Tuesday 22 October 2019 9:58am
Six researchers whose work covers everything from ancient dolphin teeth to the management of obesity have been recognised by the University of Otago.
The rising research stars were announced today as the recipients of the University’s annual Early Career Awards for Distinction in Research.
The awards went to Dr Carolina Loch (Oral Sciences), Dr Tim Hore (Anatomy), Dr Erin Macaulay, (Pathology), Dr Mei Peng (Food Science), Dr Anna Garden (Chemistry) and Dr John Shaver (Religion).
Each researcher receives a grant of NZD$5,000 for personal scholarly development and membership of the O-Zone Group which links early to mid-career researchers to promote networking and collaboration.
O-Zone co-convenor Dr Louise Bicknell says the awards celebrate both the excellent research the recipients have undertaken and their research potential.
“The careers of the award winners are already on a strong trajectory and the formal recognition by these awards will help foster further opportunities.”
Professor Richard Blaikie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise), who chairs the award selection panel, says the University is committed to recruiting, supporting and recognising outstanding early-career researchers.
“The nominees and awardees this year have all demonstrated very strong research achievements, and will all serve their disciplines very well for many years to come.”
Dr Carolina Loch (Oral Sciences)
Dr Loch has published 36 papers in international journals, given more than 50 conference presentations, secured nearly $1 million in research funds since 2017, and won a slew of awards.
While many of those achievements stem from her work studying the evolution of teeth in dolphins and whales, her research is far more varied than that; including the effects of vitamin D deficiency in human teeth, characterising new treatments for dental caries in children, and how baby and adult teeth can hold clues on rhythms of growth in humans.
“In a nutshell, I’m exploring the potential of teeth being a ‘black box’ which can unveil the secrets of a mammal’s life.”
Dr Tim Hore (Anatomy)
Brought up on a Maniototo farm, Dr Hore completed secondary school and his undergraduate degree in Dunedin. His PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra was in the rapidly evolving field of epigenetics.
After post-doctoral research at Cambridge, he set up his own epigenetics laboratory in Otago’s Department of Anatomy in 2015. Epigenetic modifications are tiny chemical changes to DNA that act like signposts instructing cellular machinery what to do. His team is working on understanding how this relates to inherited memories.
“I really enjoy the buzz of new understanding, and because of recent technologies in the field of genetics, there is plenty of new understanding up for grabs.”
Dr Erin Macaulay, (Pathology)
Originally from Boston, USA, Dr Macaulay completed her PhD in genetics at the University of Otago in 2011. Since 2013 she has been working as a research fellow at the University’s Dunedin-based Department of Pathology, and in August she was appointed as a lecturer in the same department.
Dr Macaulay’s epigenetics research examines both the placenta and cancer growth in an attempt to find commonalities between the two. During early pregnancy the placenta grows like a tumour, invading into the uterine wall to establish a nourishing blood supply for the baby but, unlike a malignant tumour, it knows when to stop.
“I love searching for clues about disease in a healthy tissue that many people just cast aside. Of course we all want to cure cancer, but realistically I do hope my research can contribute a meaningful piece to the cancer puzzle.”
Dr Mei Peng (Food Science)
Dr Peng has led the establishment of a Sensory Neuroscience Laboratory and is currently leading a successful Marsden Fast-Start project that aims to develop a multi-sensory ‘fingerprint’ to help understand over-eating and obesity.
The Senior Lecturer uses cognitive psychology and neuropsychology approaches in her research into challenges such as the management of obesity and postnatal depression. Dr Peng says she really enjoys contributing to research that is close to people’s daily lives, and is grateful for the enormous support provided since her appointment in 2015 which has helped achieve that.
“Knowing that my research is of interest to the general community has been a great source of motivation for me.”
Dr Anna Garden (Chemistry)
Following the completion of her Doctorate at Otago, Dr Garden was a postdoctoral fellow and later independent research fellow at the University of Iceland, prior to returning to the Department of Chemistry as a lecturer in 2015.
Her research, using computational chemistry to explore chemical reactions on the molecular level, is helping understand and design catalysts to produce alternative fuels and clean up dangerous pollutants. She is currently leading a Marsden Fund Fast-Start Grant which explores a green approach to denitrification of water.
“We are steadily increasing our understanding of some of these systems and are excited about future, real-world applications of our work.”
Dr John Shaver (Religion)
Trained as an evolutionary anthropologist, Dr Shaver finds field work the most rewarding part of his research and has collected field data in Fiji, Mauritius, New Zealand and the US.
The Head of Otago’s Religion Programme received the award for his work exploring the complex relationships between religion, conflict and cooperation. Next year he will embark on fieldwork in The Gambia as part of a large cross-cultural project examining the impact of modernisation on practical support available to mothers, and how this support impacts women's fertility and health, as well as their children's health and development.
“At a more basic level, my work asks: 'why are humans a religious species?', 'what does religion do, or not do, for people?', ‘if religion does something, who benefits and who doesn’t?’ and 'where is religion headed in the future?’”, he says.