Announcing the 2016 James Cook Research Fellows

Three new James Cook Research Fellowships have been awarded to researchers at the height of their research careers. A small number of prestigious Fellowships are awarded annually to researchers who are recognised leaders in their respective fields. The Fellowships allow them to concentrate on their chosen research for two years without the additional burden of administrative and teaching duties. The funding package annually is $100,000 (excl. GST) and up to $10,000 (excl. GST) in relevant expenses.

The James Cook Research Fellowships are awarded to researchers on: the basis of their academic and research records; the applicant’s ability to demonstrate that they have achieved national and international recognition in their area of research expertise; the applicants’ potential to make a contribution of significance in their research field; and, the level of excellence of the proposed research.

The Royal Society of New Zealand received proposals from 22 applicants spanning three broad research areas: Physical Sciences, Health Sciences, and Engineering Sciences and Technologies. Three Assessment Panels scored the proposals and four Fellows were recommended for funding.

The 2016 James Cook Research Fellows

The University of Auckland, School of Biological Sciences, Debbie Hay, research in the Hay laboratory focuses on G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). These proteins are the cellular targets of natural hormones and are some of the most important drug targets. The research aims to contribute to the development of medicines to treat migraine, cancer, lymphatic insufficiency, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. Auckland, New Zealand, Wednesday 2 October 2013.  Photo: Stephen Barker, ©The University of Auckland

Professor Debbie Hay (photo by Stephen Barker, ©The University of Auckland)

Health Sciences: Professor Debbie Hay, The University of Auckland

“Medicines and mechanisms of migraine”

Migraine is one of the most prevalent neurological disorders, affecting 10-20% of adults. It places a substantial burden on individuals, families and society (e.g. through lost work), and is cited by the World Health Organisation as a priority for finding more effective treatments. Some patients are able to manage their migraines by avoiding their triggers, using the “triptan” class of medication, or with non-specific pain treatments, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. Unfortunately, these drugs do not work for all patients and many sufferers, especially those who suffer from chronic migraine, typified by 15 migraine days per month have no effective treatment.

Recent clinical trials for a new drug that targets the neurotransmitter Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), a principal factor in migraine pain transmission, have demonstrated great promise in reducing migraine symptoms. There is no doubt that the CGRP-based medicines that are in trials are a tremendous advance but there are still some major unresolved questions; will these drugs be safe in the long term and why do some patients respond extremely well in clinical trials but others do not?

Interestingly, Professor Hay and her team recently made the discovery that CGRP may induce pain through more than one pathway, a discovery that is in contrast to common belief. This discovery opens up the possibility of developing safer and more effective migraine drugs targeting this pain pathway. With this Fellowship, she will work with International headache experts from both academia and the pharmaceutical industry to further improve the safety and efficacy of this type of drug to improve treatments for migraine patients. She will also advance closer links with New Zealand neurologists and develop public lectures, to better understand the needs of patients with headache disorders.



naishPhysical Sciences: Professor Timothy Naish FRSNZ, Victoria University of Wellington

“The contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet to past and future sea-level rise and implications for New Zealand”

As a coastal nation the majority of New Zealand’s population live in cities and communities built around harbours and other low-lying locations. Consequently, sea-level rise presents a great risk for disruptive climate change to our economy, society and environment. The ability to accurately project future sea-level rises is difficult because of an incomplete understanding of important effects driving the rise. Currently, the single largest uncertainty hampering efforts to improve the predictions stems from a lack of knowledge concerning the potential contribution of the polar ice sheets, in particular the Antarctic ice sheet. This is further complicated by the realisation that the average temperature increase in the polar regions are higher than the average global temperature increase – a phenomenon termed ‘polar (temperature) amplification’ – due to a number of poorly understood amplifying feedbacks such as ocean heat uptake, ocean circulation, ozone hole recovery and more. The level of sea-level rise also depends on local factors. For example, some parts of New Zealand’s North Island are subsiding at up to 3mm per year due to plate tectonic processes. Vertical land movements, coastal morphology, sediment supply, wave and storm climate, ocean dynamics, and the regional geoidal deformation combine to affect the rate, magnitude and ultimately the impact of sea-level rise on a specific location.

In this project, Professor Naish will work toward reducing the uncertainty of future sea-level rise on two levels. Firstly, he will work closely with international collaborators to drill a geological record on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that will help researchers to determine how the ice sheet has reacted to temperature changes in the past and hence provide more accurate predictions of future changes. Secondly, he will improve region-specific projections of sea-level rise in New Zealand by taking into account local influences and hydro-glacio-isostatic (GIA) modelling – the latter referring to the modelling of changes to Southern Ocean sea levels as a consequences of predicted rise of land masses previously depressed by the huge weight of ice sheets. Ultimately, better predictions of future sea-level rises are critically needed for anticipating and managing the socio-economic impacts of the sea-level rise in New Zealand.



photo_p-smithEngineering Sciences and Technologies: Professor Peter Smith, Victoria University of Wellington

“Analysis and design of millimeter wave communication systems

The demand for mobile data continues to increase globally. International standards bodies have set extremely challenging targets for mobile communication systems to achieve by 2020. For example, increases in data rate of the order of one hundred times are envisaged. To support these rates, new spectrum in the so-called millimeter wave bands is being considered and is expected to become an integral component of 5G (Fifth Generation wireless systems) which is expected to begin deployment in 2018-2020.

The fundamental nature of millimeter wave channels is little known, with most measurement campaigns and theoretical models only emerging in the last few years. The best current understanding of the channel leads to channel models that are ray based, depending on the random geometry of the environment. This is in stark contrast to traditional mobile communication where relatively simple statistical models exist which are extensively used in the design and analysis of systems. Hence, the fundamental analytical building blocks for millimeter wave communication are almost entirely missing due to the complexity of these ray based models.

In this project, Professor Smith aims to build up a set of analytical results for the millimeter wave channel, which form the basis of system evaluation and design. This allows him and his colleagues to develop performance evaluation methods for millimeter wave systems and also design and optimize signal processing schemes to achieve higher data rates.