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Top Researchers Awarded Fellowships for Discovery

Media Release 21 July 2008

Top Researchers Awarded Fellowships for Scientific Discovery

Fourteen of New Zealand’s brightest researchers have been awarded fellowships from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to undertake scientific research at the frontiers of new knowledge.

Research topics for the recipients of the Foundation’s Postdoctoral Fellowships include infectious and allergic diseases, ultra-cold atomic physics, new sources of renewable energy, composite materials for the marine and aerospace industries and ways to improve the quality of radiata pine.

A total of 49 scientists were considered for the fellowships, with 14 awarded in the current round. Postdoctoral Fellowships are designed to foster the development of New Zealand’s emerging and future science leaders and build greater research capability and knowledge.

Recipients are offered an annual stipend of up to $58,000 a year for three years, plus allowances for research costs and ongoing skills development, with each fellow eligible to receive a total of $264,000 over the three years. The Foundation is investing $3.687 million in this round of fellowship candidates and invests $6 million annually in the fellowship programme.

Three of the researchers have recently returned or will return to New Zealand to take up their fellowships while another three will carry out their studies overseas, working with internationally respected research organisations.

Foundation CEO Murray Bain says it is exciting to see New Zealand’s emerging scientific talent being applied to cutting-edge areas of discovery and new technologies that will build capability and position New Zealand as a world leader in some research areas.

“It’s also rewarding to see outstanding researchers returning to New Zealand to take up fellowships and contribute their knowledge to industries and issues of vital importance to our economy and our wellbeing,” said Murray Bain.

The fellowships have been awarded to Ashton Bradley, Christina McGraw and Tina Summerfield (all University of Otago); Pascale Michel (Landcare Research); Hema Nair (University of Canterbury); Gayle Ferguson and Monica Gerth (both Massey University); James Russell (University of California); Peng Cao (University of Waikato); Jessica Costa, Jim Lee and Lijuan Zhang (all University of Auckland); Lincoln Tubbs (University of Guelph, Canada); and Nicholas van Panhuys (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, United States).

Fellowship applications are assessed against criteria including the benefit to New Zealand and the ability of the research to deliver tangible results that can be implemented into viable products or processes.


About the Foundation:

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology invests over $530 million a year on behalf of the New Zealand Government in research and development to enhance the wealth and well being of New Zealanders. The Foundation’s Postdoctoral Fellowships are designed to foster the development of New Zealand’s emerging and future science leaders and build greater research capability and knowledge.

About the researchers:

Ashton Bradley, University of Otago

Dr Bradley’s research has potential to deliver significant advances in quantum optics and ultra-cold atomic physics, areas where New Zealand is already a world research leader. He will be returning from Australia to take up his fellowship at the internationally recognised Jack Dodd Centre for Quantum Technology at the University of Otago. Dr Bradley will carry out theoretical investigations into a number of entirely unchartered scientific areas of atomic physics. His research so far has focused on quantum vortices and teleportation of large numbers of ultra-cold atoms using laser light. The proposed research could ultimately deliver knowledge that will be used to produce new devices using sensing technologies with capability far beyond anything currently manufactured. A major part of Dr Bradley’s work will be training students in techniques of cutting edge theoretical physics research. He will also be forging collaborations with outstanding research groups in Australia and the United States.

Christina McGraw, University of Otago

Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have absorbed around half of the fossil fuel CO2 released into the atmosphere. While this reduces the impact of global warming, it also leads to significant changes in the chemistry of seawater which becomes more acidic. That, in turn, reduces the amount of carbonate available for calcifying organisms such as green-lipped mussels, oysters, kina and paua and could affect their viability long term. Dr McGraw’s fellowship will support research into the impact of ocean acidification on marine organisms of economic importance to New Zealand and their ability to adapt to changing ocean conditions. Her studies will provide new information about the impact of global environmental change on New Zealand’s coastal ecosystem and give the aquaculture industry accurate information about the viability of specific organisms in localised regions.
Tina Summerfield, University of Otago

Cyanobacteria are microbes that use solar energy for photosynthesis and New Zealand’s extensive coastlines and hot springs provide ideal locations for their collection. Dr Summerfield will be studying cyanobacteria as a source of clean and renewable energy. The potential of these microbes is yet to be fully realised, with less than 20 per cent of the described species having so far been cultured. Dr Summerfield will be screening cyanobacteria isolated from New Zealand environments for their ability to produce bioenergy and other high value compounds. She will also investigate how the microbes store and use energy.

