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HortResearch’s Youngest Scientist Awarded NI Hons

Media Statement
Thurs, 3 July 2003

HortResearch’s Youngest Scientist Awarded
North Island Honours

HortResearch’s youngest scientist, Mike Cook, has won the North Island section of the prestigious FiRST Scholarship Awards, sponsored by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, for his development of an automated system to extract DNA from leaf tissue. The system has effectively increased the throughput of the lab he is working in by 9,000%.

“This is a great opportunity for young scientists to develop their ability to communicate their work to their peers – an essential component of a science career. It was a great surprise to be told that I had done so well in the competition – especially considering the very high standard of many of the other posters,” said Mike Cook.

“It certainly helps to earn this sort of recognition early on in any career. I am planning to present a poster at the International Symposium for Laboratory Automation and Robotics in Boston in October this year, so the communication skills and experience gained developing this poster will be put to good use.”

Using his skills in science, robotics and automation, Mike, aged 24, intends to develop a system to extract other cellular components, to establish a Laboratory Automation platform within HortResearch.

The annual FiRST (Fellows in Research, Science and Technology) Scholarship Awards celebrate the work of New Zealand’s up-and-coming scientists and researchers. They are open to recipients of the Foundation’s five scholarship schemes, who were asked to provide an eye-catching, information-packed poster.

With science communication seen as a key factor in the success of the research, science and technology sector in the future, the posters were judged, in part, on how clearly the particular research project is communicated to a lay audience.

Awards were presented to the winners of each of the five sections, at an event in Auckland today. Mike won the regional prize for the North Island, and was the North Island Section Winner (Enterprise Scholarships). Enterprise Scholarships (a Bright Future scheme) support New Zealand students, in partnership with private companies, to undertake a course or study involving a significant research component at a New Zealand tertiary education institution. Half the funding for a student is provided by the company, and this is matched by the Government.

Other North Island scheme winners are:

 Ryan McDonald is the North Island winner for the Technology for Industry Fellowship section with his poster on ‘Mission Impossible – To Design the World’s First Double Action Ejector Trailer’. The Technology for Industry Fellowships (TIF) programme supports research undertaken in New Zealand business. TIF aims to enhance scientific and technical skills and competencies in New Zealand businesses and create research and technology of benefit for businesses. The Fellow must spend a minimum of 50% of their time on the project in the company.

 Stella August is the North Island winner for the Tūāpapa Pūtaiao Māori Fellowship section for her poster on: ‘The upstream migration of glass eels in the Tukituki River, Hawkes Bay’. Tūāpapa Pūtaiao Māori Fellowships support Māori graduate students to undertake post-graduate study and research programmes at New Zealand tertiary education institutions. The scheme is supporting Māori students in science, engineering and technology disciplines.

 Jim Stinear is the North Island winner for the Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship section, for his study on: ‘Bimanual Coordination and Cortical Reorganisation’. Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarships (a Bright Future scheme) recognise, support and reward excellent post-graduate New Zealand students. This scheme supports research at PhD level in all disciplines, at New Zealand tertiary education institutions or appropriate overseas institutions.

 Stephen Trolove has been awarded a highly commended for the North Island section of the New Zealand Science and Technology Post-Doctoral Fellowship, for his poster entitled ‘We can grow them sweet’, which looks at nutrient intake of vegetables. New Zealand Science & Technology Post-Doctoral Fellowships provide early career support for New Zealand scientists, engineers and social scientists of outstanding talent, for post-doctoral research either in New Zealand or overseas. The scheme encourages New Zealanders who have recently completed doctoral degrees overseas to return to New Zealand, and also supports those who have completed doctoral degrees in New Zealand to work overseas, including countries where few science contacts exist at present.

The FiRST Scholarship Awards aim to inspire others to follow in the footsteps of New Zealand’s world-class scientists and promote networks between researchers, universities and business.


Note to media: A separate statement has been released regarding the nationwide winner of the FiRST Awards, South Island Scheme Winner (Top Achiever Doctoral scholar) and South Island Regional winner Wendy Brooks. For more information about Wendy and her research into Alzheimer’s Disease please contact either of the representatives below.

About the North Island Winners

Note to media: The following section includes background biographical notes, and an explanation of the winning research presented by each fellow in the FiRST Scholarship Awards.

Mike Cook, North Island Regional Winner and North Island Section Winner (Enterprise Scholarships)

Mike Cook is currently HortResearch’s youngest scientist, having completed an Honours Degree in Microbiology at Massey University in 1999.

The following year he joined the Plant Gene Mapping Team at HortResearch, Palmerston North to work on the identification of genetic markers for major resistance genes in apple. These markers are used as a tool for apple breeders to accelerate the development of disease resistant apples – thereby working toward HortResearch’s goal of spray-free apples.

After 12 months of laboratory work, Mike began applying his interest in programming and electronics to optimising laboratory processes. He returned to Massey last year to earn a Graduate Diploma in Mechatronics (an Electronics/Engineering hybrid).

Mike is currently developing an automated system to extract DNA from leaf tissue. The aim of the project was to remove the bottleneck created by the labour intensive process of identifying gene markers. His system is capable of extracting DNA from >1152 samples per night – effectively increasing the throughput capability of the lab by 9,000%. The most significant component was a custom-designed robot compatible tissue disintegrator used to homogenise tissue samples.

