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Published 12 March 2019

2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes presented

The award ceremony to present the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes was held at Parliament today.

The Prizes, now celebrating their tenth year, recognise the impact of science on New Zealanders’ lives, celebrate the achievements of current scientists and encourage scientists of the future. The year's awards are presented early in the following year.   

> View photos from the ceremony

> Livestreamed video of ceremony is also available on our Facebook page

The 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, the premier award for science that is transformational in its impact, has been awarded to the STRmix™ team from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

The 16-member team is recognised for the development and advancement of STRmix™ software that has been used in more than 100,000 cases worldwide to interpret DNA material from multiple individuals at a crime scene.

Before STRmix™ started being used in 2012, says ESR Senior Scientist Dr Jo-Anne Bright, a lot of evidential material was wasted because many mixed DNA profiles were too complicated to analyse.

“At a lot of crime scenes, particularly sexual assaults, you have samples from the victim and also from the offender, along with mixtures on clothing that might contain DNA from various people.

“Before STRmix™ existed, we didn’t interpret a lot of these mixtures. Following its introduction in New Zealand, we saw a 30 to 50 percent improvement in our DNA profiling success rate, with the rates getting better the more complicated the profile was.

The data gained can then be compared to DNA on databases of known individuals or to individual suspects.

STRmix™ is now the number one software for the interpretation of DNA profiles internationally and is routinely used in case work by more than 40 laboratories around the world. Many of those are in Australia and North America but the product is also being used in Asia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom.

The prize money will be used further develop the science behind STRmix™ by investigating the use of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence or machine learning, to continually improve what can be determined from mixed DNA profiles and to further speed up turnaround times. View more about the Prime Minister's Science Prize Winner.

The other prize winners:

The Prime Minister’s 2018 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize Winner

Won by Dr Peng Du from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland. Peng is leading the world with his development of devices that help in the fast, reliable diagnosis and treatment of gut problems. He uses a combination of experimental recording and mathematical modelling to understand what happens to the food we eat, and the interactions between waves of bioelectrical activity generated by the gut and its movements to ensure essential nutrients can be absorbed. Prototype manufacturing of the devices he is creating is underway and Peng hopes they will lead to improved management and treatment of challenging digestive conditions. View more about the Prime Minister's Emerging Scientist Prize Winner.

The Prime Minister’s 2018 Science Teacher Prize

Won by Wellington science teacher Carol Brieseman at Hampton Hill School in Tawa. Carol believes that igniting students’ natural curiosity and inspiring them to constantly question events around them is key to their life-long learning success. Her year five and six students know that there is no such thing as a dumb question and if their teacher doesn't know the answer, they can work it out together. Initiatives instigated by Carol at Hampton Hill School include the installation of solar panels, a school vegetable garden with worm farms, compost bins and student-designed water tanks, a green-house made from recycled bottles, a human sundial and a five senses garden. Carol, who has 30 years teaching experience, shares her capabilities widely by supporting and mentoring teachers at Hampton Hill and other schools. View more about the Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize Winner. 

The Prime Minister’s 2018 Science Communication Prize

Won by Professor James Renwick from Victoria University of Wellington. In the past five years, James has been involved in more than 100 public presentations about climate change, given more than 200 media interviews in New Zealand and internationally and presented at numerous conferences focused on climate change and how to mitigate its effects. He says he feels a sense of duty to tell the world about the science behind climate change, the consequences that are unfolding and the urgent need for action. James will use the prize funds to build collaborations on climate change between artists and scientists and to further strengthen links with tangata whenua. View more about the Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize Winner.

The Prime Minister’s 2018 Future Scientist Prize

Won by former Onslow College student Finnegan Messerli. Finnegan wins the Prize for research into a physics problem that could ultimately help scientists better understand the risks of avalanches and slips.  Finn’s project began when he was asked to explain at an international physics tournament why grains like salt form a cone-like pile when they are poured onto a surface. It required him to find a method of testing the properties of the grains. “Essentially I designed the method I would have liked to have at my fingertips when I was working on the problem,” says Finn. He is the third student from Wellington’s Onslow College to win the Future Scientist award in the Prizes’s 10-year history. All three winning students have been taught by Kent Logan, who is Head of Science at the school. View more about the Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize Winner. 

Source: Prime Minister's Science Prizes | Royal Society Te Apārangi