Pascale Michel, Landcare Research

Pioneering research into native bryophytes – mosses and liverworts – to be undertaken by Dr Michel will improve understanding of sensitive ecosystems and threatened species, assist with the restoration of native habitats and contribute to the sustainability of New Zealand forests and grasslands. Working with Landcare Research, Dr Michel will carry out the first ever thorough investigation of the role native bryophytes play in ecosystems, how they are affected by introduced species and draw up recommendations on how they can be incorporated into conservation and protection plans. Her research will focus on bryophytes in native forests and indigenous tussock grasslands. The work builds on recent advances in biosystematics in New Zealand which have allowed accurate identification of native mosses and liverworts for the first time.

Hema Nair, University of Canterbury

Spiral grain (SG) is the inclination of wood fibres to the axis of a tree. Ideally the fibres should be parallel with the axis, as SG of as little as 5 degrees significantly reduces the value of the timber, which twists and loses strength on drying. Dr Nair will investigate the cellular causes of SG in radiata pine and also research whether different chemicals used in the forestry industry could be contributing to the formation of SG. The New Zealand wood export industry’s losses to date due to SG are estimated to be around NZ$100 million. Dr Nair’s research has potential to reduce those losses and improve the intrinsic qualities of New Zealand radiata pine, generating higher quality timber that will earn premiums in the international marketplace. Dr Nair’s research builds on earlier studies she has carried out into wood quality and will use a tissue culture system she has developed that makes it possible to grow radiata pine wood in a laboratory Petri-dish.

Gayle Ferguson, Massey University

Dr Ferguson’s fellowship will support research into the fundamentals of bacterial evolution, a study with potential to deliver new knowledge about infectious diseases together with novel treatment strategies. She will be based at Massey University’s Institute for Advanced Study in Auckland, and will investigate the way organisms mutate and evolve to better understand pathogenicity in bacteria. As well as improved infectious disease control, Dr Ferguson’s research into how controlled molecular switches are constructed has potential to produce knowledge of interest to mathematicians and nanotechnologists. Possible applications in these areas are biosensors, artificial cells for enhanced pharmaceutical biosynthesis and light detectors for advanced image processing. Dr Ferguson has recently returned from the United Kingdom.

Monica Gerth, Massey University

Around seven per cent of the deaths in New Zealand result from bacterial infections. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem. Dr Gerth’s fellowship will support research into new treatments to control infectious diseases. Her novel strategy is to use the cell’s own metabolism to poison itself. The research will initially seek to understand how a common bacterial protein called HutD works, and then to develop drug-like inhibitors of it. The work will result in new scientific knowledge useful to the drug development and infectious disease control industries. Dr Gerth also aims to develop patentable intellectual property for developing new drugs based on HutD. She will be working with staff at the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study and the Institute of Molecular Biosciences at Massey University’s Auckland campus.

James Russell, University of California

Dr Russell will be researching island invasions by invasive rats, continuing research that won him the title of overall runner-up in the Foundation’s 2007 MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards. He will use previously collected ecological and genetic data to understand how rats invade islands and whether a population can be established by the arrival of a single pregnant female. Dr Russell will use the resulting model to test a real rat invasion on an island. The spread and density of the rat population on the island will be monitored over two years, allowing Dr Russell to test the accuracy of his model. Dr Russell’s work will be used to prevent ongoing rat reinvasions of islands in New Zealand and will also provide new information about the behaviour and subsequent rate of spread of the first animals to colonise a new location.

