Seven emerging researchers receive prestigious Scholarships

The Royal Society of New Zealand-Rutherford Foundation Trust has awarded prestigious scholarships to seven of New Zealand’s most outstanding emerging researchers, including three PhD scholarships to the University of Cambridge and four postdoctoral fellowships.

The 2014 funding round include a diverse range of projects, from understanding the basic structure of life’s building blocks and how the brain makes decisions, to improving New Zealand road surfaces and drinking water in Zambia.

The Trust aims to build human capability in science and technology by providing early career support for New Zealand’s brightest and most promising researchers. Since its inception in 2008, the Trust has been supported by the Government’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment with $1m p.a. The Trustees, supported by Royal Society of New Zealand executives, have furthermore successfully leveraged co-funding from the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, the Cavendish Laboratory, the Roskill Freemason Foundation and Antarctica New Zealand. The development of scientific capability with a strong New Zealand connection enables the benefits of the research to accrue more rapidly to New Zealand.

Chair of the Trustees of the Rutherford Foundation, Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, notes that the Rutherford Foundation Selection Committee was impressed by the exceptionally high quality of the applicants for the PhD scholarships this year.

“The bar for a successful application was raised a notch higher this year. Since the inception of these awards the quality of these young New Zealand PhD scholars continues to impress the selection panel and New Zealand is sending some wonderful ambassadors to Cambridge this year.”

The four postdoctoral fellows will work at New Zealand universities, while the three PhD scholarships will be hosted by the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.


2014 Rutherford Foundation Award recipients

New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellows:

  • Dr Sachi Kodippily, University of Auckland, for research entitled “Improving the Life of Our Roads – Reducing Moisture Damage of New Zealand’s Road Pavements”
  • Dr Matthew Sagar, Victoria University of Wellington, for research entitled “Alpine Fault “Big Bend”: Evolution and earthquake hazard”
  • Dr Charlotte King, University of Otago, for research entitled “Major Transitions in Prehistory: Using a new life histories approach to trace health and diet in Northern Chile”
  • Dr Karen Reader, University of Otago, for research entitled “How does Activin C modulate Granulosa Cell Tumours? Implications for human disease”

Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial PhD Scholarships:

  • Mark Burrell, for research entitled “Neuroeconomics; Behavioural Neurophysiology of Reward, Risk and Decision-Making”
  • Elisabeth Liddle, for research entitled “Determination of recharge and the seasonal variations in groundwater availability for Ndola, Zambia”
  • Max Wilkinson, for research entitled “The structure and Function of Macromolecular Machines”


Details on 2014 recipients’ projects

Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowships

Dr Sachi Kodippily (The University of Auckland)
“Improving the Life of Our Roads – Reducing Moisture Damage of New Zealand’s Road Pavements”

P1060106As a sparsely populated country, New Zealand relies on a robust road network to allow safe and efficient movement of people and freight, as well as to support economic growth and productivity. While chip seal pavements provides a low cost surfacing type for roads with low traffic volumes, the increase in traffic volumes and the challenging New Zealand geological terrain, negatively affects the performance of the chip seal. A particular problem relates to how water penetrates chip sealed roads as this is a big contributor to early road failure. To address this question, Dr Kodippily will use a new state of the art facility in Christchurch, the Canterbury Accelerated Pavement Testing Indoor Facility, equipped with cutting edge x-ray analysis techniques, to test water penetration in different types of road seals under a range of different conditions. The studies will help identify the causes for early failures in chip sealed roads, investigate improvements that can be made to the management of roads to minimise moisture damage, and propose improvements that can be made in the design and choice of materials used for New Zealand roads.


Dr Matthew Sagar (Victoria University of Wellington)
“Alpine Fault “Big Bend”: Evolution and earthquake hazard”

Matt SagarThe ‘Big Bend’ is an area on the Alpine Fault, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plate boundary splits into several major and related faults, producing a number of large earthquakes including the 2013 Cook Strait earthquake sequence. However, the ability to predict earthquake hazards in this area is at present hampered by a lack of knowledge about how the Australian and Pacific plates move in the Big Bend. For this reason, Dr Sagar will use his funding to investigate the motion of the Big Bend, by determining the signature of radioactive isotopes in the rocks. As rocks move up from 15 km depth to the surface of the Big Bend they cool down, which is reflected in changes to radioactive isotopes in the rocks. By measuring the levels of different radioactive isotopes, it is therefore possible to determine the thermal history of rocks, and hence estimate the vertical uplift of the plates, which is predicted to be the major motion in the area. Dr Sagar predicts that this project will contribute to the development of better local seismic hazard models, and also help to elucidate overarching questions in relation to how the Big Bend, and similar fault overseas, were formed and how they release stress.

