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Young Kiwi Scientist Picks Up International Award

Press Release 25.2.02

A New Zealand woman flies to Paris on Friday (01.03.02) to receive a prestigious UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) science award.

Twenty-nine-year-old Nelson scientist, Dr Jennifer Smith, will be presented with a UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship for Young Women in Life Sciences at a function at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters.

Dr Smith won the award for her cutting-edge work on the enzymes that break down native New Zealand seaweed. She has helped isolate a unique enzyme found in New Zealand marble fish, and, she says, its discovery may have commercial potential in fighting viral diseases.

The US$10,000 dollar award will allow Dr Smith to work for four months at the Roscoff Marine Laboratory in Brittany (Station Biologique de Roscoff), which is the world’s leading research institute in her field. (the actual value of Jenny’s award is US$8,500)

Delighted to have won such an honour, Dr Smith says she is excited both by the prospect of working with some of the world’s top scientists in her area, and, more immediately, her forthcoming week in Paris.

Dr Smith will make a brief presentation on her work during the UNESCO -L’Oreal ceremony, along with the nine other Fellowship winners from around the world. But, she says, the week looks like it’ll be more fun than work. “We are going to three cocktail parties, a dinner- cruise on the Seine and there’s also a ball!”

She will return to work at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson until September, when she will take up her fellowship in France. Her husband will join her for part of the time.

Dr Smith has a PhD in Botany from Otago University but over the last year she has been specifically involved in work on the culture of New Zealand red seaweed for commercial use, as well as the exploration of the properties of the newly-discovered marble fish enzyme.

Dr Smith says that for some time seaweed has been used as a stabilising agent for products like ice-cream and beer. However, her research shows that if substances taken from seaweed are treated with particular enzymes, such as those found in marble fish, they can prevent infection in cultured cells. Dr Smith says this could have exciting implications in the fight against AIDS and other viral diseases.

“It is at a very early stage, though,” she explains. “At the moment we are exploring exciting possibilities. But first of all we have to find out exactly what this enzyme is and what it does.”

She hopes to use the expertise and experience at the Roscoff Marine Laboratory to help do just this.

Dr Smith has only been to France once before, and it was only a two hour stopover at Calais. She says she is looking forward to the challenges of living and working in another country. The working language at the Institute is English, but she says she will have to dust off her secondary school French to manage day to day life. The town is small, with a population of only three and a half thousand. According to Dr Smith’s guidebook, there is very little of note in the town apart from what is described as a “boring” aquarium full of seaweed. ”Boring to most people,” she says with a smile. “But not to me!”

The Chairperson of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO Hon Margaret Austin, says the UNESCO-L’Oreal Fellowship aims 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. This is the second year in a row that a young New Zealand scientist has won one of the Fellowships.

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

“Dr Smith 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 Jennifer Smith is doing.”


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