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Ten researchers awarded fellowships

News release from the Royal Society of New Zealand

Ten researchers awarded fellowships totalling more than $8 million over five years

Ten top researchers have been awarded highly sought after fellowships to help them develop their research careers in New Zealand.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships will provide financial support of $160,000 to $200,000 per year to these researchers over a five-year period. This funding goes towards both their salary and programme of work.

The scheme was set up by the Government last year and this is the second year fellowships have been awarded. These researchers will receive funding totalling more than $8 million over the next five years. When the scheme is fully operational in 2015/16, more than $9 million a year will fund about 50 fellows at any one time.

The chairperson of the selection panel, Professor Margaret Brimble, said the high calibre of the applicants made choosing the final ten people a very difficult decision.

"Those chosen demonstrated exceptional talent and promise. We believe they will be New Zealand's future research leaders and are worthy of this investment."

This year's successful recipients work in research fields ranging from microbiology and mathematics, to law and psychology. Their research programmes include control mechanisms for space rockets, Antarctica's contribution to sea level rise, solar materials, privacy issues and the law, and sedimentation in coastal environments.

The ten researchers are:

* Dr Quentin Atkinson, The University of Auckland, Department of Psychology

* Dr Nancy Bertler, GNS Science / Victoria University of Wellington, Joint Antarctic Research Institute

* Dr Peter Fineran, University of Otago, Department of Microbiology and Immunology

* Dr David Goldstone, The University of Auckland (relocating from MRC National Institute for Medical Research, UK)

* Dr Christopher Hann, University of Canterbury, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

* Dr Justin Hodgkiss, Victoria University of Wellington, School of Chemical and Physical Sciences

* Dr Nicole Moreham, Victoria University of Wellington, School of Law

* Dr Wayne Patrick, Massey University, Albany, Institute of Natural Sciences

* Dr Anthony Poole, University of Canterbury, School of Biological Sciences

* Dr Nick Shears, The University of Auckland, Department of Statistics

The fellowships, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, have been set up to support researchers in the three to 10 year period after they complete a doctorate degree. It has been found that this is the time when many researchers can find it difficult to progress their careers, especially in areas with heavy competition for funding.

The funding will enable researchers to investigate a particular research topic, and help them establish their career in New Zealand.

Dr Di McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand congratulated the ten recipients on winning these prestigious fellowships.

"These researchers are a fantastic cohort of some of New Zealand's top talent. They will definitely be a group to watch as their careers progress over the next few years."

The Ministry of Science and Innovation is bringing forward a planned review of the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships. This review will be held in the context of broader assistance to postdoctoral researchers.


List of recipients with biography and research programme details:

Dr Quentin Atkinson, The University of Auckland

BIOGRAPHY: Quentin has recently returned to New Zealand, having completed his PhD thesis in the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland in 2006. Prior to his return, he spent 3 years at the University of Oxford as a Research Fellow in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. He has also held research positions at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and in the Zoology Department at the University of Reading, UK. Quentin's research looks at the evolution of human language and culture and is regularly covered by mainstream media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and New Scientist.

RESEARCH: Our species is uniquely adept at communication and cooperation. Yet the language we speak and whether we choose to cooperate are not hard-wired in our genes - they are determined by the speech and cultural norms of those around us. Darwin recognised that, like species, languages and cultures evolve.

This research programme uses tools from evolutionary biology to investigate how new sounds and words (in the case of language) and prosocial norms and institutions (in the case of cooperation) spread through populations and evolve over time. This work promises a better understanding of how words, behaviours, ideas, technologies, and ideologies spread, and how complex cultural systems, like language or religion, emerge and evolve to shape the world we live in.

