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Sun striking the ClocktowerWednesday 13 April 2016 4:36pm

The University of Otago will today officially launch thirteen Research Themes that investigate areas of strategic importance to regions, New Zealand and the world.

The Research Themes, which signal developing or potential research excellence in areas of strength within the University, were selected through a contestable process. Of the 13 Themes, nine are brand new.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Blaikie (Research and Enterprise) says he is excited by the breadth and depth of the research talent and endeavour the Themes represent.

“These 13 Themes encourage increased interdisciplinary and collaborative contributions to research fields at Otago where we are national and international leaders, or are poised to be.”

The launch, which will be held at Otago Museum's Hutton Theatre, includes short presentations by Theme Directors or steering group members.

Otago's Research Themes:

For more information, contact:

Professor Richard Blaikie
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise)
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 8513

Otago's Research Themes:

Allan Wilson at Otago: A research theme for Human Evolutionary Genomics

Director: Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith (Anatomy)

Allan Wilson at Otago unites world-leading scientists across the University with leading international researchers who seek to reconstruct the biological, linguistic and cultural history of humans using cutting edge tools and technologies in genomics and bioinformatics. The study of human evolution, population origins, migrations, environmental interactions, and the resulting genetic and epigenetic variation are important scientific endeavours in their own right and have clear, yet often overlooked, implications for human health. What are the health implications of our biologically diverse population and how might we better incorporate this evolutionary perspective in our approaches to health issues and health care? These topics are also intertwined with identity and other social issues. What does it mean to be a New Zealander? How does this heritage relate to our individual, ethnic and national identities, and what does it mean for our future as an increasingly multicultural society?

Ag @ Otago

Director: Professor Frank Griffin (Microbiology and Immunology)

To develop functional collaborative interactions between University of Otago researchers and the primary production sectors. Outcomes from this research will ensure that NZ retains its premier position as a producer of high value chemical free food products in a sustainable environment. The theme will chart new cost-effective systems that align production and profitability with sustainability, in intensive farming systems. Ag@Otago brings together a diverse range of Ag-relevant capabilities. The strategy is to enter a well-managed process of dialogue with industry to truly understand industries' real needs. This will involve an extended collaborative process and the Theme investment is expected to yield tangible benefits by enabling the Research Theme to align its capacity with the needs identified by the Primary Sectors.

Asia-Pacific Biocultural Health: Past and Present

Directors: Dr Sian Halcrow and Associate Professor Hallie Buckley (Anatomy)

We will investigate fundamental questions of the human past that have pressing implications for human health today in Aotearoa, the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The University of Otago is the only place in the world to house leaders in health research focusing on these regions in one institution. Through the melding of prehistoric health and current biomedical research (evolutionary medicine) our understanding of health issues of non-communicable and infectious disease, social disparity and dietary and cultural change can be assessed. Drawing on multi-disciplinary approaches we will build new and strengthen existing research relationships, increasing research capacity, showcasing our international leadership in these areas.

ASPIRE2025 Research for a Tobacco-Free Aotearoa

Directors: Professors Janet Hoek (Marketing) and Richard Edwards (Public Health, Wellington)

New Zealand's goal of becoming essentially smokefree by 2025 led the world and directly challenged the wide scale human tragedy caused by smoking. Reducing smoking prevalence to five percent or less will herald profound improvements in people's health and well-being, and ameliorate striking inequalities. ASPIRE2025 supports this goal by bringing together researchers who span the disciplinary spectrum, and whose theoretical, experimental and clinical studies have influenced policy and practice nationally and internationally. Our work extends knowledge of how smoking initiation occurs, particularly among Māori, Pacific and young adults, develops and tests novel interventions to promote quitting, and uses clinical trials to assess innovative new cessation tools. We have developed new models of informed choice, extended endgame thinking, pioneered the evaluation of smokefree outdoor spaces, and provided evidence that underpinned the removal of tobacco retail displays and standardised packaging measures. Our expanding network now includes collaborations with leading international research groups; these links enable us to evaluate, modify and adopt new ideas, and provide opportunities to disseminate our findings to global audiences. ASPIRE's research will help realise an Aotearoa / New Zealand where children lead healthy lives free from the scourge of tobacco, and create an exemplar that inspires international action.

