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Prestigious Rutherford Fellowships won by four Otago researchers

High shot of the Information Services Building

Monday, 19 November 2012 3:57pm

Four top scientists at, or returning to, the University of Otago are among 10 researchers to be awarded highly sought-after Rutherford Discovery Fellowships to help them develop their research careers in New Zealand.

These latest Rutherford Discovery Fellowships, announced today, will provide financial support of $160,000 per year to these researchers over a five-year period. This funding goes towards both their salary and programme of work. The Otago researchers will receive funding totalling around than $3.2 million over the next five years.

The Otago recipients are:

  • Dr Shinichi Nakagawa (Department of Zoology)
  • Dr Peter Mace (Returning from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, USA)
  • Dr Timothy Woodfield (Department of Orthopaedics, University of Otago, Christchurch)
  • Dr Barbara Anderson (Returning from James Cook University, Australia)

With the Fellowships scheme, the New Zealand Government is supporting the development of excellence and has moved to fill a major gap in career opportunities for the most talented early- to mid-career researchers. The Fellowships are aimed at developing and fostering the future leaders in the New Zealand science and innovation system. It is intended that the Fellowships will attract and retain New Zealand's most talented early-to-mid-career researchers and encourage their career development.

The chair of the selection panel, Professor Margaret Brimble, commented on the exceptional quality and intense competition in the applications the panel reviewed this year.

"It was a privilege to meet these exciting and engaging scholars. The Fellows we have selected represent exceptional talent and promise. They are all building exciting research programmes in their chosen fields and with continued career development they will emerge as the future leaders in New Zealand's science and innovation sector."

The fellowships, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, have been set up to support researchers in the three to eight 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. It is expected that Fellows, throughout their careers, will contribute to positive outcomes for New Zealand.

Otago recipients and biography and research programme details:

Dr Shinichi Nakagawa

University of Otago, Department of Zoology

Multidisciplinary approaches to understanding the maintenance of biological variation

Dr Nakagawa is originally from Japan. He first came to New Zealand to learn English in 1997. He completed his degree (Bacholar of Science with Honours) at Waikato University in 2003 and obtained his doctoral degree (PhD) at Sheffield University, UK in 2007. He is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Zoology, University of Otago. His group studies a wide range of different species including insects, frogs, fish and birds, and tries to understand why animals behave the way they do. His research group has been extremely productive, publishing over 60 articles in international peer-reviewed journals since his arrival at Otago in 2008. He is an Editor of the journal, Behavioral Ecology, an Associate Editor of Evolutionary Ecology and Emu: Austral Ornithology and on the editorial board of three other journals including the leading biological journal, Biological Reviews. He is the youngest member of this editorial board.

RESEARCH: Variation in the biological world has fascinated people for centuries; however, we still do not really understand how variation in nature is maintained. How genetic variation is maintained is one of a few long-standing 'BIG' questions in evolutionary biology, because the two main evolutionary forces, natural selection and genetic drift (chance events, such as random mortality of organisms) almost always reduces variation. The aim of this research program is to elucidate possible mechanisms describing how biological variation is maintained. Dr Nakagawa will investigate: the role of host-pathogen interactions in the maintenance of genetic variation; the influence of selection pressure on different physical attributes to find out how behavioural types are maintained in a wild bird population; and the significance of genetic and physical variations in determining a species' range and conservation status using data from many bird species. The proposed work will provide valuable insights into how and why both genetic and physical diversities are retained within, and between species.

Dr Peter Mace

University of Otago, Department of Biochemistry (Returning from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, USA)

Molecular signalling mechanisms at the interface between cellular life and death

Dr Mace completed his PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Otago in 2006, studying proteins that regulate mammalian ovulation and fertility. In a subsequent Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Biochemistry at Otago he solved several key structures of proteins that regulate programmed cell death, a process that is often misregulated in cancer. Peter is currently a United States Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Fellow at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, in La Jolla, California. His most recent work has provided pivotal insight into a family of proteins that promote invasion and chemotherapy resistance in breast cancer, and signalling proteins that drive inappropriate growth in a large proportion of other tumours.

