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Prestigious scholarships for emerging Otago researchers

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Thursday, 6 November 2014 4:31pm

Three University of Otago staff members and two postgraduate students have gained prestigious scholarships in the 2014 Rutherford Foundation Trust Awards.

They are among seven people nationally to receive the scholarships, which provide early career support for New Zealand’s brightest and most promising researchers.

Drs Charlotte King and Karen Reader, both of the Department of Anatomy, have been awarded Postdoctoral Fellowships as has Department of Geology PhD graduate and Teaching Fellow Dr Matthew Sagar. Drs King and Reader will continue their research at the University of Otago while Dr Sagar will move to Victoria University of Wellington.

Department of Geography Masters graduand Elisabeth Liddle and Biochemistry Honours student Max Wilkinson have gained Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial PhD Scholarships to undertake doctoral studies at Cambridge University. They will pursue PhDs in structural biology and groundwater in Zambia, respectively.

The Otago recipients and their research topics:

Dr Charlotte King: “Major Transitions in Prehistory: Using a new life histories approach to trace health and diet in Northern Chile”

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Dr Charlotte King

Dr King has received funding to investigate how the change from societies based on hunting and gathering, to societies based on farming, affected prehistoric populations.

Current understandings of ‘the agricultural revolution’ are based on a swift and irreversible change from hunting and gathering to farming. This involves changes to human mobility, population growth, increased fertility and development of social complexity.

The agricultural transition is also associated with inescapable health costs due to increased group living, infectious disease transmission and deficiencies relating to reliance on a staple crop. This ‘agricultural revolution’ model is based on European and Near Eastern archaeology, and it may not hold true in other centres of domestication, such as Asia, the Pacific and the Americas, which are culturally and ecologically very different to Europe.
Dr King will examine the complex interplay between the environment, human health and diet to evaluate archaeological paradigms and inform modern-day modelling of human coping strategies.

This will be accomplished using new techniques in isotopic analysis of human skeletal tissues, which will give insight into the lives of individuals on a month-by-months basis. This technological advancement means that for the first time traditional models in archaeology can be rigorously tested.

Dr Karen Reader: “How does Activin C modulate Granulosa Cell Tumours? Implications for human disease”

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Dr Karen Reader

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in females. The focus of Dr Reader’s project will be on a subgroup of ovarian cancer, termed Granulosa Cell Tumours.

The majority of patients with this tumour present with early-stage symptoms and can be cured by surgery. However, a significant number of patients are in risk of dying from recurrent disease years later.

Currently, there is no reliable prognostic marker to determine what patients are in high risk of developing recurrent disease after initial treatment. The project aims to characterise the role of a protein called Activin C. When present at high levels in the tumours, Activin C is able to inhibit the growth of Granulosa Cell Tumours.

This project will therefore examine in greater details how Activin C prevents tumour growth. The project will also determine how levels of Activin C, and related proteins that are known to interact with Activin C, changes in Granulosa cells tumours in the hope that any of these proteins can be used to detect patients in risk of recurrent tumour growth.

Dr Matthew Sagar: “Alpine Fault “Big Bend”: Evolution and earthquake hazard”

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Dr Matthew Sagar

The ‘Big Bend’ is an area on the Alpine Fault, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plate boundary splits into several major and related faults, producing a number of large earthquakes including the 2013 Cook Strait earthquake sequence. However, the ability to predict earthquake hazards in this area is at present hampered by a lack of knowledge about how the Australian and Pacific plates move in the Big Bend.

For this reason, Dr Sagar will use his funding to investigate the motion of the Big Bend, by determining the signature of radioactive isotopes in the rocks. As rocks move up from 15 km depth to the surface of the Big Bend they cool down, which is reflected in changes to radioactive isotopes in the rocks. By measuring the levels of different radioactive isotopes, it is therefore possible to determine the thermal history of rocks, and hence estimate the vertical uplift of the plates, which is predicted to be the major motion in the area.

Dr Sagar predicts that this project will contribute to the development of better local seismic hazard models, and also help to elucidate overarching questions in relation to how the Big Bend, and similar fault overseas, were formed and how they release stress.

Elisabeth Liddle: “Determination of recharge and the seasonal variations in groundwater availability for Ndola, Zambia”

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Elisabeth Liddle

Elisabeth will use her funding to do a PhD in hydrogeology – the science of distribution and movement of water. Groundwater plays an important role in providing adequate and safe drinking and irrigation water to millions of people across the developing world.

In Ndola, Zambia, locals have rapidly taken on the rural practice of digging shallow wells in their backyards to meet their daily water needs because of the demise of surface water sources and a limited municipal water supply network.

She plans to analyse the water quality and recharge of wells across Ndola, and answer questions about how the wells are influenced by seasonal changes, differences in the soil and rock composition across the town and the vicinity of the wells to local wet-lands. In this way, she will use her PhD at the University of Cambridge to combine her passion for helping others with a scientific career.

Max Wilkinson: “The structure and function of Macromolecular Machines”

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Max Wilkinson

Biochemistry Honours student Max Wilkinson has received funding for a PhD in structural biology – the study of the three dimensional structures of proteins and nucleic acids (the building blocks of our DNA).

The interactions of nucleic acids and proteins are fundamental to some the most important processes in molecular biology such as the translation of DNA into proteins and life. Proteins and their complexes – the machines that operate life at its most fundamental level – can only truly be understood by knowing what they look like and how they fit together.

A PhD at the University of Cambridge will allow Max to gain experience in cutting edge technology used to determine the structure of proteins at atomic resolution – in particular a form of electron microscopy (cryo-EM) that has been largely developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge.

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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