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Fellowships Support Research Into Understanding The ‘little Brains’ Of The Heart

Three researchers at the height of their careers have been awarded fellowships to undertake study or research in their field of endeavour for two years, recognising their sustained research excellence.

Associate Professor Johanna Montgomery, University of Auckland, will explore the underlying function of nerve cells called ‘ganglionated plexi’ clustered on the heart. These nerve cells act as ‘little brains’ controlling the rhythm of the heart. They play a key role in atrial fibrillation, a condition of the heart that causes an irregular and often rapid heart rate, and is linked to an increased risk for stroke, heart failure and dementia. Getting to the root cause of how these nerve cells control heart rhythm, and if they can alter their signals under different conditions, is vitally important. Montgomery has developed ground-breaking techniques to take measurements of the nerve signals from these neurons. These methods will be applied in this study to look for changes in the heart’s neural activity, comparing tissue from patients with atrial fibrillation to tissue from non-AF patients.

Professor Holly Thorpe, University of Waikato, will research how the global pandemic has impacted New Zealand women’s wellbeing—their social, physical, mental, and spiritual health, their connection to people and places, and their sense of belonging to their communities—as well as the strategies they have devised to rebuild relationships and renew a sense of hope in the future. Building upon international scholarship that has focused on the role of formal and informal sport for recovery, Thorpe will draw out the nuances and lived complexities of women’s wellbeing and physical activity practices in the pandemic. Leading a cross-cultural team and exploring innovative feminist theories and methods, the project will contribute to rethinking women’s health and wellbeing outside individualistic, linear, and medical models. The project seeks to reframe wellbeing as processes of ‘becoming community’ – open-ended, relational, embracing contradictions, and affirming diversity.

Associate Professor Geoffrey Waterhouse, University of Auckland, aims to advance New Zealand’s path to a Green Hydrogen Economy, whereby hydrogen is generated from water with renewable electricity and stored in batteries in sustainable ways. He will explore the potential of a new type of catalyst – metal single-atom catalysts – for driving the oxygen evolution and oxygen reduction reactions required. Waterhouse has early findings which suggest that single-atom systems containing inexpensive elements (such as iron, cobalt, nickel) offer remarkable oxygen reduction and evolution performance, comparable to traditional precious metal catalysts (based on platinum and iridium, respectively). Building on this work, a series of inexpensive single-atom systems will be fabricated and tested for their oxygen reduction and evolution performance, then applied in prototype metal-air batteries, water electrolysers and hydrogen fuel cells.

The fellowships are awarded to researchers who have achieved national and international recognition in their area of scientific research. The fellowships allow them to concentrate on a major piece of research for two years without the additional burden of administrative and teaching duties. The funding package annually is $100,000 plus GST and up to $10,000 plus GST in relevant expenses.

The James Cook Research Fellowships are managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the New Zealand Government with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

More information on the fellowship recipients is available online.

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