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Prestigious awards for three top young scientists


Prestigious awards for three top young scientists

Rutherford Discovery Fellowships for New Zealand’s top young researchers have been awarded to Dr Nicholas Shears and Dr Quentin Atkinson from The University of Auckland, and will bring alumnus Dr David Goldstone back to the University from the United Kingdom.

The fellowships provide ten early-to-mid career researchers from around the country with up to $200,000 annually for the next five years.

Dr Shears is based in the Department of Statistics and undertakes marine research at the Leigh Marine Laboratory. The fellowship will support his work examining the impacts of human activity on coastal ecosystems, and predicting how these effects are likely to vary with climate change.

“It’s becoming increasingly important to predict how ecosystems will respond to climate change,” he says. “But we have to do this against the backdrop of existing stressors, which in the marine environment include things like overfishing, sedimentation and nutrient runoff from the land.”

“Sedimentation is a major threat to coastal ecosystems, and is expected to worsen as climate change causes more intense storm and rain events. On coastal reefs, sediment cuts out the sunlight that marine plants like kelp need to grow, yet as the ocean warms these plants will have a physiological requirement for even more light, so climate change could have a double impact.”

“Kelp forests are the predominant coastal reef cover in temperate regions like New Zealand. They are also one of the most productive coastal ecosystems, providing food and shelter for many other species, including species that we eat. Understanding these ecosystems and how to keep them healthy is therefore extremely important and a current challenge for resource managers, both locally and globally.”

Dr Shears says that the fellowship provides him with an incredible opportunity to concentrate on developing a long-term research program at The University of Auckland that has a strong application to management of our coastal ecosystems.

Fellow recipient Dr Atkinson from the Department of Psychology will examine how languages and cooperative cultural systems evolve through time, using the same sorts of tools that biologists use to study species evolution.

“Like species, languages and cultures evolve through time. Investigating the evolution of languages is an excellent way to understand human prehistory and cultural change more generally,” he explains.

“Languages are great to study because we can break them up into small parts – words or sounds – and create family trees that describe the evolution of these features over time. And since languages are tied to people, by reconstructing the history of languages we’re also reconstructing the history of the cultures that those languages belong to.”

Dr Atkinson is also interested in the evolution of cultural norms, institutions and technologies and what this means for how we respond to some of the greatest challenges of this century. “I’m particularly interested in how people cooperate and the cultural systems – the social hierarchies, rules, and moral norms – that encourage cooperation”

He says that the fellowship’s five years of support will give him time to pursue the questions he’s interested in and the financial security to ensure that he can keep the work moving forward. “It means that I can think longer-term and have the leeway to explore a bit more, and I’m excited about that.”

The two scientists are joined by Dr Goldstone, a structural biologist based at the National Institute for Medical Research in the United Kingdom, who will return to The University of Auckland, where he studied.

“The fellowship allows me to return to New Zealand and continue the work I have started in the United Kingdom,” he says. It will fund his research on key proteins involved in the immune response to retroviruses, a family of pathogens that includes HIV.

“The human genome harbours evidence of long-term and repeated exposure to retrovirus during our evolution,” he says. “As a result of this exposure, our cells have developed a wide array of proteins that act as part of the immune response to recognise, prevent, and contain infection by retroviruses. Learning more about this aspect of innate immunity may lead to new opportunities to block and clear retroviral infections.”

Dr Goldstone will study a group of proteins which have a shared molecular architecture and play a vital role in the immune response to retroviral pathogens. He will examine the proteins at the atomic level, to understand how they target retroviruses and interact with components of human cells.


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