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10 Researchers awarded fellowships totalling $8m over 5 Yrs


Ten researchers awarded fellowships totalling $8 million over five years

Ten top researchers have been awarded highly sought after Rutherford Discovery Fellowships to help them develop their research careers in New Zealand.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships will provide financial support of $160,000 per year to these researchers over a five-year period. This funding goes towards both their salary and programme of work. These researchers will receive funding totalling more than $8 million over the next five years.

With this scheme, the New Zealand Government is supporting the development of excellence and has moved to fill a major gap in career opportunities for the most talented early- to mid-career researchers. The Fellowships are aimed at developing and fostering the future leaders in the New Zealand science and innovation system. It is intended that the Fellowships will attract and retain New Zealand’s most talented early- to mid career researchers and encourage their career development.

The chair of the selection panel, Professor Margaret Brimble, commented on the exceptional quality and intense competition in the applications the panel reviewed this year.

“It was a privilege to meet these exciting and engaging scholars. The Fellows we have selected represent exceptional talent and promise. They are all building exciting research programmes in their chosen fields and with continued career development they will emerge as the future leaders in New Zealand’s science and innovation sector.”

This year’s successful recipients work in a diverse range of research fields. Their research programmes include investigating the genetic basis for autism, researching ancient DNA, the search for earth-like planets, nanotechnology, ecology and regenerative medicine.

The ten researchers are:
Dr Geoff Willmott, Industrial Research Ltd, Nano and Micro Fluidics Group
Dr Lara Shepherd, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Natural Environment, Collections and Research
Dr Jessie Jacobsen, The University of Auckland, School of Biological Sciences
Dr Nicholas Rattenbury, The University of Auckland, Department of Physics (Returning from W.P. Thompson & Co, Patent and Trade mark Attorneys, United Kingdom)
Dr Martin Allen, University of Canterbury, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Dr Clemency Montelle, University of Canterbury, Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Dr Shinichi Nakagawa, University of Otago, Department of Zoology
Dr Peter Mace, University of Otago (Returning from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, USA)
Dr Timothy Woodfield, University of Otago, Christchurch, Department of Orthopaedics
Dr Barbara Anderson, University of Otago, (Returning from James Cook University, Australia)

The fellowships, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, have been set up to support researchers in the three to eight year period after they complete a doctorate degree. It has been found that this is the time when many researchers can find it difficult to progress their careers, especially in areas with heavy competition for funding.

The funding will enable researchers to investigate a particular research topic, and help them establish their career in New Zealand. It is expected that Fellows, throughout their careers, will contribute to positive outcomes for New Zealand.

Dr Di McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand congratulated the ten recipients on winning these prestigious fellowships.

“Once again, it is fantastic to see the depth and breadth of superb researchers we have in this country. I have no doubt these newly announced Fellows will continue to uphold the prestigious name associated with the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships. I offer the Fellows my congratulations on winning these awards.”


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List of recipients with biography and research programme details:

Dr Geoff Willmott

Industrial Research Ltd, Nano and Micro Fluidics Group

The Nanofluidic Plumber: Submicron Transport in Liquids

Geoff Willmott grew up and attended school in Auckland. He won a Girdlers’ Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a PhD in shock physics before returning to New Zealand in 2006 on a FRST Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme. Since then, he has been researching nanofluidics at Industrial Research Limited’s Gracefield campus, where he is a Senior Scientist with the ‘Nano and Micro Fluidics’ team. Geoff’s work is interdisciplinary and broad, ranging from experiments watching drop splashes to unravelling the theoretical physics at a solid-liquid boundary. He is a principal investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, and has collaborated closely with the Christchurch-based nanotechnology startup Izon Science in the development of their tunable nanopore technology. Geoff has previously worked as a strategic management consultant in Auckland and London. He plays senior club cricket, and is a premier club rugby referee.

