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Thursday 19 October 2017 10:15am

Otago's New Zealand Research Honour award recipients (from left) Chemistry's Professor Sally Brooker, Dentistry's Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent, and Physics PhD candidate Ryan Thomas.

The outstanding achievements of three University of Otago researchers were recognised through the bestowing of prestigious national awards at the 2017 New Zealand Research Honours Dinner last week.

The trio were among New Zealand researchers to be presented with 21 medals in total at the Royal Society Te Apārangi-hosted event in Auckland.

Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent (Faculty of Dentistry) received the Health Research Council of New Zealand's (HRC) Liley Medal, Professor Sally Brooker (Department of Chemistry) the Society's Hector Medal, while Department of Physics PhD student Mr Ryan Thomas won the Hatherton award.

Liley Medal – Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent

Associate Professor Broadbent has been awarded the HRC Liley Medal for a study showing a clear long-term association between a child's upbringing and the state of their teeth as a middle-aged adult.

Dr Broadbent, Head of Preventive and Restorative Dentistry at Otago, led the study to help explain how socioeconomic inequalities in dental health arise, using 40 years of data following participants from the world-renowned Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study.

The main paper from the study, which was the most-read article in the Journal of Dental Research in 2016, showed that parents' socioeconomic status and beliefs about how to keep teeth healthy strongly influenced their children's beliefs and health behaviours growing up.

These factors were also associated with substantial differences in untreated tooth decay and tooth loss by the time their children reached their 30s.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says the paper reveals just how critical childhood is for determining our future dental health, and that ongoing exposure to socioeconomic disadvantage increases our risk of worsening oral health as we age.

"I hope that by being acknowledged with such a prestigious award the findings will get the attention of health policymakers."

“Jonathan and his colleagues have been able to explore and model the pathways to poor oral health from birth to adulthood thanks to the invaluable and unique data accumulated through the Dunedin Study, which the HRC has supported for more than 40 years.”

Dr Broadbent says the association between socioeconomic status and dental health is probably stronger in dentistry than any other area of health.

The research shows a striking inequality in dental treatment.

“Up to age 18, the study members that needed care mostly got it, but once access to state-funded dental care ended, the socioeconomic gap widened at an increasing rate as the study members aged,” he says.

“In this paper, we traced the explanation back to their childhood. Those whose parents held inaccurate beliefs about what is good for the teeth grew up to also be less likely to believe in the importance of brushing, avoiding too much sugar, and visiting the dentist. They ended up with more teeth extracted or with untreated decay.”

Dr Broadbent says he is fortunate to work with an excellent team of researchers using high-quality data.

“I'm extremely grateful to my colleagues and to the study participants. I hope that by being acknowledged with such a prestigious award the findings will get the attention of health policymakers. I'd like this paper to get people thinking about the way we provide dental health care, particularly to adults, for whom the social divide in dental care is greatest.”

Dr Broadbent is an investigator on an HRC-funded programme ($5 million) led by Dunedin Study Director Professor Richie Poulton on why some people age faster or slower than their age-peers and is also working on an HRC-funded project ($1.2 million) using the Dunedin Study data to investigate dental health changes from childhood to age 45 years, including the interrelationship between oral health and other aspects of health such as heart health and quality of life.

Hatherton Award – Ryan Thomas

Hatherton Award: Demonstrating the no side-stepping rule of quantum mechanics

University Otago Physics PhD student Ryan Thomas won the Hatherton Award for his paper on particle collisions that demonstrates and extends our understanding of the Pauli exclusion principle.

Royal Society Te Apārangi presents this award to the best scientific paper by a PhD student at any New Zealand university studying chemical, physical, mathematical or information sciences.

As Ryan is currently in Canada, his research supervisor, Professor Niels Kjærgaard accepted the award on his behalf.

The Pauli exclusion principle places fundamental constraints on where certain atomic particles can be located. It applies to a class of particles known as fermions, and it underlies the periodic table: electrons are constrained in how they organise themselves around the atom and elements in the same group share chemical properties. When studying collisions of fermions, the exclusion principle holds that they cannot scatter out at 90 degrees to the collision axis, known as the 'no-side-stepping' rule, which creates a scattering pattern that looks like a dumbbell weight.

"I am grateful to all my colleagues and especially to my supervisor, Dr Niels Kjærgaard, for their support on this work."

Based in Professor Kjærgaard's Light and Matter lab, Ryan used lasers to collide clouds of ultra-cold potassium atoms and recorded their scattering. The ultra-cold atomic clouds had a temperature of a mere millionth of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero and were confined and accelerated by accurately controlled laser beams. His results, published in the leading journal Nature Communications, are the first direct observation of the 'no-side-stepping' rule even after multiple collisions, and he used sophisticated modelling to elucidate this.

Ryan's paper also demonstrated another principle, known as the Wigner threshold law, which states that at very low collision energies no scattering occurs and the atomic clouds would pass right through each other, rather than colliding and scattering.

The award selection committee noted that Ryan had demonstrated both technological and theoretical excellence in producing this paper, which has demonstrated the value of a collider-based approach for studying atomic interactions under ultra-cold conditions.

Ryan says he is honoured to receive the Hatherton Award. “I am grateful to all my colleagues and especially to my supervisor, Dr Niels Kjærgaard, for their support on this work. This award shows the uniqueness and importance of our approach to studying atomic collisions, and I am excited to see where future research in this field takes us.”

Prior to obtaining a scholarship to undertake his PhD at the University of Otago, Ryan completed a Master's degree at the University of Calgary, Canada following a Bachelor of Science (Honours) at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia where he received the Governor General's Silver Academic Medal, which is awarded for the highest-grade average at the university. In 2010 he received the Ralph Steinhauer Award of Distinction and the Bill Bridger Award. He received Best Postgraduate Paper in the Division of Sciences at the University of Otago in 2016.

Hector Medal – Professor Sally Brooker

Otago Department of Chemistry Professor Sally Brooker MNZM FRSC FRSNZ was presented with the Hector Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for the designing and making of molecules that have exceptional properties, such as the ability to act like a switch or a magnet. The medal is awarded for work of great scientific or technological merit and has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the particular branch of science.

Professor Brooker and her group have designed, synthesised and characterised a wide range of chemical complexes with properties such as switchable magnetism, carbon-dioxide selective absorption and selective “turn-on” fluorescence. She has also developed catalysts for hydrogen production, the ultimate “green” fuel, and for “green” polymerisations that are helping to develop plastics that can be composted and recycled at the end of their life.

"It's fantastic to have the research my talented team has generated over recent years recognised like this!"

The medal selection committee said her most significant contributions have been in the field of molecular magnetism. She has led development of new metal molecules that can switch between different states in response to external stimuli, such as temperature, pressure or guest molecules. These chemical complexes are known as 'spin crossover' or 'single molecule magnet' systems.

Because these molecules have spin states that can be controlled and changed, switching between two or more electronic states, they can be used to build nano-devices. These molecules have a wide range of potential applications, from being used as sensors to being used in the next generation of computing: building nano-devices for information storage and data processing using the inherent properties of the designer molecules themselves.

On receiving the medal, Professor Brooker said: “It's fantastic to have the research my talented team has generated over recent years recognised like this!”

Professor Brooker's latest honour follows a string of plaudits acknowledging her outstanding contributions in her discipline. She is the recipient of the 2017 Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) Inorganic Chemistry Division's Burrows Award; the University of Otago 2015 Distinguished Research Medal; the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry's Maurice Wilkins Prize for Excellence in Chemical Research (2009) and the Easterfield Medal by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Chemistry (1999).

She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2007 and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2011. She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in June 2017 for services to science.

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