Dr Nancy Bertler, GNS Science / Victoria University of Wellington

BIOGRAPHY: Nancy Bertler is jointly appointed as Senior Scientist by Victoria University of Wellington and GNS Science. She is the leader of the National Ice Core Programme and manages the New Zealand Ice Core Research Facility. Nancy, originally from Germany, arrived in New Zealand in 1999 to carry out her PhD research with Professor Peter Barrett on ice core records from coastal Antarctica. Since then she developed ice core research as a new discipline in New Zealand and led 11 Antarctic field programmes. In addition, Nancy serves on steering committees of Antarctica in the Global Climate System (AGCS) and the Royal Society of New Zealand Expert Panel on Antarctic Sciences. She is the New Zealand representative to the International Partnerships on Ice Coring Sciences (IPICS) and the International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE). For the next five years, Nancy will be leading as Chief Scientist the international Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution (RICE) Project


RESEARCH: The potential for rapid deglaciation of West Antarctica remains a primary uncertainty in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions for 21st Century sea level rise. The Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution (RICE) project is an international partnership seeking to understand past, present, and future changes of the Ross Ice Shelf, a major drainage pathway of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. To determine the rate of change, RICE will provide an annually resolved ice core record for the past 20,000 years, when global temperatures increased by 6 deg C to preindustrial temperatures, global sea level rose by ~120 m, and the Ross Ice Shelf grounding line retreated over 1,000 km.

This study will significantly advance and improve models which predict the future behaviour of the Ross Ice Shelf, and hence West Antarctica's contribution to sea level rise.

Dr Peter Fineran, University of Otago

BIOGRAPHY: Dr Peter Fineran is a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. After completing his undergraduate training in Biochemistry at the University of Canterbury (2001) he worked at the Australian National University. He conducted his PhD (2006) and postdoctoral research training at the University of Cambridge. Since returning to New Zealand in 2008, Dr Fineran has established a research team at Otago focusing on bacterial gene regulation and the interactions between bacteria and their viruses (bacteriophages). His research utilises a variety of approaches, including molecular genetics, genomics and biochemistry, to investigate how bacteria control their gene expression and respond to infection by bacteriophages. His research is widely published in international high-impact journals. Most significantly, he was involved in the discovery of a new mechanism of 'altruistic' cell suicide that provides 'innate immunity' to bact

erial populations from viruses at the expense of the infected individual.

RESEARCH: Like all cellular life, bacteria are parasitised by viruses. These bacterial-specific viruses are genetically diverse and numerically abundant with an important role in global cycles and processes. Bacteria have evolved mechanisms that provide protection from continual invasion by viruses.

The proposed research aims to investigate the systems bacteria use in creating an 'adaptive immune system' with memory of past viral invasions. The results will have broad implications due to the global prevalence of bacterium-viral interactions.

Dr David Goldstone, The University of Auckland (relocating from MRC National Institute for Medical Research, UK)

BIOGRAPHY: David completed his PhD in 2005 at the University of Auckland, in the Laboratory of Structural Biology, investigating enzymes involved in the correct folding of proteins within bacteria. He subsequently worked as a post-doctoral researcher for AgResearch, using structural genomics to investigate enzymes that degrade hemicellulose within the rumen, a group of enzymes with potential use in the production of bioethanol from plant cellulose material. Since 2007 David has worked at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London, U.K., investigating how retroviruses interact with the host cell and in particular cellular proteins that are able to block retroviral infection.

RESEARCH: Cells have developed an array of proteins to recognise, prevent and contain infection by retroviruses. Using structural biology to visualise key proteins, and to investigate interactions at atomic resolution, this research will examine the mechanisms that disrupt the retroviral lifecycle. Investigation of this aspect of cellular immunity is vital to developing potential new strategies to block, and clear retroviral infections including HIV.