RESEARCH: Nanofluidics is the study and application of fluid flow in and around nanoscale structures. It is a highly topical field, inspired by microfluidics, nanoscience and biotechnology. At present, the range of tools available to researchers who wish to manipulate fluids at the nanoscale are limited; microfluidic devices are commonplace, but the next steps towards the nanoscale naturally meets technological roadblocks. This project will use theory and experimentation to develop novel tools for harnessing nanofluidic transport. One avenue of research involves tunable nanopores. A tunable nanopore can be used to sense nanoparticles suspended in a solution, and to accurately measure their concentration, size and surface charge. This project will use these pores to analyse a wide range of particle types, including gold and magnetic nanoparticles, viruses, platelets, and large biomolecules. A second experimental system will focus on the dynamic motion of phase boundaries and water droplets. It has recently been demonstrated that small drops enhance the capillary-driven uptake of liquid into a tube when compared with uptake from a large reservoir. Drop-enhanced uptake proceeds more quickly, and uptake is even possible when the liquid and tube are ‘non-wetting’ (e.g. water and Teflon). The research undertaken by Dr Willmott could lead to the development of new instruments and methods with potential to contribute strongly to New Zealand’s push for science-led prosperity.

Dr Lara Shepherd

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Natural Environment, Collections and Research

Human-induced evolutionary processes on a recently colonised landmass: incipient domestication and spatial dynamics of species’ declines

Lara has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa since the start of 2012, where her role is to provide genetics expertise to the museum’s biologists and lead the development of molecular laboratory facilities. After completing a PhD at Massey University in 2006 on the genetics of extinct kiwi populations, Lara undertook a postdoctoral fellowship with Te Papa’s Botany Team. On gaining Marsden funding she moved back to Massey University in 2008 to undertake research into plant domestication and hybridization. Lara’s research uses molecular techniques including next-generation sequencing technologies and ancient DNA techniques to study the evolution of plants and animals as well cultural history, including prehistoric trade and plant domestication.

RESEARCH: As humans spread out around the globe they initiated significant environmental changes. Dr Shepherd will study the evolutionary processes associated with two such impacts: domestication and extinction. New Zealand provides an unparalleled opportunity to investigate both phenomena because of the recency (c. 800 years ago) of its settlement by humans. One focus of the research investigates four endemic New Zealand plant species that Māori brought into cultivation and translocated around New Zealand. Genetic data from multiple species will be examined to understand how genetic diversity is lost during domestication. This data will also be combined with traditional oral histories to illuminate pre-European Māori settlement routes and mobility. The second research focus examines the spatial patterns of species declines, which is necessary to develop effective conservation strategies and prevent further population loss. With continuing human impacts worldwide, such as habitat fragmentation, exotic species introductions and climate change, this information is critical for prioritisation of conservation efforts and the effective positioning of nature reserves.

Dr Jessie Jacobsen

The University of Auckland, School of Biological Sciences

Autism Spectrum Disorder: hunting for therapeutic targets using genetics

Jessie received a Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship to complete a PhD on Huntington’s disease at The University of Auckland. Her doctoral research won her the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year award in 2007. Following the completion of her PhD she received a Neurological Foundation of New Zealand Philip Wrightson Postdoctoral Fellowship to study at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. During this time she developed an interest in complex genetic disorders, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder. After three years in Boston she received a repatriation fellowship from the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand to begin research into Autism Spectrum Disorder in the New Zealand population.

RESEARCH: Disorders of the Autism Spectrum are estimated to affect approximately 1% of New Zealanders. This high prevalence, combined with the associated demands on social and educational care, represents a major issue in human health. This research project aims to to establish a genetic research paradigm focused on uncovering underlying genetic causes of autism in the New Zealand population and to help develop the discovery methodology that will eventually be transferred to the clinic. The results of this study will contribute to the international effort to genetically define the disease. The findings will ultimately translate to therapeutics and more specific health and educational support systems for patients and family members.

