17 Oct 2019

2019 Research Honours - babies, sugar & Māori science

From Our Changing World, 10:30 pm on 17 October 2019

The Royal Society – Te Apārangi has celebrated the achievements and contributions of New Zealand’s top researchers and academics at its 2019 award ceremony in Dunedin.

Honours went to researchers from the humanities and the sciences, working in a range of fields such as improving the health of new-born babies, communicating Māori science, commercialising ultrafast lasers, supporting young people to become engaged citizens and developing stretchable electronics.

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Photo: Royal Society - Te Apārangi

2019 Rutherford Medal – Jane Harding

Distinguished Professor Jane Harding from the University of Auckland's Liggin's Institute.

Distinguished Professor Jane Harding from the University of Auckland's Liggin's Institute. Photo: University of Auckland

New Zealand’s top science award, the Rutherford Medal, has gone to Distinguished Professor Jane Harding. The University of Auckland neonatologist is recognised for her work developing practical interventions that have created better lifelong outcomes for mothers and babies.

Millions of new-born babies around the world have benefited from the use of a simple sugar gel applied to their gums to treat low glucose levels that can cause brain damage.

Prof Harding’s research has significantly improved our understanding of pregnancy and the impact of a mother’s health and diet on the life of her baby.

She says she is motivated to do research that “makes things better for mothers and babies, not just before and around the time of the birth, but for the rest of their lives.”

One of the values of Prof Harding’s research has been its scale. She has led large randomised trials that have involved thousands of babies and their families, and teams of researchers working across multiple institutions.

Prof Harding is only the fourth women recipient of the Rutherford Medal in its 29-year history. Previous women winners were Professor Christine Winterbourn, Dame Anne Salmond and Dame Margaret Brimble.

2019 Callaghan Medal – Ocean Mercier

Dr Ocean Mercier working with students in the field.

Dr Ocean Mercier working with students in the field. Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

A Māori physicist who studied with the late Sir Paul Callaghan, after whom the Callaghan Medal is named, says he was very supportive of her when she decided to learn te reo Māori during her post-doctoral research.

Dr Ocean Mercier, who Sir Paul Callaghan described as a “bridge between worlds”, was the first Māori woman to receive a PhD in physics. Since then she has become well-known as a proponent of Māori science and the value of considering mātauranga Māori and traditional knowledge alongside Western science.

The Callaghan Medal is awarded for an outstanding contribution to science communication.

Dr Mercier, who is head of Te Kawa a Māui (Māori Studies) at Victoria University of Wellington, is well-known as a science communicator and TV presenter. She hosted two season of Project Mātauranga which investigated traditional and contemporary Māori science innovations.

 2019 Hamilton Award – Lisa Te Morenga

Dr Lisa Te Morenga.

Dr Lisa Te Morenga. Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

Research proving that dietary sugar increases body weight is a winner for Victoria University of Wellington Māori Health researcher Dr Lisa Te Morenga. She has been awarded the Royal Society – Te Apārangi’s Hamilton Award for early career research excellence.

Dr Te Morenga was the main author on an influential systematic review and meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal in 2013. The study looked at high quality randomised dietary intervention trials and concluded that there was a clear link between free sugars in the diet and the risk of excessive weight gain.

She says this research has contributed “to increasing that understanding of the role of sugar in our health, and that role is not particularly positive - but perhaps not as toxic as others out there would have us believe.”

Dr Te Morenga’s review was a key piece of research used by the World Health Organisation in developing its current dietary guidelines for sugar recommending that adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake, or no more than 12 teaspoons.

2019 Research Honours

For the second year in a row, there has been an equal gender split amongst recipients of Royal Society – Te Apārangi research awards. This compares favourably with the Nobel Prizes which continue to have a strong male bias; only one of the 14 Nobel Laureates this year was a woman, and she shares the Economics Nobel with two men.

You can find the full list of 2019 award winners on the Royal Society – Te Apārangi website.

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