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Kiwi wins top international science prize

Kiwi wins top international science prize

A New Zealand environmental scientist has won a top international science prize for her contribution to the development of a simple, inexpensive test which measures arsenic levels in drinking water, and which has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.

Dr Mona Wells, a Senior Environmental Scientist with multidisciplinary consultancy CPG in Dunedin, is part of a team of three scientists awarded the 2010 Erwin Schrödinger Prize, a highly prestigious international science award.

Millions of people worldwide, but especially those in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh, suffer from chronic arsenic poisoning because their drinking water is contaminated, either from natural geological conditions, or as a result of mining activity.

“Winning the Schrödinger Prize is a once in a lifetime experience, and it’s truly a tremendous honour to receive this level of recognition,” said Dr Wells.

The Schrödinger Prize is awarded annually by the Helmholtz Association, a group of German research centres of excellence in applied science. The prize recognises contributions to interdisciplinary science, in particular work which has the potential to affect the most people in the most profound way.

Dr Wells splits her time between her job at CPG, the German Centre for Environmental Research, where she is a Guest Scientist, and the University of Otago, where she is a part-time researcher. She has a long-standing interest in environmental contamination, and worked at ‘ground zero’ in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

“I’m fortunate to work with three organisations who together provide the support and flexibility to enable me to pursue my work in this field,” says Dr Wells. “The result is that we can translate our knowledge of applied science in the academic domain, in to solutions to thorny problems facing people in the real world.”

The portable and highly reliable arsenic testing procedure was developed over a number of years. Commercial production of the simple, quick and cost-effective kit – trademarked ARSOlux® – will commence from 2011, starting in Bangladesh.

In 2009 Dr Wells and her fellow prize winners (Professor Dr Hauke Harms of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany and Professor Dr Jan Roelof van der Meer of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland) published a 20-year retrospective study on the Exxon Valdez disaster, which incorporated the same technology as their new arsenic test.

CPG’s New Zealand Chief Executive Dr David Warburton said the business was exceptionally proud of Dr Wells and her colleagues for what they had achieved.

“Our congratulations go to Dr Wells and her team for winning this prestigious award. We are very fortunate to have this level of expertise in our business which adds value in so many ways,” he said.

The team will be presented with the Schrodinger Prize, which includes 50,000
Euros (approximately $90,000), at an award ceremony in Germany on September 16.


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