Dr Nicholas Rattenbury

The University of Auckland, Department of Physics (Returning from W.P. Thompson & Co, Patent and Trade mark Attorneys, United Kingdom)

Toward Earth-II: completing the census of extra-solar planets in the galaxy

Dr Rattenbury completed a PhD in Physics at The University of Auckland. His doctoral work focused on how to best use a phenomenon known as gravitational microlensing to detect extra-solar planets. Following his PhD, Dr Rattenbury worked at Jodrell Bank Observatory and the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, The University of Manchester. He was a visiting researcher at Princeton University and Groningen University. His research interests have expanded to include studies of the structure of our Galaxy and the various different populations of stars within it. After a short career break, Dr Rattenbury is returning to New Zealand to continue his research with the Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics collaboration, again focusing on the discovery of extra-solar planets.

RESEARCH: “Is there life elsewhere in the Universe?” In the last twenty years we have made enormous strides towards answering this question with the discovery of planets orbiting stars other than our own Sun. The technique that Dr Rattenbury will use to detect extra-solar planets relies on the way gravity deflects light – a prediction according to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The technique – called gravitational microlensing – allows the detection of small, earth-mass planets orbiting their host stars at orbital radii similar to the Earth-Sun distance. The Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) collaboration looks for tiny signals arising from the distant planets, using a dedicated 1.8 metre telescope observing from the South Island of New Zealand. These observations are presently combined with those made with telescopes situated around the world and operated by other microlensing collaborations. A range of new telescopes will soon become operational and will start to make additional observations of microlensing events. The increase in data from these new projects will need to be analysed – a task not possible by the relatively small number of experts worldwide who are capable of this work. As such, an automated analysis system is required to cope with the difficult job of detecting and characterising any planetary signal in the wealth of data that soon will be coming from all the new surveys. Dr Rattenbury’s aims are to design and create an automated analysis system and ensure New Zealand retains its leading position in extra-solar planet discovery.

Dr Martin Allen

University of Canterbury, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Ultraviolet Vision – New Frontiers in Health and Technology

Dr Martin Allen is a senior lecturer in Electrical Engineering at the University of Canterbury and a Principal Investigator in The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Dr Allen has a B.Sc. (Hons) in Physics from the University of Bristol, a M.Sc. in Plasma Physics from the University of Oxford and most recently, in 2008, a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Canterbury. In 2003, Dr Allen was the recipient of a Royal Society of New Zealand Science, Mathematics and Technology Teacher Fellowship to develop electronic badges that monitor human exposure to UV radiation and these have subsequently been used in melanoma and vitamin D health studies around the world. Dr Allen’s research is concerned with the properties and applications of transparent metal oxide semiconductors for use in solid-state lighting, next-generation optical displays and public health applications.

RESEARCH: The output of the sun defines our physiology. Human vision is tuned to the visible spectrum, infrared radiation provides life-giving warmth, while ultraviolet (UV) light has a contradictory nature that is not fully understood. UV radiation attacks the upper layers of our skin through collagen and DNA damage causing premature skin aging and melanoma, while at the same time providing our primary means of vitamin D synthesis. The importance of vitamin D to our general well-being has only recently been fully recognised with vitamin D deficiency being linked to increased risks of multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, diabetes, bowel cancer and heart disease. Understanding and harnessing the UV spectrum from health and technology perspectives requires new semiconductor materials such as zinc oxide and the oxides of gallium, indium, tin and magnesium. This research program will explore the properties and device opportunities of these exciting materials that possess the rare combination of high mobility conduction and transparency, much sought after for applications such as optical displays, smart windows, electronic paper and transparent electrodes for wide-area solar cells. There is a particular focus on delivering the next generation of epidemiological tools to help provide answers to key health questions concerning the risks and benefits of UV radiation to human health.

