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Victoria researcher awarded top honour

16 December 2011

Victoria researcher awarded top honour by Prime Minister

A postdoctoral researcher at Victoria University has received the 2011 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist prize for his research into past environmental change in Antarctica and its implications for the current phase of global warming.

Dr Rob McKay from Victoria’s Antarctic Research Centre was presented with the prize, and a cheque for $200,000, at a function in Auckland today (Friday 16 December).

Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh says he is very proud of Dr McKay’s success.

“He is an excellent and dedicated researcher, and it is wonderful to see our scientists being recognised at the highest level.

“Rob is the second Victoria scientist to receive this award in the three years the prizes have been presented, the other being Dr John Watt who was the inaugural Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist in 2009 for his nanotechnology research.”

Dr McKay, a 34-year-old glacial sedimentologist, is considered one of the world’s top young researchers in his field.

His research focus is using marine sedimentary records and glacial deposits to reconstruct episodes of melting and cooling in Antarctica over the past 13 million years and show how they influenced global sea levels and climate.

The work is helping scientists understand how Antarctic ice sheets might respond to global warming, something Rob says has particular relevance for New Zealand given its location at a major gateway where water from Antarctica enters the world’s oceans.

“New Zealand lies at the boundary between tropical and Antarctic ocean currents and, as such, our climate is directly controlled by Antarctic and Southern Ocean climatic systems. We need to better understand how past changes in these climate systems directly interacted with the better-known tropical controls on New Zealand’s climate, such as El Niño and La Niña,” he says.

To study this Antarctic link to New Zealand, he is also developing a five million year ocean-climate history from records collected from offshore eastern New Zealand.

The Director of Victoria’s Antarctic Research Centre, Professor Tim Naish, describes Rob as a talented, emerging scientist that New Zealand needs to maintain its world-class Antarctic and climate research capability.

“Rob has always had a remarkable ability to see the important contribution his research can make. He is also an articulate communicator and has quickly developed a strong network of international collaborators, bringing him and the group at Antarctic Research Centre some exciting new opportunities.”

Visiting Antarctica in 1998 to study glacial sediments in the Transantarctic Mountains was Rob’s first trip overseas. He has since taken part in two further scientific missions—the ANDRILL McMurdo Ice Shelf Project in 2005 and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme Expedition in 2010.

Rob attended Hutt Valley High School and completed his Bachelor of Science with Honours and Master of Science in Geology and his PhD at Victoria University. He originally intended to study architecture but got hooked on the geology course taken during the preliminary year.

Rob receives $50,000 of the prize money and is able to use the remaining $150,000 to support his on-going research.

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