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Finding ‘Nature’s Cure’ Drives Zonta Science Award Winner

Seeking natural cures for human ailments based on traditional medicines drives the research of Dr Helen Woolner, the winner of the 2020 Zonta Club of Wellington Science Award.

Helen is a chemical scientist and holds a New Zealand Health Research Council Pacific Post-doctoral Research Fellowship. She is a Health Research Council of New Zealand assessing committee member, and a member of the Te Vairanga Kite Pakari Cook Islands Research Association. Once borders re-open, Helen says “the Zonta prize will allow her to travel to the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany”.

The main focus of her current research is improve our understanding of a traditional Samoan Anti-inflammatory medicinal plant. Helen is investigating the plant's potential in the treatment of human diseases, such as obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's and tuberculosis.

Helen was presented with her belated prize by Dame Margaret Sparrow on behalf of the Zonta Club of Wellington at an event hosted at the Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka by Vice Chancellor (Pasifika), Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, with guest speaker Provost Professor and President of the Royal Society, Wendy Larner.

The Award is for an emerging scientist who will benefit from this support personally and professionally. “It recognises not only the person’s excellence in science but also their communication skills and community involvement,” says Dr Jan Pearson, Convenor of the Zonta Science Award. “The ability to promote science and be a role model for other young women are winning attributes in which Helen has excelled”.

Helen, from Porirua, is a proud New Zealand born, Cook Island Maori.

“I am passionate about the success of Pasifika students in science. As a student, I was a mentor for Te Ropu Awhina which involved mentoring undergraduate Pasifika students at Victoria University of Wellington in subjects that I was familiar with, mostly chemistry. This role also involved outreach projects, where we would go to low socioeconomic areas in Wellington and give primary, intermediate and high-school students a day of ‘hands-on’ science. They were exposed to the fun behind science and hopefully inspired to take science as a subject” she says.

Her prize was a commemorative pounamu medal designed by Upper Hutt jeweller Neke Moa and financial support to enable her to travel to Europe to visit pharmaceuticals and natural product laboratories.

The Zonta Club of Wellington would like to thank Gold Award Sponsor Istar Limited (in memory of Dr Diana Edwards); Inaugural and Continuing Sponsor John Ilott Charitable Trust; Schools Sponsor KPMG and Enduring Sponsor the Zonta Club of Wellington.

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