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Outstanding students gain Woolf Fisher scholarships

Three outstanding young New Zealanders with the potential to be leaders in their field have each been awarded a Woolf Fisher Scholarship to study at Cambridge University.

The 2020 scholars are Emma Walker, aged 22, who is studying for an MSc (Research) in Molecular & Cellular Biology at the University of Waikato; Taylor Hughson, aged 27, who is completing a Master of Education at Victoria University of Wellington; and Thomas Archbold, aged 23, who has completed a Master of Engineering at Waikato University.

The estimated value of each Woolf Fisher Scholarship, which covers the study and living costs at Cambridge, is about $300,000—making it one of the most generous scholarships available to New Zealand students.

Emma Walker plans to study for a PhD in Biological Science at the Babraham Institute, focusing on the DYRK protein kinases in health and disease and working with Dr Simon Cook, Head of the Babraham Institute’s Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation Programme.

“My ultimate career goal is to significantly improve cancer statistics in New Zealand,” says Emma. “Public engagement, scientific communication, and knowledge exchange are key skills that will undeniably help me in this.

“The key to understanding lifelong health is to understand the signalling pathways that operate inside cells – this summarises Dr Cook’s research. These signalling pathways are often defective in human disease, notably in cancer. So, understanding how these pathways function and contribute to disease is fundamental to disease prevention, treatment, and improving the human healthspan. Dr Cook translates his knowledge of signalling through collaboration with charities and pharmaceutical companies, highlighting potential attractive drug targets for age-related diseases, such as cancer.”

Emma’s focus on health is the result of battling illness through her childhood, with frequent asthma attacks and pneumonia. “These personal experiences taught me the naivety of saying ‘it won't happen to me’. Disease can bring down the healthiest of people and I want to contribute to reducing the frequency with which disease prevents people from living as full a life as possible,” she says.

Teaching is also likely to be part of her future career path, an enthusiasm coming from her time as a Student Ambassador for the University of Waikato. She recently volunteered with the student-led organisation Science Box, which brings the world of science to primary school children.

Sport has played an important role in her development, winning national medals in hurdling, and now competing in CrossFit competitions—where she enjoys the team aspect of the sport—and open-water swimming.

Described by one of his referees as “someone who has shown immense commitment to serving his community”, Taylor Hughson will head to Cambridge to complete a PhD in Education. He already has two postgraduate degrees (BA Hons and MA in English from Victoria University of Wellington) and a postgraduate teaching diploma (from the University of Auckland), and is currently completing a Master of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, while teaching fulltime at Hutt Valley High School.

Taylor’s passion for teaching and education—and the proposed topic for his PhD—was sparked during his first few weeks on the Teach First NZ programme, through which he obtained his teaching diploma.

“Teach First is a programme where one teaches in a low decile school for two years, while simultaneously completing a teaching qualification,” he says. “I had arrived at my assigned school in South Auckland excited and ready to go. But I found out on arrival that I would not be teaching the subject I was trained in—English—but would be working in an ‘integrated studies programme’ teaching all five ‘core’ subjects, most of which I had no training in delivering”.

“Although I found this programme to have some benefits for the students involved and understood why the school had developed it, I also wondered if something was being lost in all of this. Was this kind of programme in line with the best available research? And surely there was something unique that I, with subject-specific expertise, had to offer my students?” he says.

“Accordingly, I want to investigate the current state of teacher policy in New Zealand: what are its origins, what impact is it having on the classroom, and is it in line with international best practice?”

Taylor wants to focus on low-decile schools, because of his concerns that students in these schools should receive the best education possible. His concern arose originally when in 2011 he started volunteering at Victoria University of Wellington’s homework club for refugee students.

“The students I encountered at this club changed the course of my life for the better,” he says. “One girl in particular helped me see the gap between the opportunities I had been given in life, and the opportunities given to others.”

Despite the difficulties of her life in Somalia and her family’s flight here as refuges, what he found most difficult to accept were her stories of challenges at her low decile school in New Zealand.

