2018 science medals and awards – Royal Society is calling for nominations

The call for nominations for medals and awards being offered in 2018 by the Royal Society Te Apārangi – which was opened in mid-December – will close on 30 April.

The Academy Executive Committee is focused on increasing the diversity of nominations from under-represented groups, particularly with respect to gender, ethnicity and employment context.

  • Callaghan Medal – for outstanding contribution to science communication, in particular raising public awareness of the value of science to human progress;
  • Cooper Award – for emerging researchers in technology, applied sciences, and engineering research in New Zealand, awarded annually;
  • Dame Joan Metge Medal – for excellence and building relationships in the social science research community,
  • Hamilton Award – for the encouragement of early-career researchers currently based in New Zealand for scientific  research in New Zealand
  • Hatherton Award – for the best scientific paper by a PhD student at any New Zealand University in chemical sciences, physical sciences, or mathematical and information sciences
  • Hector Medal – for outstanding work in chemical, physical sciences, or mathematical and information sciences
  • Hercus Medal – for excellence in molecular and cellular sciences, biomedical science or clinical science and public health
  • Hutton Medal – for significantly advancing understanding in animal sciences, earth sciences or plant sciences
  • Jones Medal – is awarded biennially, for lifetime achievement in pure or applied mathematics or statistics by a person with substantial connections to New Zealand.
  • MacDiarmid Medal – for outstanding scientific research that demonstrates the potential for application to human benefit. Nominations of teams welcome.
  • Pickering Medal – to recognise excellence and innovation in the practical applications of technology. Nominations of teams welcome.
  • Rutherford Medal – for exceptional contributions to New Zealand society and culture through activities in the broad fields of science, mathematics, social science, and technology
  • Te Puāwaitanga Award – in recognition of research that has made an eminent and distinctive contribution to Te Ao Māori and Indigenous knowledge (new medal for 2018)
  • Thomson Medal – for outstanding contributions to the organisation, support and application of science and/or technology in New Zealand.

You can email Academy (academy@royalsociety.org.nz) to submit a new nomination. An URL will be provided to access the web portal.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi

Professor Jim Skea to deliver public lecture on mitigating climate change

Committee on Climate Change portraits - 24/9/08.

Professor Jim Skea. 

The Royal Society Te Apārangi is to host Scottish Professor Jim Skea, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for a free public lecture to ascertain what science is telling us about the actions we can collectively take to reduce the rate of climate change.

The society notes the country’s recent experience with record high temperatures and severe weather events causing flood and coastal damage.

Professor Skea will discuss whether situations like these clearly relate to the effects of global warming.

Moreover, following the announcement that the United States plan to cease their participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement, he will offer policy and practical guidance into how New Zealand and the rest of the world need to manage the responsibility of mitigating climate change.

Professor Skea is the Chair of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College London and Co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III, the branch of the IPCC that looks at the actions which can be taken to reduce the rate of climate change.

A meeting for the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land, one of three Special Reports that the IPCC will publish in the next two years, is being held in Christchurch the week starting 26 March 2018.

A video recording of this lecture will be made available shortly after the event.

  • Climate change: stormy weather ahead
  • Wellington | Te Papa, Soundings Theatre
  • 6pm Wednesday 21 March.

You can register here.

Researchers are poised to win the race against rust diseases

A joint US and Australian research team has generated the first haplotype-resolved genome sequences for the rust fungi causing oat crown rust and wheat stripe rust diseases, two of the most destructive pathogens in oat and wheat, respectively.

After using the latest genome sequencing technologies to understand how rust fungi adapt to overcome resistance in crop varieties, scientists from the University of Minnesota, the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory, the Australian National University, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the University of Sydney are releasing results with two publications in mBio, a journal by the American Society of Microbiology.

The work was announced (here) by the University of Minnesota.

“Like humans, rust fungi contain two copies of each chromosome, which makes their genetics much more complicated than other types of fungi,” said Assistant Professor Melania Figueroa from the University of Minnesota. Figueroa co-led the sequencing effort for the oat crown rust fungus P. coronata f. sp. avenae along with Shahryar Kianian, research leader at the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.

“A key advance of this work is that for the first time, separate genome assemblies were generated reflecting both of the two chromosome copies in the rust.”

In parallel, Postdoctoral Fellow Benjamin Schwessinger and Professor John Rathjen at the Australian National University applied similar approaches to develop an improved genome assembly of the stripe rust fungus, P. striiformis f. sp. tritici. By working together the two teams were able to combine their techniques and knowledge to achieve these breakthroughs much more rapidly than by working alone.

