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Tuesday 30 July 2019 4:35pm

A Dunedin researcher, ranked as one of the world's best dental scientists, has been awarded the University of Otago Division of Health Sciences Chaffer Medal for distinguished performance in health research.

Professor Murray Thomson, from the University's Faculty of Dentistry, has conducted internationally-renowned work on dental epidemiology, dental public health and dental health services in his 25 years as a researcher.

Murray Thomson image
Professor Murray Thomson.

With 350 peer-reviewed scientific articles published to date, Professor Thomson's research is cited more than 2300 times a year internationally – placing him in the top three scientists in the world in his field.

His work has strongly influenced the last decade's reconfiguring of New Zealand's community dental services, while his two decades of work with the Dunedin Study are considered internationally important.

His recent work includes research into oral health policies and practices in the aged-care sector, highlighting an approaching dental crisis in that area.

He is one of the few scientists anywhere to have been honoured by the International Association for Dental Research with two separate Distinguished Scientist Awards, and is the first New Zealand scientist to be honoured by that organisation.

Otago Postgraduate Medical Society President Professor Barry Taylor describes Professor Thomson as one of the University's “top researchers” who has been involved in “developing new tools to measure oral health that are in wide use across the world”.

“He is a prolific writer and careful analyser of large volumes of data. He has supervised many PhD and Master's theses and is known as an excellent and caring supervisor.

“He has contributed to how oral health is managed across the country with contributions to the Ministry of Health as well as the University.

“As such he is a worthy recipient of this year's Chaffer Medal, which aims to honour our top Otago health researchers.”

Otago's Division of Health Sciences Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Brunton says the award gives the Health Division the chance to “celebrate excellence in health research over a sustained period”.

Such criteria are a perfect match to Professor Thomson's work, he says.

“Professor Thomson's significant contributions in the field of community dentistry and dental public health have informed health policy both in New Zealand and internationally. He's also a great team player and has contributed his expertise and mentorship to many staff and student research projects.”

Professor Thomson will be officially presented with a replica of the Chaffer Medal at a special lecture event later in the year.

The Chaffer Medal is awarded to University of Otago Division of Health Sciences researchers for sustained research efforts at Otago over 10 or more years. A positive contribution to the training and support of the next generation of researchers is also important, as is the development of research networks both inside and outside of academia.

It has been awarded annually by the Otago Postgraduate Medical Society since 2017. It will be officially presented to Professor Thomson at a special lecture later this year.

More about Professor Thomson

Professor Thomson:

  • Is the Head of Department for the Department of Oral Sciences at the Faculty of Dentistry, University of Otago.
  • Has two International Association for Dental Research (IADR) Distinguished Scientist Awards:
    • 2010 H. Trendley Dean Memorial Award, for meritorious research in epidemiology and public health
    • 2014 Geriatric Oral Research Award
  • Received the Sir John Walsh Research Award in 2010 (for research over an extended period by a member of the University of Otago Faculty of Dentistry).
  • Was awarded the Alan Docking Award in 2009 for distinguished research in dentistry by the Australia–New Zealand Division of the IADR.
  • Was made a Fellow of the NZ Dental Association in 2015.
  • Was one of 10 Principal Investigators in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study awarded the 2016 Prime Minister's Science Prize.
  • Over the last decade, has made 23 keynote addresses (most of those overseas) and another 22 invited presentations to conferences.
  • Has supervised 32 doctoral theses and 38 Masters' theses to completion (and is currently supervising 6 doctoral and 5 Masters' theses).

The history of the Chaffer Medal

The Chaffer Medal to be awarded to Professor Thomson is a replica of one found by a young child on an Auckland street more than 60 years ago.

Five-year-old Jeanette Waters was in her first week of school when she found the medal on a road near her house.

Over time she made attempts to find out about its history but it was only in recent years that she discovered it had links with the University of Otago.