“After coming all this way, the lack of ESOL support, the lack of qualified maths teachers and the absence of extra-curricular opportunities she told me about infuriated me,” he says. “I had gone to a well-regarded school where I had received an excellent education and had all the support and opportunities I could have asked for.

“Why then were students like this girl, who had already overcome far more barriers than I, not getting the support they needed to thrive?”

Taylor has continued supporting refugee students and working with Teach First NZ as an alumnus, while both working and studying full-time. He now plans to pursue a field of study that will enable him to contribute to improving the education of New Zealand’s most disadvantaged students.

University of Waikato graduate Thomas Archbold had a humble start on the road to academic success. From a rural community, he describes himself as a curious child who wasn’t noticeably gifted or motivated in his schoolwork.

Initially streamed into a “bottom class” at high school, he found things difficult, so set himself the goal of being shifted into the ‘accelerated class’, despite facing discouragement from others. He succeeded by the final term of his first year, but it wasn’t until he discovered physics and calculus that he really blossomed. “I uncovered abilities I never knew I had. Learning these subjects helped me comprehend the world that I had observed but never understood. I was able to explain the science behind the imagination.” With the support of his teachers, Thomas went on to achieve the school Dux award.

Thomas took his passion for learning to the University of Waikato, where he recently completed his Bachelor of Engineering with Honours and Master of Engineering, with the remarkable record of A+ grades in every course he undertook, and where he was rated by one of his supervisors as within the top 1% of engineering students in any high-ranking university.

He used his experiences of tough times at school and university to help mentor struggling students, where he enjoyed watching them gain confidence in themselves and thrive in the university environment as he had done.

For the past three years, Thomas has studied and worked at Trimax Mowing Systems, initially as a summer intern, then on a project that formed the basis of his Master’s degree. He has since joined the company as a research design engineer and is completing the patenting and commercialisation of the product from his Master’s study.

Thomas plans to continue his engineering studies at Cambridge University. “I wanted a project where I could use my analytical ability to challenge the ‘trial-and-error’ philosophy used in engineering design and at the same time, find a good cause,” he says, “a topic where I could use my academic strengths to solve an issue affecting New Zealand and the rest of the world.”

He found this topic—one that satisfies his academic interests in mechanics and mathematical modelling—at the 2019 Fieldays, New Zealand’s largest agribusiness event.

“While exploring the range of agricultural equipment manufactured both in New Zealand and worldwide, I was overwhelmed by the unnecessarily large volume of material (mostly steel) used to construct the machinery,” he says. “This encouraged me to consider the economic and environmental effects throughout the life-cycle of these products. What if the quantity of material used to construct each machine could be reduced?

“Product manufacturers need to better utilise material where it is needed and remove any material that is not required. Reducing the amount of material will decrease the environmental effects throughout a product’s life cycle,” he says. “Emissions from raw material processing will decrease in proportion to the reduction in material volumes, lighter machines will consume less fuel resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions from the machine itself and from oil production, and less material will be processed during recycling operations, further reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The environmental benefits of such fabrication methods will be matched by economic benefits. Thomas believes that the outcome of his proposed research will contribute to the development of a novel approach to structural optimisation – one that will be both practical and effective.

“With tools developed to optimise structures in a practical way, a more suitable alternative to ‘trial-and-error’ will exist, which may encourage designers to engineer lightweight structures,” he says. “I sincerely believe New Zealand could become a world leader in the design of lightweight structures because we are committed to protecting our clean green image and we have more scope for growth and improvement than the rest of the world.”

Universities New Zealand acknowledged the work of the Woolf Fisher Trust, and their investment in young New Zealanders and in academic research and innovation.

Sir Woolf Fisher (1912-1975), co-founder of Fisher and Paykel, set up his Trust in 1960 to recognise and reward excellence in education. The Scholarship selects young New Zealanders based on their outstanding academic ability, and leadership potential as well as their integrity, vision and capacity for work. They must show how their research will benefit New Zealand.

Universities New Zealand administers around 40 nationally available school-leaver and postgraduate awards, worth nearly $2 million a year.

The closing date for the next round of applications is 1 August 2020. Details are available on Universities New Zealand’s website


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