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Royal Society awards for three VUW academics

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News from VUW
Three Victoria University of Wellington academics have received prestigious Royal Society Te Apārangi Research Honours Awards.

Dr Ocean Mercier (Ngāti Porou), Head of School of Te Kawa a Māui, receives the Callaghan Medal for outstanding contribution to science communication, Dr Bronwyn Wood from the School of Education receives the Early Career Research Excellence Award for Social Sciences, and Dr Lisa Te Morenga (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Te Uri o Hua, Te Rarawa) from the Faculty of Health receives the Hamilton Award, the Early Career Research Excellence Award for Science.

“I am delighted to see three of our outstanding women researchers—two of whom are Māori—recognised in this way,” says Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Margaret Hyland. “These researchers are having real impact in their work and the awards are richly deserved.”

Dr Mercier receives the Callaghan Medal for her efforts to raise public awareness of the value of science and mātauranga Māori. Over several decades, Dr Mercier has communicated with the public through television (including several roles as a presenter), speaking engagements, and written work to celebrate Māori scientific innovations and inform the public about threats to our taonga such as kauri dieback, using both English and te reo Māori to communicate. She has also used her two decades of experience in physics and Māori studies to work on projects on ocean forecasting with MetService, groundwater with GNS, and a Biological Heritage National Science Challenge project alongside University colleague Professor Phil Lester on invasive wasp species.

Development of her communications skills and multidisciplinary approach were encouraged by Sir Paul Callaghan himself, after whom the medal is named, as her postdoctoral mentor, leading him to call her “a bridge between worlds”.

“Paul Callaghan is one of many people who supported my career, so this medal is a big deal. Exploring the mātauranga and science interface in the public eye is something Sir Paul possibly foresaw me doing, when he encouraged me to learn te reo Māori in between writing our paper on Antarctic sea ice diffusion. I’m hugely proud and honoured to be winning an award named after the maestro of science communicators, and my mentor.”

Dr Wood receives the Early Career Research Excellence Award for research that deepens our understanding about how young people engage as citizens, particularly through their schooling. Her work investigates how New Zealand can ensure a thriving democracy and encourage young people to become engaged citizens through the education system.

Among Dr Wood’s significant achievements are researching the civic gap between students from different backgrounds as well as leading a project for NCEA to look at whether ‘personal social action’ assessments could be effective in schools. The findings from this project were of great interest to the teaching community, garnered wide media interest, and were presented at Parliament.

She has also been a strong advocate of lowering the voting age to 16 and enhancing civics education in schools.

Dr Wood says she was extremely honoured to win the award.

“It has been such a privilege in my research to work together with fabulous teachers, researchers and students to find ways to enhance the possibility of young people cultivating citizenship skills in New Zealand schools,” she says.

Dr Te Morenga receives the Hamilton Award for her research into the links between sugar in the diet and weight gain, resulting in changes to international nutrition policy.

Dr Te Morenga published a breakthrough meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal in 2013 that clearly demonstrated a link between free sugars in the diet and excessive weight gain, and that the weight gain is caused by excessive energy consumption rather than a change in metabolism.

She undertook this research on behalf of the World Health Organisation, which released recommendations based on the research that are now implemented as policy in many countries around the world.

Dr Te Morenga has also developed methods to better monitor how much sugar New Zealanders are consuming, as well as working with Ngāti Porou on the relationship between sugar and chronic health conditions. She also co-led a Healthier Lives National Science Challenge Project to design an app to support health lifestyles amongst Māori and Pasifika whānau.

“It is a great honour to be recognised by Te Apārangi for my research,” Dr Te Morenga says.

“There are many challenges in being an early career researcher in New Zealand, particularly the lack of long-term job security. This is especially true for Māori researchers who can get stuck in an ongoing cycle of short-term research contracts. I am therefore indebted to the Riddet Centre of Research Excellence hosted at Massey University, which has provided ongoing support, enabling me to sustain my research for the past eight years, as well as my many wonderful colleagues throughout New Zealand.”

The Royal Society Te Apārangi supports New Zealanders to explore, discover, and share knowledge through research funding and the celebration of discoveries by New Zealand researchers.

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