Mike’s career goals in the immediate future involve utilising his cross-discipline skills in science and robotics/automation to develop a laboratory automation platform within HortResearch. He intends to further develop the system to extract other cellular components thereby extending its application to the Metabolomics and Proteomics areas.

Mike’s academic supervisor was Dr Peter Xu, from Massey University and his HortResearch supervisor is Dr Susan Gardiner.

Ryan McDonald, North Island Section Winner (Technology for Industry Fellowships)

Ryan McDonald is 22 years old and lives in Stratford, Taranaki. He has a Massey University B Tech (Hons) degree in Manufacturing and Industrial Technology and currently works in New Plymouth as a mechanical engineer for Independent Technologies Ltd, a consultancy company who specialise in process and industrial engineering.

Ryan’s Agricultural Double-Acting Ejector trailer project came about after he spent a holiday period working for Trackweld Manawatu in order to fulfil the practical work requirements of his Technology degree. At the commencement of his summer employment he was asked by the owner of the company, George Zander if he could help in developing an idea of his for a double acting ejector trailer. This trailer was to be based on the principles of an existing single acting ejector trailer manufactured by G.A Zander Ltd.

The project involved developing the pushing mechanism using 3D CAD modelling software and doing the necessary calculations for the gear design. Testing has so far been a success, with the largest load ejected being 28 tonnes of clay. The development of the trailer is an ongoing process as different uses for its pushing mechanisms are discovered. Once testing is complete, purpose built models for different uses can be developed and fine tuned.

Ryan has been completing his research with the support of Trackweld Manawatu Ltd and Ralph Ball from Massey University.

Stella August, North Island Section Winner (Tūāpapa Pūtaiao Māori Fellowships)

Stella August has always had a passion for the sea (Tangaroa) which is why she believes she is involved in the marine biology and freshwater ecology fields.

Stella’s iwi, Ngati Kahungunu, approached her to ask if she wanted to do a Masters of Science on glass eels in the Hawke’s Bay and she was honoured and enthusiastic about conducting some research in her rohe on her awa.

Stella’s research involved trapping glass eels as they migrate back into the rivers and streams of New Zealand from their oceanic spawning grounds. There were two main objectives of this research. The first was to identify any trends in glass eel species, length, weight, condition, and pigmentation that may have occurred throughout the arrival season. The second was to identify the timing and various environmental factors that are associated with upstream migration.

Stella’s research is culturally important to Māori. There is significant concern about the decline of eels (tuna) and this research will aid Māori and other interested parties in sustainably managing the eel fishery. This research will increase knowledge about glass eels in New Zealand also.

She is currently in her second year of a Masters at the Centre for Biodiversity and Ecology Research at the University of Waikato, having completed two research seasons trapping glass eels on the Tukituki River. She is currently drafting her thesis which is due in November 2003. Her academic supervisor is Brendan Hicks from the University of Waikato, while her Maori Supervisor is Dr Meto Leach.

Jim Stinear, North Island Section Winner (Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarships)

Jim Stinear began his graduate studies at the University of Auckland in 1998 examining the dynamics of bimanual coordination with Dr Winston Byblow, of the Human Motor Control Laboratory at the University. Dr Byblow is a world leader in this field.

He graduated with a Masters in Science with Honours in 2000 and continued to work with Dr Byblow in a PhD programme examining the effects of bimanual coordinated movement on the regulatory circuitry in the human brain. Jim was awarded a FRST Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship for this work. He has recently completed his PhD requirements and will graduate in September 2003.

During his PhD studies he devised and assessed a promising novel method of upper limb rehabilitation for stroke patients. With the number of stroke survivors increasing because of advances in medical treatment of acute strokes, the impetus has been on improving quality of life through interventions that improve arm and hand function.

Jim has been offered positions at institutions overseas to pursue this work in collaboration with other leaders in the field, but prefers to base the research in New Zealand where colleagues and laboratory facilities at the University of Auckland are already available.

Jim is married with three adult children. His daughter is currently a FRST Top Achiever Doctoral Scholar at the University of Auckland examining cortical circuitry in musicians and writer’s cramp.

Stephen Trolove, North Island Highly Commended (NZ Science and Technology Post Doctoral Fellowships)

In November 2000, Stephen Trolove completed his PhD on phosphorus uptake, which was conducted jointly at Massey University and at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Stephen is now working on his Post-Doctorate degree, which is entitled ‘A fertiliser and irrigation model to manipulate plant composition’.

His research looks at the nutrient composition of plants because nutrient content impacts on important characteristics such as yield, taste, storage life, cooking qualities, disease resistance etc. To produce high quality produce it is important that growers can control the nutrient uptake of their crops. The uptake of most nutrients can be increased by adding fertiliser, but growers have almost no techniques for reducing the uptake of a particular nutrient.

The first part of his research focused on developing a system to grow low sulphur onions (which are much milder than high sulphur onions) in a high sulphur soil. Current research is focusing on improving the experimental system and identifying the reasons why our experimental system works.

The final phase of Stephen’s research will involve developing a model that will help growers know how much nutrients and water to apply, and when to apply them. Hopefully, if the research is successful with sulphur and onions, the system can be used for other crops, and to control the uptake of other nutrients.

Stephen has completed the research with the support of Dr Jeffery Reid of the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research in Hastings.

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