The 2008 Science Honours Dinner was held on 11 November at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
The 2008 Rutherford Medal for Science and Technology, New Zealand’s top science award, was presented to Distinguished Professor David Parry of Massey University at the Science Honours Dinner in Wellington last night. Three hundred and eighty scientists from around New Zealand gathered at Te Papa for the announcement of this and other science and technology awards. Ernest Rutherford’s great granddaughter, Professor Mary Fowler, a geophysicist at the University of London, presented the medal to Professor Parry. Professor Fowler is beginning a lecture tour of New Zealand as the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Distinguished Speaker, celebrating 100 years since Ernest Rutherford received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
As a structural biophysicist, Professor Parry works at the boundary between physics and biology. His research has focussed on the fibrous proteins that constitute the bulk of the proteins in the human body and which enable it to move. Amongst the problems that have been tackled successfully are the structure of hair and skin in health and disease, the manner in which muscles are turned on and off, the mechanics of skin and tendons, the transparency of the cornea in the eye, how proteins can be designed from simple building blocks to give desired structures and functions, and how hair/wool can provide thermo-regulation and protection against predators. This has led to major advances in our understanding of these systems. Aspects of Professor Parry’s work have been applied in the wool and meat industries, in surgical procedures as well as in physiology and medicine.
Fibrous proteins are large and very complex molecules. Determining their structure, organization and modes of function has proved extremely challenging since X-ray crystallographic techniques that have been widely applied to other proteins are generally inapplicable for fibrous ones. Such research, however, is vital if an understanding is to be achieved of human biology in its widest sense.
Professor Parry has also served New Zealand and international scientific organisations with distinction. He is a former President of the International Union for of Pure and Applied Biophysics, and was recently the Vice-President for Scientific Planning and Review of the Paris-based International Council for Science, where he led the development of the Strategic Plan for World Science for the current six-year period.
Mr Neville Jordan, President of the Royal Society of New Zealand which awards the medal on behalf of government, said, "David Parry is not just a successful scientist, whose work has had many useful, practical results; he plays a distinguished role in the international science community and has given a lot of his time for the wider benefit of New Zealand science."
Dr Ross Ihaka of The University of Auckland received the top award for achievement in technology, the Pickering Medal, awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
He has developed a software package for statisticians called R, which has had huge uptake by universities, industry and government. R can be downloaded free, is easy to use, and can be readily customised for different applications. It is invaluable for major "data crunching" tasks such as processing genomic information.
The inaugural Dame Joan Metge (pron. Metch) Award for Social Science was shared by paediatrician scientist Professor Diana Lennon, The University of Auckland, and public health researcher Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, University of Otago School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Wellington.
Professor Lennon is an expert on infectious childhood diseases in children and Dr Howden-Chapman is well known for her research into the beneficial effects of warmer, drier homes on health. The award was presented by Dame Joan herself. For this work, Professor Howden-Chapman also received the Liley Medal, awarded by the Health Research Council, jointly with Professor Ted Baker from The University of Auckland.
For contributions to capacity building, beneficial relationships with research participants, mentoring of new researchers, and contributions to new knowledge.
Awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Professor Diana Lennon is a first-class paediatrician scientist, whose research has made a major impact on the lives of New Zealand children. In addition to her highly-cited research, Professor Lennon has also played an important role in building capacity in the child health workforce, especially for Māori and Pacific people. She has generated a great deal of new knowledge which has had direct benefit for New Zealand children by saving lives and reducing hospital admissions and long-term disabilities. Professor Lennon has been involved in the promotion of the meningococcal vaccine initiative and she has conducted a large study investigating sore throat management in schools to prevent rheumatic fever.
Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman has had an extremely successful academic career. Her research has had a major impact on our understanding of the link between housing, energy and health. Professor Howden-Chapman has a sustained record of mentoring new researchers and she is the director of two multidisciplinary research teams, the Housing and Health Programme and the Centre for Sustainable Cities. Both of these research groups develop practical solutions to complex problems involving housing and health. Professor Howden-Chapman has devoted her career to developing new ways to reduce inequalities in New Zealand and her research has led to major Government investment in more sustainable housing.
To encourage innovation and creativity in problem solving.
Awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Jessie Lineham has been awarded a Gold CREST for her three year project investigating the effects of riparian planting on a farm stream. This was a complex project with long-term benefits for generations to come.