Collaboration of Ageing Research Excellence (CARE)

Director: Associate Professor Debra Waters (Physiotherapy/Medicine)

The Collaboration of Ageing Research Excellence (CARE) conducts research in gerontology—the study of ageing in all its aspects. Gerontology is becoming increasingly important in developed countries, including New Zealand, because of our ageing populations. The CARE network concentrates on three areas of research strength: Physical health, brain health, and social and policy development. Its members have expertise in biomedical sciences, clinical practice, population and community health, indigenous health, social sciences, rural health, and health service provision. The researchers have comprehensive local, national, and international collaborative relationships. This will bring significant benefit to New Zealand in public policy, commerce, the health sector and local communities.

Integrated Catchment Management (Catchments Otago)

Directors: Professors Katharine Dickinson (Botany), Gerry Closs and Philip Seddon (Zoology)

Water. We drink it, play in it, wash with it, fish in it, and kayak on it. We use it to support domestic stock, for irrigation, and to generate energy. Water is fundamental to all of us, for our livelihoods and our cultural values, and with over half the human body being water, our lives literally depend on it. As New Zealand's fastest growing urban areas, the Central Otago 'Alpine' Lake catchments (Hawea, Wakatipu, Wanaka, Hayes) face complex developmental challenges across environmental, social and economic disciplines. Recognising that effective water management cannot be achieved in isolation from appropriate land management, the Integrated Catchment Management Research Theme (Catchments Otago) will focus on facilitating information sharing and direct collaboration between Lake communities and Otago University researchers, to 1) understand community needs; 2) inventory key resources; 3) undertake projects to maximise efficient, equitable and sustainable resource use; 4) deliver tools for effective freshwater management; and 5) co-ordinate and enhance Otago University's capacity in Central Otago. With an interactive approach, Catchments Otago will co-ordinate regional workshops to develop the necessary scaffolding to support a better understanding of challenges facing the 'Alpine' Lakes, identify where future research needs should be focused, and help guide feasible solutions.

NZ Ocean Acidification Research Cluster

Director: Professor Abby Smith (Marine Science)

One-quarter to one-third of the fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere is absorbed in the world's oceans, slowing global warming. Unfortunately, the addition of CO2 to seawater causes a series of chemical reactions that result in the lowering of ocean pH. This “other climate change problem” is known as Ocean Acidification, a process that has the potential to fundamentally alter the ocean and its ecosystems. We are a collaborative group of scientists from the Departments of Chemistry, Botany, Zoology and Marine Science that carry out and communicate ground-breaking interdisciplinary research into Ocean Acidification, with a particular focus on the implications for New Zealand and the Southern Ocean. Our Theme has been successful as it has 1) encouraged communication and collaboration among researchers from different disciplines; 2) planned, obtained funding, and participated in multidisciplinary research projects; 3) brought together New Zealand OA researchers at an annual symposium/workshop, including attracting key international guest speakers; and 4) achieved effective outreach with the public, policy-makers, stakeholders and decision-makers.

Otago Energy Research Centre

Directors: Dr Ivan Diaz-Rainey (Accountancy and Finance) and Dr Michael Jack (Physics)

Developing a sustainable energy system is a critical global challenge for the 21st century. In response to this challenge, the OERC was founded in 2005/2006 by Emeritus Professor Gerry Carrington. Since then it has grown to become the largest and most diverse, energy-research grouping in New Zealand, encompassing over 30 staff and over 40 postgraduate students from 17 departments drawn from all four Divisions of the University. The OERC is a researcher-network and its primary role is to foster new projects by leveraging the universities broad energy expertise. From 2016 it is embarking on an exciting new phase of its development through a range of new initiatives, including (1) a unifying thematic focus on energy transition, (2) the establishment of the “UoO Energy Living Lab”, (3) the creation of an External Advisory Group and (4) the focused development of specific sub-themes through related funding rounds and events.

Pain at Otago

Director: Professor Ted Shipton (Anaesthesia, Christchurch)

Chronic pain is the third largest cause of illness-related disability for New Zealanders. The prevalence of chronic pain makes it a major health issue and a critical public health problem internationally in terms of disability adjusted life years. Chronic pain creates a health care cost burden, loss of productivity in the workplace, and has a significant impact on daily wellbeing. Research focus: understanding mechanisms of pain; predictors of pain chronicity; management of pain; pain education and curriculum. The theme's research will incorporate basic, clinical and population level research. The overall goal of the Pain at Otago research theme will be the formation of an interdisciplinary team of researchers resulting in measurable outcomes in the form of externally funded research, key national and international research collaborations and publications. Translational and clinical outcomes are ultimately designed to reduce the burden of chronic pain at an individual and national level. The research theme and its network of researchers is the first of its kind in New Zealand.

