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The Rutherford Foundation Trust has awarded prestigious scholarships to six of New Zealand’s most outstanding emerging researchers, including three international PhD scholarships and three postdoctoral fellowships.
The Rutherford Foundation was established by the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2008. It is supported by $1m from the Government each year along with contributions from the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust and private donations. The remit of the Rutherford Foundation is to provide support to talented emerging New Zealand scientists.
Highlights from the 2013 funding round include a range of projects from studying the cellular mechanisms of a healthy life span, to the algal biodiversity on temperate reefs and the theoretical behaviour of interactions of ultra-cold atoms.
The Rutherford Foundation Trust Award recipients are:
New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellows:
- Dr David Aguirre, Massey University, for research entitled: “Building communities from the bottom up: uncovering links between algal trait variation and biodiversity on temperate reefs”
- Dr Ivone Leong, LabPlus, Auckland City Hospital, for research entitled: “Targeted and whole exome sequencing to identify the genetic causes of long QT syndrome”
- Dr Rachael Shaw, Victoria University of Wellington, for research entitled: “The evolution of intelligence: evaluating the relationship between cognition and fitness in North Island robins”
Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial Scholarships at the University of Cambridge to complete a PhD:
- Abraham Mains, for research entitled: “Elucidating the cellular and molecular mechanisms governing the life- and healthspan extension observed upon chronic mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibition”
- Edward Linscott, for research entitled: “Condensed matter physics”
- Hannah Sheahan, for research entitled: “The interaction of biomechanics and reaction times for bimanual activation using virtual reality systems”
Dr David Aguirre (Massey University)
“Building communities from the bottom up: uncovering links between algal trait variation and biodiversity on temperate reefs”
Algae are the foundation of temperate reef ecosystems. Similar to terrestrial forests, algal forests provide essential structure, food and shelter for many marine organisms. However, these organisms are not distributed randomly within algal forests. Differences in algal traits such as size, growth form and chemical composition generate different microenvironments for the organisms that associate with these algae (hereafter epifauna). Quantitative genetics provides an elegant framework to partition trait variation into heritable genetic components and environmental components. A quantitative genetic approach also allows direct examination of the effects genetic and environmental components of algal trait variation on epifaunal biodiversity. The research plan I propose will be the first to use a quantitative genetic approach to partition the relative roles of genetic and environmental effects on algal trait variation as well as the effects of algal trait variation on the biodiversity of epifaunal communities. Associations between foundation species and biodiversity may be altered by human disturbances. A major challenge for the persistence of New Zealand’s temperate reef communities is the increased sedimentation of our near shore environments. Understanding how algae and epifaunal biodiversity may respond to increased sedimentation is therefore critical to the long-term conservation of these ecosystems.
Dr Ivone Leong (LabPlus, Auckland City Hospital)
“Targeted and whole exome sequencing to identify the genetic causes of long QT syndrome”
Congenital long QT syndrome (LQTS) is a life-threatening cardiac disorder that affects 1 in 2,500 people. In New Zealand it is established as the most common cause of sudden unexplained death in 1 – 40 year olds, and the New Zealand national Cardiac Inherited Diseases (CIDG) registry has identified the incidence as 1 in 4,500 in some parts of the country. This disease commonly presents in childhood for males and young adult life in females, and it is a disorder of the heart’s electrical activity. It can cause sudden, uncontrolled arrhythmias (problems with the rate or rhythm of the heart beat), which may lead to sudden death in response to exercise or stress. There are currently thirteen genes associated with the disease and the genetic testing of patients with these disorders has greatly assisted family screening and individualizing clinical management. The current LQTS screening strategy at Auckland City Hospital is a time-consuming and expensive sequence-based method. This technique is not capable of being scaled up to screen for mutations in a large number of genes (currently, we are only screening six out of thirteen LQTS genes) for each patient. If the LQTS disease-causing gene is not part of the panel, or the patient has been misdiagnosed with LQTS, then the results will be negative. Critically, developments in next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology have revolutionized mutation screening such that scores of genes, or the entire coding potential of the human genome (termed whole exome sequencing, WES), can be analysed. The aim of this project is to develop NGS as an enhanced platform to identify the causative mutation underlying the LQTS condition in a defined cohort of New Zealand patients.
