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Jemma Geoghegan lab image

Professor Jemma Geoghegan in her lab.

It has been quite the journey these past few months for Otago Professor Jemma Geoghegan.

An evolutionary virologist based in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, within the School of Biomedical Sciences, Professor Geoghegan has been honoured in this year’s prestigious Otago Research Awards, receiving the Rowheath Trust Award and Carl Smith Medal.

Professor Geoghegan adds the Award and Medal to an impressive list of achievements, including her recent appointment to the Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis and promotion to Professor.

Her research focuses on several areas across the field of virology, including determining the fundamental patterns and processes of viral evolution, ecology and emergence.

In 2020, she was instrumental in establishing the genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 in Aotearoa, using a world-leading approach.

The history of the prestigious research award at Otago was a highlight for Professor Geoghegan when she learned she had won.

“I was thrilled to hear the news that I’ve received this award, mainly because I associate this prize with a long list of extremely talented previous awardees whose work I really respect and who I find inspiring.”

Head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Sesquicentennial Distinguished Professor Greg Cook, says, “Jemma is a valued Departmental citizen and contributes to every aspect of the academic spectrum at the University.  Jemma’s world-leading research output, quality and impact is on a very steep trajectory for someone so early in their career.

“Jemma’s easy-going collaborative and panoramic style is a standout feature, as is her commitment to the training and mentoring of young students and researchers. Jemma possesses a remarkable ability to engage fundamentally with all members of the community and her eminence in the field of viral genomics is growing rapidly.”

Professor Geoghegan is humble in the face of accolades, and is focused on her current and future projects, which include supervising students from Fiji to build capability for virus genomics, and an aim to broaden that capability to other Pacific Island countries.

She is also busy with her work as a Rutherford Discovery Fellow, where she is involved in “lots of student projects that are focused on the ecological drivers of virus emergence.”

On the home front, Professor Geoghegan is mum to a four-year-old daughter, and a one-year-old son, both of whom have been happily attending the Otago University Childcare Centre, but her daughter is excited to be starting school in February next year.

Married to Alex, a lecturer in Law at Otago, and whose extended family live in Dunedin, Professor Geoghegan says that as a couple, it can be a real challenge to juggle work and family, but that they are able to share the load equally, as there is a welcome measure of flexibility in academic life.

When it comes to unwinding, she says “we live out on the Peninsula, and I find that being in the outdoors is a great way to relax – the colours and reflections on the harbour are so calming. I also enjoy going to Barre classes, which are a mix of ballet and pilates.”

“Throughout my career, most of my mentors have been men, and very supportive but I think it’s important when you have a two-career family, to be open about how it can be done. It’s hard to be who you can’t see.”

About the Rowheath Trust Award and Carl Smith Medal

The late Sir Carl Smith was a prominent Dunedin businessman and member of the University Council who set up the Rowheath Trust to support the University's work.

The Rowheath Trust Award aims to promote research at the University of Otago and to give recognition to outstanding research performance of early career staff.

The basis for selection is outstanding scholarly achievement, including the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, the development of innovative technology, or scholarship for an emerging researcher.

- Kōrero by Sally Knox, Communications Adviser, School of Biomedical Sciences.

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