Peng Cao, University of Waikato

Developing new technology to produce orthopaedic implants that last a lifetime could deliver multi million dollar earnings for New Zealand. Dr Cao‘s fellowship will support research into the use of metallic materials for biomedical applications, with a particular focus on nano-biomaterials engineering. He will be leveraging off the University of Waikato’s research strengths in titanium alloy technologies and working with Christchurch company Enztec, which designs and manufactures medical devices for some of the world’s leading orthopaedic companies. Currently, all titanium alloy implant devices in New Zealand are imported and devices made here use stainless steel. Dr Cao’s research aims to develop a new surface mechanical treatment process that can be used to create a nanostructure in the surface layer of titanium alloy implants that promotes tissue in-growth and ensures the implant is stronger and lasts longer.

Jessica Costa, University of Auckland

Novel, value-added nutraceuticals and dietary supplements from milk could be developed as a result of Dr Costa’s research project. Milk is known to be a rich source of bioactive compounds including fatty acids which research has shown can positively affect bone health by increasing bone density. Dr Costa will investigate several newly-discovered adipokines (hormones from fat cells) that may be affected by dairy-derived fatty acids and assess their potential for bone strengthening. Her work will provide scientific validation for products that may safely increase bone strength, reduce fracture risk and prevent osteoporosis. The research is well matched with trends in the dairy industry, which is increasingly focused on mining milk for bioactive compounds to enrich dairy and other food products and create health supplements.

Jim Lee, University of Auckland

Self healing materials mimic the biological healing process whereby a cut in the skin triggers blood flow to promote healing. By making this repair automatic, self healing materials have extended lifetimes, need less maintenance and are safer, resulting in lower costs in the long run. They can be used in products such as adhesives and microelectronics in mobile phones and will be particularly useful for applications where repair is impossible or very difficult such as components of deep-space probes or implanted medical devices. Existing products with healing capability normally require heating for high efficiency. Dr Lee’s research at the Centre for Advanced Composite Materials at the University of Auckland, aims to develop a polymer composite system that self-heals at room temperature or below. If successful, the research will establish a new core capability that can be applied to the aerospace and marine industries in New Zealand.

Lijuan Zhang, University of Auckland

New methods of drug delivery using nanostructured materials is the focus of Dr Zhang’s research. He has spent 11 years researching organic, polymer and physical chemistry and will use that knowledge to develop a system that ensures the controlled release of drugs from self-assembled conducting polymer nano-objects. Release would be triggered by an electrical or chemical stimulus. While drug delivery products based on nanotechnologies are in their early stages, the market is estimated to be worth more than US$48 billion by 2012. Dr Zhang’s system is expected to be able to compete favourably with other technologies under development.

Lincoln Tubbs, University of Guelph, Canada

Improved tools for diagnosing viral diseases in fish to reduce biosecurity risks and protect New Zealand’s access to export markets is the target of research being carried out by Dr Tubbs. While New Zealand is relatively free from many of the serious fish diseases that affect other parts of the world, a number of the species caught in New Zealand are potentially at risk. Based at the University of Guelph in Canada, Dr Tubbs will be developing diagnostic tools using molecular techniques. The tools could be used to introduce internationally acceptable testing and quarantine protocols for assessing imported live fish, rapid detection of diseases in aquaculture and to certify disease free stocks for international fish export. New Zealand has limited expertise in aquatic animal disease diagnosis and Dr Tubbs’ research project will build the pool of skills and knowledge available locally.

Nicholas van Panhuys, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Dr van Panhuys is based at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States. His research is focused on designing new treatments for allergic disease such as asthma, and improving the efficacy of anti-parasite vaccines. He will be studying the Th2 immune response which is thought to have evolved to deal with invading parasites but is often misdirected against harmless environmental allergens, leading to the development of conditions such as asthma and other allergic diseases. It’s hoped an improved understanding of how the human immune system is regulated and how asthma and other allergies are induced will lead to the development of more effective drug treatments. Additionally, this work will have important implications for the design of new vaccines to combat the growing global problem of drench-resistant parasites. The Laboratory of Immunology at Dr Panhuys’ host organisation is regarded as a world leader in the study of fundamental mechanisms of immunity.

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