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Nelson scientist wins UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship

Media Release 28 February 2001

Nelson scientist wins UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship to study toxic algae

The significance of the work of a young Nelson scientist to improve the early identification of toxic algae has been internationally recognised.

Allison Haywood, from Nelson’s private research establishment the Cawthron Institute, is today, in Paris, being presented with a UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship for Young Women in Life Sciences.

Ms Haywood’s work helps to ensure the security of New Zealand’s multi-million dollar shellfish industry and to protect human health. But because the toxin producing algae she has studied occurs throughout the world, her work is generating international interest.

For her PhD thesis, Ms Haywood identified the DNA sequences for the micro-alga genus Gymnodinium which caused the major toxic algae bloom in Wellington harbour in 1998. She has found genes that will allow the development of DNA probes, which can be used to quickly identify particular species of micro-algae. A DNA probe is essentially a short piece of DNA which has fluorescent dye added to it. When added to seawater containing micro-algae, a probe will bind to cells with matching genes, giving a bright, luminous green signal under a fluorescence microscope.

New Zealand introduced national biotoxin monitoring to protect shellfish consumers in 1993 but then toxic phytoplankton/algae monitoring with DNA probes was still in the realm of science fiction. Today it is a reality and a valuable and fast alternative to traditional methods of identifying toxic species. As a result of these new technologies, shellfish harvesters, processors and regulators can be given early warning of toxic algae blooms and an indication of the degree of toxicity. Such information is vital to protect the shellfish industry and to avoid both the harvesting of toxic shellfish or the unnecessary closure of shellfish beds. However, probes for the many different species of toxic algae present in New Zealand waters are still being developed.

The US$10,000 UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowhip will enable Ms Haywood to travel to California in May to spend ten weeks at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute developing the probes with a recognised leader in probe development and use. She will then spend another ten weeks at the Florida Marine Research Institute, testing the probes in the Gulf of Mexico where Gymnodinium has caused widespread problems.

Ms Haywood says receiving the Fellowship, which is one of only ten awarded internationally is “amazing”. “It will bring my work to a natural completion by allowing me to put the academic findings of my thesis into a practical application. Being able to test that application in Florida gives the work significant international validation and that is very exciting.”

The Science Liaison Officer at the Cawthron Institute, Dr Lesley Rhodes, says Ms Haywood’s work is cutting edge science with strong economic ramifications. “Her basic research is going to be applied commercially world-wide and it is very encouraging for young women in science to see that they can make a significant contribution.”

The Secretary for the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), Elizabeth Rose, says Ms Haywood’s Fellowship is one of ten inaugural awards under the new UNESCO-L’Oreal partnership to promote the contribution of young women in research developments in the life sciences and to enhance the role of women in devising scientific solutions to problems confronting humankind in the 21st century.

The Managing Director of L’Oreal in New Zealand, Frances Stead, says L’Oreal is thrilled to support the Fellowship.

“Allison Haywood exemplifies the high academic standard of the life sciences in New Zealand and a dedication to a very worthwhile investigation.

“We are very pleased to work with an international organisation like UNESCO who share our views about the importance of enhancing the role of women at all levels of the scientific community. Women are at the core of the L’Oreal Group’s activities. They make up 55% of the 2240 people working in our research departments. Furthermore, although our international company constantly contributes to the improvement of the well-being of millions of men and women, it is women in particular who have developed a strong sense of association with the group’s brands. It is therefore only natural that we undertake corporate sponsorship actions to promote the role of women scientists in society today.

“L’Oreal has fostered a very strong relationship with women and therefore wants to emphasise the existence of contemporary women scientists pursuing brilliant careers. We aim to encourage women’s vocations. For the ten young scientists from all over the world, these scholarships are a real encouragement to pursue a long-term professional project and this is exactly what Allison Haywood is doing.”

ENDS

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