Dr Clemency Montelle

University of Canterbury, Department of Mathematics and Statistics

New perspectives on the history of the exact sciences in second millennium Sanskrit sources

Dr Clemency Montelle is a graduate from the Department of the History of Mathematics, Brown University, USA, which she completed as Fulbright scholar. She currently researches and teaches in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Canterbury. Her consideration of the mathematical achievements of early cultures is carried out by the examination and analysis of primary source material in Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Cuneiform. Her first book, “Chasing Shadows-Mathematics, Astronomy, and the Early History of Eclipse Reckoning”, focusing on the theoretical treatment of eclipse phenomena in the ancient world, was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She is currently immersed in an international project on the history of computational methods in Sanskrit mathematics supported by a three-year grant from New Zealand’s premier fund for research excellence, the Marsden Fund Council, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

RESEARCH: The astral sciences in the Indian subcontinent – that is, mathematics, astronomy, and related disciplines – have been flourishing for over two and a half millennia, and this culture of inquiry has produced insights and techniques that are central to many of our scientific practices today, such as the base ten decimal place value system and trigonometry. While many histories of science have centered on the so-called ‘western miracle’ in their analysis of the ignition and flourishing of modern science, they have done so at the expense of other non-European traditions. This research programme aims to rectify this disparity by bringing more prominently into the mainstream key perspectives, features, and themes of this important, yet understudied, tradition of scientific inquiry. Dr Montelle will undertake a comprehensive survey of Sanskrit scientific primary source material, careful textual analyses of key hitherto unexamined works and artefacts and contextual synthesising studies. This research program will contribute to developing our understanding of the features and themes of the astral sciences in India, and its connections more broadly in the history of science.

Dr Shinichi Nakagawa

University of Otago, Department of Zoology

Multidisciplinary approaches to understanding the maintenance of biological variation

Dr Nakagawa is originally from Japan. He first came to New Zealand to learn English in 1997. He completed his degree (Bacholar of Science with Honours) at Waikato University in 2003 and obtained his doctoral degree (PhD) at Sheffield University, UK in 2007. He is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Zoology, University of Otago. His group studies a wide range of different species including insects, frogs, fish and birds, and tries to understand why animals behave the way they do. His research group has been extremely productive, publishing over 60 articles in international peer-reviewed journals since his arrival at Otago in 2008. He is an Editor of the journal, Behavioral Ecology, an Associate Editor of Evolutionary Ecology and Emu: Austral Ornithology and on the editorial board of three other journals including the leading biological journal, Biological Reviews. He is the youngest member of this editorial board.

RESEARCH: Variation in the biological world has fascinated people for centuries; however, we still do not really understand how variation in nature is maintained. How genetic variation is maintained is one of a few long-standing ‘BIG’ questions in evolutionary biology, because the two main evolutionary forces, natural selection and genetic drift (chance events, such as random mortality of organisms) almost always reduces variation. The aim of this research program is to elucidate possible mechanisms describing how biological variation is maintained. Dr Nakagawa will investigate: the role of host-pathogen interactions in the maintenance of genetic variation; the influence of selection pressure on different physical attributes to find out how behavioural types are maintained in a wild bird population; and the significance of genetic and physical variations in determining a species’ range and conservation status using data from many bird species. The proposed work will provide valuable insights into how and why both genetic and physical diversities are retained within, and between species.

Dr Peter Mace

University of Otago (Returning from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, USA)

Molecular signalling mechanisms at the interface between cellular life and death

Peter completed his PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Otago in 2006, studying proteins that regulate mammalian ovulation and fertility. In a subsequent Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Biochemistry at Otago he solved several key structures of proteins that regulate programmed cell death, a process that is often misregulated in cancer. Peter is currently a United States Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Fellow at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, in La Jolla, California. His most recent work has provided pivotal insight into a family of proteins that promote invasion and chemotherapy resistance in breast cancer, and signalling proteins that drive inappropriate growth in a large proportion of other tumours.

RESEARCH: Cell behaviour is constantly influenced by external signals. The proposed research will study the three dimensional structure of proteins that interpret signals for cellular growth, or conversely trigger stress responses to protect the body. Proteins in these signalling pathways are heavily implicated in the development and treatment of cancer. Understanding their communication at the atomic level will provide new insight into how signals are relayed in cells, how signal disruption causes disease, and how signalling proteins may be targeted for disease therapy.

