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Prestigious award for rising Otago researchers

4 July 2014

Prestigious award for rising Otago researchers

University of Otago’s Carl Smith Medal and Rowheath Trust Award have been awarded this year to two early career researchers who have already made important international contributions to their disciplines.

Associate Professor Haxby Abbott (Surgical Sciences) and Dr Peter Fineran (Microbiology & Immunology) are co-recipients of the Award and Medal, which recognise outstanding research performance of early-career staff at the University and are accompanied by a $5000 grant for personal scholarly development.

Announcing the honours, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Blaikie warmly congratulated the pair and said that both richly deserved to be recognised through the bestowing of the Medal and Award.

“Their exceptional records in obtaining grant funding, publishing findings in leading international journals and translating their work into new scientific or clinical practices would be the envy of many researchers of much longer standing. Their remarkable achievements place them at the forefront of the considerable number of talented early-career researchers at this University.”

Haxby Abbott’s research focuses on the management of musculoskeletal conditions, particularly osteoarthritis, and his research findings have influenced international clinical practice guidelines. Peter Fineran’s research, which involves using molecular genetics and biochemistry to investigate how bacteria resist viruses and plasmids, has earned him a growing international reputation.

Associate Professor Abbott says he feels deeply honoured to receive the Award and Medal.

“I’m hugely grateful to a number of wonderful mentors who have helped guide and nurture me and my research, and for many great opportunities I’ve been offered along the way, and of course for the work of many PhD students and clinicians to whom a lot of credit is due for significant parts in the research we've achieved.”

He adds that he is also grateful to the University: “It is a real honour and a privilege to work in such a great environment that values research and researchers’ success.”

Dr Fineran says he is delighted to receive the accolade and to share the honour with Associate Professor Abbott.

“For both of us our work is a collaborative effort and reflects the efforts of many students, post-docs and technicians. We have also been fortunate to enjoy some excellent collaborations with researchers both here at Otago, elsewhere in New Zealand as well as overseas.

“The Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the University have provided a great supportive research environment and receiving a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship has really helped increase my research capacity.”

Dr Fineran will use the Award to attend the Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages meeting in Madison, USA where he will present his laboratory’s most recent work on acquisition of memory in bacterial ‘adaptive immune’ systems.

The two researchers will each give public lectures later this year, at which they will be presented with the Medal.

The Rowheath Trust was established in 1964 by Carl Smith – whose family lived in the Rowheath area of England – to support the University. Mr Smith received an honorary doctorate from Otago in 1968.

Associate Professor Haxby Abbott
Haxby Abbott is a Research Associate Professor in the Orthopaedic section of the Department of Surgical Sciences, Dunedin School of Medicine, where he is principal investigator of the Management of Osteoarthritis research programme at the Centre for Musculoskeletal Outcomes Research. After qualifying as a physiotherapist in Dunedin he practiced in the USA, where he completed a Master’s degree, before returning to New Zealand to complete his PhD at the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology.

His research focuses on the management of musculoskeletal conditions, particularly osteoarthritis, together with health economic evaluations, and the accuracy of clinical examination tests and clinical outcome measures. The results of a recent collaboration with researchers at the University of Melbourne, on physiotherapy treatments for hip osteoarthritis, were published in the high-impact American journal JAMA. He is currently collaborating on projects with researchers from institutions in New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands and the USA.

Dr Abbott’s clinical research has influenced national practice change and international clinical practice guidelines, and has driven an innovative practice initiative funded by the National Health Board - the ‘Joint Clinic’ - a new clinic in Dunedin Hospital serving patients with hip or knee osteoarthritis.

In 2010 he was awarded a prestigious Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, and was a 2012 recipient of the University’s Early Career Award for Distinction in Research.

Dr Peter Fineran
Dr Peter Fineran is a Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow in Molecular Microbiology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. After completing his undergraduate training in Biochemistry at the University of Canterbury (2001) he worked at the Australian National University. He conducted his PhD (2006) and postdoctoral research training in molecular microbiology at the University of Cambridge, UK.

In 2008 Peter established his independent research group at Otago. His laboratory focuses on the interactions between bacteria and their viruses (bacteriophages) and other mobile elements. His research is interdisciplinary and collaborative, utilising molecular genetics and biochemistry to investigate how bacteria resist bacteriophages and plasmids. For example, he was involved in the discovery of a new mechanism of ‘altruistic’ bacterial cell suicide that provides resistance to bacterial populations from viruses at the expense of the infected individual. More recently his group has been studying bacterial ‘adaptive immunity’ and has shown that when these systems backfire, a bacterial ‘autoimmunity’ occurs, which can cause rapid genomic changes that influence microbial evolution and pathogenicity. In addition, his research has shown that the ability of bacteria to develop their resistance ‘memory bank’ of previous invaders is faster and more robust than previously appreciated.

His research has been widely published in high-impact journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, PLoS Genetics, Nucleic Acids Research, Nature Reviews Microbiology and Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. Dr Fineran collaborates both nationally and internationally and has successfully acquired major competitive research funds as a Principal Investigator, including two Marsden Fund grants and a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (2012-2017). Peter has received a number of awards in recent years that he attributes to his team of talented and hard-working students, laboratory members and collaborators. For example, in 2011, he was a recipient of the University’s Early Career Award for Distinction in Research and in 2012 he received the Otago School of Medical Sciences Emerging Researcher Award.

ENDS

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