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Tuesday 9 November 2021 1:04pm

The Division of Sciences extend congratulations to the following researchers who were successful in securing funding from the 2021 Marsden Fund, Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden.

The four projects detailed below were recipients of Standard Grants, and are followed by an additional six researchers who have been named as Associate Investigators on projects led by institutions other than the University of Otago.

Standard Grants:

Dr Paul Szyszka

Department of Zoology, $926,000

The olfactory cocktail party: How animals and humans segregate mixed odours

Most animals rely on odours to locate food, mates, habitats, and dangers. Although odours from different sources mix, animals can segregate relevant odour sources. But how they solve this olfactory cocktail party problem is unknown. Insects use small time differences in odorant arrival to segregate odours from different sources.

We will test the hypothesis that vertebrates, too, can segregate odours using temporal cues, and we will uncover the natural stimulus dynamics that enable odour source segregation. Revealing odour segregation processes in animals and humans has important implications for ecology (foraging), pest control (pheromone traps), scent-detection technology, and neurology (disease indicators).

Dr Graham Eyres and Dr Mei Peng from the Department of Food Science will also be Associate Investigators on this project.

Dr Mei Peng

Department of Food Science, $839,000

How do sensory shifts shape our diet? Testing the neural mechanisms underpinning nutrient selection

Is there an underlying sensory neural mechanism ‘secretly’ guiding our food choices? It remains unclear how and why individuals choose such different energy sources.

Tantalisingly, recent data suggest that individual metabolic needs can substantially influence dietary choices, implying the existence of an autonomic system driving nutrient intake. While all individuals can experience metabolic shifts across their lifespans, pregnancy provides a unique window into major metabolic reprogramming.

In this project, we will use pregnancy as a natural model to understand how the human brain adjusts to changing metabolic needs through food choices. Untangling the sensory neural mechanisms guiding individual food choices will enable effective interventions to manage obesity and related disease.

Professor Robert Poulin

Department of Zoology, $926,000

Parasite microbiomes and host manipulation: who’s really pulling the strings?

The microbiome revolution sweeping through evolutionary biology has replaced the concept of ‘organism’ with the holobiont, in which animals and their associated microbes form integrated entities.

Parasites have their own microbes, which may assist them in exploiting their host, possibly even in usurping host behaviour for the parasites’ benefit.

We will test the hypothesis that the parasite microbiota plays a key role in modulating the extent to which the host behavioural phenotype is manipulated. Using three model systems consisting of native arthropods and their parasitic worms in which parasite-induced changes in host behaviour have been well documented, our research will use powerful tools including behavioural assays, metagenomic sequencing, metabolomic analyses and experimental alteration of parasite microbiota.

Our innovative and multi-pronged approach will allow a thorough test of whether bacteria and viruses lurking within parasites are the real manipulators of host behaviour.

Dr Courtney Ennis

Department of Chemistry, $875,000

Laboratory exploration of co-crystal minerals for planetary chemistry: Assisting NASA Dragonfly's search for the origins-of-life on Titan

The Dragonfly spacecraft to Saturn's largest moon Titan will embark in 2027 with a primary objective to locate chemical species central to astrobiology and the origin-of-life. To assist in this mission, our laboratory research will explore geochemical pathways toward complex, nitrogen-bearing molecules within Titan's atmosphere and icy terrain.

Co-crystals are composite molecular minerals thought particularly conducive to efficient condensed-phase chemistry. Through preliminary calculations, our team have identified a new class of Titan relevant co-crystals possessing an inherently mixed composition of cyanide and hydrocarbon compounds. Forming aerosols within the lower stratosphere, the exposure of co-crystals to Titan's harsh radiation environment is expected to generate a suite of biological building-blocks that are deposited on the surface.

To investigate this hypothesis, crystallographic studies of novel co-crystal minerals will be performed at x-ray and neutron facilities. In simulating Titan geochemistry, the subsequent photolysis of co-crystal surfaces will reveal information on the formation of biologically important compounds from cyanide ices. An ensuing detection of nitrogenous heterocycle molecules, such as indole and quinoline biological scaffolds, will provide new principal targets for Dragonfly exploration.

If discovered on such outer Solar System surfaces, our laboratory confirmed pathways for these essential biological precursors will have profound implications toward astrobiology.

Associate Investigators:

The following Division of Science Associate Investigators are also involved in successful Marsden Grant projects led by institutions other than the University of Otago.