Dr Rachael Shaw (Victoria University of Wellington)
“The evolution of intelligence: evaluating the relationship between cognition and fitness in North Island robins”
To understand how intelligence evolves, we must address the critical gap in our knowledge of the relationship between reproductive success and cognition in the wild. For intelligence to evolve by natural selection, individual differences in cognitive ability must be associated with differences in reproductive success. Investigating the relationship between cognition and reproductive success in the wild is challenging and has rarely been attempted. However, the North Island robin is an ideal candidate for this research; robins evolved in the absence of mammalian predators in New Zealand and are fearless toward humans and willing to interact with novel objects. My research will quantify individual differences in wild robin cognition using behavioural-based experiments assessing various cognitive abilities. This will permit investigation into whether particular cognitive traits are more strongly associated with reproductive success, as well as whether robins possess a general cognitive ability (analogous to human IQ) which underlies their performance in the tasks. Monitoring the breeding attempts of the robins that have participated in the cognition experiments will allow the relationship between cognitive ability and reproductive success to be evaluated. This research will elucidate the role of cognition in robins’ lives and will ultimately develop a model system for studying the evolution of intelligence in the wild.
“Elucidating the cellular and molecular mechanisms governing the life- and healthspan extension observed upon chronic mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibition”
In the course of previous research endeavours I have developed a keen interest in those signalling pathways that, when modulated, dramatically advance or delay the onset of age related diseases. As the average age of the population of New Zealand and other developed countries rises, so too does the prevalence of age-related diseases and the urgency with which effective new treatments and preventatives for these diseases are required. Lifestyle changes can greatly reduce the chances of acquiring some of these diseases; however, I believe molecular therapeutics will one day surpass even the healthiest lifestyle in extending healthspan. Much research is currently being done in this area, particularly surrounding the nutrient sensing and stress response signalling pathways. I will pursue a PhD project expanding our understanding of the molecular biology of these networks, particularly the cellular and molecular mechanisms behind the lifespan extension observed upon chronic mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibition.
“Condensed matter physics”
Currently, I am undertaking research into the behaviour and interactions of ultra-cold atoms. This falls under the broad umbrella of “condensed matter physics”. The scope of condensed matter research is enormous, and it is one of the most active branches of contemporary physics. Condensed matter spans solids, liquids, and some more exotic phases of matter. Research in this area has led to many applications, from semiconductor transistor and laser technology to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It is expected that further research and understanding of condensed matter will continue to yield scientific and technological advances. The theoretical research conducted in this field involves developing mathematical models to help understand and predict the behaviour of condensed matter, as observed by experimentalists. My previous research has involved investigating the behaviour of ultra-cold gases called “Bose-Einstein condensates” (BECs). They have been at the forefront of physics research since they were experimentally created in 1995. Experimentalists can contain and manipulate BECs very precisely, providing the opportunity to study a vast range of fundamental phenomena in a clean and highly controlled environment. Furthermore, BECs exhibit many interesting properties such as superconductivity and superfluidity. My work is theoretical and computational in nature.
“The interaction of biomechanics and reaction times for bimanual activation using virtual reality systems”
During my undergraduate research project designing an upper limb bimanual robotic rehabilitation system for post-stroke individuals, the importance of clinical research and a thorough understanding of the mechanisms surrounding motor control learning became increasingly clear. I hope to work with Daniel Wolpert’s Sensorimotor Learning Group to investigate the interaction of upper limb biomechanics and motor control reaction times of individuals providing bimanual manipulation with virtual reality systems. Virtual reality systems have been shown to help improve cognitive rehabilitation and enhance learning by the stimulation of cerebral neuroplasticity. In addition, motor control reaction times can provide quantitative indications of motor planning and the ability of the individual to process and carry out a required task in response to stimuli. Bimanual upper limb motor tasks have been shown to improve motor control relearning in individuals with hemiparesis and, when combined with virtual reality or robotic interfaces, may provide a new area of investigation for rehabilitation. By understanding the neurological and predictive learning mechanisms behind bimanual rehabilitation success, engineering may eventually be used to design assistive devices to improve motor control relearning. While the project specifics have not been completely defined at this early stage, the area of motor control learning and skill acquisition has made rapid advances in recent years and Wolpert’s research group is the perfect stage to host the further advancements in understanding I intend on making in this field.
