlying genetic characteristics. The cancer prevention research is focusing on understanding the epigenetic events that predispose to the development of bowel and stomach cancer. These epigenetic changes can potentially be reversed with a specific class of drugs.

Jamin Halberstadt
Department of Psychology

Jamin Halberstadt received a B.A. (Hons) in Philosophy from Swarthmore College, and a PhD in social psychology from Indiana University. His eclectic research interests include a variety of topics in decision making, emotion, facial attractiveness, and social categorization. His current projects include studies (with Dr Jonathan Jong) on the relationship between fear of death and both conscious and unconscious religious belief, and studies (with Professor Ted Ruffman and Dr Janice Murray) on the role of emotion perception in age-related changes in social skills. Most recently he partnered with Animation Research Ltd. to study group formation by filming students from the Forsyth Barr Stadium’s roof – a precursor to the world’s largest social psychology experiment. He is author or co-author of over 100 publications and conference presentations and holds an “A” ranking in New Zealand's Performance Based Research assessment. He is currently an Associate Editor at Psychological Science, the world's leading journal for empirical psychology.


Gary Hooper
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Musculoskeletal Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch
Gary Hooper’s research interests include clinical trials investigating improving outcomes after joint replacement, and studies involving bone metabolism and bioengineering. Clinical outcomes include the wear of highly cross-linked polyethylene in hip replacement, metal ion production in hard-on-hard bearing surfaces, long term outcome of unicompartmental knee replacement, acoustic monitoring of failing joint replacements, the use of larger femoral heads in hip replacement and the implications of increased BMI on the outcome. He also studies re-integration into society in multiple trauma patients with special emphasis on earthquake victims. His bone metabolism studies include bone density changes adjacent to uncemented hip and knee replacements and the implications this has for clinical practice. He is also studying how to improve fracture healing rates following neck of femur and tibial shaft fracture. His biomechanical investigations include the building and production of cartilage scaffolds for the treatment of articular cartilage defects and developing titanium implants to fill bone deficits.


Richard Jackson
National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

Richard Jackson’s various research interests are bound together by an overall interest in the nature, causes, and resolution of organised forms of contemporary political violence. Previously, he has conducted research on international conflict resolution, including the comparative success of negotiation and mediation, the social construction of war and other forms of organised political violence, and critical approaches to the study of terrorism. One strand of his current research involves analysing how lay people understand the subject of terrorism and counter-terrorism. While a great deal of research has focused on media and political representations of terrorism, there is a gap in knowledge regarding how the lay public consumes and consequently understands the dominant social discourse of terrorism. Other research strands focus on the cultural and political embedding of the war on terror in American and Western society, the epistemology of current counter-terrorism thought and practice, and developing ways of bringing Terrorism Studies and Peace Studies into dialogue.

Ian Jamieson
Department of Zoology

Ian Jamieson’s area of interest is in avian conservation biology and molecular ecology. His research investigates the effects of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity in small, endangered populations, particularly those on offshore islands around New Zealand. His ultimate goal is to transfer the results of this research into guidelines for managing threatened species both here in New Zealand and around the world. He is a long-serving member of the Takahe and the Kakapo recovery groups - two of New Zealand’s highest profile and costliest recovery programs - and provides regular advice to managers involved with Kiwi, Black Robins, Kokako and Mohua. He is a member of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology & Evolution, an internationally recognized Centre of Research Excellence. Ian’s research was recently recognised by the NZ Ecological Society who presented him with the Te Tohu Taiao Award for Ecological Excellence.

Etienne Nel
Department of Geography

Etienne Nel’s research expertise lies in the fields of economic and urban geography. Urban livelihood and survival strategies in Africa, spatial economic planning and the challenges and opportunities which small urban centres face in both Africa and New Zealand are his primary research interests. Current research investigations include an examination of the role which the production of food, within urban areas, plays as a livelihood strategy in Zambia, the designation of Special Economic Zones in South Africa and the role community and entrepreneurial activities are playing in small urban centres in New Zealand as a response to economic and demographic change. This research work has involved him with international aid agencies, local authorities and community groups in both a research and an advisory capacity. In the case of South Africa he has been an active participant in the development of government local economic development policy. To date he has published eight books and some 100 articles.

