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University of Auckland recognises best PhD research



University of Auckland recognises best PhD research

From El Niños to alcohol use to the aesthetics of time, the five best doctoral theses written at the University of Auckland in 2016 have been named.

The Vice-Chancellor’s Prize for Best Doctoral Thesis is awarded to the five most exceptional theses successfully examined in an academic year. Judges look at the demonstrable significance of each thesis in its field, the originality and excellence of the research, exceptional academic and intellectual achievement, and timely completions.

Eighteen nominations were received for the five prizes, out of a total of 363 doctoral degrees successfully awarded. The winners, which were recognised at a ceremony on May 9, were:

Deborah Williamson. School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. Staphylococcus aureus infections in New Zealand: A clinical and molecular epidemiological study.

Deborah’s study drew nationwide attention when it provided evidence linking the use of topical antibiotic creams to the emergence of superbugs in New Zealand. Her research defined the burden of Staphylococcus aureus disease in New Zealand by demonstrating how the bacteria emerged, its particular impact on Māori and Pacific children and how the dramatic increase in antibiotic resistance to the bacteria, also known as MRSA, is related to the increasing use of topical antibiotic creams. Deborah is now the Deputy Director of the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory at the Doherty Institute, University of Melbourne. Her thesis was supervised by Professor John Fraser, Associate Professor Mark Thomas, and Dr Michael Baker.

Nicki Jackson. School of Population Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. The role of the neighbourhood in adolescent alcohol use.

An adolescent’s place of residence is often beyond their control, yet the findings from this thesis indicate that their neighbourhood can influence alcohol use. Nicki Jackson is passionate about reducing inequalities in alcohol-related harm and says her findings are incredibly important as the gap between rich and poor widens in New Zealand. Her study explores how exposure to socio-economic disadvantage, physical disorder, alcohol outlets, and a neighbourhood’s low collective efficacy may give rise to harmful alcohol use in adolescents.
“I firmly believe that alcohol use in a neighbourhood is a symptom of much wider issues such as poverty and neighbourhood stigma. If we really want to make a difference then we must address the circumstances in which people live. That will have positive effects for generations to come. It is also important to address alcohol use at an early age - drinking in adolescence can lead to many other health and social problems in later years. For example, when a New Zealand adolescent experiences harm from their drinking, they are less likely to complete high school. This isn't the New Zealand that I want to live in or my children to grow up in,” Nicki says. After finishing her PhD Nicki landed her dream job as the Executive Director of Alcohol Healthwatch, a national charity dedicated to reducing alcohol-related harm. Her PhD’s main supervisor was Professor Shanthi Ameratunga and her Co-supervisor was Associate Professor Simon Denny.

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers. School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts. Beyond the Clock: The Aesthetics of Time in Contemporary Art.

The subject of time and how it is explored in contemporary art was the topic of this thesis by Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers, who was an art curator before she embarked on a PhD. Kate says she was fascinated by the concept of time, something we all seem to have so little of in an increasingly globalised economy. “Although we feel the passage of time quite intimately, we can't necessarily 'see' it,” Kate says. “Contemporary art is interesting, not because it 'visualises' time, but because it uses various media, from painting to film and installation, in ways that allow us to actually experience its many different qualities.” Kate’s thesis demonstrated how time has become a central and vivid feature of a range of global art practices since the 1950s. She is currently working her thesis into a book manuscript with the help of a Kate Edger postdoctoral research grant. Kate’s PhD was supervised by Dr Gregory Minissale, and co-supervised by Dr Caroline Vercoe.

Andrew Keane. Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science. A dynamical systems approach to understanding the interplay between delayed feedback and seasonal forcing in the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

Dr Andrew Keane’s thesis uses mathematics to help us better understand the climate system responsible for El Niño events, which is a warming of the Pacific Ocean occurring approximately every four to seven years. His research has added significant insights by looking at conceptual climate models, which focus on fundamental mechanisms of the climate system and how they interact. Unlike highly complex computational weather forecasting models, such models are simple enough that they can be rigorously analysed mathematically. His state-of-the-art analysis clarified what role feedback loops with time delays play in producing realistic El Niño behaviour. For example, his thesis addressed the question: why do El Niño events occur sporadically, rather than every year or every four years. Andrew’s main supervisor was Professor Bernd Krauskopf and his Co-supervisor Associate Professor Claire Postlethwaite.

Sean Curry. Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science. Submanifolds in Conformal and CR Manifolds and Applications.

With a love of mathematics and physics, Sean Curry is fascinated by the questions on the cutting edge of theoretical physics. His thesis delves deep into the higher mathematics field of conformal geometry. “Mathematics, as they say, is the queen of science, and I see my work and that of the collective mathematical community as developing deep and innovative new ideas and theories that have significance for all areas of science and engineering,” he says.
Sean’s thesis explores the calculus and local curvature theory of submanifolds in conformal and CR manifolds - subjects which have been well-studied because of their applications to the conjectured ‘AdS/CFT correspondence’ which is central to current developments in theoretical physics, and also to fundamental and long-standing problems in complex analysis. Sean’s work goes beyond previous studies in that it allows one to effectively capture the ‘fingerprints’ of the geometry. This solves otherwise very difficult equivalence problems, and provides the right set of basic tools for working with these geometric objects. Sean currently works as an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego. His thesis was supervised by Professor Rod Gover and co-supervised by Professor Tom ter Elst.

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