On the 21st of February 2013 The Royal Society of New Zealand co-hosted a very special function at the Northern Club in Auckland with the Rutherford Foundation to celebrate the work and achievements of some of the Foundation’s alumni. Associate Professor Alan Davidson, the Foundation’s inaugural Distinguished Fellow, spoke about his research concerning how acquired and congenital defects in the kidney leads to disease. Furthermore he spoke about his ongoing research goal to elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying renal regeneration following injury. Dr Rachel Shaw, who won a scholarship to study towards a PhD at the University of Cambridge, spoke about her time at the prestigious University and her research into the behaviour and cognition of the Eurasian jay. The function was a resounding success, with the special guests learning more about the Scholars outstanding achievements and the Rutherford Foundation as a whole.
The Rutherford Foundation Trust has awarded prestigious scholarships to nine of New Zealand’s most outstanding emerging researchers, including four international PhD scholarships and five postdoctoral fellowships.
Highlights from the 2012 funding round include a range of projects, from the treatment of osteoporosis and cardiac dysfunction in diabetes, to the future of resource management in New Zealand and black holes in astrophysics.
The Rutherford Foundation, which awards the scholarships, is a trust set up by the Royal Society of New Zealand to provide support to emerging New Zealand scientists.
Chair of the Trustees of the Rutherford Foundation, Professor Margaret Brimble, says it is important for our emerging researchers to gain these types of scholarships. She highlights the need for these opportunities:
“The shortage of postdoctoral positions in New Zealand is a concern for the research community. The Rutherford Foundation is therefore very pleased to offer five postdoctoral fellowships to talented PhD graduates as well as four PhD training scholarships.”
“The calibre of these young scientists was truly outstanding and the competition was extremely tough. These scientists were all undertaking research in areas of national importance.”
The five postdoctoral fellows will work at New Zealand universities and crown research institutes.
Two of the PhD scholarships will be hosted by the University of Cambridge in England. One will be hosted by the University of Michigan in the USA and the other at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Funding for these awards comes from the New Zealand Government, the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, the Freemasons Roskill Foundation and private donations.
New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellows:
Dr Peng Du, The University of Auckland
Electrogastrogram – a non-invasive diagnostic tool of gastric bioelectrical activity
There is a bioelectrical activity associated with every muscular contraction in the human body. The timing, pattern and shape of these bioelectrical activities can tell us about the health of our muscles. The stomach is also a highly muscular organ in the human body and the bioelectrical activity in the stomach can be recorded from the body surface using a technique called electrogastrography (EGG). EGG offers an attractive efficient screening and diagnostic tool for patients with chronic digestive-related diseases. In this proposal, Dr Peng Du will seek to decode the EGG recordings and relate them to specific abnormal patterns of gastric bioelectrical activity. To achieve this goal, Peng will develop a series of mathematical models that will be capable of predicting the unique bioelectrical signatures associated with each class of abnormal gastric bioelectrical activity. Experiments will be conducted to validate the predicted bioelectrical signatures and further refine the EGG recording protocols in a clinical setting. Peng believes the application of EGG as a routinely diagnostic tool will be a promising step towards facilitating improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of certain classes of chronic digestive diseases.
Jamie Howarth, GNS Science
How often does the Alpine Fault produce characteristic great earthquakes?
New Zealand is a country that straddles a complex plate boundary, which is represented by the Alpine Fault in southern New Zealand. The fault is one of the longest, straightest and fasting slipping faults on earth; it is also the largest source of seismic hazard in the South Island. The proposed research will determine the frequency, length of fault rupture and magnitude of earthquakes that have occurred on the fault during the past 3000 years from evidence of past earthquakes preserved in the sediments of lakes distributed along the length of the fault. Data from the lake sediments will be used to determine whether the Alpine Fault always produces great (magnitude >8) earthquakes. The outcomes of the study will improve our understanding of the seismic hazard posed by the Alpine Fault and of what to expect from the next big earthquake on the fault. It will also help determine whether faults produce earthquakes with similar magnitudes each time they break. This is a topic of intense international interest as it has implications for how seismic hazards from individual faults are assessed.
Dr Kimberley Mellor, The University of Auckland
Cardiac dysfunction in diabetes: a novel therapeutic approach
Diabetes is a global epidemic with high mortality and is linked to heart failure. Despite over a decade of investigation, the ultimate cause of cardiac dysfunction in diabetic patients remains elusive. Dr Kimberley Mellor proposes that diabetic heart failure reflects a progressive decline in heart pump efficiency due to irreversible modification of the proteins involved in contraction and an accumulation of large glycogen stores in the heart muscle cells. At the Auckland Bioengineering Institute she will be able to directly assess efficiency of the heart muscle and investigate the underlying causes of this mechanical inefficiency in the diabetic heart.
