Announcing the 2015 James Cook Research Fellows

17th September 2015

Four 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 29 applicants spanning four broad research areas: Biological sciences (including biotechnology), Social sciences (including research of relevance to peoples of New Zealand and/or the South-west Pacific), Health Sciences, and Engineering Sciences and Technologies.

Four Assessment Panels scored the proposals and four Fellows were recommended for funding.

The 2015 James Cook Research Fellows

Biological Sciences: Professor Marti Anderson FRSNZ, Massey University, for research entitled: “New multivariate statistical models of ecological communities: estimation, power and prediction”

Professor Marti Anderson

Professor Marti Anderson

The ability to provide rigorous, flexible and realistic ecological information that can underpin ecosystem-based management, risk-assessment, environmental decision-making and policy, both within New Zealand and internationally, is urgently required. However, current statistical models of ecological communities do not adequately allow for the simultaneous integration of a number of important features that are unique to multi-species datasets. For example, most species do not act independently of one another, they often occur together in large aggregations, co-existing or competing in different ways across multiple environmental niches. At the same time, within a given sampled habitat, many species that might occur there are either not detected or are very rare; also, each ecological dataset often has more species than sampling units – a condition termed high-dimensionality. The time is now ripe for significant new advances to be made, as the necessary computational apparatus required for flexible multivariate modelling of such data is now achievable.

Professor Anderson aims to build and explore the use of novel multivariate distributions for modelling ecological communities. She will ground-truth the utility of these approaches alongside other techniques, including Bayesian methods, for modelling ecological community data in real settings. The ultimate goal will be to develop new rigorous models and associated new user-friendly software that will be straightforward for ecologists to implement for real data, allowing estimation, simulation, assessment of power for multivariate hypothesis-testing procedures and, importantly, prediction. Such tools will also allow quantification of species richness and turnover in composition. Professor Anderson hopes that her research will significantly advance the field of quantitative ecology, allowing scientists to develop new insights into the biodiversity of any ecological system at any scale.

Health Sciences: Professor Antony Braithwaite FRSNZ, The University of Otago, for research entitled: “A strategy for targeting the cancer-associated protein YB-1 as a novel cancer therapy”

Professor Antony Braithwaite

Professor Antony Braithwaite

Cancer is a problem in New Zealand and worldwide. Although some cancers are curable or manageable long-term, others remain resistant to treatment. These include aggressive breast cancers and melanoma, which have poor patient outcome. There is therefore a need for the development of new therapies. This project will explore a protein termed YB-1 as a potential novel therapeutic target for treating cancer. YB-1 is present at high levels in cancer cells, particularly in advanced cancers. YB-1 has also been shown to be required for cancer cell growth and cancer cell survival. Thus, YB-1 seems to be an excellent target for new cancer therapies, and the aim of this research is to develop a targeting strategy for YB-1.

Interestingly, the ability of YB-1 protein to cause cancer cell growth has been linked to a specific modification of the protein called phosphorylation (the attachment of phosphate groups). Professor Braithwaite’s research group has identified several different modification sites on YB-1 that are phosphorylated, which in principle could be blocked to provide additional opportunities for therapy development. With this project, Professor Braithwaite will investigate the role of the YB-1 protein in cancer growth in more detail. In particular, he will examine the contribution of each of these additional phosphorylation sites on cancer cell growth and survival, by inserting modified YB-1 protein molecules (which cannot be phosphorylated), into model cancer cells. Finally, upon having identified the phosphorylation sites that are most important for cancer cell growth, he will seek to develop small molecules with the ability to specifically block these individual sites on the YB-1 protein. Such small blocking-molecules thus have the potential to be developed into a new therapy for cancer. Ultimately, the development of new therapies as described will provide health benefits and may lead to commercial benefits flowing back to the New Zealand institutions involved in the research.

Engineering Sciences and Technologies: Professor Geoff Chase FRSNZ, The University of Canterbury, for research entitled: “The (unknown) role of arterial mechanics in sepsis and shock (TRAMS)”

Professor Geoff Chase

Professor Geoff Chase

Septic shock with cardiac failure (pump failure of the heart) is a severe syndrome, which is very common in critically ill patients (~10-15%), and can last for several days. The inability of the heart and blood vessels to efficiently transport oxygen to the organs is best described as Acute Circulatory Failure (ACF), which leads to organ failure and high mortality rates. This programme of research will leverage off a recent discovery by Professor Chase, which suggests that changes to the elastic properties of blood vessels could significantly restrict blood flows and hence contribute to ACF. In healthy individuals, the elastic properties of the aorta are responsible for effectively cushioning the highly pulsatile blood flow from the heart, which facilitates a more steady and constant flow of blood (and hence oxygen) to the tissues. However, in shock-induced ACF, the elastic properties of the aorta get out of sync with the pulsatile blood flows, which impairs blood flow and oxygen delivery. This study seeks to confirm and validate these initial results through both experimental and modelling work. The study furthermore aims to use a number of biomarkers related to arterial mechanics to identify the physiological and biochemical signalling pathway leading to ACF. This will shed new insight into how arterial mechanics contribute to this high mortality condition, provide new and non-invasive model-based markers for tracking and treating the condition and, if successful, provide new mechanistic insight that can be exploited to develop new and more effective drugs.

