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Nine emerging researchers receive prestigious scholarships

News release from the Royal Society of New Zealand

For immediate release

5 December 2012

Nine emerging researchers receive prestigious Rutherford Foundation scholarships

The Rutherford Foundation Trust has awarded prestigious scholarships to nine of New Zealand’s most outstanding emerging researchers, including four international PhD scholarships and five postdoctoral fellowships.

Highlights from the 2012 funding round include a range of projects, from the treatment of osteoporosis and cardiac dysfunction in diabetes, to the future of resource management in New Zealand and black holes in astrophysics.

The Rutherford Foundation, which awards the scholarships, is a trust set up by the Royal Society of New Zealand to provide support to emerging New Zealand scientists.

Chair of the Trustees of the Rutherford Foundation, Professor Margaret Brimble, says it is important for our emerging researchers to gain these types of scholarships. She highlights the need for these opportunities:

“The shortage of postdoctoral positions in New Zealand is a concern for the research community. The Rutherford Foundation is therefore very pleased to offer five postdoctoral fellowships to talented PhD graduates as well as four PhD training scholarships.”

“The calibre of these young scientists was truly outstanding and the competition was extremely tough. These scientists were all undertaking research in areas of national importance."

The five postdoctoral fellows will work at New Zealand universities and crown research institutes.

Two of the PhD scholarships will be hosted by the University of Cambridge in England. One will be hosted by the University of Michigan in the USA and the other at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Funding for these awards comes from the New Zealand Government, the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, the Freemasons Roskill Foundation and private donations.


Recipient nameLocation of recipientHostProject/topic
Dr Peng DuAuckland (originally from Auckland)The University of AucklandElectrogastrogram - a non-invasive diagnostic tool of gastric bioelectrical activity
Jamie HowarthDunedin (originally from Motueka)GNS ScienceHow often does the Alpine Fault produce characteristic great earthquakes?
Dr Kimberley MellorMelbourne (originally from Kohimarama, Auckland)The University of AucklandCardiac dysfunction in diabetes: a novel therapeutic approach
Dr Estelle DominatiPalmerston North (originally from France)AgResearchThe future face of Resource Management in New Zealand
Dr Renata KowalczykAuckland (originally from Poland)The University of AucklandPreptin peptidomimetics for the treatment of osteoporosis
Jordan McMahonHamilton (originally from Hamilton)The University of MichiganAbstract algebra
Thomas WrightAuckland (originally from Auckland)University of OxfordDoes the ‘histone code’ speak across the generations? Using synthetic protein chemistry to investigate the heritability of histone PTMs.
Scott ThomasChristchurch (originally from Rotorua)The University of CambridgeAstronomy
Patricia LarsenAuckland (originally from Dunedin)The University of CambridgeCosmology, the study of the large scale nature of the Universe

Please see below for more information on the awards, including quotes from the recipients.

Please view webpage:

Rutherford Foundation 2012 Awardees:

NZ Postdoctoral Fellows:

Researcher: Dr Peng Du
Location: Auckland (originally from Auckland)
Award: New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship
Host research institution: The University of Auckland
Project: Electrogastrogram - a non-invasive diagnostic tool of gastric bioelectrical activity
Total funding: $182,000 over two years

There is a bioelectrical activity associated with every muscular contraction in the human body. The timing, pattern and shape of these bioelectrical activities can tell us about the health of our muscles. The stomach is also a highly muscular organ in the human body and the bioelectrical activity in the stomach can be recorded from the body surface using a technique called electrogastrography (EGG). EGG offers an attractive efficient screening and diagnostic tool for patients with chronic digestive-related diseases. In this proposal, Dr Peng Du will seek to decode the EGG recordings and relate them to specific abnormal patterns of gastric bioelectrical activity. To achieve this goal, Peng will develop a series of mathematical models that will be capable of predicting the unique bioelectrical signatures associated with each class of abnormal gastric bioelectrical activity. Experiments will be conducted to validate the predicted bioelectrical signatures and further refine the EGG recording protocols in a clinical setting. Peng believes the application of EGG as a routinely diagnostic tool will be a promising step towards facilitating improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of certain classes of chronic digestive diseases.

