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Otago VC joins scientific network focused on improving health


Wednesday 15 May 2013 3:25pm

Professor Harlene Hayne
Professor Harlene Hayne
Photographer Alan Dove

The University of Otago’s Vice-Chancellor is bringing her expertise in biological and cognitive development to a collaborative organisation of scientists and clinicians focused on discovering ‘the healthiest start to life’ for New Zealand’s children.

Professor Harlene Hayne (ONZM) has been accepted as an Associate Investigator with Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development. Gravida is a government-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) that draws its members from the country’s universities, medical schools, research institutions, farm sites and labs.

All of Gravida’s members are biomedical, clinical and animal scientists who are focused on researching what factors influence the way an individual grows and develops throughout life. They look at conditions and processes in conception, pregnancy, birth and the early years of development of both humans and animals to try to understand how to improve the health and wellbeing of generations to come. Gravida members’ scientific discoveries are then translated into findings for public policy, clinical guidelines, new practices and education.

“Professor Hayne’s membership highlights the genuine spirit of collaboration between established universities and institutes around the country, all working towards the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders,” says Gravida Director Phil Baker.

“We are now proud to have 19 University of Otago researchers amongst our total national membership of close to 80 researchers, many of whom are working on projects with co-collaborators at centres and farm sites across other regions, at the Universities of Auckland, Canterbury,Massey, Landcorp or AgResearch.

“We expect this year to be a huge year of growth for our field, particularly given the emphasis on supporting research in early life growth and development in the ‘Better start for all New Zealanders’ challenge announced in the National Science Challenges. ‘

Prof Hayne’s membership also illustrates the growing international scientific understanding that complex processes involving not only biological but cognitive, behavioural and environmental experiences are all responsible for influencing health and disease outcomes.

Around the world, psychologists and other scientists are working together to collaborate on research projects looking at for example whether maternal stress can influence fetal development in utero, or how a child’s environment can help ‘pre-programme' their nutrition decisions and therefore have implications for future obesity, says Gravida Director Phil Baker.

“This cross-fertilisation of ideas and insights across scientific disciplines is leading to some remarkable breakthroughs by our members and is a true strength of our collaborative model,” says Professor Baker.

“I am delighted to join Gravida,”says Professor Hayne.

“In New Zealand, infants, children and adolescents are currently facing a number of important challenges that negatively affect their physical and psychological development.

“The good news is that New Zealand is also home to world experts in many scientific disciplines that will help us to solve these important problems. Our collective research efforts will go a long way toward ensuring that young people in this country have a bright, healthy, and successful future. ”

Professor Hayne has a distinguished history of published research over the past 30 years looking at memory development in infants, children and adults. She is considered an authority on children’s testimony in the courtroom.

In her current work Professor Hayne is also exploring the neuropsychological changes that occur during adolescence and the implications of these changes for risk taking and social development. The results of this research have important implications for public policy decisions regarding a wide range of issues including alcohol, drug use, driving, and the transition to university.

She is also examining the fundamental mechanisms of cognitive processing (for example, counting, planning) in studies with both children and animals. This research has important implications in educational settings, and could help to shape new and efficient teaching methods.

Both streams of work will help inform the body of work Gravida’s members are involved in around the country.

For more information

Jo Galer
Senior Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 4798263

Aimee Brock
Communications Advisor

About Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development

Gravida is a Government-funded national Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) which draws its members from New Zealand’s universities, medical schools, research institutions and farm sites. Its members are biomedical, clinical and animal scientists dedicated to finding out what factors and processes influence early life growth and development in both humans and animals, in order to identify future health and disease risk in the years to come.

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