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Young physicist third student to become Future Scientist

Research into a problem that could ultimately help scientists better understand the risks of avalanches and slips has won an 18-year-old Wellington student the $50,000 Prime Minister’s Future Science Prize for 2018.

Finnegan Messerli wins the award for physics research and becomes the third student from Wellington’s Onslow College to gain the honour in the Prize’s ten-year history.

Finn’s project began when, as captain of the New Zealand team participating in the International Young Physicists Tournament in Beijing, he was asked to explain why grains, such as sand or salt, form a cone-like pile when they are poured onto a surface.

He wanted to use an established technique called the Discrete Element Method but struck problems in measuring the properties of the grain in order to allow computer modelling.

“Essentially, I came up with an easy method of testing those properties and one that doesn’t require expensive equipment. I tried to design the method I would have liked to have at my fingertips when I was working on the problem,” says Finn, whose older brother Toby has also competed for the school internationally in physics tournaments.

With further development, the system of tests Finn has created could be used to predict flows in a wide range of granular materials, with potential for applications in the food processing, mining, pharmaceutical and geotechnical industries.

While competing at the tournament sparked the idea, Finn did most of his winning research back in New Zealand and much of it in his bedroom-turned-laboratory at home.

The Head of Science at Onslow College, Kent Hogan, who has taught all three Onslow students to have won the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize, credits Finn’s work to a combination of “a keen interest in seeing a project through to the end, an extraordinary level of conceptual understanding and outstanding skills in mathematics and computer simulation”.

“I would have these confronting moments when Finn would come in, ask me a question and then walk up to the whiteboard and start filling the board with all sorts of complicated things—which I would then try to understand,” says Kent.

In the course of his research, Finn also wrote to, and received replies from, several international experts in the field and physicists at Victoria University of Wellington, to overcome roadblocks.

Other students at Onslow College got involved in the project, says Kent, with budding junior physicists spending weeks grinding salt in a mortar and pestle to provide raw materials for Finn’s experiments.

Onslow College Principal, Sheena Millar, says that demonstrates the philosophy of

‘community over conformity’ which is at the heart of the school.

“Finn’s success, and that of other young physicists who have gone before him, is a source of enormous pride for everyone at the school and in the wider community.

“There is a strong commitment by teachers to support students inside and outside the classroom and a strong sense of mentoring by older students. There is a legacy here that everyone wants to continue.”

Sheena says the attitude amongst Onslow College students of wanting to give back and use their skills to benefit others, is inspiring and refreshing.

Finn has been part of an initiative to visit primary schools around Wellington to enthuse younger students about science.

He is also a member of the Wellington Executive Committee of an organisation called Effective Altruism, which is committed to evidence-based decisions on where money and effort can make the most difference.

Finn says it is no coincidence that Kent Hogan has taught all three of the Onslow College students to have received the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize.

“It’s not just the help he gives with particular projects, though that is very much appreciated. Far more impressive is that he has given so many of us the skills to conduct high level research ourselves.

“There are no stops. You really can put in as much as you are able and if you need help, Kent has an amazing network of people he can connect you to, both for advice and equipment.”

Finn, who is also a keen kayaker, will use the Prize money for his tertiary education. “I’m definitely interested in carrying on with physics, particularly in areas that deliver more immediate benefits, such as climate research.”

He says winning the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize was a goal he set at the start of 2018. “I knew other students who had won it, both at Onslow College and elsewhere, so I knew it was achievable. It definitely will help me be taken more seriously as a scientist and contribute towards me achieving my research goals.”

During 2018, Finn’s research also won the Victoria University of Wellington Faculty of Science Innovation Prize in the NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair.

Finn was presented with the $50,000 Prize by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at an event at Parliament today.

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