It transpires that the original medal was awarded to Dr Harold Chaffer, of Yorkshire, for the excellence of his medical studies in anatomy at the then St Mungo's College Medical School in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1895-96.

Dr Chaffer went on to marry the daughter of a former leading Dunedin hardware trader and their daughter, Christina MacLean Laird (who lived in Auckland), subsequently made a $5,000 gift to the University of Otago, to honour her father's memory.

Learning this, Mrs Waters decided to donate the medal to the Otago Medical School and it now sits in a display cabinet with other property of the Alumnus Association of the School.

The Chaffer Medal has been awarded annually since 2017.

Professor Thomson took some time to answer a few questions on the foundations his research – and his academic philosophy – is built on

You have spent decades working in dentistry. Why? Was this always where you wanted to be?

Funny you should ask. I literally got into dentistry by accident, having fallen off a skateboard at St Clair beach when I should have been studying for exams. I broke my thumb and so was unable to write my exams and finish my BSc in physiology in time for the admissions to the professional schools, so had to sit specials in February. Once the results were out, Prof Donald Beck rang me and asked whether I wanted a place in dentistry, and I figured it might be interesting, so I accepted. I have never regretted that decision! It's a wonderful career and I have made many good friends over the years.

Your chosen field and subsequent research is very “patient focussed” – have patient outcomes always driven you, as an academic?

I worked as a general dentist in NZ and England for 5 years, and always in low-SES areas (my home town of Huntly, and then Tooting in South London, and Harehills in Leeds). My time spent working in England was during the Thatcher years, during which time neoliberalism won the ideological battle. It seemed an excellent time to go into public health and try to make a difference at the population level rather than treating one person at a time, and I completed a Masters in Health Services Studies at the University of Leeds. On our return to NZ, I began working as a public health dentist for what was then the Department of Health, and I was lucky enough to get their support to study part-time for the MComDent here at Otago (with Harvey Brown). Getting into social epidemiology and health services research was a logical extension of my clinical experiences, and I was later able to do my PhD (focused on a cohort study of older South Australians) under John Spencer at Adelaide University. When Otago offered me a senior lectureship, we moved to Dunedin and I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity by Phil Silva to revive the oral health component of the renowned Dunedin study. The icing on the cake was being able to work closely with Richie Poulton and Sheila Williams, from whom I have learned a great deal over the years.

The old adage in research is “publish or perish”. You've been published hundreds of times. What advice can you give to young researchers at the beginning of their publishing journeys who might be looking at your publishing achievements and wondering how on earth they can emulate that?

Read lots and write lots, and work with mentors. Scientific writing is as much an art as it is a technical endeavour, so identify the researchers whose writing and research appeals to you and then look closely at why that is so. I was lucky to have mentors (such as Harvey Brown, John Spencer, Terrie Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi and the late David Locker) whose feedback and encouragement have helped me a lot over the years. Another key aspect is to develop the skill of picking up where you left off after an interruption – after all, if you wait for the perfect time for writing, you won't get much done.

You've been acknowledged by your peers as “a great team player” and one who takes the mentoring of young researchers seriously. Why are these traits so vital in the field of medical research?

Collaboration is key to good research. These days, so much of what we do involves complex questions and a wide range of different measures, and it's a rare researcher indeed who is up to speed on all of them, so collaborating is essential. Mentoring young researchers is probably the most rewarding aspect of my job – it's very satisfying to see someone conduct a project, publish the findings and then go on to have their own research career. It's also vital for the future of research, of course, because the old guard retire, sooner or later, and they need to “pay it forward”.

You have a career filled with acknowledgements and achievements. How is the acknowledgement the Chaffer Medal award represents significant?

It's a wonderful honour. I feel very privileged to be able to do what I do: no two days are the same, I look forward to going to work, and I get to work with really clever people. The medal is a tribute to their sustained hard work and contributions.

For further information, contact:

Craig Borley
Communications Adviser (Division of Health Sciences)
Mob +64 21 279 4144

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