Ten emerging researchers receive prestigious Scholarships

The Royal Society of New Zealand-Rutherford Foundation Trust has awarded prestigious scholarships to ten of New Zealand’s most outstanding emerging researchers, including two International PhD Scholarships and eight postdoctoral Fellowships.

The 2015 funding round include a diverse range of projects, such as understanding joint diseases like osteoarthritis and gout, the development of an artificial nose, exploring microbiological organisms at the Kermadec Arc volcanoes, and generating mathematical models to predict the spread of invasive species in response to climate changes.

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 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 standard of the postdoctoral applications was exceptionally high this year, and the interviews revealed a large number of inspiring early career scientists.  The Rutherford Foundation is delighted to support these talented researchers as they transition to embarking on their independent scientific careers.”

Of the eight postdoctoral fellows, five will work at New Zealand universities, two at Crown Research Institutes, and one will be hosted by Imperial College London. The PhD scholarships will be hosted by Oxford University, United Kingdom, and VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

2015 Rutherford Foundation Award recipients

New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowships

  • Dr Colm Carraher, Plant & Food Research, for research entitled: “Biosensing Volatile Compounds with Insect Odorant receptors”
  • Dr Ashika Chhana, The University of Auckland, for research entitled: “Cartilage damage and monosodium urate crystal deposition: understanding the interactions between osteoarthritis and gout”
  • Dr Luke Fullard, Massey University, for research entitled: “Mathematical modelling of dense granular flow phenomena in simple geometries with application to industry, geophysics, and aviation safety”
  • Dr Libby Liggins, Massey University, for research entitled: “Determining the potential for a range shift in a non-native marine ecosystem engineer”
  • Dr Brie Sorrenson, University of Auckland, for research entitled: “The exact role of ß-catenin and type-2 diabetes risk variants in ß-cell function”
  • Dr Lucy Stewart, GNS science, for research entitled: “Microbial Diversity in the Kermadec Arc”
  • Dr Shaun Wilkinson, Victoria University of Wellington, for research entitled: “A bioinformatics approach to assessing diversity and hybridization in coral symbionts”

Freemasons Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship

  • Marsilea Harrison, Imperial College London, for research entitled: “Promoting Cartilage Regeneration by the Development of Growth Factor-Loaded Polymerosome Carriers with Analysis by Electrochemistry”

International PhD Scholarship (a grant-in-aid)

  • Samuel Hall-McMaster, Oxford University, UK, for research entitled: Cognitive skills that enable the pursuit of personally meaningful goals
  • Lauren Nicol, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands, for research entitled: “Short term acclimation to high-light in Arabidopsis thaliana

Details on 2015 recipients’ projects

Rutherford Foundation New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowships

Dr Colm Carraher (Plant and Food Research)

Biosensing Volatile Compounds with Insect Odorant receptors

Colm CarraherInsects possess a remarkable sense of smell – they are orders of magnitude more sensitive to volatile compounds than those of other animals. The key to this sensitivity lies in their odorant receptors, which have very broad ranges enabling them to distinguish diverse natural and synthetic volatile organic compounds.  The goal of this project is to utilise the sensitivity of odorant receptors to develop a biosensor (electronic nose) that produces a detectable electronic signal when the receptor binds the chemical. The key challenges for this project will be to make stable insect odorant receptors and attach them to sensor surfaces.  The project is at the intersection of nanotechnology and biotechnology as it combines the ability to produce odorant receptors proteins with the need to apply them as selective agents in a biosensor.  Ideally this project will provide a ‘proof of principle biosensor’ device that is capable of detecting volatile compounds and generating an interpretable electronic signal.  This platform technology has the potential to be tuned to a multitude of volatile sensing applications in the future.

Dr Ashika Chhana (The University of Auckland)

Cartilage damage and monosodium urate crystal deposition: understanding the interactions between osteoarthritis and gout

Gout is the most common inflammatory arthritis that affects New Zealanders, and has a major negative impact on affected people’s everyday health and well-being.  An attack of gout can be excruciatingly painful and usually lasts for about two weeks if left untreated.  There is also a risk that gout in the long-term can lead to structural joint damage if not managed well.  Gout is caused by the formation of uric acid crystals within joints, which can induce a painful immune response.  The uric acid crystals form when uric acid levels in the blood are higher than normal, and most commonly form in joints of the fingers and toes.  However, there are many people with high blood uric acid levels that do not form crystals in their joints or develop gout, and the exact trigger of gouty crystal formation is unclear.  Previous research has suggested that it is osteoarthritis and damaged cartilage within the joint that may be promoting the crystallisation of uric acid in people with gout. In this project, Dr Chhana will test how the formation of uric acid crystals is affected by the state of the surrounding cartilage, by comparing crystal formation in healthy, damaged and osteoarthritic cartilage respectively.  Dr Chhana will additionally examine the immune response to crystals in these different environments to explore how damaged and osteroarthritic cartilage affect gouty inflammation.  The project will provide important new understanding into the pathology of gout by providing insight into how and why uric acid crystals formed, and by helping to deduce why certain joints are more affected than others.

