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Two leading Otago researchers awarded prestigious national medals

Blossom outside Clocktower

Thursday 24 November 2016 4:28pm

The outstanding achievements of two University of Otago researchers were recognised through the bestowing of prestigious national medals at last night’s 2016 Research Honours Dinner. The pair was among 16 New Zealand researchers honoured at the Royal Society of New Zealand event in Christchurch.

History researcher Professor Tony Ballantyne FRSNZ was awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal for innovative work of outstanding merit in the humanities and Professor Hamish Spencer FRSNZ of Zoology received the Callaghan Medal for his outstanding contribution to science communication and raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress.

Humanities Aronui Medal for Professor Tony Ballantyne

Tony Ballantyne bookcase image
Professor Tony Ballantyne FRSNZ

Professor Ballantyne was awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal for reshaping scholarly thought on British imperial history.

His research on the history of the British Empire during the nineteenth century has shown how ideas about cultural difference (race, religion, language and gender) structured colonial power, and how these ideas influenced and continue to influence both colonised and colonising people.

His idea of the ‘webs of empire’ draws attention to the web-like structure of the British empire and the importance of both direct ‘horizontal’ connections between colonies as well as ‘vertical’ linkages back to Britain.

Professor Ballantyne has used this ‘web of empire’ concept to reveal just how central the imperial connections were to the new communities being developed in New Zealand in the nineteenth-century, by highlighting links between New Zealand and a range of institutions, religious and social movements, markets and cultural currents in India, China, Britain and the Australian colonies.

The medal selection committee said this model had been highly influential in shaping the ‘new imperial history’, a cultural approach to the histories of British empire-building and colonialism and had challenged many of the conventional interpretations that have shaped New Zealand historical writing since the 1960s.

His most recent work, Entanglements of Empire (2014), was the winner of the New Zealand Historical Association’s W.H. Oliver prize for the best journal book on New Zealand history published 2013 – 2015. It was also a finalist for Ernest Scott prize for the best book relating to Australian or New Zealand history.

Professor Ballantyne says he is delighted to receive the Humanities Aronui Medal. “I have been exceptionally lucky to have been taught and mentored by some outstanding historians, to have been able to develop my thought in dialogue with generous colleagues here in New Zealand and internationally, and to be able to research in the incredibly rich holdings of our libraries and archives, especially Hocken Collections here at the University of Otago.”

Professor Ballantyne is Pro-Vice Chancellor, Humanities at the University of Otago and Director for Centre for Research on Colonial Culture. Professor Ballantyne was awarded a Marsden Fund grant in 2005 for his research into the development of colonial knowledge in southern New Zealand, and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2012.

Callaghan Medal for Professor Hamish Spencer

Hamish Spencer image
Professor Hamish Spencer FRSNZ

Professor Spencer was awarded the Callaghan Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand for leading successful programmes of science communication and public participatory action with Uawa/Tolaga Bay and Ngai Tāmanuhiri.

The medal selection committee noted that these self-sustaining projects provide an exemplar for future public participatory partnerships in New Zealand.

The Allan Wilson Centre (AWC) began engaging with the Tolaga Bay Community in the Gisborne region during the planning stages of the 2012 celebrations of the Transit of Venus; Tolaga Bay was the place Captain James Cook made landfall in New Zealand after observing the Transit of Venus in Tahiti in 1769.

Following visits from many AWC scientists, led by Professor Spencer as the Director, a concrete plan for the transformation of the ecological and community health of the wider Uawa catchment was developed. Called the Uawanui Sustainability Project (USP), it is a partnership of local Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti iwi with schools, local farmers and multinational forest companies and includes multi-generational involvement.

The USP is self-sustaining with a local Governance Board and the chair of the board, Victor Walker, says that numerous visits from Professor Spencer and AWC staff have “normalised a scientific approach across the community”, and that the project “has pervaded every nook and cranny of our small community”.

In addition to supporting AWC involvement with the project, Professor Spencer has given numerous talks in the region and led the 2015 Bioblitz in Tolaga Bay, which has given baseline information of the region’s flora and fauna but has also led to several practical conservation modules designed for local high-school students.

External recognition has come from several sources: the project was awarded $575,000 from Ministry for the Environment’s Te Mana o Te Wai fund and won the WWF’s 2015 Community Conservation Project Innovation Award of $25, 000. The conservation of NZ Dotterels and native bats, projects Professor Spencer advised on, also received a grant from MBIE’s Unlocking Curious Minds fund. The project won the Ministry for Environment’s 2016 Green Ribbon Award for protecting biodiversity.

The second partnership Professor Spencer has led is located in the south of Poverty Bay with Ngai Tāmanuhiri. This small iwi sought more science to be in their community and many AWC researchers were invited to Muriwai Marae to talk about their work. In addition, Ngai Tāmanuhiri wanted on-the-ground science advice about improving their land and waterways. The project was set up to be self-sustaining and has received funding from MBIE’s Vision Mātauranga Fund to continue the work.

On receiving the Callaghan Medal, Professor Spencer said: “I am delighted at the award, but it is really a recognition for the work of the whole AWC team, as well as our iwi partners. That last word is crucial: the success of both the USP and the work with Ngai Tāmanuhiri is due primarily to the development of a genuine partnership between AWC scientists and the local communities.”

Professor Spencer is based in the Department of Zoology. His area of research is evolutionary theory at its applications, including population genetics and epigenetics. He is on the editorial board for journal Environmental Epigenetics and has received many honorary fellowships and visiting professor positions. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2009.

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