Dr Christopher Hann, University of Canterbury

BIOGRAPHY: Dr Christopher E. Hann received his BSc (Hons) degree with First Class Honours in Mathematics in 1996, and PhD in Mathematics in 2001, from the University of Canterbury. He was a Mathematics Teaching Fellow from 2001-2003, a FRST Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 2004-2006, and from 2007-2010 he was a Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellow. From 2010-present he is a Lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Canterbury. From 2004-2010, his research focused on biomedical modelling and control in the Christchurch Intensive Care Unit, and he is now applying similar mathematical and control methods to a wide variety of industry applications. His general research interests include minimal mathematical modelling, parameter identification, control system design/analysis, and computer vision. Dr Hann has published over 240 refereed journal and conference papers, is an inventor on several pate

nts, an editorial board member for a bioengineering journal and reviewer for 47 international journals.

RESEARCH: Understanding and designing a system to control rockets, which are travelling at vast speeds (sometimes greater than Mach 6 or 6,300 km/h), and keep them on a designated flight path remains fraught with difficulties.

This proposal will build a mathematical model of the rocket as it is travelling through space, including directly identifying random wind loads to allow prediction and stabilization of the rocket. This approach will avoid the need for costly trial and error runs currently used to tune the control systems and significantly reduce the typically long turnaround time required to launch and accurately position a payload. The knowledge gained will develop unique capability for both New Zealand's space industry, through Rocket Lab, and in training both undergraduate and postgraduates to enter cutting edge space industry research and development.

Dr Justin Hodgkiss, Victoria University of Wellington

BIOGRAPHY: Dr Justin Hodgkiss is a lecturer in Physical Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington and a Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Dr Hodgkiss completed his BSc (hons) in chemistry at the University of Otago in 2000, and his Ph.D. as a Fulbright Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006. Following his Ph.D. studies, Dr Hodgkiss carried out post-doctoral research in the Cavendish laboratory at the University of Cambridge before moving to Wellington in 2009. Dr Hodgkiss' team has built an advanced laser laboratory at Victoria University of Wellington in order to study the photophysics and photochemistry of functional materials. Recently, Dr Hodgkiss has used laser tools to develop a detailed understanding of the physics of photocurrent generation in organic solar cells and elucidate how solar power conversion efficiencies can be markedly improved.

RESEARCH: Motivated by promise of abundant clean energy at low-cost, organic solar cells have achieved encouraging efficiencies of close to 8% to date - spurring chemists to develop new materials that strongly absorb sunlight and generate photocurrent.

This research programme will develop and exploit advanced laser tools to understand the physics of photocurrent generation and guide the design of more effective solar materials. With the ability to see extremely fast processes using short laser pulses, we are drawing inspiration from natural photosynthesis to artificially engineer solar cells that optimize light harvesting and energy conversion. This research programme could provide a route to low-cost solar cells.

Dr Nicole Moreham, Victoria University of Wellington

BIOGRAPHY: Dr Moreham is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Victoria University of Wellington. She returned to New Zealand in 2006 having spent seven years at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, first as a Masters and PhD student and latterly as a Fellow and Lecturer in Law. Before leaving for Cambridge in 1998, she took a first class Honours degree from the University of Canterbury and worked as a judges' clerk at the New Zealand Court of Appeal. Nicole's doctoral thesis is entitled 'Privacy and the Common Law' and she continues to research on many different aspects of privacy law She has published several articles on privacy in leading international journals and is co-author/co-editor of the latest edition of England's most important privacy work, Tugendhat and Christie's Law of Privacy and the Media (2nd ed, Oxford University Press, 2011, 872 pp).

RESEARCH: The past two decades have seen an explosion in technology making it easier than ever before to obtain, store, and disseminate private material about a person against his or her wishes. The perennial tension between individual privacy rights and the media's need to obtain and publish the news also continues to be negotiated. Dr Moreham asks how the law should respond to these, and other, privacy issues both in New Zealand and overseas. She is producing a book addressing four central questions: what is privacy, why is it worthy of protection, how is it currently protected in the law, and what further developments are needed to create a comprehensive, coherent legal privacy right which sits appropriately with competing interests?