Dr Luke Fullard (Massey University)

Mathematical modelling of dense granular flow phenomena in simple geometries with application to industry, geophysics, and aviation safety

Luke FullardQuantifying and optimising granular flow is a billion dollar industrial problem.  Such flows regularly occur in the food (e.g. milk powder, grains), mining (e.g. slurries, gravel, minerals), and pharmaceutical industries.  At times the material behaves like a solid, at other times like a fluid, and in low density regions, like a gas.  The many crucial applications of granular flow, such as landslides in geophysics, and the industrial processing of granular material, affirm the need for in-depth study and understanding of material behaviour.  This can be achieved by more accurate mathematical models describing granular flows, which are likely to lead to increased efficiency, cost savings, reduced environmental impact, and improved safety during the processing of granular materials. In this project, Dr Fullard aims to develop new mathematical models to increase the understanding of the physics of such flows.  The research project will focus on developing mathematical models of granular flow which can be validated against experimental results in bunkers (storage vessels of a given shape which are drained by gravity from an exit orifice).  In addition to providing a needed tool for New Zealand’s processing industries, the models may also help to facilitate a greater understanding of certain geophysical motions such as landslides and avalanches.

Dr Libby Liggins (Massey University)

Determining the potential for a range shift in a non-native marine ecosystem engineer

We are intimately aware of the effects invasive species have on our native marine ecosystems, and many more non-native species are likely to shift their ranges into New Zealand in response to climate changes.  Having the ability to identify which species have the potential to shift their range and, more specifically, which populations may trigger range shifts, will help us prioritise management actions to protect our native ecosystems.  Despite our conceptual understanding that responses to climate change differ among populations, identifying a population’s potential to trigger a range shift, and ultimately using this information to predict and manage a species’ range, has not been previously feasible.  Recent innovations in DNA sequencing technologies and analytical methods now enable us to infer these population characteristics and their relationship with the environment. In this project, Dr Liggins aims to characterise the potential for a range shift in the Australian long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) in New Zealand under forecasted ocean warming.  This species has shifted its range into northeast New Zealand over the last 60 years, and is a voracious herbivore capable of destroying kelp-dominated ecosystems, such as our own.  The project will combine population genomics of the sea urchins with seascape genomic analysis to help us understand the individual population constraints and potential triggers of a range shift in C. Rodgersii.  In addition, Dr Liggins will use forward population demographic-genetic simulations to predict the potential for a range shift of C. rodgersii in New Zealand under forecasted ocean warming.  The proposed research will provide a better understanding of the threat posed by C. rodgersii populations in New Zealand, and a road-map of which populations have the potential to trigger a range shift.

Dr Brie Sorrenson (The University of Auckland)

The exact role of ß-catenin and type-2 diabetes risk variants in ß-cell function

Type-Brie Sorrenson2 diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions, particularly in New Zealand where it is a major health challenge facing our country.  The disease is characterised by abnormal blood glucose levels due to defects in sensitivity to, or the production of, the hormone insulin, which controls the level of glucose in the blood.  Yet, we still know very little about the exact mechanisms by which the disease develops. In this project, Dr Sorrenson will use a very new technology to turn human stem cells into pancreatic ß-cells – the cells responsible for producing insulin.  She will then use these cells to investigate how glucose influences the production of insulin by human pancreatic ß-cells and, in particular, how this process is being controlled by the genes ß-catenin and TCF&L2, which have been identified as a risk factor for Type-2 diabetes.  Overall this research will help us understand a missing link in how type-2 diabetes develops and will establish cutting edge research techniques in New Zealand that will be an asset for a very wide range of scientific and medical research in the future.


Dr Lucy Stewart (GNS Science)

Microbial Diversity in the Kermadec ArcLucy Stewart cropped

The Kermadec Arc is a chain of volcanoes and volcanic features stretching from Tonga to Lake Taupo.  The Arc hosts sub aerial hot springs, deep-sea hydrothermal vent sites and other high-temperature environments.  However, the vast majority of the Kermadec Arc’s microbial biota remains uncharacterised despite expectations that the Arc is likely to host novel groups of microbial organisms that have adapted to high-temperature environments.  Considering that microbial communities are pivotal in ecological food webs, particularly as sources of primary production, the lack of microbial research along almost the entirety of the 2500 km Kermadec Arc represents a significant gap in our understanding of microbial diversity and ecological function in these unique ecosystems.  In this project, Dr Stewart aims to characterise, through molecular measures of diversity, the organisms that inhabit microbial communities at three off-shore islands in the Kermadec Arc.  She will also compare the microbial diversity and geochemistry of these systems, to the microbial diversity of submarine Kermadec Arc hydrothermal systems, to examine whether there is a characteristic micro biota for the Kermadec Arc – both sub aerial and submarine – and how it is influenced by the geochemistry of these sites.  Ultimately, this study will help us to understand the extent and distinctiveness of biodiversity in this large but microbially understudied part of New Zealand’s territory, and how microbial diversity may relate to the specific geochemistry of these systems.

