View recipients of the Rutherford Foundation Trust
"Earthquake-induced ground motion prediction: Realizing the shift from empirical relations to physics-based simulation methods"
Probabilistic seismic hazard analysis is an analytical technique used to determine the probability of a specific location exceeding some level of seismic ground shaking in the future. This analysis is particularly important for the design and construction of urban structures that can withstand earthquakes, and to inform engineers of the appropriate amount of earthquake proofing required.
Currently empirical models developed from recorded ground shaking from past earthquakes are used in seismic hazard analysis for the prediction of earthquake-induced ground motions. However, their prediction precision is limited. With the rapid advance in high-performance computing, interest in physics-based alternatives has increased. Physics-based models simulate earthquake-induced ground motions through the physical laws of earthquake rupture and seismic wave propagation, with increased prediction precision. However, these new methods are not without challenges - the evolution of earthquake rupture in time and space is complex, the material composition of the Earth’s surface varies spatially, and imaging both of these is difficult due to their location below the Earth’s surface.
The 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence, and more recently, the Kaikoura earthquake, has put New Zealand researchers at the forefront of this discipline. These events provided researchers with the opportunity to validate simulated ground motions and develop models to describe the earth’s crust in different regions of New Zealand.
Dr Lee’s research aims to build on this work, and accelerate the world’s transition to physics-based ground motion simulation in probabilistic seismic hazard analysis. He will do this through extensive validation and uncertainty consideration, using New Zealand as a natural earthquake laboratory. This research has the potential to lead to a shift in the manner in which ground motions are predicted. This in turn will improve the way in which ground motion hazards are considered in the design, assessment, and resilience of the natural and built environment. Dr Lee and his team, with the aid of advanced visualization, will also use the products of this research to help increase public understanding of earthquakes and their consequences
“Building bigger and better cages: a novel approach to large and complex molecules”
Natural metal-containing enzymes are formed from two components – metal ions and an organic scaffold - and play vital roles in our body. An example is haemoglobin, made from iron ions inserted into a protein framework, which is able to bind oxygen in the lungs and releases the oxygen to cells throughout the body where it is needed. Synthetic variants, known as cages, are the subject of intense interest from chemists because their ability to bind and release specific molecules (such as oxygen) provides a wide range of applications from trapping environmental pollutants to drug delivery. However, the big challenge is to synthesise cages that retain specificity for the molecule they are designed to carry, while being large enough to interact simultaneously with multiple molecules.
With this fellowship, Dr Daniel Preston will work to increase the structural and functional complexity of molecular cages in order to increase their functionality. He will develop novel methodologies for the creation of an exciting new class of molecular cages, which can be tuned to bind and carry specific targets. This will result in increased control over the molecule bound to the cage, it’s delivery, and it’s catalysis, and will have potential implications in medicinal and industrial applications.
“Solar cells beyond the Shockley-Quiesser limit: 2-D semiconductors at the interface”
Photovoltaic solar panels convert light into electricity. This conversion is dependent on specific materials (semiconductors) with specific properties that allow light to excite electrons in the material, which generates electric power. A step change in photovoltaic technology – either in terms of device manufacturing or device efficiency - would go a long way towards stopping the worst impacts of climate change, and speeding the world’s transition to renewable energy. However, a current limitation in photovoltaics is the efficiency by which materials transform solar energy to electricity. This problem is captured in the “Schockley-Quiesser limit”, which states that for a single material solar cell, the maximum power efficiency is around 33 percent.
In this project, Dr Price will use cutting-edge equipment and methodologies developed at Victoria University of Wellington to try and further understand the photovoltaic properties of two exciting new semiconductor materials - metal halide perovskites and atomically thin transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs). While metal halide perovskites have already shown a remarkable rise in their photovoltaic efficiency over the last few years from 3 to 22 percent, a really interesting property of both types of material is their potential to be suitable for an experimental type of solar cell termed “hot carrier cells”. A hot carrier solar cell would be able to beat the Shockley-Quiesser limit by harvesting energy from the high-energy part of the solar spectrum that is otherwise lost as heat in conventional solar cells, but they have proven too difficult to make due to a lack of suitable materials that can hold on to the thermal energy long enough for it to be harvested in the cell. By applying the spectroscopy equipment and expertise available at Victoria University to the perovskites and TMD materials, Dr Price aims to determine if the properties of the perovskites and TMD materials are suitable for hot carrier cells and, if so, work towards the realisation of actual hot carrier solar cell devices.
“Harnessing sequence variation of MYB genes across plant genomes for a healthy and colourful future”
Colourful fruit and vegetables are not only pleasing to the eye and taste buds, but also contain antioxidants which have numerous health benefits. Anthocyanins are a major group of antioxidant pigments that are thought to prevent or hinder human diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer. The pathway that produces anthocyanins is encoded in genes within the plants’ DNA. Proteins from the MYB family interact with plant DNA to regulate the expression of genes in this pathway. The levels of MYB proteins in a plant cell are themselves highly regulated, but the mechanisms are not well understood.