Professor Jörg Frauendiener and Dr Matthew Parry

Department of Mathematics and Statistics

Gravitational Waves: Sources and Signals (led by the University of Auckland)

This interdisciplinary project will make core contributions to gravitational wave science and facilitate participation by New Zealand scientists in the LISA mission, a space-based gravitational wave detector being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA).

This project looks at both the statistical challenges faced when attempting to extract the gravitational wave signals from the raw data and the properties of key sources of gravitational waves.

We will develop state-of-the-art algorithms for extracting gravitational wave signals from data, looking at both point sources and signals distributed across the sky, focussing on signals that persist long enough for the orientation of the detector in space and the properties of the “noise” within the instrument to vary significantly.

Separately, we will clarify how gravitational wave signals from within the Milky Way reflect the complexities of stellar evolution and the dynamics of the galaxy, and explore how the formation and merger dynamics of the supermassive black holes found at the centres of all galaxies depend on the properties of dark matter within galaxies. By doing so we will help realise the potential of gravitational wave observatories to advance stellar astronomy, galactic astrophysics, and fundamental particle physics.

Dr Gregory Leonard and Dr Inga Smith

Department of Surveying and Department of Physics (respectively)

Can Snow Change the Fate of Antarctic Sea Ice? (led by Victoria University of Wellington)

Sea-ice growth and decay result in one of the largest annual changes observed on the Earth's surface. The extent and duration of sea-ice cover, and the way it absorbs and reflects energy, modulates the Earth's energy balance. Snow cover dominates the thermal and optical properties of sea ice and the energy fluxes between the ocean and the atmosphere, yet data on the physical properties of snow and its effects on sea ice are limited.

This lack of data leads to two problems: 1) significant biases in model representations of sea ice variables, and 2) large uncertainty in how sea ice influences the global energy budget.

We will investigate the role of the physical snow-cover properties on the evolution and the future of Antarctic sea ice by combing multi-scale measurements with modelling to improve the representation of snow processes in predictive models of sea ice evolution in the context of climate change.

The combination of measurements and modelling will reduce the uncertainties in sea ice models through improved process understanding and improved parameterisations, and will provide insight into the differences between sea ice evolution in Antarctica and the Arctic.

Dr Peter Russell

Department of Physics

Crossing the Dimensional Divide: Non-linear Interaction between Submesoscale eddies and Turbulence (led by National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research)

The ocean is full of eddies, complex rotating parcels of fluid; the larger ones can persist for days and even months as they dissipate. The challenge is, because the ocean is much wider than it is deep, horizontal and vertical perspectives on this problem need to be handled differently.

Our project seeks to harmonize these views using a unique natural laboratory where a mini-seamount, combined with strong tides, makes perfect ocean eddies. We will measure how the evolution of the rotating horizontal eddies depends on the interplay with smaller-scale turbulence which is typically viewed as a vertical mixing process. We will do this with some cutting edge technology that the team specialises in deploying. We can then assess how to most effectively connect between dimensions.

The project will support several postgraduate projects and include a component to involve young Māori scholars in the observational science.

This work will enable us to better understand how quantities like energy, heat, salt and nutrients, are transferred by ocean eddies and, in doing so, enhance our ability to predict future climate and ecosystem scenarios.

Professor Elaine Reese

Department of Psychology

Understanding the drivers of adolescent depression: The role of personal memories (led by Victoria University of Wellington)

For both adolescents and adults, a hallmark of depression is difficulty recalling past experiences in detail. As depression suddenly and dramatically escalates during adolescence, novel early interventions focus on coaching youth to recall specific, detailed memories. But should we be adopting this approach with young people whose depressive symptoms are newly emerging? Our research suggests not.

We find (and have since replicated) the opposite pattern: more (episodic) detail in adolescents’ memories of a salient life experience predicted increased depression. We propose that greater detail in a highly self-relevant memory (a life turning point) reflects a maladaptive focus on self. Guided by a novel integration of cognitive and narrative theories of autobiographical memory, we will rigorously test our proposal.

First, we will conduct an 18-month longitudinal study in which we investigate the differential impact of episodic detail and other self-related measures on depressive symptoms over time. Second, we will conduct experimental studies to establish causal links amongst self-focus and episodic detail. Finally, we will assess whether our experiments can inoculate young people against increasing depressive symptoms.

Our research addresses the urgent need to understand the drivers of youth depression and to improve current ineffective approaches to early intervention.

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