Dr Timothy Woodfield

University of Otago, Christchurch, Department of Orthopaedics

New frontiers in musculoskeletal regenerative medicine: biofabrication of cartilage and bone for entire joint resurfacing

Dr Woodfield is an expert in biomaterials, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. He began his academic career with an engineering degree from the University of Canterbury. Gaining a scholarship his international postgraduate training commenced with a Masters degree in biomaterials from University of Toronto, followed by PhD and postdoctoral research in tissue engineering from the University of Twente, The Netherlands. This included significant commercial experience within the Dutch biotechnology industry. Dr Woodfield returned to New Zealand in 2005 and subsequently established the Christchurch Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering (CReaTE) Group at the University of Otago Christchurch. He leads the group, consisting of a multidisciplinary research team of engineers, biologists and clinicians working at the interface of cell-biology, biomaterials science and orthopaedic surgery. His translational research aims at developing stem cell and biomaterial-based strategies in Regenerative Medicine with the major focus on Biofabrication technologies and cartilage and bone repair. He has leadership roles in a number of international biomaterials and regenerative medicine societies, including editorial board membership in the field of biofabrication.

RESEARCH: With global ageing, clinicians are facing an epidemic in degenerative joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis. Total joint replacement with permanent metallic and/or polymeric prostheses is often the only current option to treat advanced joint disease, yet these are susceptible to long-term wear and loosening. This not only results in pain and loss of mobility for the patient, but costly revision surgery to replace worn out implants. Regenerative Medicine is a rapidly advancing new field that combines principles of engineering, biology and medicine, and aims to repair or regenerate damaged or diseased tissues that fail to heal spontaneously. The proposed research programme focusses on developing innovative Biofabrication platforms integrated with new cell-based treatment concepts to regenerate damaged bone and cartilage tissue. Using these regenerative medicine strategies, this research has the potential to deliver alternative solutions to previously intractable problems of joint disease.

Dr Barbara Anderson

University of Otago, (Returning from James Cook University, Australia)

Battlegrounds and safe havens: disentangling the roles of ecology and evolution in the response of biological communities to climate change.

Barbara Anderson did her B.Sc.(Hons.) and Ph.D. in the Botany Department, University of Otago. Her doctorate investigated how plant communities are structured in a variety of stressful environments in New Zealand, South America and Europe. Since leaving New Zealand she has worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of York (UK). Whilst there she worked on a number of ecological modelling projects investigating the responses of species and ecosystems to habitat and climate change. She has developed a dynamic species distribution model that combines the biology of species with a changing landscape. In collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Helsinki she has worked on conservation prioritization schemes investigating possibilities for trade-offs between biodiversity and ecosystem services e.g. carbon storage. Barbara is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at James Cook University (Townsville, Australia), where she is investigating drivers of biodiversity patterns in the Australian Wet Tropics.

RESEARCH: Alpine environments have steep climatic gradients and therefore represent ever-changing battlegrounds. Here, species’ interactions and responses to changing climatic conditions are played out in small arenas. Temperature decreases with elevation; therefore, in a warming climate the expectation is that species will shift their distribution upslope. The combination of aspect, slope and shading within mountainous landscapes gives, at any given elevation, a variety of cooler and warmer microclimates. On a local scale, this landscape heterogeneity creates safe havens. Using ecological niche models to locate climatically suitable areas through time this research will identify potential past, present and future distributions of species. This will be compared with genetic data to assess how these niches coincide with hotspots of current genetic diversity on a local and regional scale. This research aims to balance advances in ecological modelling with new empirical data bringing significant applied benefits to the New Zealand conservation community.

Background information:

The Royal Society of New Zealand promotes science, technology and the humanities in schools, in industry and in society. We administer several funds for research, publish peer-reviewed journals, offer advice to Government, and foster international scientific contact and co-operation. www.royalsociety.org.nz

ENDS

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