Dr Jessica Rodrigues has been awarded a Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship to study how genetic variation across MYB proteins is important to New Zealand’s favourite fresh produce, including kiwifruit, grape, strawberry, apple, peach, and potato. She will catalogue previously uncharacterized MYB proteins and investigate how they evolved within and among different crop species. She will use sophisticated computational algorithms to identify regulatory features of MYB proteins. By identifying regulatory features that inhibit or enhance anthocyanin production, Dr Rodrigues will identify important molecular markers of desirable traits for selective plant breeding. Crop breeding assisted by such molecular markers is faster, more accurate and more reproducible than conventional breeding approaches.
This research will provide valuable insights into how plants have evolved. It will also allow the breeding of plants with enhanced production of beneficial anthocyanins ensuring a healthy future for both New Zealand produce and the New Zealanders that consume them.
“Epigenetic regulation of sex change”
Most plants and animals remain the same sex throughout life. Some, however, can change their sex as a normal part of their lifecycle. Natural sex change is very common in highly social species of reef fish, caused by changes in the group’s social structure and resulting in gonad restructuring and alternations in appearance and behaviour. The molecular underpinnings of this amazing transformation are not yet well understood. Recent research has linked environmental cues to DNA modifications that shape how genes are expressed, without changing their underlying genetic code – known as epigenetic modifications. This process is relevant to understanding how sex is determined at a molecular level as well as how the external environment can influence gene expression.
In this project, Dr Erica Todd will use fish such as the spotty (Notolabrus celiodotus) and bluehead (Thalassoma bifasciatum) wrasse to study the genetic and environmental bases of sex change. These species are excellent models as manipulating captive social groups readily induces female to male sex change. Dr Todd will combine cutting edge, genome wide analysis of epigenetic DNA modifications and with measures of gene expression in the wrasses to explore how natural sex change is initiated and controlled. She will also examine how manipulating DNA modifications affects the sex change process. This research will advance our understanding of vertebrate sexual development and plasticity, and may also provide insights into human disorders of sexual development.
“Application of Metal Halide Perovskites and Organic Semiconductor Materials to Photovoltaic Devices”
One of the most pressing issues of our time is climate change. Its consequences range from rising seas to more severe droughts. Despite these threats, we still only get 1% of our global energy from solar power –one of the most effective ways of combating climate change. The main reason for this is that today’s silicon-made solar panels are too expensive. So, if we want to harvest electricity from sunlight on the global scale, we need to develop cheaper alternatives.
Solar cells made from metal halide perovskites are one possibility. They have seen a remarkable increase in solar cell efficiency from 3.8% in 2009 to a competitive 22.1% in early 2016, with some promises to even reach up to 30%. Crucially, their low-cost and easy fabrication – they can be “printed” – means they can be competitive commercially. Another great potential candidate for low-cost solar cells are organic semiconductors. These materials have attracted interest due to their ingenious ability to ‘split’ single electrons into two electrons, boosting the amount of electricity that can be produced.
For both perovskites and organic semiconductors, there is still much work needed, especially around improving stability and efficiency, lowering toxicity, and finding the right materials to use in tandem. We also need to fully understand the fundamental processes that play out, and how exactly electrons in these materials respond to sunlight.
Mr Alexander Sneyd from Victoria University of Wellington has received a Rutherford Foundation Trust scholarship to pursue a PhD at the University of Cambridge investigating the fundamental physics of alternative solar cell materials such a perovskites and organic semiconductors. The University of Cambridge has a strong emphasis on developing renewable technologies, and he will join the Optoelectronics group led by Professor Sir Richard Friend. At Cambridge, Mr Sneyd will work with leading experts in optoelectronics, and his research will ideally help solve one of the world’s preeminent issues: climate change.
“How protein misfolding can be prevented in neurodegenerative disease”
About 60,000 New Zealanders currently suffer from dementia, and this number is expected to increase by 300% by 2050. Many of these neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, involve the deadly build-up of unfolded or misfolded proteins in brain cells. The resulting death of neurons leads to a progressive degeneration of brain function, which is ultimately fatal. There is no known cure for dementia, and current therapies are only able to treat the symptoms and not the underlying causes of disease.
At the University of Cambridge, Ms Charlotte Steel hopes to undertake a PhD research project in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences. She is interested in the work of an internationally recognised expert research team, led by Professor Mallucci, who specialise in understanding the common cellular processes involved in various neurodegenerative diseases. In particular, Ms. Steel is interested in the unfolded protein response, a protective pathway normally activated during cellular stress, which is detrimentally over-activated in the brains of patients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This over-activation causes cells to stop producing new proteins. However, re-initiating protein synthesis can prevent further neurodegeneration in a mouse model. Ms Steel is interested in investigating how certain compounds that re-induce protein production could be used to prevent the death of brain cells. In the future, such drugs could have the potential to treat, and even prevent, dementia.