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Seven inaugural Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair appointments to mark 150th

Tuesday 1 October 2019 9:49am

The seven leading Otago academics appointed to the inaugural Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chairs (from left) Professors Greg Cook, Sally Brooker, Robert Patman, Philippa Howden-Chapman, Hamish Spencer, Neil Gemmell and Jacinta Ruru. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

In a new initiative, the University is celebrating its internationally acclaimed scholars by creating a prestigious new role - the Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair (Poutoko Taiea).

These new chairs highlight the work of the University’s highest-achieving professors, individuals who are not only outstanding teachers and researchers, but who have a well-established track record of sharing their work with communities outside the University.

"These scholars are carrying out research at the highest level which has a positive impact on the understanding, development and well-being of individuals, society and the environment."

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne says those chosen for the title are outstanding citizens with a strong record of leadership and service in the University who are pre-eminent in their fields.

“These scholars are carrying out research at the highest level which has a positive impact on the understanding, development and well-being of individuals, society and the environment.

“It truly is a great honour and pleasure to be celebrating the contribution of these outstanding colleagues, whom the University is enormously proud to have leading the way in teaching, research, service and outreach.

“It is also appropriate for this new initiative to be named for, and announced, in our sesquicentennial year – as Otago celebrates its first 150 years of excellence in research and teaching and in tackling big problems facing New Zealand and the rest of the world.”

The Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair is a limited four-year role, with a maximum of 10 appointments to be held at any one time.

During their appointment, the distinguished professors will be given the opportunity to showcase their work and engage and inspire others.

The 2019 appointments are:

Professor Robert Patman (Department of Politics)

Professor Patman says the appointment is a tribute to the excellence of the Politics programme at Otago, “which has given me the platform to teach International Relations to students and contribute to public education here and overseas”.

“I am truly honoured to receive this appointment in what is a major landmark in the life of our University.”

Professor Patman will be taking part in a number of new initiatives to raise public awareness of his research and teaching, and to raise the University’s profile over the next few years. Among them is the expansion of the University of Otago Foreign Policy School, with an annual National Security Summer School being planned, as well as a new book and the continuation of his Global Insight with Robert Patman series in conjunction with the Otago Daily Times.

Professor Jacinta Ruru (Faculty of Law)

Professor Ruru says she is “deeply honoured and thrilled to have this incredible opportunity, especially to represent the tertiary institution most close to my heart, the University of Otago, in this manner”.

Professor Ruru has many projects on the go which will become public over the next four years, including co-editing with Justice Jo Williams the country’s first comprehensive Māori law treatise, and co-editing with Professor Linda Nikora the country’s first major book exploring the interface of mātauranga Māori with sciences and tertiary research.

Next year she will co-host the Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence 8th International Indigenous Research Conference in Auckland, where attendees will represent more than 100 Indigenous nations from around the world.

Professor Neil Gemmell (Department of Anatomy)

Professor Gemmell is delighted to be named in the initial group of Chairs.

“Our University is home to an exceptional community of researchers doing ground-breaking work, so to have been selected from this pool for this distinction is humbling. I will do my utmost to generate the most from this opportunity.”

Professor Gemmell intends to continue his work “sparking scientific curiosity and increasing scientific understanding among individuals from all walks of life, ages and cultural backgrounds”. His recent focus on environmental DNA and Loch Ness will form part of that work alongside public talks and interviews, and the writing of “popular science pieces” alongside continuing work on high quality research and research-informed teaching.

Professor Greg Cook (Department of Microbiology and Immunology)

Professor Cook has two areas with particular focus over the duration of his appointment. The first is to “join up our large international collaborative research network with our local expertise, to capture international funding opportunities in both fundamental and translational biomedical research”.

The second is to raise Otago’s profile in agricultural innovation. “This is an area in which we have not been traditionally strong but represents a tremendous opportunity for Otago going forward. We have a number of programmes that interface with the farming community and agribusiness in New Zealand.”

Professor Cook says he is honoured by his appointment.

“I am part of an academic community that has many inspiring and world-leading academics. I will do my absolute best to represent them with distinction in my various activities.”

Professor Hamish Spencer (Department of Zoology)

Increased outreach and engagement, and mentoring are top priorities for Professor Spencer’s four-year-term.

“I plan to increase my public outreach, highlighting aspects of my research, especially its interdisciplinary aspects, by speaking to various community groups. I will explore the possibilities of increased engagement with Māori, building on my experience with iwi from Tairāwhiti. And finally, I will offer to mentor and advise academics interested in the science-policy interface, leveraging my experience as one of the departmental science advisers for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.”

Professor Spencer says he is delighted to have been selected. “I am excited to be able to increase the outreach and community engagement associated with my research and service, especially its interdisciplinary nature, to both academics and the wider public.”

Professor Sally Brooker (Department of Chemistry)

Professor Sally Brooker pointed to her wider team in reacting to her appointment. “I am thrilled to have my team’s research recognised in this way”.

Her plans for her term include increasing her work visiting schools to present the team’s solar fuels research and inspiring students, particularly girls, to consider science. She also hopes to increase her involvement in work which develops the pathways for women in science. “Considerable progress has been made in my own department, going from being the sole woman for a long time, to now being one of four women lecturers.”

Upcoming plans include chairing the 2nd Otago Future Fuels workshop in 2021 and participating in a tour of German centres of research excellence in 2020, organised by the German Academic Exchange Service.

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman (Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington)

Further raising awareness of the work of both the University and two research programmes she chairs will be the goal of Professor Howden-Chapman’s four-year term.

“I welcome the opportunity,” she says of the honour. “I foresee many opportunities to showcase the work of the He Kāinga Oranga/Housing and Health Research Programme, which I co-chair, and the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities, which I chair.”

For example, Professor Howden-Chapman will give a keynote address at the Australasian Epidemiology Conference Epidemiology in the Real World in Brisbane next month and will be attending the International Conference on Urban Health, “People oriented urbanization; Transforming cities for health and wellbeing” in Xiamen, China. She helped to organise the conference as the chair of the committee entitled ‘International Science Council Urban Health and Wellbeing; a systems approach’. The committee is co-sponsored by the Inter-Academy partnership and the International Society for Urban Health and is hosted by the Institute of the Urban Environment and the Chinese Academy of Science twice a year in Xiamen.