Dr Wayne Patrick, Massey University, Albany

BIOGRAPHY: Wayne Patrick is a senior lecturer in biochemistry at the Institute of Natural Sciences, Massey University (Albany). He completed his BSc (Hons) degree at the University of Otago, before being awarded the Prince of Wales Scholarship to undertake his PhD at the University of Cambridge (UK). After four years as a post-doctoral fellow at Emory University (USA), Dr Patrick returned home to New Zealand in 2007.

RESEARCH: Protein molecules called enzymes are responsible for accelerating the thousands of biochemical reactions that happen inside cells. The current textbook view is that these enzymes are highly specific, being able to do one thing and one thing only. However, this implies that enzymes are unlikely ever to evolve new functions. This appears to be at odds with the reality of evolution: new enzymes can evolve rapidly, as demonstrated by the emergence of microbes that degrade antibiotics and human-made pollutants.

The proposed programme of research will provide a coherent understanding and further explore the evolutionary origins of enzyme functions and structures. This will shed new light on long standing questions in protein and genome evolution.

Dr Anthony Poole, University of Canterbury

BIOGRAPHY: After completing a BSc (Hons) at Massey University, Dr Poole spent two years as a Japanese Government Monbusho scholar at the University of Tokyo. He subsequently completed a Swedish Licentiate thesis on the origin of DNA, and a PhD at Massey University, studying the evolutionary origin of cellular life. After completing his studies, Dr Poole undertook Marsden-funded postdoctoral research at the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology & Evolution. Dr Poole then returned to Stockholm University in Sweden as a Swedish Research Council-funded Assistant Professor, and was later awarded a Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Research Fellowship. Dr Poole is currently based at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury, where he is a senior lecturer in Genetics, working in comparative genomics and molecular evolution.

RESEARCH: From apparently simple beginnings, some forms of life have evolved enormous complexity. Yet, understanding how complexity has evolved is not trivial. Rather than being a direct outcome of natural selection, complex molecular systems and processes may simply be a by-product of the evolutionary process.

Using a combination of computational and experimental approaches, Dr Poole will test four specific hypotheses relating to the emergence of biological complexity, with the aim of elucidating the mechanisms by which complex molecular and cellular systems evolve.

Dr Nick Shears, The University of Auckland

BIOGRAPHY: Dr Nick Shears completed a BSc in Biological Sciences (1997) and a PhD in Marine Science (2003) at The University of Auckland. Nick's PhD research was some of the first marine ecological research worldwide to demonstrate how the effects of fishing on kelp forest ecosystems could be reversed in marine reserves. He then carried out a postdoctoral fellowship at the Leigh Marine Laboratory, where he examined the ecosystem-level effects of fishing on rocky reefs throughout New Zealand and developed a bio-geographic classification scheme for New Zealand's reefs. In 2006, Nick received a New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology postdoctoral fellowship, allowing him to spend 3 years at the University of California Santa Barbara researching the effects of the Channel Islands Marine Reserve Network on kelp forest ecosystems. In 2009, he returned to The University of Auckland to take up a Research Fellow position in the Department of Statistics, where h

e teaches both statistics and marine science, and carries out research into the effects of human impacts on marine ecosystems.

RESEARCH: Healthy ecosystems are expected to be more resilient to climate change. Kelp forests represent highly valuable coastal ecosystems that provide food and shelter for a myriad of other species. However, these ecological services are threatened by a variety of human-induced stressors, and climate change is expected to exacerbate these effects. For example, sedimentation from land-based activities is considered a major threat to coastal ecosystems that is likely to increase with climate change.

The proposed research programme will utilise the unique physical setting of the Hauraki Gulf to provide an analytical, physiological and ecological investigation into the climatic drivers of sedimentation in the coastal environment, and the effects of sedimentation on the ecological function and resilience of kelp forests. This research will provide a predictive framework to inform local and global resource managers in developing ecosystem-based strategies aimed at promoting healthy and more resilient marine ecosystems.

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