These studies represent a breakthrough in plant pathology as they now show how genetic diversity between the two chromosome copies can influence the emergence of new virulent pathogen strains.

Both studies uncovered a surprisingly high level of diversity between the two copies, suggesting that such variation likely serves as the basis to rapidly evolve new rust strains.

“Reports from growers facing yield losses due to oat crown rust occur during most cropping seasons and the genome assemblies of this pathogen will help us understand the evolution of this pathogen and means to develop more resistant crops,” said Kianian, who coordinates annual rust surveys in the US in order to monitor the pathogen population in oat growing areas.

The oat crown rust genomics study compared two strains from North Carolina and South Dakota with different virulent profiles which were obtained in 2012 as part of the routine USDA-ARS Rust Surveys.

The first author of this publication, Marisa Miller, is the awardee of a prestigious USDA-NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow and recently embarked on a study comparing the genomic composition of oat crown rust strains collected in 1990 and 2015.

“In the last 25 years the population of oat crown rust has gained additional virulences, and we would like to understand how this has occurred. Miller’s work is essential to answering this question,” commented Figueroa.

“Oat crown rust is one of the most rapidly evolving rust pathogens,” explained University of Minnesota Adjunct Professor Peter Dodds of CSIRO Agriculture and Food. “So this work will really help understand how new rust diseases like the highly destructive Ug99 race of wheat stem rust can overcome resistance in crops.”

The publications describing the work in the oat crown rust and wheat stripe rust pathogens, both released in the current issue of mBio, will serve as a framework for future studies of virulence evolution in these pathogens as well as for applying similar approaches to the rust fungi causing many other major crop diseases.

Biosecurity officials target vehicles and machinery from Japan

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has introduced new measures to reduce the risk of brown marmorated stink bugs arriving in vehicles and machinery from Japan.

The changes will require all used vehicles (cars and trucks) to undergo inspection and cleaning at a ministry-approved facility in Japan before they are shipped out.

Moreover, any used machinery or other types of used vehicles from Japan will require certification proving it has undergone cleaning by an appropriate provider, says Paul Hallett, MPI biosecurity and environment manager.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor meanwhile has been answering questions in Parliament on the issue

Among the questions:

Hon Nathan Guy: How many live stink bugs have been found in ships destined for New Zealand from Japan over the last week?

Hon DAMIEN O’CONNOR: I’ve been unable to be in a position to count them.

Hon Nathan Guy: Is the Minister, therefore, telling the House that he’s had no formal advice from his officials as to how many stink bugs have arrived on vessels from Japan in the last week?

Hon DAMIEN O’CONNOR: No, I do not have a number, but what I can tell that Minister is that, unlike himself, we identified through a rigid, robust system of inspection of the ship—before any vehicles were put off the ship, officials identified—the presence of brown marmorated stink bugs, which are a huge threat to this country. We have upped the level of compliance and scrutiny on those ships, and we’ll stand by that regardless of whether it’s two or 2,000 stink bugs. We cannot afford to let those pests into this country.

In his announcement, Mr Hallett said nearly 95 per cent of used vehicles from Japan already go through approved facilities that are designed to eliminate the risk of biosecurity threats like seeds and hitchhiking organisms such as Asian gypsy moth.

The new requirement will be compulsory for all imports.

“The changes will significantly reduce the chance of transporting dirty vehicles and machinery that could contaminate other cargo.

“The move is the result of an unprecedented spike in the number of stink bugs arriving at the border from Japan in bulk carriers.”

The ministry has already increased the level of inspection of arriving carriers and their cargo, including the use of fogging with insecticide to flush any insects out of confined spaces.

It has directed three bulk carriers to leave New Zealand this month because of excessive contamination.

Mr Hallett says the ministry will work with industry to develop longer-term options for reducing the biosecurity risk.

The aim is to find solutions that avoid the need to turn vessels around at the border. This could include treatment prior to entering New Zealand waters or finding ways of fumigating the vessels here if any detections are made.

A treatment programme will be trialled on one of the affected ships this week. The vessel will have to pass rigorous biosecurity checks for the ministry to allow the release of its cargo.

EPA Chief Scientist is leaving to return to an education role.

The Environmental Protection Authority has announced Chief Scientist Jacqueline Rowarth’s resignation.

EPA chief executive Allan Freeth says she is returning to an education role (he did not specify it) where she will also continue independent analysis and commentary on issues for New Zealand.

His statement said:

During her time with the EPA Jacqueline has built up the science team, focusing on supporting other teams with the information they need to make decisions informed by science. In particular she has encouraged staff to get involved – through speaking and writing, starting with [our internal regular feature] Science Corner. She has also spread the word externally about the role the EPA plays in New Zealand.