“I would like to thank the Rutherford Foundation Trust and the Royal Society of New Zealand for offering me this great opportunity. The collegial mentoring I have been receiving from my peers at the University of Auckland will continue to play an integral role during the course of this proposal. I hope to project the research excellence of New Zealand both at home and abroad.”
Researcher: Jamie Howarth
Location: Dunedin (originally from Motueka)
Award: New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship
Host research institution: GNS Science
Project: How often does the Alpine Fault produce characteristic great earthquakes?
Total funding: $182,000 over two years

New Zealand is a country that straddles a complex plate boundary, which is represented by the Alpine Fault in southern New Zealand. The fault is one of the longest, straightest and fasting slipping faults on earth; it is also the largest source of seismic hazard in the South Island. The proposed research will determine the frequency, length of fault rupture and magnitude of earthquakes that have occurred on the fault during the past 3000 years from evidence of past earthquakes preserved in the sediments of lakes distributed along the length of the fault. Data from the lake sediments will be used to determine whether the Alpine Fault always produces great (magnitude >8) earthquakes. The outcomes of the study will improve our understanding of the seismic hazard posed by the Alpine Fault and of what to expect from the next big earthquake on the fault. It will also help determine whether faults produce earthquakes with similar magnitudes each time they break. This is a topic of intense international interest as it has implications for how seismic hazards from individual faults are assessed.

“I was truly delighted at the news my project has been funded by the Rutherford Foundation Trust. The research funding will allow me to pursue what I see as a very exciting research opportunity that will benefit both science and society.”

Researcher: Dr Kimberley Mellor
Location: Melbourne (originally from Kohimarama, Auckland)
Award: New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship
Host research institution: The University of Auckland
Project: Cardiac dysfunction in diabetes: a novel therapeutic approach
Total funding: $182,000 over two years

Diabetes is a global epidemic with high mortality and is linked to heart failure. Despite over a decade of investigation, the ultimate cause of cardiac dysfunction in diabetic patients remains elusive. Dr Kimberley Mellor proposes that diabetic heart failure reflects a progressive decline in heart pump efficiency due to irreversible modification of the proteins involved in contraction and an accumulation of large glycogen stores in the heart muscle cells. At the Auckland Bioengineering Institute she will be able to directly assess efficiency of the heart muscle and investigate the underlying causes of this mechanical inefficiency in the diabetic heart.

“It was very exciting to hear that I had been offered the award. The Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship will enable me to return to New Zealand and develop an independent research career in my home country. I am very thankful for the opportunities and great mentoring that I have received in my career to date which has enabled me to be competitive for this award.”

Researcher: Dr Estelle Dominati
Location: Palmerston North (originally from France)
Award: New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship
Host research institution: AgResearch
Project: Quantifying and Valuing the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services of Agro-Ecosystems: The Future face of Resource Management in New Zealand.
Total funding: $182,000 over two years

Dr Estelle Dominati obtained her Master’s degree in sustainable agriculture from SupAgro in Montpellier (France) in 2006 before completing her PhD in Ecological Economics with AgResearch and Massey University in Palmerston North. With Estelle’s current research interest at AgResearch she is exploring the utility of an ecosystem service approach to resource management in New Zealand.

The concepts of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services, the benefits people obtain from ecosystems, have gained considerable attention globally, and have been identified as the future of resource management. In New Zealand, an ecosystem services approach will give life to the central pillar of the Resource Management Act, and help inform “Greening New Zealand’s Growth”.

The overall goal of this project is to advance knowledge around the quantification and valuation of ecosystem services from agricultural systems. The project will develop an ecosystem services approach to evaluate current policies affecting farming in different regions. Making information about the trade-offs between environmental, economic, social and cultural outcomes more accessible to resource managers and policy makers will lead to better informed decision making and thereby guide agriculture in New Zealand towards increased sustainability and reduced environmental impacts.

“I feel very privileged to have been selected by the Rutherford Foundation. I’m excited about the opportunity to advance knowledge in this field. I look forward to making the most of the fellowship to demonstrate to resource managers and policy makers the utility of an ecosystem services approach for more informed policy development.”

Freemasons Roskill Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow:

Researcher: Dr Renata Kowalczyk
Location: Auckland (originally from Poland)
Award: Freemasons Roskill Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship
Host research institution: The University of Auckland
Project: Preptin peptidomimetics for the treatment of osteoporosis
Total funding: $150,000 over two years

The focus of Dr Renata Kowalczyk’s research is the design and chemical synthesis of novel drug candidates which may be used in the future for the oral treatment of osteoporosis. The project will be conducted at the University of Auckland in close collaboration with the Auckland Bone Research Group (School of Medicine). It has been shown that the peptide hormone, preptin-(1-16), can be used to stimulate bone formation. The aim of Renata’s study is to design chemical modifications of the preptin-(1-16) peptide to find more stable and/or potent molecules. The novel compounds prepared will be tested for their ability to stimulate the activity of bone forming cells.

