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University of Otago honours research leader

Friday, 22 July 2016 4:53pm

Lisa-Matisoo-Smith-small-image
Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith.

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, an internationally renowned biological anthropologist who pioneered the use of evolutionary genetics to trace Pacific migrations, is the latest recipient of the Distinguished Research Medal, the University of Otago’s highest distinction.

The University awards the medal for outstanding scholarly achievement, including the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, the development of innovative technology, or the development of concepts that lead to significant advances.

Announcing the honour, Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne said that Professor Matisoo-Smith is a richly deserving recipient of the medal.

“Lisa Matisoo-Smith is a greatly respected international scholar who has reshaped our understanding of the last great human migration into the Pacific. She is also a great communicator who has engaged and motivated the public about her science in a way few others working in New Zealand have achieved.”

Human migration and settlement

Professor Matisoo-Smith joined the University’s Department of Anatomy in 2009. Her research mainly focuses on using genetic evidence to track human migration and settlement of the Pacific and the resulting impact of that settlement on Pacific environments.

She is internationally recognised in her field for her use of leading-edge molecular biology techniques to uncover hidden histories held in both ancient and modern DNA. One of her key contributions has involved introducing the approach of gathering and analysing DNA from animals (such as dogs and rats) transported by settlers in the Pacific to trace human origins and migration patterns.

Professor Matisoo-Smith has published three books, 17 book chapters and 75 papers in leading journals, including eight in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two in Science and two in Nature. She has supervised and mentored a large number of students, several of whom are now leading early-career researchers both in New Zealand and abroad.

In 2009 she was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. In 2013 she was honoured with Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in that same year she received a prestigious James Cook Research Fellowship from the Society for her public engagement genetic science project “Africa to Aotearoa”.

Central to her research philosophy

Such efforts to work with communities in New Zealand and overseas and involve them in her research, and in science through education, have been and continue to be central to her research activity and philosophy.

For example, Professor Matisoo-Smith and her research group have worked closely with the Rangitāne o Wairau iwi to carry out the first analysis of ancient mitochondrial human genomes from the Pacific. The individuals studied were from the archaeological site of Wairau Bar, thought to have been the one of the first places settled in New Zealand.

Her work identified a surprisingly large number of mitochondrial types in the settlers, suggesting a larger founding population than previously thought and a more complex colonisation.

She is the principal investigator for the Oceania/Pacific region in the National Geographic Genographic project, a multiyear research initiative that is gathering and analysing genetic data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world.

Works closely with colleagues

Professor Matisoo-Smith says that while being shocked, yet thrilled, to receive this honour, she feels a bit awkward being singled out as an individual researcher since all of her work is collaborative and cross-disciplinary.

“I work closely with colleagues in Archaeology and Anthropology and several other departments, in addition to with my collaborators and postgrad students in the Department of Anatomy."

“Perhaps most importantly, the engagement with and by communities across New Zealand and the Pacific is essential to the research. So, I will accept that my receiving this medal is a big ‘thumbs up’ to multidisciplinary research that engages with and is relevant to the general public, and I share it with my many collaborators and students. I thank the Department of Anatomy and the University for creating such a supportive and stimulating environment in which to work.”

The Distinguished Research Medal will be presented to Professor Matisoo-Smith when she delivers a public lecture in October.