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New Marsden Fund grants support innovative research

New Marsden Fund grants support innovative research in Aotearoa from atoms to Antarctica’s microbes

The Marsden Fund has allocated $85.6 million (excluding GST) to a total of 136 research projects across New Zealand. These grants support New Zealand’s best investigator-initiated research in the areas of science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities.

In total, 83 grants have been awarded to established researchers. Projects span a range of nationally and internationally relevant issues: from a longitudinal study of self-harm and suicidal behaviour in New Zealand youth to building a better ‘immune system’ for software, and from exploring the quantum entanglement of individual atoms to examining the survival of life in the harsh conditions of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys.

Grants to early career researchers have risen from 49 last year to 53 in 2018. Support for early career researchers will enable these talented individuals to establish their careers in New Zealand and build momentum in their areas of research. These researchers will study topics that include improving immunotherapy for cancer, how microplastics first enter our food chain and unique Māori navigational knowledge and practices.

Marsden Fund Council Chair Professor David Bilkey says: “The Marsden Fund is designed to enable our top researchers to develop their most ambitious and exciting ideas. This ‘blue-sky’ funding is vital to ensuring a vibrant research culture in our country, and the resulting work will help us better understand our environment and society. Some of these fundamental discoveries will also lead to new, and sometimes unexpected, solutions to current problems, in areas as diverse as health care, sustainability and social policy.”

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Professor Bilkey is pleased to see steadily increasing representation of women and Māori amongst the successful researchers. “It is also gratifying that Marsden Fund applicants who identify as female or Māori have been as successful as male and non-Māori applicants over the past five years. We will continue to monitor the Fund’s processes to make sure under-represented groups are not disadvantaged.”

“I am also delighted to see strong engagement with mātauranga Māori in applications across a diverse range of disciplines. These range from a study of Māori responses to 20th century welfare policies to the use of a waka-based craft to access and investigate remote volcanoes,” says Professor Bilkey.

“These projects exemplify the thoughtful integration of Māori knowledge and methods with specific disciplinary approaches, and were evaluated as both rigorous and innovative by world-leading international referees.”

The overall success rate for applicants has continued to rise slightly, from 10.7% in 2016 to 12% in 2017 and 12.4% this year. The success rate for Fast-Start grants for early career researchers was 14.8%. The amount of funding awarded this year, and thus the success rate, remains at an all-time high due to ongoing government support.

The grants are distributed over three years and are fully costed, paying for salaries, students and postdoctoral positions, institutional overheads and research consumables.

The Marsden Fund is managed by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government.

Summaries of highlighted projects

Creating and observing spooky entanglement: Dr Mikkel Andersen from the University of Otago will connect individual atoms through the spooky mechanism of “quantum entanglement”, watching as the connection is created and destroyed. This could lead to new technologies for unprecedented accuracy of measurements and speed of computing power.
Foetal lifeline: feeding your baby in utero: Dr Alys Clark and Dr Joanna James of the University of Auckland will study how blood vessels in the uterus contribute to blood flow to the placenta. This could lead to new tools for diagnosing and treating abnormal pregnancies.
Kidney kickstarter: new stem cell discovery is the first step towards kidney bioengineering: Associate Professor Alan Davidson from the University of Auckland has discovered a new source of kidney stem cells in developing embryos. Using zebrafish, he will characterise these cells and determine if they can be exploited to develop new therapies for human kidney disease.
What happens to gamers when video game features approximate gambling? Dr Aaron Drummond from Massey University will lead an international team investigating the potential psychological and financial risks that gambling-related features have on video gamers.
Brainy bumblebees: but does learning always pay off? Dr Lisa Evans of Plant and Food Research will head into New Zealand’s forests to explore variation in learning ability in colonies of wild bumblebees. This work will further our understanding of how the environment and learning ability affects the ability of bees to successfully reproduce.
Saving kauri with a human drug discovery approach: Professor Michelle Glass from the University of Otago will use a human drug discovery approach to help fight dieback disease in kauri, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most iconic taonga species.
Māori families creating whānau ora: Dr Aroha Harris from the University of Auckland and independent historian Dr Melissa Williams will examine how Māori families strived for whānau ora (family wellbeing) across the 20th century. They will show how whānau have negotiated with and pushed back against state interventions to maintain family life.
When two became one: studying the evolutionary partnership that led to complex life: Dr Heather Hendrickson from Massey University will use real-time evolution experiments on bacterial and amoeba populations in the lab to address long-standing questions on the origin of complex life.
Are microalgae putting plastic in our food? Dr Julie Hope of the University of Auckland will study if microalgae and their interactions with the ocean sediments are causing microplastics to invade our food chain.
Lest we remember: Associate Professor Joanna Kidman from Victoria University of Wellington and Dr Vincent O’Malley of HistoryWorks will explore how New Zealanders selectively remember and forget difficult and violent events from our colonial past.
Next-generation glasses that could help you find a needle in a haystack: Dr Tobias Langlotz from the University of Otago will develop the first prototype of computational eyewear that amplifies users’ perception of their environment in real time. These glasses have the potential to enhance human vision as well as compensate for visual impairments.
Are you more than just a number? Improving population studies from science to policy: Population research shapes everything from public health interventions to national conservation priorities and your insurance premiums. Dr John Matthewson from Massey University will develop a new framework to help ensure research into populations is rigorous and ethical.
An immune system for software: Professor James Noble of Victoria University of Wellington will build software tools to verify that computer programs are secured from within. This will allow software to more safely interact with external, unexpected, and even untrusted agents.
The genetic recipe book for natural medicinal compounds: Professor Emily Parker FRSNZ from Victoria University of Wellington will investigate how subtle genetic differences create diverse and useful chemical compounds in fungi. The results will help us tailor-make compounds with medicinal uses.
Cracking under pressure: do crevasses make glaciers melt faster?: Dr Heather Purdie from University of Canterbury will investigate the impact of seasonally-exposed crevasses on glacial melting in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Her work will help us understand the response of glaciers to climate change.
Designing better cancer immunotherapy treatments: Dr Sarah Saunderson of the University of Otago aims to modify cancer immunotherapy, a new treatment which uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer, so that it is effective and safer for a wider range of cancer patients.
Waka lab to study volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire: Dr Ian Schipper of Victoria University of Wellington and Dr Yves Moussallam of Institut de Recherche pour le Développement will lead an international team on a mission to better understand the effects of volcanic gas emissions. To do this, they will sample some of the world’s most inaccessible volcanoes - in a waka.
Rejuvenating Māori navigation knowledge: Dr Haki Tuaupiki from the University of Waikato will combine ancient Māori navigational knowledge with contemporary voyaging practices to create the first comprehensive, uniquely Māori navigation system.
Drug trading on the dark side of the net: Associate Professor Chris Wilkins from Massey University will examine the new and emerging role of the ‘darknet’ in the supply of illegal drugs in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Against the odds: How microbes survive in Antarctica’s harsh conditions: Dr Adele Williamson will take up a position at the University of Waikato to study how microbes survive under the hostile conditions of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. She will identify the diversity of DNA repair systems present in these microbes that protects their genetic code from the extreme conditions.
Untangling the link between self-injury and suicide: Professor Marc Wilson from Victoria University of Wellington will investigate whether self-harm leads to suicidal thoughts and behaviour, or vice versa, in New Zealand youth. This study will help us better understand suicide, a major cause of death among 15-29 year olds in Aotearoa New Zealand and globally.

Read more on this year’s highlighted projects


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