Emily Adlam has been awarded a Gold CREST for her project analysing the usefulness of three kinds of domestic power generation: solar, wind, and rain. Her recommendation is that solar power has the greatest potential for producing household energy in urban areas.
In recognition of an outstanding contribution to the study of plant biology by a young scientist.
Awarded by the New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists.
Dr Tina Summerfield studies the symbiosis between bacteria, fungi and plants. Her current research combines ecological and molecular biological tools to explore the diversity of New Zealand's cyanobacteria and their potential as a source of biofuels. Dr Summerfield, a FRST (Foundation for Research, Science and Technology) postdoctoral fellow, is shortly to take up a lectureship in Botany at Otago University where she will focus on using cyanobacteria for the production of biohydrogen.
To acknowledge achievement in the field of industrial or applied chemistry.
Awarded by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry.
The success of Associate Professor Simon Hall is based on a rare combination of talents. Few others have been brave enough to step out of the academic environment and take the risks necessary to commercialise their findings. This award recognises his substantial achievement in driving the research and development of a rechargeable nickel-zinc battery, from discovery in the laboratory through to establishing manufacturing agreements with overseas investors and manufacturers.
In recognition of continued outstanding contribution in the advancement of marine sciences.
Awarded by the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society.
Dr Malcolm Francis is a fisheries biologist and ecologist and is New Zealand's premier shark researcher. As an active and highly productive scientific researcher, diver and underwater photographer for more than 30 years, he has made a huge contribution to both New Zealand and Pacific marine science. Dr Francis is widely published in both scientific and popular literature; the combination of his broad scientific knowledge and stunning underwater photography has contributed greatly to public appreciation and understanding of New Zealand's natural history.
For educational research.
Awarded by the New Zealand Association for Research in Education.
The late Professor John Codd has a distinguished record as a scholar of national and international repute. His scholarship and research in the area of education policy has been consistently excellent over many years and has provided the basis for intelligent analysis of education reforms in New Zealand.
Professor Codd was a scholar of integrity. During his time in the university, and more recently in positions of responsibility in management and governance, Professor Codd attempted to put into practice the principles he presented in his academic work. His strongly held view was that one of the cornerstone functions of the university was to be the critic and conscience of society. He never lost sight of the underpinning values of education and his views were not simply rhetoric, they were based on years of careful research and scholarship.
To recognise excellence in mathematical research.
Awarded by the New Zealand Mathematical Society.
Professor Michael Hendy uses an innovative mathematical approach to molecular ecology and evolution and has transformed the field. His research is now an integral part of phylogenetic software internationally and has contributed to the solution of several fundamental problems.
Professor Hendy's founding and co-directorship of the Allan Wilson Centre has led to a burgeoning of all aspects of the study of evolution in New Zealand. The work of the Centre plays an important role in the relationship of New Zealanders to their natural taonga. Researchers have used Professor Hendy's mathematical foundations to analyse the DNA of native birds and make profound contributions to our views of the evolution of our fauna.
To acknowledge a physicist working in New Zealand, whose research has had great impact both nationally and internationally.
Awarded by the New Zealand Institute of Physics.
Professor Paul Callaghan is a world leader in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance, a field which he has worked in for nearly forty years, publishing over two hundred papers in this and related research areas. Professor Callaghan's research has particularly focused on developing NMR methods for studying molecular dynamics and organisation in various types of materials from polymers to biological tissue. Professor Callaghan has received many national and international awards recognising his research, communication and science leadership contributions. It is entirely fitting that he be the inaugural recipient of the Dan Walls medal.
For research in physics or engineering.
Awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The 2008 Cooper Medal has been awarded for research to develop a commercial process for the manufacture of a superconductor cable. This has significant potential economic benefit to New Zealand.
The recipients are: Nicholas Long, Rod Badcock, Michael Staines, Henry Sun, James Hamilton, Robert Buckley, Peter Beck, Marc Mulholland and Nigel Ross.
This group has a practical method for the manufacture of narrow strand YBCO Roebel cable used in the high current windings of generators and transformers. A joint venture between Industrial Research Limited and General Cable Corporation is establishing a prototype facility in Christchurch to manufacture this cable.
Awarded jointly by the Royal Society of New Zealand, New Zealand Listener and International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington.
The topic this year was evolution.
