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Published 17 October 2018

2018 Thomson Medal: Outstanding service to environmental science and conservation

Image credit: Graham Warman Photography

Professor Emerita Carolyn Burns CBE FRSNZ has been awarded the Thomson Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for her outstanding leadership and service to environmental science and conservation.

Carolyn's research speciality is the effect of human impacts and climate change on the biodiversity, processes, conservation and management of lakes and wetlands.

Based at the Department of Zoology at the University of Otago, she has been the primary supervisor of 60 postgraduate students and has examined an even greater number of doctoral candidates. Many of her students are grateful for her ongoing encouragement, enthusiasm and affirmation throughout their careers.

She has served as the President of the New Zealand Limnological Society (New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society) and the International Limnological Society (elected for two, three-year terms).

Carolyn is the only woman to have chaired the executive committee of Fellows for Royal Society Te Apārangi (the Academy Council) and has served on many of the Society's committees for awarding research fellowships and awards.

She has played a leading role in the Marsden Fund, New Zealand's most prestigious fund for fundamental research, since it was set up. Today she is a member of its Council and convenes the Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour Panel.

Carolyn has chaired and moderated the Performance-Based Research Fund, the assessment process for awarding research funding to New Zealand's tertiary institutions.

She has served on numerous advisory bodies, both national and international. For example, she has been involved in a large number of reviews of academic departments and environmental research organisations both in New Zealand and overseas, and she has served on the Boards of NIWA and Antarctica New Zealand.

Carolyn has also played a major role in applying her scientific expertise to conservation. She was a long-serving member of two statutory authorities that provided advice to the Minister of Lands (and Forests) – the Nature Conservation Council (chairing it 1978– 1983) and the National Parks and Reserves Authority. She was a member of the working group that recommended the establishment of the Department of Conservation, the Ministry for the Environment and a Commissioner for the Environment, the latter as a source of independent, publicly available advice to government and the public on environmental issues.  She served as the Regional Councillor for Australasia and Oceania on the World Conservation Union and was the New Zealand delegate to the International Union for Biological Sciences General Assembly.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee noted that in the course of her career, Professor Burns has achieved the very highest academic standards while simultaneously bringing her scientific expertise to serve both the scientific and wider communities at the highest levels.  “Her level of service on innumerable panels, enthusiastic support of students and commitment to fairness is unequalled. Through her myriad roles she has made a deep and lasting contribution to environmental science.”

On receiving this medal, Carolyn said: “I am surprised and honoured to receive this award as a reflection of the gratitude I feel to the many individuals and groups who have willingly and enthusiastically committed time and energy to our shared aspirations and goals.”

Professor Burns was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (now Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit) in 1984.  In 1990 she received a Commemoration Medal from Queen Elizabeth II, part of the 150th commemorations of the Treaty of Waitangi for making a recognised contribution to New Zealand.  She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1993 and was awarded the Naumann-Thienemann Medal from the International Limnological Society in 2007, which is described as “the highest honour that can be bestowed internationally for outstanding scientific contributions to limnology”. She received the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society Medal in 2013 and in 2017 was awarded the New Zealand Association of Scientists' top prize, the Marsden Medal.

Thomson Medal:

For outstanding contributions to the organisation, support and application of science or technology in New Zealand.


To Carolyn Waugh Burns for her outstanding leadership and service to environmental science and education at the highest level and with unparalleled commitment.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi