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Marsden Fund grants UC researchers over $4 million

Marsden Fund grants UC researchers over $4 million

University of Canterbury researchers have been awarded more than $4 million in this year's Marsden Fund grants, which support New Zealand’s best investigator-initiated research in the areas of science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities.

UC has secured grants for six research projects, totalling $4.1 million. The projects cover the disciplines of biological science, geology, electrical engineering, linguistics, and physics.

Professor Steve Weaver, UC Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) said it was excellent to see some of our top researchers recognised and getting the support they deserved.

“This is an excellent result for the University and a significant endorsement of UC’s world-class research. That many disciplines feature among this year’s successes highlights our commitment to research excellence across the Colleges here at UC.”

Marsden Fund Council chair, Professor Juliet Gerrard, says the fund encourages New Zealand’s most talented researchers to explore their most exciting ideas. The government-funded awards are administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

There are two types of grants: Fast-Start grants worth $300,000 over three years for early career researchers and Standard grants that can be worth up to $850,000 for three years. The grants are distributed over three years and pay for salaries, student and postdoctoral scholarships and research consumables.

The largest award to UC-led research went to Physics Professor Simon Brown’s project on Nanoscale topological insulators, which was awarded $820,000. Topological insulators are a newly-discovered class of solid-state materials with vast potential for exciting and novel applications. The research builds on world-leading capability to grow and characterise related nanostructures, and would position New Zealand at the forefront of efforts to exploit this new class of materials.

In Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr Volker Nock, who is a Biomolecular Interaction Centre principal investigator, was awarded a Fast-Start grant for $300,000 to investigate Hyphae-on-a-chip: a microfluidic platform for the study of protrusive forces in hyphal invasion. Fungi and oomycetes grow as pathogenic species on both plants and animals. They can have significant effects on humans, either directly through infections or indirectly through loss of crops and other species. Better understanding of the molecular generation of protrusive force may impact on ways to address the many diseases and infections that occur due to invasive fungal and oomycete growth.

UC volcanologist Dr Ben Kennedy’s research, Shaking magma to trigger volcanic eruptions, was awarded $650,000. Volcanoes erupt more frequently following tectonic earthquakes. This research investigates the critical conditions for seismically-triggered volcanic eruptions. The results will provide information about the risk of volcanic hazard in New Zealand and the rest of the world.

UC Behavioural Ecologist Professor Jim Briskie’s project - Conserving small island populations of endangered New Zealand birds: can a ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ dilemma be avoided? - was awarded $805,000. Just like the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ many endangered birds in New Zealand are marooned on small and isolated islands. Small population size (termed a bottleneck) increases the risk of inbreeding, and can lead to loss of genetic diversity and an increased risk of extinction. One proposed solution is the use of “genetic rescue”, in which outbred individuals (donors) are translocated into a bottlenecked population. Researchers will use the South Island robin as a model to assess both the theoretical predictions and long-term practical effectiveness of using inbred donors to “rescue” endangered species and determine whether genetic rescue has lasting benefits for the survival of endangered species.

The Director of the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, UC Linguistics Professor Jennifer Hay’s research project – Statistical learning with and without a lexicon – was awarded $767,000. Native speakers of a language display a vast amount of statistical knowledge. For example, they know where different sounds tend to occur in their language, and the relative likelihood of particular sounds occurring together in combination. This knowledge is believed to be drawn from the speaker's vocabulary – their lexicon. However speakers of a language also possess knowledge about the statistical properties of sounds in running speech, which they use to segment the speech stream into words. The relationship between knowledge of lexical statistics (generated from the lexicon) and pre-lexical statistics (generated from running speech) is not understood. What is the nature of learning that takes place when you do, or don't have a lexicon? New Zealand provides a unique testing-ground for this question. Many New Zealanders have regular exposure to Māori, but do not know many words. This enables researchers to study pre-lexical statistical learning in considerable depth. Prof Hay’s team will document the statistical properties of Māori sound structure. Then, using the established experimental architecture to present experiments in the form of computer games, they will investigate what knowledge of these properties non-Māori-speaking New Zealanders actually have.

In biochemistry, Dr Renwick Dobson, who is also a Biomolecular Interaction Centre principal investigator, saw his project - How do bacteria scavenge sialic acids from their human host? - funded $770,000. Sialic acids are extremely important sugars for mammalian cell recognition. However, they are also a recognition point and energy source for bacterial pathogens. Sialic acid import and processing has been demonstrated to be important for bacterial pathogen colonisation and persistence and is therefore a target for antimicrobial development. The research team combines world-class expertise in biointeractions and structural biology, with state-of-the-art methods in structural biology and membrane protein structure and function, and supports four talented emerging New Zealand researchers. Together, the team’s experiments will provide the first detailed ‘picture’ of how sialic acids are imported into the cell and a detailed mechanistic understanding of how the nanRepressor protein regulates the expression of genes within the pathway. The results will enhance understanding of general systems for membrane transport and gene regulation.


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