Judged this year by Bernard Beckett, teacher and writer
The strength of this piece was its rather oblique response to the posted topic. Whereas many made the mistake of trying, in a work of fiction, to confront the topic and its implications, this piece rather used it as a stepping off point from which a story could unfold. In this way it avoided becoming didactic, rather than having something it urgently wanted to tell us it was content to quietly reveal an aspect of a family relationship through a simple trip to an old mission house. The house of course has a link to Darwin, and to the family, and these echoes are further crafted through the father being a biology teacher. The key thing though is the crafting; these details, the entries from Darwin's journal, and the glimpses of scientific discussions all sit naturally within the text.
At the end of this story the lingering impressions are of summers past, of a gently combative parental relationship, of a growing boy's respect for his father. And this is just as it should be. There are lovely hints of a rationalist's collision with a religious tradition, but they are cleverly kept as just hints. The little boy jumping up and down on the graves, shouting 'but we're atheists' is a perfectly formed detail, and typical of the touches that set this story apart.
I loved the sheer exuberance of this piece. Non-fiction of this type it seems to me should be both entertaining and informing, and that's a tricky balance. Here the writer has managed to sustain a carefully structured argument, yet do it in a way that it never feels as if you are simply being informed. It is the enthusiasm for the subject matter, along with a clever turn of phrase that achieves this effect.
I was also much taken with the sense of play that quite appropriately pervades the writing. Lined up against a selection of work that sought to reprimand humanity for its evil ways, here at last was a piece that managed to celebrate the human miracle; to acknowledge that yes, we are animals too, part of a fragile, delicate eco-system and all that, but hell we're something more. We're animals that wonder, dream, ponder and ultimately have a laugh. I was cheering along on the sidelines as the case developed, for here was a piece of writing that spoke directly to my prejudices; a stroke of luck for the writer, and for me.
To recognise research that has made an outstanding contribution to health and medical sciences.
Awarded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.
Professor Edward Baker of The University of Auckland, for his research in the field of molecular structure. Professor Baker's research, published in the journal Science, described, for the first time, the atomic structure of protein assemblies called pili on gram positive bacterial surfaces. These structures are integral to the way in which the bacteria adhere to cells, and influence the infectivity and virulence of the organisms.
The study also elucidated the importance of a previously unrecognised type of intramolecular isopeptide bond, that provides an unusual degree of strength and stability in the fine pilus structure. The new understanding derived from this study is likely to enhance vaccine development for an organism which causes a range of significant human infections.
Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman led the landmark Housing Insulation and Health Study that showed people's health could be transformed by keeping homes warm and dry. The study showed that insulation provided a significantly warmer, drier environment which resulted in improved health; fewer sick days off work, GP visits and hospital admissions for respiratory conditions. There have been calls for the study to be reproduced around the world.
To recognise excellence and innovation in the practical application of technology.
Awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Associate Professor Ross Ihaka is one the originators of R, a software package for statistical computing that has had phenomenal uptake internationally. It can be downloaded free and easily customised for a very wide variety of applications. The package and the paper introducing it have been cited over 1700 times, by far the highest for publications in the mathematical sciences over the last ten years, worldwide. It is now disseminated from over 75 internet sites in 30 countries.
The package is used both for teaching and research by hundreds of universities around the world, including Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and Berkeley. There are over 40 books written about, or featuring, the use of R.
For outstanding and inspirational leadership in the management of science.
Awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Dr Andrew West became Chief Executive of AgResearch in March 2004. He was formerly fulltime Chair of the Tertiary Education Commission and came to AgResearch with an impressive record in science management, policy development and strategic planning. In the early 1990s, he played a major role in the Government's science reforms, including the design and establishment of MoRST and FoRST, Crown Research Institutes and the Crown Company Monitoring Advisory Unit (CCMAU). He was also Science Advisor to the Minister of Research, Science and Technology working closely with cabinet ministers during the reforms.
For an exceptional contribution to New Zealand society in science and technology. The Rutherford Medal is the highest award instituted by the Royal Society of New Zealand at the request of the Government to honour those who have made exceptional contributions to New Zealand in the field of science and technology. It recognises a significant contribution to the advancement and promotion of public awareness, knowledge and understanding in addition to eminent research or technological practice.
Awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the New Zealand Government.
Professor David Parry is a leading authority in the field of Biophysics. His research in fibrous proteins has led to major advances in understanding the structure of hair, the working of muscles and connective tissue, and how the shape of proteins affects their function. His work has found application in the wool and beauty industries as well as in physiology and medicine. Professor Parry has served New Zealand and international scientific organisations with distinction. He is a former President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics, and was recently a Vice-President of the International Council for Science.