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Reaching for the skies

Marsden Blue skies

Reaching for the skies

For the eighth successive year University of Otago researchers have won the lion’s share of the prestigious Marsden Fund, supporting blue-skies research that has the potential for long-term benefits for New Zealand.

If there is some sort of formula, or algorithm, for success that Otago has struck, don't expect Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie to give it away.

For the eighth successive year the University of Otago has won the largest share of the prestigious and highly-contested Marsden funding round, gaining $15 million in new government funding for 22 world-class research projects across a wide range of fields.

"Less than one in every 10 Marsden applications will finally succeed. There is a very strong culture here at Otago of wanting to seek recognition for the quality of research," explains Blaikie. "A Marsden award is about gaining the funding that will support that research, but also about hallmarking your activities with the quality of the award and the responsibilities that go with it."

It is a tough process and, for some time now, the Marsden Fund has been recognised as one of the most highly contested in the world, says Blaikie.

He should know. A former Marsden Fund council member he has seen the rigorous process from the inside and outside – this year gaining funding for his own research in physics.

The fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the government, supports projects in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, social sciences and the humanities.

Chairperson of the Marsden Fund Professor Juliet Gerrard says it gives research grants to New Zealand's brightest researchers to enable them to work on their best ideas.

"The fund frees researchers from short-term government priorities and enables them to do 'investigator-led' research, letting new ideas flourish, which has long-term benefit for New Zealand."

There is a very rigorous two-stage selection process. Both stages involve a national expert panel and the second stage includes critical review from two or three international expert referees for each proposal, says Gerrard.

"New Zealand's researchers are very enthusiastic in applying to the fund, which means that the process is extremely competitive and always heavily over-subscribed.

"The successful proposals tend to be both very high risk and potentially very high gain; this means they are likely to make the most difference to New Zealand in the long term. Thus, the Marsden Fund has a rich history of 'game-changing' research programmes that it has funded over the years."

There are plenty of past and ongoing Otago research projects that can be numbered among them.

A great example is Professor Christine Winterbourn (Pathology), a principal investigator in the Centre for Free Radical Research at the University of Otago, Christchurch, who was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that cells produce free radicals as part of their normal function. Free radicals are implicated in a range of diseases such as cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease and arthritis. Her research has shown how free radicals and other reactive oxidants are produced, what sort of damage they cause and how the body protects itself.

Then there is Professor Warren Tate (Biochemistry) who has been heavily involved in the High Throughput Screening Project, working in collaboration with the University of Otago's commercialisation arm, Otago Innovation Ltd, to examine the potential to develop a drug to control HIV. This came out of fundamental research in which Tate discovered a genetic mechanism called frameshift, which viruses use during multiplication, something that immediately became a potential drug target. A drug discovery screening tool was also developed and patented by Otago Innovation.

Professor Janet Hoek (Marketing) is part of a collaborative group of interdisciplinary researchers called Aspire2025 who align themselves with the government aim to have a tobacco-free Aotearoa by 2025. Research by Hoek has provided evidence that point-of-sale displays increase the risk of young people experimenting with smoking and make it harder for smokers to quit. This research has facilitated the removal of tobacco retail displays.

Another to benefit from Marsden Fund support is Sciences’ Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Keith Hunter (Chemistry), from the Centre for Chemical and Physical Oceanography. His focus has been on exploring the interactions between oceans and climate, including investigating the contribution made by tiny marine phytoplankton which absorb carbon dioxide from the sea.

Otago has also gained Marsden funding in social research. Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Helen Leach has delved deeply into the history of that great Kiwi dessert, pavlova. While Australia has tried to lay claim to it, Leach found that the earliest recipes came from New Zealand. She has also identified three distinctive types of “pav” and been able to follow many of the developments of our country's culinary traditions.

Meanwhile, Professor Judy Bennett and Dr Angela Wanhalla (History and Art History) have been tracing the stories of some of the several thousand mixed-race babies born to Pacific women and US servicemen during World War II. Little has been known about them until now, but this research has had a deep personal impact by reuniting families and helping children, and even grandchildren, understand their roots.