Dr Shaun Wilkinson (Victoria University of Wellington)

A bioinformatics approach to assessing diversity and hybridization in coral symbionts

Shaun WilkinsonGlobal climate change is having devastating effects on the world’s coral reefs, with declines predicted to escalate sharply in the near future.  This creates severe socio-economic impacts, including the loss of food security, coastal stability and tourism income for many of the world’s most vulnerable people.  The survival of coral reefs is dependent on a symbiotic partnership between the coral host and microscopic algae that live within the coral.  These algal ‘symbionts’ feed the host with energy-rich products, and the host in turn provides suitable habitat and provides the algae with the minerals they need to carry out photosynthesis. It is therefore important to first understand how the entire symbiosis evolves and adapts to environmental change in order to predict how corals will fare under future climate change.  This understanding could perhaps even be used to assist corals in developing resilience to warming temperatures.  Yet, little is known today about the ability of symbiotic algae to undergo sexual reproduction to generate hybrids of genetically distinct algae (a process termed hybridization).  Hybridization is important as a strong driver of evolution and adaptation to environmental changes.  In this project, Dr Wilkinson will use computer modelling and a large amount of publicly available algae DNA data, to look for evidence of hybridisation in symbiotic algae.  In addition, the project will add to the DNA database by using high-throughput technology to identify DNA sequences from symbiotic algae of the Timor-Leste reef, which represents an under-studied biodiversity ‘hotspot’.  In doing so, the study will help to understand the frequency of sexual reproduction in symbiotic algae, and additionally generate a baseline biodiversity data-set that will help the people of Timor-Leste to better understand one of their most important and valuable resources.

Freemason Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship

Marsilea Harrison (Imperial College London)

Promoting Cartilage Regeneration by the Development of Growth Factor-Loaded Polymerosome Carriers with Analysis by Electrochemistry

Marsilea Harrison 1Osteoarthritis is a debilitating condition of joints, leading to pain and severe limitations in mobility. It is the most widespread cause of disability in adults over 60, with 10-15% of older adults afflicted by the disease.  A possible therapeutic treatment for osteoarthritis involves finding ways to stimulate cartilage cells to grow and repair damaged joints.  However, a major impediment to this is the general low levels of nutrients available at the cartilage surface, which enhance the degradation of cartilage cells.  In this cross-disciplinary project, Dr Harrison aims to tackle this problem by the targeted delivery of relevant growth factors known to promote cartilage growth.  This involves the development and characterization of small biological packages (termed polymerosomes) that contain growth factors, and are able to transport and deliver these to where cartilage growth is needed.  In order to test the effectiveness of the polymerosomes, Dr Harrison will additionally develop electrochemical biosensors that are able to monitor important features of the local cellular environment such as oxygen concentration and growth factor concentration.  The findings from this study will provide novel insights for basic research and clinically-translatable projects in the coming future.

International PhD Scholarships (a grant-in-aid)

Samuel Hall-McMaster (University of Oxford, UK)

Cognitive skills that enable the pursuit of personally meaningful goals

Positive neuroscience coSHall-McMasterEurekambines the study of positive psychology topics, such as persistence, optimism and fulfilment with robust neuroscience techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  In this 3 year PhD project, Mr Hall-McMaster will use these techniques to investigate underlying neural mechanisms responsible for sustaining people’s ability (or grit) to work towards ambitious goals over a long period of time, and how that affects our wellbeing.  The project will additionally explore how cognitive skills can be applied to achieve more sustained and personally meaningful goals, and contribute to improved adaptive brain function.  The insight gained from this research will help people to more successfully pursue goals that are personally significant and to lead fulfilling lives.

Lauren Nicol (VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Short term acclimation to high-light in Arabidopsis thaliana

Lauren NicolThe capture and storage of solar energy by photosynthetic organisms sustains virtually all life on Earth.  While maximising light capture is important for maintaining the efficiency of the photosynthetic process, excess light can result in the production of harmful chemicals, termed reactive oxygen species, which are damaging to individual plant cells and can lead to the death of the organism.  Throughout a plants lifetime, it must be able to adapt to varying levels of light.  Yet, a thorough understanding of the plant machinery underpinning these processes is lacking. In this project, Ms Nicol will investigate in more detail how plants react to too much light.  The importance of this research lies in the fact that enough sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface in one hour to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.  A device capable of mimicking the natural photosynthetic process, in which energy is produced from just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, is the holy grail of energy research.  This particular research project will produce findings which are critical for the construction of a finely tuned and efficient artificial light harvesting antenna system.