Jennifer Hay NZInstitute of Language Brain Behaviour Director and Theme Leader photographed in her dept in the interview recording room. 24.11.10

Professor Jennifer Hay

Social Sciences: Professor Jennifer Hay, The University of Canterbury, for research entitled: “How Experience Shapes Words and Words shape Grammar”

People pronounce sounds differently. Some New Zealanders, for example, pronounce ‘fear’ and ‘fair’ as if they rhyme, but many others pronounce them differently. Differences in pronunciation are not random, but are tied to the social characteristics, backgrounds, and identities of the speakers. Words are also distributed differently across people. For example, the word ‘library’ is more likely to be used by a female New Zealander than a male New Zealander; and the word ‘gentle’ is more likely to be produced by an older New Zealander than a younger one. While it used to be believed that our memories for words were quite abstract, there is now good evidence that we store detailed distributions of social and phonetic information for each word (termed “episodic word storage”). Listeners use their social knowledge about a speaker to affect how they listen to their speech, and we find it easier to identify words if they are produced by the speakers that are most likely to say them. For example, we are quicker to understand the word ‘library’ in a female voice than a male voice. Likewise, when words are spoken, they drift to resemble the accent characteristics of the speakers that produce them most, and of the linguistic environment that they most often occur in.

Professor Hay will conduct a series of experiments which explore hitherto untested hypotheses about the implications of this detailed episodic word storage for morphology (the study of word structure) and phonology (the study of sound structure). These areas have arisen from her many years of study in New Zealand English, and will draw on resources developed through the long-running Origins of New Zealand English project.  She will then unify her findings from this study, as well as her previous findings in New Zealand English, into a coherent theory, which she plans to publish as a monograph.

The study will increase our understanding regarding accent and social variability in New Zealand, and contribute fundamental knowledge about mechanisms through which speakers from different backgrounds understand each other.

Announcing the 2014 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 26 applicants spanning three broad research areas: Biological sciences (including biotechnology); Physical sciences (including chemical sciences; geosciences, mathematical and information sciences); and Social sciences (including research of relevance to peoples of New Zealand and/or the south-west Pacific).

Three assessment panels scored the proposals and three researchers were recommended for funding.

The 2014 James Cook Research Fellows

Professor Phil Lester

Professor Philip Lester

Biological Sciences: Professor Philip Lester, Victoria University of Wellington, for research entitled: “Bringing back honey bees using beneficial bacteria”.

Humans are hugely dependent on honey bees (Apis mellifera), which pollinate more than a third of our food. Globally, however, honey bee populations are under threat. In North America and Europe “colony collapse” disorder is widespread and has devastated bee populations. In New Zealand feral populations of bees have all but disappeared. Central to these collapses are parasites and pathogens including the mite Varroa and its associated viruses. This project will arrest the effects of this parasitic mite by attacking the viruses it spreads. The principal virus target is the “Deformed wing virus” that appears to be the mutualistic partner-in-crime with Varroa mites. The approach is novel for honey bees but has been successfully used with mosquitoes to block the virus causing Dengue fever in humans, which involved inoculating or transinfecting mosquitoes with strains of the bacteria Wolbachia, which inhibit viruses. The goal is to insert a virus-resistant strain of Wolbachia bacteria into honey bees in order to inhibit Deformed wing virus and cripple the Varroa mite parasite and its effects on bees. A key component of this project will be the development of a new collaboration with a leading Australian research group, bringing new techniques and approaches to pest management in New Zealand. For the purpose of knowledge transfer the researchers are already working with honey bee breeders within New Zealand who have strong international links through bee exports. This exciting approach is novel for honey bees, but has the benefit of being a proven technology for virus control in other insects

Professor GP Whittle

Professor Geoffrey Whittle

Physical Sciences: Professor Geoffrey Whittle, Victoria University of Wellington, for research entitled: “Rota’s Conjecture”.