RESEARCH: Cell behaviour is constantly influenced by external signals. The proposed research will study the three dimensional structure of proteins that interpret signals for cellular growth, or conversely trigger stress responses to protect the body. Proteins in these signalling pathways are heavily implicated in the development and treatment of cancer. Understanding their communication at the atomic level will provide new insight into how signals are relayed in cells, how signal disruption causes disease, and how signalling proteins may be targeted for disease therapy.

Dr Timothy Woodfield

University of Otago, Christchurch, Department of Orthopaedics

New frontiers in musculoskeletal regenerative medicine: biofabrication of cartilage and bone for entire joint resurfacing

Dr Woodfield is an expert in biomaterials, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. He began his academic career with an engineering degree from the University of Canterbury. Gaining a scholarship his international postgraduate training commenced with a Masters degree in biomaterials from University of Toronto, followed by PhD and postdoctoral research in tissue engineering from the University of Twente, The Netherlands. This included significant commercial experience within the Dutch biotechnology industry. Dr Woodfield returned to New Zealand in 2005 and subsequently established the Christchurch Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering (CReaTE) Group at the University of Otago Christchurch. He leads the group, consisting of a multidisciplinary research team of engineers, biologists and clinicians working at the interface of cell-biology, biomaterials science and orthopaedic surgery. His translational research aims at developing stem cell and biomaterial-based strategies in Regenerative Medicine with the major focus on Biofabrication technologies and cartilage and bone repair. He has leadership roles in a number of international biomaterials and regenerative medicine societies, including editorial board membership in the field of biofabrication.

RESEARCH: With global ageing, clinicians are facing an epidemic in degenerative joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis. Total joint replacement with permanent metallic and/or polymeric prostheses is often the only current option to treat advanced joint disease, yet these are susceptible to long-term wear and loosening. This not only results in pain and loss of mobility for the patient, but costly revision surgery to replace worn out implants. Regenerative Medicine is a rapidly advancing new field that combines principles of engineering, biology and medicine, and aims to repair or regenerate damaged or diseased tissues that fail to heal spontaneously. The proposed research programme focusses on developing innovative Biofabrication platforms integrated with new cell-based treatment concepts to regenerate damaged bone and cartilage tissue. Using these regenerative medicine strategies, this research has the potential to deliver alternative solutions to previously intractable problems of joint disease.

Dr Barbara Anderson

University of Otago, Department of Botany (Returning from James Cook University, Australia)

Battlegrounds and safe havens: disentangling the roles of ecology and evolution in the response of biological communities to climate change.

Dr Anderson did her B.Sc.(Hons.) and Ph.D. in the Botany Department, University of Otago. Her doctorate investigated how plant communities are structured in a variety of stressful environments in New Zealand, South America and Europe. Since leaving New Zealand she has worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of York (UK). Whilst there she worked on a number of ecological modelling projects investigating the responses of species and ecosystems to habitat and climate change. She has developed a dynamic species distribution model that combines the biology of species with a changing landscape. In collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Helsinki she has worked on conservation prioritization schemes investigating possibilities for trade-offs between biodiversity and ecosystem services e.g. carbon storage. Barbara is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at James Cook University (Townsville, Australia), where she is investigating drivers of biodiversity patterns in the Australian Wet Tropics.

RESEARCH: Alpine environments have steep climatic gradients and therefore represent ever-changing battlegrounds. Here, species' interactions and responses to changing climatic conditions are played out in small arenas. Temperature decreases with elevation; therefore, in a warming climate the expectation is that species will shift their distribution upslope. The combination of aspect, slope and shading within mountainous landscapes gives, at any given elevation, a variety of cooler and warmer microclimates. On a local scale, this landscape heterogeneity creates safe havens. Using ecological niche models to locate climatically suitable areas through time this research will identify potential past, present and future distributions of species. This will be compared with genetic data to assess how these niches coincide with hotspots of current genetic diversity on a local and regional scale. This research aims to balance advances in ecological modelling with new empirical data bringing significant applied benefits to the New Zealand conservation community.