Dr Estelle Dominati, AgResearch
Quantifying and Valuing the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services of Agro-Ecosystems: The Future face of Resource Management in New Zealand
Dr Estelle Dominati obtained her Master’s degree in sustainable agriculture from SupAgro in Montpellier (France) in 2006 before completing her PhD in Ecological Economics with AgResearch and Massey University in Palmerston North. With Estelle’s current research interest at AgResearch she is exploring the utility of an ecosystem service approach to resource management in New Zealand.
The concepts of Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services, the benefits people obtain from ecosystems, have gained considerable attention globally, and have been identified as the future of resource management. In New Zealand, an ecosystem services approach will give life to the central pillar of the Resource Management Act, and help inform “Greening New Zealand’s Growth”.
The overall goal of this project is to advance knowledge around the quantification and valuation of ecosystem services from agricultural systems. The project will develop an ecosystem services approach to evaluate current policies affecting farming in different regions. Making information about the trade-offs between environmental, economic, social and cultural outcomes more accessible to resource managers and policy makers will lead to better informed decision making and thereby guide agriculture in New Zealand towards increased sustainability and reduced environmental impacts.
Freemasons Roskill Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow:
Dr Renata Kowalczyk, The University of Auckland
Preptin peptidomimetics for the treatment of osteoporosis
The focus of Dr Renata Kowalczyk’s research is the design and chemical synthesis of novel drug candidates which may be used in the future for the oral treatment of osteoporosis. The project will be conducted at the University of Auckland in close collaboration with the Auckland Bone Research Group (School of Medicine). It has been shown that the peptide hormone, preptin-(1-16), can be used to stimulate bone formation. The aim of Renata’s study is to design chemical modifications of the preptin-(1-16) peptide to find more stable and/or potent molecules. The novel compounds prepared will be tested for their ability to stimulate the activity of bone forming cells.
International PhD Scholarship:
Jordan McMahon, The University of Michigan
Jordan McMahon will be conducting research into the field of abstract algebra, which is the study of mathematical objects and their properties. He will be specialising in non-associative algebras, which is a fundamental research field in mathematics and has particular importance in quantum physics. The University of Michigan is one of the best institutions in the world for mathematics, and has an excellent faculty with expertise in this field.
Thomas Wright, University of Oxford
Does the ‘histone code’ speak across the generations? Using synthetic protein chemistry to investigate the heritability of histone PTMs
With this award, Thomas Wright will study the chemistry of proteins under the supervision of Professor Ben Davis at the University of Oxford. His work will look at new, faster methods for targeted modification of proteins using chemistry. The specific proteins they will study are histone proteins, which wrap up the DNA in our cells and control how that DNA is ‘read’ by the cell. These proteins are important in processes as varied as cancer, the flowering of plants and what makes the different tissues in our body unique. Coming up with easier methods to make these proteins in a controlled manner will have a big influence on our ability to understand the biology of these proteins, which could potentially have a large impact across a range of biological fields.
PhD Scholarships at the University of Cambridge:
Scott Thomas, The University of Cambridge
Scott Thomas will be studying towards a PhD at the Institute of Astronomy. Unlike many PhD programmes, he will first spend some time taking further courses and investigating potential research areas before choosing a project and supervisor. As part of his Honours degree in astrophysics, Scott studied unidentified objects seen by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. This work revealed that some of these unidentified objects could be large clumps of dark matter within our galaxy. He would like to continue with research in high-energy astrophysics or observational cosmology, using data from the world’s largest space- and ground-based telescopes to investigate some of the most mysterious questions about our universe. He is also looking forward to participating in the active outreach programme of the Institute and bringing these experiences back to New Zealand.
Patricia Larsen, The University of Cambridge
Tests of predictions from modified gravity theories
Patricia Larsen plans to complete a PhD in Cosmology, the study of the large scale nature of the Universe. The University of Cambridge is one of the leading places in the world to study this and so she is very excited to have the opportunity to go there. She is particularly interested in studies of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the afterglow from the big bang, and what this can tell us about the history of the Universe.