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Waikato University scientist comes out on top

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Waikato University scientist comes out on top in Zonta award

Overseas scientists are often impressed at what New Zealand scientists can achieve on a “shoestring budget”, says Zonta Science Award winner Dr Michele Prinsep.

The Waikato University senior lecturer and research scientist was named the winner of the Zonta award tonight (April 3), at a special reception at Government House. Dr Prinsep completed a Bachelor of Science (honours) and her PhD at Canterbury University, and is also a former Christchurch Girls’ High School student. She carried out post-doctoral research at the University of Hawaii before her appointment at Waikato.

The Zonta Science award was established by the Wellington Zonta Club in 1990. Awarded every two years, its aim is to acknowledge the valuable contribution of women scientists as well as actively promote science as a career for young women.

Dr Prinsep, an organic chemist, says that llike other New Zealanders, scientists use their ingenuity, and the “number eight wire attitude” to make the most of the resources they have available. Despite limited resources New Zealand produces high quality research.

“There is a lot of collaboration and co-operation amongst New Zealand scientists rather than the intense competition between research groups that you see overseas. While it could be said that it is co-operation by necessity, I think it is also part of the New Zealand character.”

Her current research is investigating micro-organisms, (cyanobacteria), and marine invertebrates, (bryozoans), for potential pharmaceutical compounds, which may have a use in fighting diseases such as cancer.

“Both these types of organisms have proven to be rich sources of compounds with interesting and potentially very useful biological activity.”

Dr Prinsep says these organisms use chemicals to assist them in their everyday lives. Marine bryozoans, for example, are anchored to the sea bed and very vulnerable to predation, overgrowth or infection.

“As primitive animals they lack an immune system and rely on a chemical defence. We hope to discover compounds from them that can be used to benefit human health.”

Dr Prinsep’s group is probably the only one world wide to specifically target these organisms. Bryozoans and cyanobacteria occur globally but New Zealand is a very good location to study them because there is a wide range of species with many unique to this region.

“We have discovered some fascinating chemistry in these organisms and there is potential to find much more. This award will certainly help this work.”

Part of her prize includes a trip to Europe and the United States, and Dr Prinsep says she plans to visit pharmaceutical companies and natural product chemistry labs to explore collaborative research possibilities. The award also includes a $5000 cash prize, and a medal designed by sculptor Tanya Ashken, who is a past member of Zonta.

Dr Prinsep says it is wonderful that Zonta holds this award, and the organisation should be congratulated for promoting not only women in science, but science in general. While the old stereotype that scientists all wear lab coats and glasses and write complicated formulae still exists, she says it is good to see that there is a shift in attitude.

“I think that more young people these days are seeing that science can be exciting and stimulating, especially when you discover new things. If someone is interested in science, they shouldn’t hold back. It can be a lot of fun."

It is also the first time a chemist has won the Zonta award, which Dr Prinsep says is pleasing.

Dr Prinsep’s mother, husband, and their 18-month-old son, made the trip to Wellington, where she was presented with the award by the Governor General Sir Michael Hardie-Boys.

In total, 29 scientists put their names forward for the awards, and four finalists were selected by a panel of judges representing a number of different scientific fields. The other three finalists to attend last night ’s ceremony included: HortResearch’s Dr Tessa Mills (Palmerston North); AgResearch’s Dr Catherine Morrow (Ruakura); and Department of Conservation’s Dr Elaine Murphy (Christchurch).

The principal sponsor of the award is AGRESEARCH, with contributions from BP Oil New Zealand, the Balivean Trust, the John Ilott Charitable Trust, Hill’s Pet Nutrition NZ Ltd and the Sutherland Trust. The Zonta Club of Wellington contributes financially to the award as well as organising it.

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