Elaine Reese
Department of Psychology

Elaine Reese’s research addresses how parents talk and read with their children in ways that help children’s and adolescents’ learning, memory, literacy, and well-being. Her longitudinal study of autobiographical memory, Origins of Memory, has followed over 150 Dunedin families to trace children’s memory development from age 1 to 16 years. This study was the first internationally to explore the role of early self-concept in young children’s memory development, and to identify the way parents’ talk shapes children’s memories from toddlerhood to adolescence. Elaine has also studied the special role of family reminiscing in low-income US children’s language, memory, and literacy development. Currently she is exploring the link between coherent life stories and well-being in NZ Māori, European, and Chinese adolescents. By young adulthood, adolescents from all three cultures are able to shape coherent stories about critical life events, and to use these stories as a source of psychological well-being.

Alison Rich
Department of Oral Diagnostic and Surgical Sciences

Oral cancer, which currently accounts for about 2% of malignant tumours in New Zealand, is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. It usually arises in clinically detectable potentially malignant oral disorders (PMOD). The major theme of Alison Rich’s research has related to developing tools to determine which PMODs are most likely to progress to cancer so these particular lesions can be targeted in an attempt to halt progression to actual cancer. A further interest is in the characterisation of the role of immune cells in the connective tissue adjacent to invading oral cancer cells, where both the immune cells and the cancer cells influence the local environment. Using immunohistochemistry and analysis of gene expression Alison and colleagues have shown there is active gene regulation in both primary oral cancer and in associated lymph nodes. Understanding control of this regulation may be useful to modulate the tumour environment and enhance the local anti-tumour response.


Anthony Robins
Department of Computer Science

Anthony Robins’ main area of ongoing research is computational models of memory using artificial neural networks. What is the relationship between a solution to the “catastrophic forgetting” problem in neural networks, and the consolidation of learning in the sleeping brain? Do stable memories require stable synaptic changes? Can the properties of different kinds of state attractors help us to understand the nature of real memories, false memories, and category prototypes? A more recent research focus has been computer science education, particularly the study of novice programmers, and the learning of a first programming language. Introductory programming courses typically have outcomes weighted towards the extremes (high rates of both failing and excellent grades). Anthony doesn’t believe in the mythical "programmer gene", and has been exploring an explanation based on the interaction between learning mechanisms and the dense conceptual structure of programming languages.

Jae Jung Song
Department of English

Jae Jung Song’s research interests include linguistic typology, syntax and language policy. His research focuses on studying the structural variation within the world’s languages with a view to establishing limits on this variation and seeking explanations for the limits. His other research includes various aspects of Korean and Oceanic languages, language policy, and Global English. Jae completed a BA (Hons) at Monash University, on the strength of which he was awarded the university’s Inaugural Silver Jubilee Scholarship. After graduating with a PhD from Monash, he taught there and later at the National University of Singapore. In 1992, he moved to Otago’s Department of English. Jae has held a Guest Scientist position with Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and an Honorary Visiting Fellowship with La Trobe University. He is a member of a number of editorial boards and is Associate Editor of Linguistic Typology, the top journal in linguistic typology.


Rachel Spronken-Smith
Higher Education Development Centre

Rachel Spronken-Smith has two main areas of research – higher education and geography. Her earlier academic career was as a geography lecturer with a research focus on urban climatology. She has particular interests in the air quality of South Island towns and cities. About 10 years ago she moved to the Higher Education Development Centre and began researching learning through inquiry and undergraduate research, as well as graduate outcomes and implementing curriculum change. She has been the lead researcher on two nationally-funded projects – the first on learning through inquiry and the second on graduate outcomes. She has a strong passion for promoting research from day one, and is currently involved in developing a Matariki (group of seven universities including Otago) network for undergraduate research. Her research has a strong applied focus. In climatology she seeks to improve the urban environment, while underpinning her higher education research is a desire to improve student learning experiences.