Dr Charlotte King (University of Otago)
“Major Transitions in Prehistory: Using a new life histories approach to trace health and diet in Northern Chile”

Charlotte KingDr Charlotte King has received funding to investigate how the change from societies based on hunting and gathering, to societies based on farming, affected prehistoric populations. Current understandings of ‘the agricultural revolution’ are based on a swift and irreversible change from hunting and gathering to farming. This involves changes to human mobility, population growth, increased fertility and development of social complexity. The agricultural transition is also associated with inescapable health costs due to increased group living, infectious disease transmission and deficiencies relating to reliance on a staple crop. This ‘agricultural revolutiuon’ modelis based on European and Near Eastern archaeology, and it may not hold true in other centres of domestication, such as Asia, the Pacific and the Americas, which are culturally and ecologically very different to Europe. Dr King will examine the complex interplay between the environment, human health and diet to evaluate archaeological paradigms and inform modern-day modelling of human coping strategies. This will be accomplished using new techniques in isotopic analysis of human skeletal tissues, which will give insight into the lives of individuals on a month-by-months basis. This technological advancement means that for the first time traditional models in archaeology can be rigorously tested.


Dr Karen Reader (University of Otago)
“How does Activin C modulate Granulosa Cell Tumours? Implications for human disease”

karen-readerOvarian cancer is the 5th leading cause of cancer death in females. The focus of Dr Reader’s project will be on a subgroup of ovarian cancer, termed Granulosa Cell Tumours. The majority of patients with this tumour present with early-stage symptoms and can be cured by surgery. However, a significant number of patients are in risk of dying from recurrent disease years later. Currently, there is no reliable prognostic marker to determine what patients are in high risk of developing recurrent disease after initial treatment. The project aims to characterise the role of a protein called Activin C. When present at high levels in the tumours, Activin C is able to inhibit the growth of Granulosa Cell Tumours. This project will therefore examine in greater details how Activin C prevents tumour growth. The project will also determine how levels of Activin C, and related proteins that are known to interact with Activin C, changes in Granulosa cells tumours in the hope that any of these proteins can be used to detect patients in risk of recurrent tumour growth.


Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial Scholarships:

Mark Burrell
“Neuroeconomics; Behavioural Neurophysiology of Reward, Risk and Decision-Making”

Burrell, MarkMark Burrell has received funding to do a PhD in neuro-economics at the University of Cambridge. Neuro-economics is an exciting emerging field of study that looks to understand the fundamental behaviour of decision-making by combining information and theories from several distinct disciplines such as neuroscience, economics, and cognitive and social psychology. By using the extensive tool-kit of neuroscience techniques established at Cambridge University, Mark hopes to unravel more about how individuals balance risks and rewards in the process of making decisions. As someone often stuck choosing what to study between disparate academic interests, this scholarship will allow Mark to combine his passions in economics, mathematics and neuroscience in the nascent field of neuro-economics.


Elisabeth Liddle
“Determination of recharge and the seasonal variations in groundwater availability for Ndola, Zambia”

Elisabeth LiddleElisabeth Liddle will use her funding to do a PhD in hydrogeology – the science of distribution and movement of water. Groundwater plays an important role in providing adequate and safe drinking and irrigation water to millions of people across the developing world. In Ndola, Zambia, locals have rapidly taken on the rural practice of digging shallow wells in their backyards to meet their daily water needs because of the demise of surface water sources and a limited municipal water supply network. Elisabeth plans to analyse the water quality and recharge of wells across Ndola, and answer questions about how the wells are influenced by seasonal changes, differences in the soil and rock composition across the town and the vicinity of the wells to local wet-lands. In this way, she will use her PhD at the University of Cambridge to combine her passion for helping others with a scientific career. Having grown up on the Kapiti Coast and having studied geography at the University of Otago, Elisabeth is excited to represent New Zealand and the Rutherford Trust at Cambridge University and across the developing world as she seeks to improve water quality and supply.


Max Wilkinson
“The structure and Function of Macromolecular Machines”

Max Wilkinson has received funding for a PhD in structural biology – the study of the three dimensional structurMax Wilkinson RFT press releasees of proteins and nucleic acids (the building blocks of our DNA). The interactions of nucleic acids and proteins are fundamental to some the most important processes in molecular biology such as the translation of DNA into proteins and life. Proteins and their complexes – the machines that operate life at its most fundamental level – can only truly be understood by knowing what they look like and how they fit together. A PhD at the University of Cambridge will allow Max to gain experience in cutting edge technology used to determine the structure of proteins at atomic resolution – in particular a form of electron microscopy (cryo-EM) that has been modified largely by scientists at the University of Cambridge to resolve protein structures. He is incredibly excited about the prospect of bringing his curiosity of the living world to a PhD at the University of Cambridge – the birthplace of so many important discoveries in biochemistry and molecular biology, from how cells generate energy to the very structure of DNA.