Typically we can model finite space and discrete objects using real numbers. The set of real numbers is of course infinite. But as we move into the world of computers, where information is represented as either zeros or ones, mathematicians need to consider finite and discrete sets of numbers. These digital systems are discrete, and not the open and infinite fields of real numbers. Matroid theory is the study of collections of discrete points and finite space. Matroids are mathematical objects that capture the essence of such discrete geometric structures. Forty years ago Gian-Carlo Rota suggested that the matroids that arise from a fixed finite set of numbers could be characterised by a finite collection of “forbidden structures”: Rota’s Conjecture, the central challenge of Matroid theory. This conjecture, if proved, would provide a way into mapping the possibilities of matroids, and the underlying discrete points used in digital systems. After 15 years of work, Professor Geoffrey Whittle and two colleagues, have a proof of Rota’s conjecture. His work now is to bring this work to fruition in the form of a humanly readable, certifiably correct collection of papers so this hard won knowledge can be shared and make a contribution to the ever more sophisticated mapping of mathematical possibilities.

 

Professor Peter Davis

Professor Peter Davis

Social Sciences: Professor Peter Davis, The University of Auckland, for research entitled: “New Zealand as a ‘social laboratory’”.

The COMPASS research centre has constructed a system in which data from existing long term studies have been combined into a dynamic and realistic, but artificial, working model of the early childhood years in New Zealand. The plan is to extend this working model and adapt it, by linking to census data. By calibrating the simulations with series over the entire life span using unlinked census data, they will be able to test the model, and see how well it can model populations over the entire life span, and how populations have evolved since 1981. The result will be the ability to use existing data to create a dynamic representation of New Zealand society in which virtual experiments on matters of policy and substantive interest can be conducted: the “social laboratory” of the proposal’s title. By the end of the two-year fellowship period the aim is to have an inquiry system operational that spans the life course, that articulates with census data – both linked and unlinked – that is able to incorporate and interrogate significant issues of policy, scientific and public interest, that has several worked examples of these, and that has a range of partners in a working “collaboratory”.

 

 

Announcing the 2014 James Cook Fellowship round

The James Cook Research Fellowship round is about to open for 2014.  Applicants will once again use the portal system to apply for a James Cook Fellowship.  All the information needed for the application round can be found on the application pages at: Applying for a James Cook Fellowship.  The timeline of events is shown here:

Important dates

Date Activity
Friday, 16 May James Cook Fellowship 2014 round opens
Wednesday, 2 July Online portal closes, 5pm
Wednesday, 30 July Deadline for referee reports to be submitted, 5pm
Tuesday, 5 August Proposals & referee reports sent to panellists
Wednesday, 10 Sept Deadline for panellist’s scores to be submitted, 5pm
Wednesday, 24 Sept Teleconference for panels, if scores are variable
November Fellows announced

 

Announcing the 2013 James Cook Fellows

Two new James Cook Fellowships have been presented to researchers at the height of their research careers.

The James Cook Research Fellowships are awarded to researchers who have the requisite qualifications and experience and are able to demonstrate that they have achieved national and international recognition in their area of scientific research.   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 plus GST and up to $10,000 plus GST in relevant expenses.

The Royal Society of New Zealand received proposals from 14 applicants spanning two broad research areas: Health Sciences; and Engineering Sciences and Technology.  Two Assessment Panels scored the proposals and two Fellows were recommended for funding.

The two James Cook Research Fellows are:

  • Engineering Sciences and Technology: Professor James Noble, Victoria University of Wellington, for research entitled: “Reliable Software via Patterns and Ownership”.

Software is ubiquitous in everyday life; however its shortcomings have never been more apparent.  A word processor crashing when asked to save a document, an immobiliser refusing to unlock a car, and a telephone exchange refusing to connect emergency calls are all symptoms of our inability to engineer software that works correctly and reliably. This research will directly address this problem by identifying important recurring design patterns in the specification and design of software systems, and then develop tools based on ownership types to verify the software by ensuring those patterns are constructed correctly.

  • Health Sciences: Professor Gerald Tannock, University of Otago, for research entitled: “A path to understanding bowel bacteria”.

The large bowels of humans contain trillions of bacterial cells belonging to hundreds of species that form self-regulating communities known as the microbiota.  These collections of bacteria have the capacity to chemically transform digestion-resistant-carbohydrates and other polymers present in the digesta. The aim of the program is to develop ways to experiment with mixtures of bacteria that live in the human bowel. Physiological measurements of specific bacteria in pure and co-culture in laboratory microcosms will be made to determine the nutritional drivers of microbiota composition and function, especially with respect to the little studied bacterial family Lachnospiraceae. The basic science generated by this approach could be translated to technology (problem solving) with respect to the development of foods and prophylactic supplements that would contribute to sustaining life-long health. Also critical to translation of basic science to technology is the derivation and dissemination of an updated conceptual view of human bowel ecology. The proposed program thus encompasses laboratory research and science communication and has the overall aim of providing a path to understanding bowel bacteria.