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Thursday 23 July 2015 12:39pm

Otago's 2015 Distinguished Research Medal recipient Professor Sally Brooker (second from right) with her research team (from left) Dr Humphrey Feltham, Michael Bennington, JJ Hrudka, Hannah Davidson, Reece Miller, Stuart Malthus, Santi Rodríguez-Jiménez and Ross Hogue. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

The winner of this year's University of Otago Distinguished Research Medal Professor Sally Brooker has dedicated her award to her extremely supportive parents.

Professor Brooker is an internationally leading inorganic chemistry researcher who designs and creates innovative molecules that could underpin future technologies.

She has published more than 170 refereed journal articles, and her papers have featured on the front covers of top-tier chemistry journals. She has also been awarded a number of prizes, including the prestigious Easterfield Medal by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Chemistry (1999) and the Institute's Maurice Wilkins Prize for Excellence in Chemical Research (2009).

The Bulletin asked her more about her background, the award, and the advice she has for other researchers.

1. What is your background?

I am very fortunate to have grown up on a North Canterbury farm in a happy and supportive family, and to have gone to the small but excellent local school, Hawarden Area School, from 5 to 17 years of age. I went on to Canterbury University where I gained my BSc (Hons) and PhD. After undertaking a postdoctoral fellowship in the Federal Republic of Germany, I joined the University of Otago's Department of Chemistry as a lecturer in the winter of 1991.

2. Have you always been interested in science? Or was there a moment growing up when you realised science was for you?

Mum tells me that I was so keen to start school that I insisted on catching the school bus on the first day, so she followed in the car in order to do the necessary paperwork. From the start I loved reading and maths, and disliked writing, being one of the last in my class to be allowed to move from pencil to pen, as I wrote too fast and hence untidily – indeed I was put back on pencil briefly, as I continued to write too fast and untidily. Funny the things you remember from school days!
We went to the school laboratory for the first time when we were 12, and I loved it. One of my first memories is of the intensely purple colour of permanganate. Another vivid memory is of the rainbow of beautiful colours vanadium goes through on reduction through its many oxidation states. Colour has always fascinated me. On the other hand, I do not like Bunsen burners and making flashes, bangs and bad smells - unlike many of my colleagues for whom these things are a key reason they love chemistry. Like life, everyone has different interests!

3. What, in a nutshell, does your research look at?

In my research group, we try to put metal ions into unusual environments, by inserting them into carefully designed 'pockets' which provide us with a lot of control. Thanks to the degree of control we have, we can fine tune the pockets, and hence the properties of the metal ions, by making small changes to them, whilst retaining the overall structure of the complex. Usually we have more than one pocket, so in a controlled way we make complexes with the chosen number, usually two or more, and types, of metal ions. The properties we are after include (a) redox or magnetic switching between two (or more) states, such as occurs with spin crossover or single molecule magnetism, as this has potential nano-switch, nano-memory and sensor applications, (b) luminescent complexes as potential biomarkers or sensors and (c) catalytic activity, for example environmentally-friendly catalysts to produce useful polymers out of carbon dioxide and epoxide, or to produce hydrogen gas and/or oxygen gas from water.

4. What do you love about this particular field?

Designing and making molecules that have never been made before is a great privilege and remains very exciting! Growing colourful gem-like crystals and revealing their 3D structures and properties is also a huge buzz - especially when a breakthrough result like this is shared with an ecstatic student.

5. What does it mean to you to be named Otago's 2015 Distinguished Researcher?

I was totally surprised, and thrilled, when [Otago Vice-Chancellor] Harlene called me to congratulate me on the award of this medal. It's a real honour to see my team's research recognised by the University.

6. Any advice for other Otago researchers?

You'll always be too busy. So just get on with it, and write that paper/grant application NOW, not later. Try to always see the glass half full. There's no point wasting time whinging, so try to decide to either get over 'it' and move on, or do something proactive to try and change 'it' – either way a good mentor will be a very valuable sounding board. Finally, always try to be pleasant, honest and fair with everyone you deal with, just as you would like them to treat you, as in the end it is all about people, and bringing the best out in them.

7. What next for you?

Continue to do all I can to help more of my outstanding group members to realise their full potential, and to support them as they look to the next step. Long term, I think that one of the biggest rewards in this job is seeing my growing 'chemistry family' doing really well in the world – whether its success in Croucher Brewing, AJ Park patent law, or as a University lecturer (Massey, Freiburg, Huaiyin Teachers College, Southampton, ANU) or postdoctoral fellow (Cambridge, Leeds, Glasgow, Colorado, New York, Mexico City, Strasbourg, Otago) or school teaching or Glycosyn business management, or as a GNS or NIWA research scientist, or wool consultant, or….

9. Anything else you wish to add?

I am truly honoured that the University has selected me for this award. I dedicate this medal to my wonderful parents, who have always been unconditionally supportive of me. I also want to take this opportunity to thank my mentors and colleagues, and to gratefully acknowledge my many very talented co-workers, without whom this lovely science would not have been realised.

The Medal, the University of Otago's highest distinction, is awarded for outstanding scholarly achievement, including the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, the development of innovative technology, or the development of concepts that lead to significant advances.

It will be presented to Professor Brooker when she delivers a public lecture later this year.

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