University of Otago researchers honoured in national awards

Press Release – University of Otago

Four leading University of Otago researchers have been recognised for their outstanding contributions through the presentation of prestigious medals at last night’s Royal Society of New Zealand 2011 Research Honours event.17 November 2011

University of Otago researchers honoured in national awards

Four leading University of Otago researchers have been recognised for their outstanding contributions through the presentation of prestigious medals at last night’s Royal Society of New Zealand 2011 Research Honours event.

The country’s highest science and technology honour, the Rutherford Medal, was awarded to Professor Christine Winterbourn of the University of Otago, Christchurch, who is a world authority on free radical biology.

Professor Winterbourn has published more than 260 scientific papers, the majority in international journals. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that our cells produce free radicals as part of their normal function. She went on to characterise some of the chemical reactions of free radicals that we now know occur in diseases such as cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease and arthritis.

The Royal Society presented its inaugural Humanities Aronui Medal to Professor Jim Flynn of the Department of Politics for his work in political philosophy, with particular recognition of his world-renowned work on IQ that led to his discovery of what has become known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, the phenomenon of IQ scores increasing over time in many countries.

Professor Flynn’s finding has had far-reaching implications and continues to be one of the most highly cited discoveries to originate from New Zealand in the 20th century. He has written extensively about the relationship between the IQ gains he has discovered and issues of democracy, equality and human rights. In addition, he has challenged fundamental theoretical assumptions about what intelligence is.

Dr Chris Pemberton of the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago, Christchurch received the Health Research Council of New Zealand’s Liley Medal for his achievements in cardiovascular medicine. The Liley medal recognises research that has made an outstanding contribution to health and medical sciences.

Dr Pemberton is being honoured for work with colleagues in the Christchurch Cardioendocrine Research Group that uncovered evidence of a new biomarker for early-stage myocardial damage. Their discovery has the potential to significantly accelerate the clinical diagnosis of heart attacks.

Professor Robert Poulin of the Department of Zoology was awarded the Hutton Medal for excellence in animal sciences. Professor Poulin was cited for his leading research in the field of parasitic diseases, especially for his work in ecological parasitology, an area of particular relevance to New Zealand’s marine and freshwater ecosystems.

He and his research team have identified parasites new to science and have documented the details of the transmission routes of numerous parasitic worms from host to host and their impacts on survival and reproduction of key aquatic animal species. His work has been highly cited and has been influential in developing our understanding of the basic processes involved in parasitic diseases.

University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne is delighted that the four Otago researchers have received medals at this year’s Research Honours celebration.

“In their own fields each of these fine researchers has made important contributions to knowledge paving the way for tangible benefits to health, society or the environment,” Professor Hayne says.

The Otago recipient’s citations and descriptions of work:

Rutherford Medal – for an exceptional contribution to New Zealand society in science and technology: awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand to Professor Christine Winterbourn FRSNZ of the University of Otago, Christchurch

Citation: To Christine Coe Winterbourn for seminal discoveries in free radical biology, promotion of rigorous standards in research, and fostering excellent scientific education.

Description of work: Professor Christine Winterbourn of the University of Otago, Christchurch, has made several seminal discoveries concerning the fundamental biochemistry of free radicals and how they contribute to host defence and oxidative stress. She is internationally recognised as a leading authority on the biochemistry and biology of free radicals and antioxidants. She has also been a strong advocate for basic research in New Zealand, contributed much to the national scientific scene through administration of various research bodies, and has been an excellent mentor to numerous students and fellow scientists.

Humanities Aronui Medal – humanities award for research or innovative work of outstanding merit in the Humanities: awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand to Professor Jim Flynn FRSNZ from the University of Otago

Citation: To James Robert Flynn in recognition of his work in the area of political philosophy with particular recognition of his work on IQ that led to his discovery of what has become known as the ‘Flynn Effect’.

Description of work: Professor James Flynn of the Department of Politics at the University of Otago has produced an impressive body of work in political philosophy for which he has achieved worldwide renown. In particular, his research into nature/nurture and IQ has led to the “Flynn Effect” which states that IQ scores increase over time. This finding has had far-reaching implications and continues to be one of the most highly cited discoveries to originate from New Zealand in the 20th century.

He has written extensively about the relationship between the IQ gains he has discovered and issues of democracy, equality and human rights.

Liley Medal – to recognise research that has made an outstanding contribution to health and medical sciences: awarded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand to Dr Chris Pemberton of the University of Otago in Christchurch

Citation: The award recognises a contribution to health and medical sciences by Dr Chris Pemberton from the University of Otago, Christchurch, in the field of cardiovascular medicine. Dr Pemberton and his colleagues, in a paper published in the premier cardiovascular research journal Circulation, uncovered evidence of a new biomarker for early-stage myocardial damage.

Description of work: Diagnosis of a heart attack relies on a combination of clinical presentation, ECG changes and, importantly, the appearance of biomarkers in the blood indicative of myocardial damage. The earlier and more confidently a diagnosis can be made or excluded, the sooner vital treatments can be started, or the patient reassured. Dr Pemberton has shown that a previously undiscovered fragment of the signal peptide of the molecule known as BNP is found in the circulation, and early evidence points to a rapid boost in levels shortly after myocardial infarction. If these results are confirmed in larger studies, this biomarker is likely to become a mainstay in the diagnosis or exclusion of myocardial infarction and related acute coronary syndromes.

Hutton Medal – for excellence in animal sciences: awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand to Professor Robert Poulin FRSNZ of Department of Zoology at the University of Otago

Citation: To Robert Poulin for his leading research in the field of parasitic diseases, especially for his work in ecological parasitology, an area of particular relevance to New Zealand’s marine and freshwater ecosystems.

Description of work: Professor Robert Poulin of the Department of Zoology at the University of Otago is a leading authority on the evolutionary ecology of host-parasite interactions. Parasites can have a major impact on the behaviour of their animal hosts and many of these parasites manipulate the infected host in a way that increases the probability of transmission. Professor Poulin is almost solely responsible for expanding our knowledge of their vast diversity in New Zealand aquatic habitats.

He and his research team have identified parasites new to science and have documented the details of the transmission routes of numerous parasitic worms from host to host and their impacts on survival and reproduction of key aquatic animal species. His work has been highly cited and has been influential in developing our understanding of the basic processes involved in parasitic diseases.

Professor Poulin began his research career in Canada and immigrated to New Zealand in 1992 when he took up a position as Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Otago. He soon established himself as a prolific publisher in the field of parasitology. Since arriving in New Zealand he has published 400 refereed scientific papers and four books. In 2001 he won the Research Medal of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and was awarded a James Cook Research Fellowship in 2002. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2001.

ENDS

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