Jacqueline’s last day of employment with the EPA as Chief Scientist will be Friday 2 March 2018. However, Jacqueline has agreed to undertake specific research/project work for EPA for up to two months after her employment with the EPA ends. The Executive Team wishes her all the best for her future work.

AgScience’s quick Google search found the announcement reported only by Stuff (here) and Radio New Zealand (here).

It was not recorded on the Scoop website, where EPA statements are usually posted.

The Radio NZ report described Dr Rowarth as the EPA’s “controversial chief scientist”.

It also said Dr Freeth would not be interviewed about the resignation.

EPA spokesperson Diane Robinson said: “We don’t have any further comment beyond the statement on our website”.

Dr Rowarth drew criticism late last year after describing irrigation as a “great boon” to the environment.

She said irrigation helped farmers remain profitable, and they then invested that money in environmental projects.

Conservationists described those comments as “bizarre”, while the government said irrigation caused enormous environmental damage.

This presumably was a reference to reasons given for a change of government policy on irrigation schemes after the general election.

The new Labour-led Government announced it was reversing the previous government’s policy of subsidising big irrigation schemes around the country.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said that was because of the enormous environmental damage.

Dr Rowarth started her EPA job in October 2016.

Baby, just look at me now – study cracks the genetic code for complex traits in cattle

professor Hayes

Professor Ben Hayes.


A global study involving 58,000 cattle has pinpointed the genes that influence the complex genetic trait of height in cattle, the University of Queensland announced today.

The study opens the door for researchers to use the same approach to map high-value traits including those important for beef and milk production.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Ben Hayes, who heads the global 1000 Bull Genomes Consortium of 57 researchers from 30 institutes, said it had previously been a major challenge to identify variants in the genome affecting complex traits, due to variations within multiple genes and to behavioural and environmental factors.

“To overcome this issue, the consortium pooled large genomic datasets and phenotypes collected from 58,000 cattle around the world to gain the clearest picture so far of their genetics,” Professor Hayes said.

“We needed access to vast resources of data in order to demonstrate that the genes affecting a complex trait like height can be accurately identified.

“By applying the same collaborative big data approach, it may now possible to identify genes associated with high-value complex traits that are really important to the industry, such as beef and milk production, feed efficiency and reduced methane emissions.”

The 1000 Bull Genomes Consortium’s findings on height were confirmed by analysing the genetic material of miniature cattle and the DNA sequenced from a 6500-year-old wild auroch bone.

“Aurochs are an extinct species of large wild ox – which were domesticated by ancient humans about 10,000 years ago and bred to be shorter – and are the ancestor to all cattle breeds,” Professor Hayes said.

“From analysing the DNA of this animal, we could predict its height, and then verify our prediction with the fossil records of auroch skeletons.”

“On the other hand, the miniature cattle were predicted to be quite small based on their DNA and the genes we pinpointed in the study, validating our discoveries.”

When the team applied its findings to the genetic datasets collected for humans and dogs, they were surprised to find that there was a high degree of overlap.

“The same genes influencing height in cattle also influence the trait in other mammalian species,” Professor Hayes said.

“This is something that has never been demonstrated before.

“It opens up the possibility for researchers working in cattle and human genomics to share data on traits such as temperament and body fatness.”

The research is published in  Nature Genetics.

Rutherford Discovery Fellowships – 2018 funding round and roadshows announced

Applications for the 2018 funding round of the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships will open on Thursday, March 1.

Announced by the Government in May 2010, these fellowships will support the recipients for a five-year term and provide funding up to $160,000 a year (excl. GST).

The Government’s purpose in establishing the fellowships is to support the development of future research leaders, and assisting with the retention and repatriation of New Zealand’s talented early- to mid-career researchers.  

  •  Early- to mid-career researchers are researchers who have been conferred with their doctoral degree between three to eight years before the year in which the Fellowship is awarded. For the 2018 funding round the eligibility time frame is 1 January 2010 – 31 December 2015.
  •  Applicants must be either New Zealand citizens or applicants who have continuously resided in New Zealand for at least three months before their application and hold, or are deemed to hold, a New Zealand resident visa.
  • A web-based Proposals On-Line system will be used. Prospective applicants must first contact their research office coordinator to obtain login details for the web-based proposals portal.

Applications close on 12 April 2018.

Further information can be found on the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships page.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi will hold a series of Roadshows around the opening of the funding round, which will outline the application process and provide an opportunity for applicants to ask questions.

The first Roadshow will take place at Massey University, in Palmerston North, on Wednesday.

A list of the scheduled roadshow dates and venues can be found here.