Performance of the Real

Director: Dr Suzanne Little (Theatre Studies)

Commentators have noted that during the 20th and the 21st century there has been an increasing tendency for artists and performers to try to make their work more authentic, more gritty, or otherwise more connected to the true nature of “the real” than those works which have gone before. Simultaneously, media organisations are seeking increasingly to shape and transform the “real” nature of events such as the 9/11 attacks or disasters into staged spectacular performances (Smelik, 2010). The rise of social media witnessing and reporting marks a similar desire to stage the “real”, while the growth of the “dark tourism” industry is testament to a desire to witness performatively “real” sites of suffering and atrocity. The Performance of the Real Research Theme investigates what it is about representations and performances of the real that make them particularly compelling and pervasive in our current age. At its core is the study of how performance/performativity, in its many cultural, aesthetic, political and social forms and discourses represents, critiques, stages and constructs/reconstructs the real. It is the first “centre” to examine critically the performance of the real in its broadest sense, involving national and international researchers from multiple fields in interdisciplinary dialogue/exchanges.

Polar Environments Research Theme

Directors: Drs Craig Marshall (Biochemistry) and Christian Ohneiser (Geology)

PERT is important in polar science in New Zealand. Theme members led the creation of both the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute and the Deep South Science Challenge, and contributed to key environmental policy documents such as the IPCC 5th assessment. The University of Otago is leading the way in polar research both in New Zealand and globally. On the biological front we are investigating cold adaptation as well as the biological responses to climate change of organisms, what micro-nutrients control Antarctic primary productivity, and how organic contaminants enter the Southern Ocean Food Chain. We are exploring how sea-ice forms and what controls its stability, the mechanics and changes of the ice sheets, ice shelves and glaciers, and how the upper atmosphere and outer space are coupled to the polar climate. We are watching Antarctica from space using satellites and delving deep into its past by examining geological records to determine what it was like and how quickly the ice has adapted to past warmth. The Antarctic is a key resource for understanding how the world adapted to climate change in the past from which we can make predictions about current climate change.

Poutama Ara Rau

Directors: Professor Jacinta Ruru (Law), Associate Professor Suzanne Pitama (Māori Indigenous Health Institute), Dr Karyn Paringatai (Te Tumu)

Māori learner success in tertiary studies is a national priority education strategy. One recognised mechanism to do this is to improve culturally responsive teaching practices. The Poutama Ara Rau Research Theme will test and develop an Otago research contribution to existing knowledge. As a large multidisciplinary network of mostly Māori academics, we will promote and facilitate new communication and new research collaboration in ako (Māori learning and teaching) grounded in mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and Māori pedagogies. We will develop and encourage translational Māori-related ako research. The research will be embedded in disciplinary relevant theory and methods for application across research, supervision and teaching. We will offer new opportunities for Theme researchers and Theme associated post-graduate students. Poutama Ara Rau will develop best practices in curricula, leadership and innovation strategically aligned with national strategies. These will be Māori-led solutions for Māori tertiary learners who are studying in a variety of subject areas. Our common research project is dedicated to considering “How can mātauranga Māori and Māori pedagogies transform tertiary teaching and learning?” We seek to achieve: expanded quality of Māori learning and teaching theory and methods for tertiary teaching; and enhanced access to ako in a tertiary context including technological devices.

Te Koronga: Indigenous Science

Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson and Dr Hauiti Hakopa (Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences)

Te Koronga: Indigenous Science's overarching goal is to build a strong indigenous research platform at Otago. The research direction is indigenous science and includes: science derived from Māori ways of knowing as an example of indigenous science; interface research; and science that embodies a decolonising research ethic. The mission of the theme is to advance Māori economic and cultural aspirations, to show a way forward for indigenous collaborations on an international stage, and to engage a diverse campus community with mātauranga Māori. The outcomes we hope to achieve are: Te Hononga Tāngaengae to realise the potential of existing MoUs with iwi and to strengthen relationships and collaborations; Totara Haemata to build a national and international profile of excellence as leaders; Mauri Tipu, Mauri Ora to grow Māori research capability and excellence; Te Kupenga to create a network of researchers and communities invested in research that encompasses Māori values; Te Pae Tāwhiti to create new opportunities and undertake research defined by iwi and; Te Kākano to secure funding for iwi-led projects as well as attract external research income.

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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