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Otago chemical oceanographer receives international award

23 May 2014

Otago chemical oceanographer receives top international award

An up-and-coming University of Otago chemical oceanographer will be the recipient of a 2014 Heineken Young Scientists Award. Every two years, members of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences select five talented young researchers who excel in their disciplines, setting an example for their peers bi-annually.

Dr Rob Middag of Otago’s Department of Chemistry has won the environmental science category of the Awards for his highly productive research into trace metals in the world’s oceans.

The Award, which includes €10,000 ($16,000 NZD) and a piece of sculpture created by an Amsterdam artist, will be presented to Dr Middag this October in the Netherlands.

Dr Middag earned his PhD at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2010 for his research into the impact of two trace elements (aluminium and manganese) on oceanic algae growth. He carried out his research at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research on Texel.

Middag subsequently held a postdoctoral researcher position at the University of California Santa Cruz before taking up a Lecturer position at the University of Otago. He is part of the NIWA-University of Otago joint Research Centre for Oceanography, which is based in the Department of Chemistry. His field expeditions, including a recent voyage in the Mediterranean Sea, have quadrupled the global body of data on oceanic trace elements in just a few years.

His research is of global significance since many trace elements are essential nutrients for marine life. Even though they occur only in minute concentration, trace elements influence the functioning of ocean ecosystems.

For example, iron and zinc play a crucial role in the growth of phytoplankton, the microscopic unicellular plants that form the basis of the ocean food web.

Metals like lead however, are toxic contaminants, negatively affecting phytoplankton growth. Through their effect on phytoplankton growth, trace elements affect the amount of atmospheric CO2 taken up by the ocean via photosynthesis. Part of this CO2 ends up in the deep ocean, taking it out of the atmosphere and thereby affecting global climate.

Other trace elements can be used to reconstruct the role of the ocean in past climate change.

Dr Middag says he is very pleased and honoured to receive the Heineken Young Scientist Award.

“It is great recognition of previous work and a tremendous stimulation to keep pursuing excellence in this exciting field of science.

“My ultimate dream is to analyse the entire composition of ocean water, including substances that are present only in very minute concentrations, and then be able to unravel the interactions between all these components.”

Head of the Department of Chemistry Professor Lyall Hanton says he is delighted that its most recent appointee has won such a prestigious international prize.

“It reflects well on the care taken in our selection of staff and that the University of Otago is able to attract such able young researchers. The Department has a strong reputation and high profile in chemical oceanography and the research activities of our staff are noticed by the international oceanographic community. This further confirms the strength of the Chemistry Department in this discipline.”

About the Heineken Young Scientists Awards:
The Heineken Young Scientists Awards are meant as an encouragement for young and talented researchers. The Awards are presented at the same time as the Heineken Prizes. The winners are promising young researchers whose achievements set an example for other young scientists. They conduct their research in the same disciplines as the Heineken Prize winners. The Young Scientists Award consists of a piece of sculpture by Jeroen Henneman, an artist based in Amsterdam, and €10,000.

The Heineken Prizes and the Heineken Young Scientists Awards are awarded every two years. The winners are selected by juries composed of members of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The 2014 Heineken Young Scientists Awards will be presented on Thursday 2 October 2014 during a special meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences at the Beurs van Berlage Building in Amsterdam. The Heineken Prizes will be presented there as well.

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