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Otago researchers win Fellowships worth $3.2 million

Thursday 4 October, 2018

Emerging Otago researchers win Fellowships worth $3.2 million

Three highly-promising University of Otago researchers and another recently departed from the university, have been awarded Rutherford Discovery Fellowships worth $3.2 million by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

Dr Jonathan Squire from the Department of Physics, Dr Sarah Diermeier from the Department of Biochemistry, former Otago PhD student Dr Ceridwen Fraser and Dr Lisa Te Morenga, who has recently begun working at Victoria University in Wellington but remains a principal investigator for the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre at Otago, are among ten researchers acknowledged this year by the Royal Society.

The fellowships seek to attract, retain and grow New Zealand’s most talented early-to mid-career researchers and support their career development by helping them to establish a track record for future research leadership. The Fellowships will allow some of the researchers, including Dr Fraser, to return to New Zealand from overseas.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships receive government funding of $8 million per annum and award $800,000 over five years to each Research Fellow. There are at least 50 Rutherford Discovery Fellows supported at any one time.

Dr Fraser says she is delighted to receive the Fellowship and to be able to return to the University of Otago to further her research, though she admits it is not an easy decision with an established and rewarding research career currently at the Australian National University.

“I am absolutely thrilled at this opportunity to return to New Zealand. My husband and I both loved living in Dunedin and the I think the University of Otago is a very dynamic and stimulating place to do research.

“I’m a marine and Antarctic biologist and I see great scope for collaborations with other researchers at the University of Otago and elsewhere in New Zealand and possibilities for diverse and exciting research projects.”

After receiving her PhD from the University of Otago, Dr Fraser worked in Belgium initially, then more recently at the Australian National University. In 2017, she was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship as an outstanding mid-career researcher.

Environmental change is driving widespread movement and extinction of plants and animals however, understanding of the processes influencing these changes is vastly inadequate. Dr Fraser’s research will lead to greater understanding of how major disturbances, such as destruction of coastal populations by earthquakes, affect biodiversity patterns and ecosystem structure. It is expected results from her research will feed into conservation management practices in New Zealand and across the globe.

Dr Squire is an astrophysicist who studies the dynamics of gas and plasma and generation of magnetic fields across stars and galaxies. He completed a Bachelor of Science with Honours in physics at the University of Otago and in 2010 received a Fulbright Fellowship to undertake his doctorate in plasma physics at Princeton University.

Last year, he was awarded a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant, enabling him to return to the University of Otago. During his Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, Dr Squire aims to disentangle how plasma dynamics and magnetic fields interact to determine how and why the universe is magnetised.

Dr Sarah Diermeier arrived at the University of Otago in January this year on the back of an award by the United States National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health. She is a Lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, where the overarching questions of her research group are to identify novel therapeutic targets in cancer and to elucidate the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms of cancer gene regulation.

As part of her Fellowship, she will focus specifically on breast and colorectal (bowel) cancer, as these types of cancer are major health concerns in New Zealand.

Dr Lisa Te Morenga (Ngapuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Te Rarawa), was until the end of June this year a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Dean Māori at the University of Otago. She then took up a role as Senior Lecturer in Māori health and nutrition at Victoria University, Wellington.

Her research interests involve the role of diet in the treatment and prevention of obesity, the metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She has a special interest in the relationship between nutrition and hauora (Māori health).

Her Fellowship research programme will take a multipronged approach to tackling these issues combining studies on sugars, carbohydrates and wholegrain foods within Māori communities. She aims to work with these communities to co-design effective and culturally appropriate interventions that support better diet and health amongst their whanau.

More information on the new Rutherford Discovery Fellows is available at:


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