1 Jun 2015

Sir Peter Gluckman given top honour

7:42 am on 1 June 2015

Sir Peter Gluckman, internationally-recognised health researcher and the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, has been given the country's top honour.

Sir Peter Gluckman.

Sir Peter Gluckman says obesity crisis will also affect Chinese and Asian communities Photo: SUPPLIED

Sir Peter has been added to the Order of New Zealand, a group to which only 20 living New Zealanders can belong at any one time.

He began his career working as a doctor, but after two years knew it was not the right path for him. Instead, he crossed the Atlantic, and turned his hand to research. Forty years on it remains his first priority and greatest love.

Among scientists, he has hero status for his world-leading health research. He co-invented a cooling helmet used for babies with suspected brain damage immediately after birth to prevent further damage and discovered that what a woman eats in the earliest stages of pregnancy may determine her child's health later in life.

His role in advising the government ha takes him all over the world; in the past week alone from Israel and Italy to Belgium, France and England.

Sir Peter spoke to Radio New Zealand from a hotel lobby, and joked that maybe his time away from home was the solution to his 44-year marriage.

In fact he was rushing off to the airport to see his wife, Judy, in the hope of making it home for a celebratory drink, and to tell his mother the big news. "It's nice to get a surprise in life. But she probably will tell me off for not telling her. "

Acclaim is nothing new to Sir Peter: he's he has been New Zealander of the Year, won the Rutherford medal and belongs to some of the most elite science organisations in the world.

Still, the Order of New Zealand came as a bit of a shock. "I was actually flabbergasted. I didn't think in these terms, ever. I'm pleased to see science is getting recognised; that it's important.

"While it is a personal honour, it's something that reflects on the whole science system in New Zealand. Hopefully the people who have worked with me get some pleasure out of it as well."

From medicine to research

Sir Peter was born in Auckland in 1949 to psychiatrist Dr Laurie Gluckman and school principal Ann Gluckman.

"I grew up in a solid home. I was the archetypal nerd, more interested in books than sport, in a family that really encouraged reading, thinking, arguing and talking. Arguing in a good way, of course."

He attended Auckland Grammar School and had come to a crossroads about what he should do - medicine, or something else.

By chance, he bumped into Auckland University endocrinology professor Dr Kaye Ibbotson and was so inspired that not only did he go into medicine, but also followed Dr Ibbotson's speciality, the study of hormones.

He finished medical school at Auckland and Otago universities, worked as a paediatrician for two years - and then realised it wasn't really for him.

He travelled to the United States where he completed his postdoctoral fellowship and later went on to become an assistant professor at the University of California in San Francisco.

In California, he began researching how foetal hormonal systems developed. He continued the study of the earliest stages of pregnancy on his return to New Zealand in 1980.

He set up a research group focusing on developmental hormones and neuroscience, where he became an internationally renowned name.

Disruptive science

He and his team were amongst the first to learn that some brain cells took hours, or even days, to die after an injury, and that cooling the brain could reduce cell death.

This discovery led to the invention of the cooling cap, which is worn by babies suspected of having brain damage immediately after birth. The cap is now a staple medical item now found in the maternity wards around the world.

"Clearly it's the one 'discovery' that's had the most direct clinical impact in the short term." he said.

"Yes, it's changed the practise of paediatrics. But it's important to remember it started with basic science back in the early eighties; we never dreamed we would be moving in that direction.

"I call it disruptive science, it changed medicine but it was disruptive because we allowed our imagination to go wild a little bit. "

He continued the work for another 17 years, while also holding down the role of Dean of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland for a long period of time.

Another landmark year for Sir Peter was 2001, when he was both awarded the country's top science prize, the Rutherford Medal, and launched what is now the world-renowned Liggins Institute.

While heading the institute, he made another big discovery - that what a woman eats before and in the early stages of pregnancy will have a lasting affect on the baby.

He suggested that a mother's poor nutrition programmed the child to conserve fat in later life, which makes it more vulnerable to heart disease.

This research is still one of Sir Peter's biggest drivers: he was appointed the co-chair of the World Health Organization Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity last year.

It is a topic he's talked about for some time, believing that humans are hardwired to eat food wherever they can find it.

"What we are going through is an interesting period, particularly for children who are entrapped into a society of high energy food and different behaviours to three to four generations ago.

"I think everyone is jumping up and down that this or that is the magic bullet - what is becoming clear is a whole raft of measures need to be introduced, especially making it harder for kids to buy these sugary drinks and lousy food. "

'Nutritional literacy'

Sir Peter is particularly concerned about the problem in New Zealand. It is a worry to him that nine out of the ten fattest countries in the world are in the Pacific.

"There is no magic bullet though, let's be honest.

"What we are trying to do is move it from rhetoric to a set of practical recipes that countries in different stages of development can do. We need to focus on nutritional literacy.

"I think from earliest stages of life what and how you eat is important and as men and women enter childbearing age we now understand that their nutrition and behaviours are important for the next generation. "

Sir Peter launched another institute focusing on children's health in 2004: the Gravida National Centre for Growth and Development.

Like Liggins Institute, it focuses on how conditions encountered in early life affect the way an individual grows and develops throughout life.

He stepped down as director of both those institutes when he was asked to be the first Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor in 2009.

Chief Science Advisor

He has not held back in the role, pushing for the drinking age to be raised, calling for the food industry to have clearer labels, weighing in to the fluoride debate and calling for a review of the code of ethics for scientists.

"It's been a thrilling opportunity to take something where there was nothing before. We're known around the world for being innovative about science advice.

"I have to admit it's been very interesting to see the other side - the intersects between science and policy and how science can help advance New Zealand's interests in lots of ways.

"You've got to remember science doesn't make policy, it informs policy.

"Clearly I might do things differently and have different view of emphasise to politicians, but that's why we have politicians - to make the hard decisions.

Despite his hectic schedule, he has no plans to step down.

"That's probably up to others rather than me. I'm not in a hurry to retire anytime soon. I still wake up every day excited to read about science, the little science I still do, and the advancement of science. "

And what is he most proud of?

"This will sound twee, but that I came back to New Zealand and showed that you can do world class research in New Zealand. That you can sustain forty years of research in a set direction from New Zealand and make a difference.

"Doing something world-class from the bottom of the world and being recognised around the world, and continuing to be engaged.

"New Zealand's challenge is to be relevant to the world and I think science is one of the ways we can maintain that relevance."

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