Underpinning all that success is research of high quality, says Blaikie. "The quality of the research that comes out of Otago and the quality of the outcomes of the research are things that we’re immensely proud of."

He is also proud of the range of research funded in 2012.

"We're not a health sciences university, we're not a sciences university, we’re not a humanities, business or an arts and culture university: we're involved in all those areas in various degrees."

This year's 22 successful applicants cover across a whole range of fields from biochemistry, zoology and English, to marine science and geography. For example, Dr Greg Anderson (Anatomy) will be examining how the hormone prolactin, which is released during lactation, helps reduce maternal anxiety. This research will receive $975,000 over three years.

Research by Dr Patrice Rosengrave (Anatomy) will look to understand how the males of many species – in this case Chinook salmon – can adjust their sperm quality very rapidly in response to the presence of a female or a competitor. It is hoped this three-year $345,000 Fast-Start grant, awarded to up-and-coming researchers, will increase understanding of male fertility in humans, livestock and aquaculture.

Salmon – in this case Pacific salmon – will also be the focus for Dr Martin Krkosek (Zoology) whose $345,000 three-year Fast-Start grant will allow him to examine the underlying processes involved in cyclical fluctuations of animal populations.

A $910,000 project will see Dr Richard Macknight (Biochemistry) seek to discover how legumes control their flowering time and how this process has evolved. This should help plant breeders develop new legume varieties tailored to different geographical locations.

Even self-control, or the brain mechanisms behind it, will be investigated by Dr David Bilkey (Psychology) using $800,000 of funding over three years. Self-control is important because it influences a range of areas including self-regulation, delay of gratification and willpower – areas that can influence physical health, substance abuse and criminal offending.

The importance for children of contact with nature in their neighbourhood and how they can be best supported to develop and maintain connections with the natural world will be examined by Associate Professor Claire Freeman (Geography) with a three-year $430,000 grant.

Tidal turbine farms will be examined in yet another three-year $940,000 project by Dr Ross Vennell (Marine Science). It is known that the more turbines there are, the more the flow speeds fall, reducing output. They will use analytical computational techniques to develop a scaling law to underpin the relationship between power production and farm size, helping address fundamental questions around harnessing the tide for power.

And, while Dr Robert Thompson (Mathematics and Statistics) has a $345,000 Fast-Start grant to examine the relatively new field of transformation optics – including cloaking devices and super-resolution lenses – Professor Evelyn Tribble (English) has been awarded $485,000 over three years for research into the Ecologies of Skills in Early Modern England. This will look at how a whole range of skills – from dance music and sport to craft and science – were acquired and transmitted.

"It's interesting to talk about blue-skies research, but if you dig into these proposals there is an underpinning tangible benefit proposition – a value proposition – for the funder, which is the New Zealand taxpayer, ultimately." – Professor Richard Blaikie.

He is also excited to see early-career Otago researchers being awarded Fast-Start funding. "You can just see that these will lead on to projects and programmes in the future careers of these people that will really make a difference. That's where the Marsden sits. It's at the genesis of a whole lot of very important activity in New Zealand – and for New Zealand."

As for the idea of a formula for success, Blaikie states that hard work has a great deal to do with it.

"These are the researchers who have worked very hard to get into this position of having funding to support the next two or three years of their programmes. The challenge is to start now to deliver really exciting research results and findings, and translate those into great outcomes.

"It has been a great year for Otago," Blaikie reflects. "Not just with Marsden, but with HRC [Health Research Council] and others. We have been very successful in MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment] funding which is much more focused on the translational effort – even though that still requires strong science input.

"It is interesting. I think we are getting to a point where there is blurring of the boundaries of what is basic and what is translational. We're not going to stick things in a box and say that's fundamental research so it's never going to be useful – or that's applied research and will never have the academic credibility. Both have the right place in a balanced system," he says.

"It is wonderful to see how all these different things interact. If it were simple someone would have written a formula for it. There could be a Marsden grant in that …”

– MARK WRIGHT