2 Jun 2022

The 2021 Prime Minister's Science Prizes

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 2 June 2022

The annual Prime Minister’s Science Prizes recognise the best in New Zealand science research, teaching and communication.

Now the 2021 results are in. Congratulations to all the winners!

Bianca Woyak stands in the schools veggie patch.

Bianca Woyak, at Burnside Primary School. Photo: RNZ

Listen to interviews with prizewinners Bianca Woyak, Carol Khor and Professor Dame Jane Harding in this week’s episode of Our Changing World.

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Outdoor science for hands-on learning (Bianca Woyak, winner of the Science Teachers Prize)

Bianca Woyak is passionate about what she does - ‘People call me high energy. I’ve got so much energy. I always give 150% into anything that inspires me and I want to do.’

Add a specialist science role, a supportive principal, large school grounds and an enthusiastic school full of students, and you’ve got a winning combination.

A teacher at Burnside Primary School in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Bianca has been awarded the 2021 Te Puiaki Kaiwhaaho Pūtaiao Science Teachers Prize for her success in engaging students in science through a range of environmentally focused activities.

These have included water testing in the local stream, riparian planting, beekeeping, growing trees for planting in Ōtautahi red zone areas and maintaining the school’s veggie patch and fruit trees.

Bianca believes in the power of hands-on approaches and real-world learning that is student-led as much as possible.

This is how the B5 (Burnside Brings Back Boulder Butterfly) project came about. While studying the self-introduced Monarch butterfly the students started to wonder about local endemic species. Working with local experts the team decided to recreate a boulder copper butterfly habitat on school grounds and translocated some of these as yet undescribed butterflies there.

When a new generation hatched, they knew that the project had been a success, and the students are now working with other schools and the local zoo to create boulder copper butterfly habitats there too.

Claire Concannon visits Burnside Primary School to catch up with Bianca and tumuaki (principal) Matt Bateman and learn about some projects from the student scientists themselves.

Bianca and students stand in front of the school's native garden area.

Bianca and students stand in front of the school's native garden area. Photo: RNZ

Improving drug treatment for melanoma (Carol Khor, winner of the Future Scientist Prize)

With our high-UV exposure, Aotearoa leads the world in rates of skin cancer, and melanoma is the deadliest form.

This year’s Te Puiaki Kaipūtaiao Ānamata Future Scientist Prize winner, Carol Khor - a Year 13 student at Burnside High School in Ōtautahi - is researching drug combinations that can better kill melanoma cancer cells.

Carol has been working alongside her mentor, PhD student Tess Featherston, at the Centre for Free Radical Research at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

In the lab, Carol has been growing up melanoma cancer cells and treating them with combinations of a known cancer-specific drug plus an antioxidant drug. Combining these two, she has shown, results in greater cancer cell death than with the cancer-specific drug alone.

Though the work is preliminary and has only been shown in the lab in cells, it could have implications for future melanoma treatments.

Carol and Tess are continuing their research this year and will write a paper on their findings for publication. Carol has found the experience ‘thrilling’ and is excited about both the knowledge she has gained and the techniques she has learned.

Carol and Tess show Claire Concannon around the lab in the Centre for Free Radical Research where they did the experiments and explain how to be a good parent to cancer cells!

Bianca Woyak stands in the schools veggie patch.

Bianca Woyak, at Burnside Primary School. Photo: RNZ

Blood sugar balancing in babies (The Neonatal Glucose Studies Team – Science Prize)

About one in six babies are born at risk of low blood sugar, or hypoglycaemia. If the blood sugar levels remain too low for too long in babies it can lead to brain damage. But how long and how low may differ between individuals. What then is the baseline level of blood sugars that should be acceptable for babies, and what is the best way to correct low blood sugars when they are detected?

The 2021 Te Pūiaki Pūtaiao Matua a Te Pirimia Science Prize-winning team has spent more than 20 years researching this complex issue, with several longitudinal studies following babies from birth to childhood.

One of the major impacts of their work has been a detailed investigation into methods used to treat low blood sugars, and the rigorous testing of one of these – the rubbing of dextrose sugar gel inside the baby’s cheek.

Their research has led to changes in healthcare practice around the world, improving the lives of mothers and babies.

The team leader, Distinguished Professor Dame Jane Harding of the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, spoke with Claire Concannon about the impact their research has had, and what it feels like for the team to be recognised with the Prime Minister’s Science Prize.

Bianca Woyak stands in the schools veggie patch.

Bianca Woyak, at Burnside Primary School. Photo: RNZ

Getting to know viruses (Dr Jemma Geoghan – MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize)

Portrait picture of Jemma

Dr. Jemma Geoghan, 2021 Emerging Scientist Prize winner Photo: Royal Society

Dr Jemma Geoghegan has been fascinated by the diversity of viruses and how they evolve and spread for quite a while. But, having moved to Ōtepoti in late 2019, the emergence of the SARS-CoV2 virus, and the resulting Covid-19 pandemic, launched her and her research into the spotlight across the last two years.

Jemma is a Rutherford Discovery Fellow based at the University of Otago and an Associate Scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). Her research is focused on understanding the New Zealand virosphere – the collection of all viruses that can be found in Aotearoa - as well as how these viruses are related, how they evolve, and how they jump hosts.

Through her work with ESR, she played a key role in New Zealand’s Covid-19 response as a core part of the team responsible for genome sequencing of Covid-19 cases. This research informed public health decisions, helped with a better understanding of SARS-CoV2 transmission, and remains crucial for surveillance for the arrival of new variants of concern.

Jemma’s fascinating research will be the focus of an upcoming Our Changing World episode, so keep an eye out for that!

Communicating Covid complexity (Toby Morris – Science Communication Prize)

Portrait of Toby at his desk.

Toby Morris, 2021 Science Communication Prize winner. Photo: Royal Society

Cartoonist and illustrator Toby Morris won the Te Puiaki Whakapā Pūtaiao Science Communication prize for his illustrations that conveyed complex information about the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the start of the pandemic, Toby collaborated with Dr Siouxsie Wiles to create illustrations about key scientific concepts.

The cartoon and animated graphics that came out of this collaboration were not only published on the Spinoff website, but also shared globally on social media, and were used by the Prime Minister to explain several key concepts during the New Zealand response.

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