Lisa Stamp
Department of Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch

Lisa Stamp is a practising Rheumatologist in the Department of Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch and Christchurch Hospital. She is director of the Canterbury Rheumatology Immunology Research Group and the University of Otago Arthritis Research Theme. She is a member of the New Zealand Rheumatology Association Executive, the Asian Pacific League Against Rheumatism executive, as well as serving on the Governing Board of Arthritis New Zealand. Her research areas include genetic studies assessing the risk of developing rheumatic diseases and predicting response to therapy. She also actively pursues laboratory studies of the pathophysiology of inflammatory arthritis and therapeutic clinical trials aimed at individualization of drug treatments in gout and rheumatoid arthritis. She received a University of Otago Early Career Award for Distinction in Research in 2009 and the Rowheath Trust Award and Carl Smith Medal for Research in 2011.


Margreet Vissers
Department of Pathology, University of Otago, Christchurch

Margreet Vissers is a biochemist and cell biologist who is a senior member of Centre for Free Radical Research. Her research has focused on understanding the toxicity of reactive oxidants generated by white blood cells during acute infection and inflammation. These oxidants are a major cause of chronic disease and the effective control of this process will limit the development of heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. Oxidative stress is alleviated by antioxidants and Margreet has shown that the potent antioxidant ascorbate (vitamin C) is able to protect the process of active cell death (apoptosis). Understanding the role that vitamin C might play in the control of cancer development is currently a major research focus. Margreet has previously worked in the Netherlands and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the USA before returning to work at the Christchurch School of Medicine. She is currently the Associate Dean (Research) and is actively involved in many aspects of campus life.


David Wharton
Department of Zoology

David Wharton is interested in how organisms survive extreme environmental stress. His research has involved work on the freezing tolerance of nematodes, frogs and insects that survive ice forming within their bodies. He has worked in Antarctic, alpine and cold temperate environments. He is also interested in the phenomenon of anhydrobiosis (life without water), where the organism loses the water from its body and goes into a state of suspended animation, in which it will even survive exposure to outer space. David’s research has resulted in 120 publications including two books, A Functional Biology of Nematodes (Croom Helm, 1986) and Life at the Limits: Organisms in Extreme Environments (Cambridge University Press, 2002). He is currently working on how an Antarctic nematode survives extensive intracellular freezing (the only organism known to do so) and the role of ice active proteins in the cold tolerance of a variety of organisms.


Promotions to Associate Professor effective 1 February:

Dr Simon Adamson (Psychological Medicine, Christchurch)
Dr Greg Anderson (Anatomy)
Dr Ian Barber (Anthropology and Archaeology)
Dr David Bell (College of Education)
Miss Judy Bellingham (Music)
Dr Hallie Buckley (Anatomy)
Dr Jim Cotter (Physical Education)
Dr Jacob Edmond (English)
Ms Shelley Griffiths (Faculty of Law)
Dr Caroline Horwath (Human Nutrition)
Dr Zhiyi Huang (Computer Science)
Mr Alan King (Economics)
Dr Jan McKenzie (Psychological Medicine, Christchurch)
Dr Igor Meglinski (Physics Department)
Mr Ross Notman (College of Education)
Dr Nancy Rehrer (Physical Education)
Dr Brian Roper (Politics)
Ms Jacinta Ruru (Faculty of Law)
Dr Diana Sarfati (Public Health, Wellington)
Dr Michael Schultz (Medicine)
Dr Andrew Trotman (Computer Science)
Dr Erika Wolf (History & Art History)

Promoted to Research Associate Professor effective 1 February::

Dr Haxby Abbott (Surgical Sciences)
Dr Joseph Boden (Psychological Medicine, Christchurch)
Dr Barbara Galland (Women’s and Children’s Health)
Dr Bev Lawton (Primary Healthcare and General Practice, Wellington)
Dr Chris Pemberton (Medicine, Christchurch)
Dr George Thomson (Public Health, Wellington)

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