“I was absolutely delighted by the news that I was to receive the Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Rutherford Foundation. At first I did not believe what I had just heard, it took me some time to realise that the news was true. I was very pleased and proud of my achievement. It felt like winning the lottery with a clear idea of what I wanted to do with the prize. This award will enable me to continue my research career as a synthetic chemist at the University of Auckland and establish my research at an international level. It will sustain the current collaboration I have with the Auckland Bone Research Group and will lead to the initiation of further collaborations; which is imperative for development of my future research career. The grant will enable the progress of this cross-disciplinary study with the aim of discovering new therapeutics to reverse the progress of osteoporosis and greatly improve the quality of life for aging New Zealanders and people throughout the world.”

International PhD Scholarship:

Researcher: Jordan McMahon
Location: Hamilton (originally from Hamilton)
Award: International PhD Scholarship
Host research institution: The University of Michigan
Total funding: $97,500 over three years

Jordan McMahon will be conducting research into the field of abstract algebra, which is the study of mathematical objects and their properties. He will be specialising in non-associative algebras, which is a fundamental research field in mathematics and has particular importance in quantum physics. The University of Michigan is one of the best institutions in the world for mathematics, and has an excellent faculty with expertise in this field.

“A PhD from the University of Michigan will give me a wonderful opportunity to learn more about algebra and to develop my mathematical ability.”

Researcher: Thomas Wright
Location: Auckland (originally from Auckland)
Award: International PhD Scholarship
Host research institution: University of Oxford
Project: Does the ‘histone code’ speak across the generations? Using synthetic protein chemistry to investigate the heritability of histone PTMs.
Total funding: $97,500 over three years

With this award, Thomas Wright will study the chemistry of proteins under the supervision of Professor Ben Davis at the University of Oxford. His work will look at new, faster methods for targeted modification of proteins using chemistry. The specific proteins they will study are histone proteins, which wrap up the DNA in our cells and control how that DNA is 'read' by the cell. These proteins are important in processes as varied as cancer, the flowering of plants and what makes the different tissues in our body unique. Coming up with easier methods to make these proteins in a controlled manner will have a big influence on our ability to understand the biology of these proteins, which could potentially have a large impact across a range of biological fields.

“On receiving this award, I was very happy, both because it will be a great help financially, and because I see it as a 'vote of confidence' in my abilities and my proposed research. This grant will enable me to develop new skills and ideas that could help develop New Zealand's growing expertise in protein chemistry.”

PhD Scholarships at the University of Cambridge:

Researcher: Scott Thomas
Location: Christchurch (originally from Rotorua)
Award: PhD Scholarship at the University of Cambridge
Host research institution: The University of Cambridge

Scott Thomas will be studying towards a PhD at the Institute of Astronomy. Unlike many PhD programmes, he will first spend some time taking further courses and investigating potential research areas before choosing a project and supervisor. As part of his Honours degree in astrophysics, Scott studied unidentified objects seen by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. This work revealed that some of these unidentified objects could be large clumps of dark matter within our galaxy. He would like to continue with research in high-energy astrophysics or observational cosmology, using data from the world's largest space- and ground-based telescopes to investigate some of the most mysterious questions about our universe. He is also looking forward to participating in the active outreach programme of the Institute and bringing these experiences back to New Zealand.

"I'm very proud to have the support of the Rutherford Foundation and the Royal Society of New Zealand for postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge. It's been my dream to study there, so receiving this award was a wonderful feeling - it has made years of hard work and perseverance through the Canterbury earthquakes all worth it. Being able to research at such a prestigious institution and form contacts with scientists from all round the world will be invaluable for my development as an astronomer. Thank you to the Rutherford Foundation and the Royal Society for their support of young New Zealand scientists."

Researcher: Patricia Larsen
Location: Auckland (originally from Dunedin)
Award: PhD Scholarship at the University of Cambridge
Host research institution: The University of Cambridge
Project: Tests of predictions from modified gravity theories.

Patricia Larsen plans to complete a PhD in Cosmology, the study of the large scale nature of the Universe. The University of Cambridge is one of the leading places in the world to study this and so she is very excited to have the opportunity to go there. She is particularly interested in studies of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the afterglow from the big bang, and what this can tell us about the history of the Universe.

“I am thrilled to have been awarded the Rutherford Foundation PhD scholarship and am looking forward to starting my PhD next year.”

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