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From crime to climate: 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes

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The 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes have been awarded to some of Aotearoa New Zealand's most exceptional researchers, students, communicators and teachers.

The awardees include a team of crime scene DNA experts, a young physicist investigating the risks of avalanches and slips, a leading climate scientist and climate change communicator, an innovative bioengineer who creates devices for gut diseases, and an inspirational kaiako in Wellington with 30 years of teaching under her belt.

The prizegiving recognises the impact of science on New Zealanders’ lives, celebrates the achievements of current scientists and aims to encourage those of the future.

The winners were announced this afternoon at the award ceremony held at Parliament.

2018 Prime Minister's Science Prize

STRmix group

The top honour of winning the Prime Minister's $500,000 Science Prize - awarded for science that is transformational in its impact - went to the STRmix™ team from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR).

The STRmix™ software developed by the 16-member team has been used in more than 100,000 cases worldwide to interpret genetic material from multiple individuals at a crime scene.

STRmix™ was born out of a crisis in 2009 when an Australian laboratory was forced to close after incorrectly using software to interpret DNA for case work. After three years of cross-Tasman development, STRmix™ was introduced into New Zealand and South Australia in 2012. After two years, 110 cases had been matched on the database.

“DNA profile analysis is a really powerful tool for identifying individuals as possible suspects but it’s also important for being able to exclude or exonerate an individual as well,” says ESR Senior Scientist Dr Jo-Anne Bright.

Read Jo-Anne Bright's Women in STEM profile

The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize

Carol Brieseman

The recipient for this prize was Wellington science teacher Carol Brieseman at Hampton Hill School in Tawa.

Carol believes that igniting students’ natural curiosity and inspiring them to constantly question events around them is key to their life-long learning success. Her year five and six students know that there is no such thing as a dumb question and if their teacher doesn't know the answer, they can work it out together.

Initiatives instigated by Carol at Hampton Hill School include the installation of solar panels, a school vegetable garden with worm farms, compost bins and student-designed water tanks, a green-house made from recycled bottles, a human sundial and a five senses garden.

Carol, who has 30 years teaching experience, shares her capabilities widely by supporting and mentoring teachers at Hampton Hill and other schools.

The Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize

James Renwick

Climate scientist Professor James Renwick from Victoria University of Wellington was the winner of this year's science communication prize. In the past five years, James has been involved in more than 100 public presentations about climate change, given more than 200 media interviews in New Zealand and internationally and presented at numerous conferences focused on climate change and how to mitigate its effects.

James says he feels a sense of duty to tell the world about the science behind climate change, the consequences that are unfolding and the urgent need for action. He will use the prize funds to build collaborations on climate change between artists and scientists and to further strengthen links with tāngata whenua.

The Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Peng Du

This prize went to Dr Peng Du from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland. He is leading the world with his development of devices that help in the fast, reliable diagnosis and treatment of gut problems.

Peng uses a combination of experimental recording and mathematical modelling to understand what happens to the food we eat, and the interactions between waves of bioelectrical activity generated by the gut and its movements to ensure essential nutrients can be absorbed.

Prototypes of the devices he creates are now being manufactured and Peng hopes they will lead to improved management and treatment of challenging digestive conditions.

 

The Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize

Finn Messerli

The winner of this prize was former Onslow College student Finnegan Messerli for research into a physics problem that could ultimately help scientists better understand the risks of avalanches and slips. 

Finn’s project began when he was asked to explain at an international physics tournament why grains like salt form a cone-like pile when they are poured onto a surface. It required him to find a method of testing the properties of the grains.

“Essentially I designed the method I would have liked to have at my fingertips when I was working on the problem,” says Finn.

He is the third student from Wellington’s Onslow College to win the Future Scientist award in the Prizes’ 10-year history. All three winning students have been taught by Kent Logan, who is Head of Science at the school.

Read more about the winners on the Prime Minister's Science Prizes website (external link)

Read Jo-Anne Bright's Women in STEM profile

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