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2019 Pickering Medal: Ultrafast laser pulses for sorting sperm and micromachining

This year’s Pickering Medal has been awarded to Professor Cather Simpson FRSNZ for her pioneering research and commercialisation of innovative photonic technologies, addressing challenges with a New Zealand focus and global impact.

Photonics – the creation, manipulation and use of light– is expected to see a dramatic rise in use this century. Professor Simpson, founder of the Photon Factory at the University of Auckland, is internationally recognised for her research in pulsed laser interrogation of light-matter interactions, which has provided critical insight into the photobehaviour of functionally important molecules. She is also recognised for applying this knowledge in exciting new areas – from sperm sorting to machining at the micro scale.

Cather has advanced the use of ultrafast laser pulses to probe molecules in the millions of billionths of seconds after absorbing light. These ultrashort laser pulses – less than 1 x 10-12 seconds long – interact with solid materials in extraordinary ways. For example, this technique helps us understand how the highly coloured haemoglobin in blood is so photostable, and why some art pigments last longer than others.



Since 2010 she has led a cross-disciplinary team of academics, postdoctoral researchers, postgraduate and undergraduate students in physics, chemistry and engineering to advance these studies. Her group is the first in the world to demonstrate spatial and temporal control over the ‘shapes’ of ultrashort laser pulses, and to use those pulses in varied applications. In the past 10 years, she has built the Photon Factory into a global powerhouse in ultrashort pulsed laser micromachining and microfabrication. The highly innovative solutions her team have developed are now making their way into successful applications with companies in New Zealand and abroad. The quality of their research has attracted major funding from government and industry, national and international.

Cather is a successful entrepreneurial academic. Spin-off companies Engender Technologies (established 2011), sorting of sperm by sex, and Orbis Diagnostics (established 2016), compositional analysis of milk every cow, every milking, exploit her photonics expertise to meet important challenges facing the dairy industry. In 2018, Engender was acquired by a world-leading, international herd-improvement company, and in 2019 Simpson stepped up to lead the effort to bring Engender’s technology to full commercialisation.

Cather is also an Ako Aotearoa National Tertiary Teaching Excellence award winner (2013) who actively engages the public in science and technology. As a co-chair of the New Zealand Committee for the UNESCO 2015 International Year of Light, she led the ‘Illuminating New Zealand’ initiative, which brought hands-on light-based experiments to tens of thousands of New Zealand children and youth. She is a highly sought after keynote and plenary speaker, both here and abroad, for her success in blending academic research and entrepreneurship. Most recently, she gave a prestigious invited public lecture at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics – a series that has included Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking as speakers.

On receiving this medal, Cather said: “Seeing our photonics have a real positive impact has been very rewarding. And doing that with such an excellent team of scientists and engineers in the Photon Factory at the University of Auckland has been an amazing experience, easily the highlight of my career.”

Professor Simpson has won national and international awards for her research and associated spin-off companies, including being the first woman named Supreme Winner at the Kiwinet Researcher Commercialisation Awards (2016). She was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (2018) and the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (2016), and is a past President of the New Zealand Institute of Physics. She has served as committee chair for one of the most prestigious international awards in ultrafast laser science. She has been principal investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies, with a leadership role in the latter. She has also been elected to the Commission on Laser Physics and Photonics for the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.

Pickering Medal:

To recognise excellence and innovation in the practical applications of technology.


To Miriam Cather Simpson for pioneering research and commercialisation of innovative photonic technologies addressing challenges with a New Zealand focus and global impact.