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Trees flowering on campusThursday 18 October 2018 9:12am

Helen Taylor image
Dr Helen Taylor

University of Otago Research Fellow Helen Taylor's science communication around conservation genetics and threatened species has earned her recognition at this year's New Zealand Research Honours.

Dr Taylor was last night awarded the 2018 Callaghan Medal for outstanding contribution to science communication and raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress.

She is one of six University of Otago researchers recognised at the awards. Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith received the Mason Durie Medal, Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama the Metge Medal, Professor Brett Delahunt the Hercus Medal, Professor Emerita Carolyn Burns the Thomson Medal and Professor Barbara Brookes the Humanities Aronui Medal.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Richard Blaikie says it is a significant achievement to have six researchers from the University of Otago honoured among the 24 award recipients.

“This is a significant number that reinforces the strength and breadth of our research excellence.”

Dr Taylor's most recent project, The Great Hihi Sperm Race, a humorous and highly educational web-based fundraiser is arguably her most successful science communication initiative to date.

It allowed people to place bets on which of the 128 birds in four of the seven remaining populations of hihi would have the fastest swimming sperm. The campaign provided an ideal platform for Dr Taylor to discuss her research and hihi conservation with both the media and general public and raised more than $11,000 for hihi conservation from supporters in 17 countries. The project addressed the question of whether poor male fertility is a contributing factor to population decline and poor hatching success rates in inbred birds.

Recognising that genetics is a topic often perceived as uninteresting and complicated by the general public, Dr Taylor has set out to make it anything but, dedicating much of her free time to making conservation genetics accessible and interesting to as many people as possible.

When she and her research assistants were en route to an island sanctuary in the Marlborough Sounds to study inbreeding depression in the little spotted kiwi for her PhD, she arranged free passage for them by giving educational talks to passengers on the Interislander Ferry and educational materials and talks for the Cougar Line water taxis.

Her main research interests lie in inbreeding depression in wild populations, which is where mating between relatives leads to reduced biological fitness. She also researches the role of genetics in improving conservation of these wild populations.

The medal selection committee says Dr Taylor's science communication is making a real impact on the conservation of New Zealand's endangered species. “She is a passionate science advocate and an exceptionally talented science communicator who engages effectively with a broad range of people including academics, conservation practitioners and the general public.”

Dr Taylor says she is surprised and humbled to have been awarded this medal at such an early stage in her career.

“But I'm also very proud. Effective science communication is extremely important to me and it's wonderful to gain recognition for something so close to my heart and that I enjoy so much.”

The New Zealand Research Honours Awards is held each year by the Royal Society Te Apārangi to celebrate the achievements of New Zealand researchers by awarding a number of medals and awards.

Details of other University of Otago award winners are:

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Professor Emerita Carolyn Burns

Professor Emerita Carolyn Burns 2018 Thomson Medal: Professor Burns CBE was recognised for her outstanding leadership and service to environmental science and conservation.

Professor Burns' research speciality is the effect of human impacts and climate change on the biodiversity, processes, conservation and management of lakes and wetlands. Professor Burns was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (now Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit) in 1984.

Based at the Department of Zoology at the University of Otago, she has been the primary supervisor of 60 postgraduate students and has examined an even greater number of doctoral candidates. Many of her students are grateful for her ongoing encouragement, enthusiasm and affirmation throughout their careers.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee noted that in the course of her career, Professor Burns has achieved the very highest academic standards while simultaneously bringing her scientific expertise to serve both the scientific and wider communities at the highest levels. “Her level of service on innumerable panels, enthusiastic support of students and commitment to fairness is unequalled. Through her myriad roles she has made a deep and lasting contribution to environmental science.”

On receiving this medal, Professor Burns says: “It is a pleasure and a privilege to receive this honour which reflects the gratitude I feel to the many individuals and groups who have willingly and enthusiastically committed time and energy to our shared aspirations and goals.”

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Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama

Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama 2018 Metge Medal: Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama has been awarded the Metge Medal for her influence on indigenous health education.

Associate Professor Pitama (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Whare) is Associate Dean Māori and a founding Director of the Māori Indigenous Health Institute (MIHI) at the University of Otago, Christchurch. She is a registered psychologist and academic who has made a considerable contribution to inspiring and developing new research capacity and knowledge for health professional education to address critical indigenous health inequities in Aotearoa.

When she began her career in 2001, one hour was devoted to Māori health teaching in the three-year curriculum; now there are more than 60 hours. Culturally responsive models of care have now been integrated into the Māori health curriculum across the University of Otago's three clinical schools, medical schools at other tertiary institutions, government departments and a broader range of health providers.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee noted her considerable contribution to capacity building across the health sector and to promoting the social sciences, through her collaborations and extensive mentoring. “Her work is broad-based, drawing on a range of social science fields and is directly relevant to contemporary health education and most especially in the area of Indigenous health education and training.”

On receiving this medal, she says: "Being able to work in the field of Māori health—to support whānau, hāpu and iwi aspirations for health equity—is a privilege. This award reflects an acknowledgment of the communities and colleagues who have pioneered and championed this area, of whose work I am able to build upon. I am grateful for a supportive whānau, for my amazing Māori Indigenous Health Institute colleagues and those at the University of Otago who are part of a team addressing health inequities, and for our institution's commitment to support Māori health teaching and research."

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Professor Brett Delahunt

Professor Brett Delahunt 2018 Hercus Medal: Professor Brett Delahunt ONZM has been awarded the Hercus Medal for his research on prostate and kidney cancer.

Professor Delahunt is an internationally recognised pathologist from the University of Otago, Wellington. His scientific work and insight have been central to the development of an internationally accepted classification system of important prognostic markers for prostate and renal cancers.

He has used basic cell science, pathology techniques and genetic approaches to facilitate a better understanding of new tissue growths. His scientific publications and leadership in this area have contributed to greatly improved prediction of patient outcomes.

His work has focussed primarily upon neoplasia of the kidney and he has been responsible for the identification of novel types of malignancy. The grading system for renal neoplasia that he formulated and validated is now the gold standard, being endorsed by the World Health Organisation. Outcome prediction of these tumours is assessed worldwide using this grading system with 50,000 cases diagnosed annually in the US alone.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee says: “Professor Delahunt is an outstanding New Zealander who has used his scientific and specialist medical training to discover the most important prognostic features of genito-urinary cancers. His scientific studies and his scientific leadership have changed the way that these malignancies are understood, graded, managed and treated worldwide, with major benefit for patients.”

In accepting the award, Professor Delahunt expressed his thanks to his many international collaborators for their support. “I am delighted that our various contributions to advance both urological pathology and men's health have been recognised by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.”

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Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith 2018 Mason Durie Medal: Professor Matisoo-Smith has been awarded the Mason Durie Medal for her ground-breaking work that has, through strong relationships with New Zealand's indigenous people, reshaped our understanding of the last great human migration into the Pacific.

Professor of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago, she is an internationally renowned biological anthropologist. She has used leading-edge technologies for interrogating both ancient and modern DNA to address fundamental anthropological questions, particularly those concerning the origins of Pacific people.

As part of a collaboration with Rangitāne o Wairau, the Canterbury Museum and the University of Otago, she worked closely with the Rangitāne o Wairau iwi to genetically examine the remains of their tupuna from the Wairau Bar – the first New Zealanders. In addition to understanding the migration and settlement history of New Zealand, her current work addresses numerous questions that have remained unanswered, particularly regarding the health of ancestral New Zealanders and how that has shaped the modern landscape of both health and disease.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee noted Professor Matisoo-Smith's prominence in her research sphere internationally and says her deep commitment to work with indigenous people in such a way that deep mutual respect is built is exemplary.

On being awarded this medal, she says: “While I feel honoured to receive this award, my work is really only possible through collaborations with communities and colleagues – it has been a privilege to work with them all.”

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Professor Barbara Brookes

Professor Barbara Brookes Humanities Aronui Medal: Historian Professor Barbara Brookes MNZM has been awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal for her outstanding contribution to humanities scholarship.

Professor Brookes is an authority on the history of women, medical history and New Zealand history. Her debut book Abortion in England, 1900-1967 (1988) marked the launch of a new field of enquiry: the social history of abortion. Reprinted in 2012, the book is today regarded as the landmark achievement in this field.

She has since produced numerous edited volumes, journal articles and other books that provide historical perspectives on current health debates, reshaping the scholary landscape in medical history with a new focus on gender and health. Her most recent book, A History of Women in New Zealand (2016) won the 2017 Ockham Award for best illustrated non –fiction.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee says Professor Brookes' scholarship has consistenly been of the highest quality and she has inspired students with her zest for history and shown remarkable generosity as a colleague, mentor and teacher. “Through her work she has changed how we understand the worlds of women and men, medicine and the social world.”

On receiving this award, Professor Brookes says: “I'm delighted to receive this honour in the year of celebration of Suffrage 125. Understanding our history is central to New Zealand's progress in the future. I see this honour as an acknowledgement of my academic field, and of all those who have worked to enlarge it.”

For further information, please contact:

Dr Helen Taylor
Department of Anatomy,

Professor Emerita Carolyn Burns
Department of Zoology
Tel 479 7971

Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama
Associate Dean Māori,
University of Otago, Christchurch

Professor Brett Delahunt
Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel 04 385 5575

Professor Elizabeth (Lisa) Matisoo-Smith
Department of Anatomy,
University of Otago
Tel 03 479 4040

Professor Barbara Brookes
Department of History and Art History
Tel 03 479 8608

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Tel 03 479 9065
Mob 021 279 9065

Electronic addresses (including email accounts, instant messaging services, or telephone accounts) published on this page are for the sole purpose of contact with the individuals concerned, in their capacity as officers, employees or students of the University of Otago, or their respective organisation. Publication of any such electronic address is not to be taken as consent to receive unsolicited commercial electronic messages by the address holder.

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