2019 Rutherford Discovery Fellowships to accelerate research careers announced

Associate Professor Melanie Ooi, at University of Waikato, has been awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for research titled “Resilient and efficient light-based plant detection and characterisation for precision agriculture and environmental sustainability”.

Dr Volker Nock, at University of Canterbury, won a fellowship for research titled “Electrotaxis and protrusive force generation in fungal and oomycete pathogens – pathways to new biocontrol strategies”.

These were among the 11 fellowships awarded to early¬ to mid-career researchers to support them to accelerate their research careers in New Zealand.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships receive government funding of $8 million a year and award $800,000 over five years to each research fellow.  At least 50 Rutherford Discovery Fellows are supported at any one time.

Notes accompanying the award to Associate Professor Ooi explain that precision agriculture is the process whereby a targeted weed or undesirable plant receives herbicide treatment without it affecting the neighbouring pasture plants. This kind of individual plant management has the potential to reduce treatment costs, increase agricultural productivity and reduce the environmental impacts of treatment.

Associate Professor Ooi will build a plant detection system that uses specifically tailored LED light sources and precise imaging techniques to measure and detect the prevalence of undesirable plants. This process will be implemented in real-time without using resource intensive computations so that it can be deployed by being directly attached to farming machinery. She will measure the light-reflecting characteristics of relevant herbaceous species throughout their life cycles, specifically crafting the LED light sources to optimally image the undesired species. The resulting plant identification system that Associate Professor Ooi is developing will have the benefit of being both cost effective and resilient to rigorous use on farm equipment.

Associate Professor Ooi has achieved preliminary success using these imaging techniques to distinguish three common species of weed: ragwort, gorse and blackberry. Besides the benefits to Aotearoa New Zealand’s dairy and meat sector, this technology offers great opportunities for export-oriented precision agricultural equipment companies.

Dr Nock is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Canterbury.

The notes regarding his research say:

Fungi and fungi-like organisms known as oomycetes are important players in the cycle of life as they decompose dead and decaying organic matter. Through this crucial role in the nutrient cycle they influence the wellbeing of human populations on a large scale. However, while many fungi and oomycetes are benign, some pathogenic species cause disease in plants and animals. Recent infamous examples include Kauri Dieback and Myrtle Rust. To combat these disease causing species, it is important to understand how they locate and infect their target. For example, spores of certain fungi use electric fields present in the roots of trees to detect and navigate towards them. Once at the target, spores of pathogenic fungi and oomycetes begin to germinate, sending out shoots that physically invade the tissue of the target, sometimes leading to its death.

The aim of Dr Nock’s Rutherford Discovery Fellowship is to establish the antifungal properties of new compounds, plants and other species for the development of novel treatments. To do so, Dr Nock will use his nanobiotechnology expertise, developing lab-on-a-chip devices to further understand how fungi and oomycetes find targets and physically invade them. The devices will include arrays of electrodes to determine how spores locate tree roots, and whether roots can be protected using external electric fields. They will also include force-sensing micropillars to help determine the internal mechanisms by which the fungi and oomycetes generate the mechanical forces they use to penetrate their targets. If the factors that underlie all these mechanisms can be determined, this may impact how we address the many diseases and infections that occur due to pathogenic fungi and oomycetes.

The research programmes of the new fellowships span a wide variety of interesting topics, including:

• using a lab-on-a-chip approach to understand how plant diseases such as kauri dieback and myrtle rust target and invade their hosts;

• investigating the communication between brain and body to develop better coping mechanisms for those who suffer from anxiety;

• finding out what ‘social capital’ means within a Māori world view and how this is relevant to other populations; and

• combatting loneliness in adolescents and emerging adults by increasing our understanding of social identity.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships seek to attract, retain and develop New Zealand’s most talented early- to mid-career researchers and support their career development by helping them to establish a track record for future research leadership. A few of the awardees will be returning from overseas to take up these fellowships.

One of the panellists selecting the 2019 awardees, Associate Professor Nancy Bertler from Victoria University of Wellington and GNS science, has experienced first hand the impact a fellowship can have on career development. She was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2011 and now leads the Antarctic Science Platform, a $49 million government science investment.

“The fellowship allowed me to lead a 9-nation Antarctic project, to support the next generation of scientists, to interact with national and international policymakers, and to take a leading role in developing priorities for the international science community.

“I’m humbled by the calibre of the 2019 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship cohort and can’t wait to see the achievements of these talented individuals over the next five years and the benefits and legacy they collectively will create for New Zealand,” Associate Professor Bertler said.

The chair of the selection panel, Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith FRSNZ, said the high calibre of applicants made it extremely difficult to select 11 new research fellows out of more than 80 who applied.

“This year we interviewed 22 candidates and all were outstanding. The process gives me great faith in the future of research in this country. It was particularly exciting to be able to bring two outstanding researchers from overseas back home to New Zealand.”

Royal Society Te Apārangi manages the fellowship programme on behalf of government.

For 2019, the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship recipients are:

• Dr David Aguirre, Massey University, for research titled: Ecosystems on unstable foundations: examining the potential for coral and macroalgal responses to global change

• Dr Olivia Faull, University of Otago (currently at University of Zurich, Switzerland), for research titled: Breathing and anxiety: Understanding the miscommunication between brain and body, and how best to treat it

• Dr Jodie Hunter, Massey University, for research titled: Developing mathematical inquiry communities: Using a strength based approach to provide equitable opportunities to learn mathematics for diverse learners

• Dr Andrew McDaid, the University of Auckland, for research titled: Uncovering new knowledge of neurological and musculoskeletal rehabilitation mechanisms using novel data-driven methods

• Dr Alexander Melnikov, Massey University, for research titled: Applications of modern computability

• Dr Volker Nock, University of Canterbury, for research titled: Electrotaxis and protrusive force generation in fungal and oomycete pathogens – pathways to new biocontrol strategies

• Associate Professor Melanie Ooi, University of Waikato, for research titled: Resilient and efficient light-based plant detection and characterisation for precision agriculture and environmental sustainability

• Dr Matthew Roskruge, Massey University, for research titled: The economics of social capital from a Māori perspective

• Dr Damian Scarf, University of Otago, for research titled: The belonging project

• Dr Jenni Stanley, University of Waikato (currently at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA), for research titled: What does protection sound like? A modern approach to understanding New Zealand’s underwater soundscapes and acoustic pressures

• Dr Agnes Szabo, Massey University, for research titled: Growing old in an adopted land: Cross-fertilizing ageing and acculturation research

More information on the new Rutherford Discovery Fellows is available at: royalsociety.org.nz/RDFs

Source:  Royal Society Te Aparangi

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