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Source: University of Otago

Tuesday 10 November 2020 10:26am
University of Otago researchers have secured $17.5 million in Marsden funding for 30 world-class research projects.
Fourteen projects, led by researchers in every division of the University – Commerce, Health Sciences, Humanities and Sciences – received grants ranging from $729,000 to $960,000, and a further 16 researchers received kick-start $300,000 grants.
Welcoming the funding, Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne says the awards are a significant achievement and testament to the exceptionally hard work and world-leading research happening at Otago.
“There is always huge competition for these awards, not just from the country’s eight universities, but also about 30 Crown research institutes and private and public-sector organisations.
“This latest impressive performance continues the University’s strong record in gaining external research funding and reflects the ongoing strength of the University’s research culture,” she says.
The Otago research is broad and varied, from Professor Julia Horsfield’s $960,000 for research into developmental diseases and cancers that arise from gene mutations involving the cohesion complex, Professor Claire Freeman’s $729,000 to ultimately inform and encourage urban planning that supports child-friendly futures, to Dr Karen Greig’s $300,000 to study the bones of domesticated animals to study how social networks and structures have changed over time.
The newly formed Climate and Energy Finance Group, led by Otago Business School’s Associate Professor Ivan Diaz-Rainey, has received $869,000 to explore to what extent, and when, increasing flood frequencies will impact property values in New Zealand’s coastal cities.
“This is an extremely important topic because 65 per cent of the population in New Zealand live within 5km of the sea and 85 per cent of individual wealth is concentrated in real estate. It also has implications for the stability of our banks given that over 60 per cent of the value of the four largest New Zealand banks loan portfolios are to housing,” Associate Professor Diaz-Rainey says.
Dr Jude Ball, of the University of Otago, Wellington, has been awarded $300,000 to understand how the function and meaning of substance use has changed in young people’s lives.
“Adolescent smoking, drinking and drug use have declined dramatically over the past 15 to 20 years in Aotearoa New Zealand and other OECD countries. Because we don’t know what has driven substance use down, policy makers and researchers are poorly placed to predict future trends or influence further positive change,” she says.
“This research will contribute to international efforts to understand why substance use has declined. It will also inform local efforts, including efforts by and for Māori, to reduce substance-related harm.”
Dr Erica Newman’s research examining the impact of the 1955 Adoption Act on the identity of descendants of Maori adoptees yet to connect to their taha Māori holds personal significance.
“I am the daughter of a Māori adoptee and do not yet know my taha Māori. Although I know I am of Māori descent I do not know my whakapapa, my hapū or iwi, my pepeha or my tūrangawaewae and this is because my mother was adopted into a non-Māori family. I know I am not the only person of Māori descent who is in this situation and it is important that these stories and journeys are explored.
“Absence of tūrangawaewae for descendants of Māori adoptees has an effect on their identity and their health and wellbeing. Finding whakapapa connections can only benefit the participant in strengthening their Māori identity by having the knowledge of who they are and where they come from. This journey could also connect the adoptee, if they are ready.”
In total the Marsden Fund, which support excellence in research in New Zealand, allocated $84.75 million (excluding GST) for 134 research projects.
The grants are distributed over three years and are fully costed paying for salaries, students and postdoctoral positions, institutional overheads and research consumables.
The successful recipients are:
Standards grants:
Dr Karl Iremonger, Physiology, Health Sciences, $960,000
Uncontrolled stress hormone release is detrimental to health. However, the mechanisms preventing excessive secretion are unclear. Stress hormone levels in the body are controlled by the activity of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons in the brain. We have recently found that elevated levels of corticosteroid stress hormones feedback and inhibit a specific part of the CRH neuron: the nerve terminal. This proposal will investigate how stress hormones regulate CRH nerve terminal excitability and hence activity of the stress axis. Sensing of stress hormone levels by CRH nerve terminals represents a newly discovered mechanism by which the brain regulates stress responses.
Professor Peter Fineran, Microbiology & Immunology, Health Sciences, $960,000
“Bacteria are frequently infected by viruses (phages) and these interactions contribute significantly to global nutrient cycles and the emergence of bacterial pathogens. For protection against phages, many bacteria possess adaptive immune systems, called CRISPR-Cas. Immunity relies on the bacterium acquiring DNA-based ‘memories’ of phage genome sequences, which are used to recognise and destroy subsequent phage infections. We recently discovered that widespread ‘jumbo’ phages evade common CRISPR-Cas systems by physically protecting their DNA inside a viral nucleus during infection. However, we observed that an alternative type of CRISPR-Cas system, known to recognise phage RNA, provides immunity against jumbo phages. The immune mechanism is unknown, but we hypothesise that export of phage RNA from the nucleus, for translation in the cytoplasm, is the phage’s Achilles’ heel that triggers these RNA-dependent systems to induce cell death or dormancy. The shut-down of infected cells is predicted to inhibit phage propagation, reducing viral spread and saving the bacterial population. Protection of jumbo phage DNA in the nucleus raises an important question of how these CRISPR-Cas systems acquire new ‘memories’ from phage DNA. We will test our theory of how these RNA-dependent CRISPR-Cas systems provide jumbo phage immunity using microbiological, genetic, biochemical and high-resolution imaging techniques.”
Dr Lynette Brownfield, Biochemistry, Health Sciences, $958,000
Asymmetric cell division, where a mother cell divides into two distinct cell types, is a fundamental process in the development of multicellular organisms. In many cases, this relies on regulatory factors becoming polarised in the mother cell before being unequally inherited by one of the daughter cells. The presence of the regulatory factors then switches on a specific developmental pathway only in that daughter. In flowering plants, asymmetric division is critical for the formation of the male germline. In this case, the regulatory factor is inherited by the smaller daughter cell to trigger germline development. Recently, we have identified proteins that turn on the expression of a key gene for male germline development, and are therefore candidates to be the unequally-inherited regulatory factor. In this proposal, we will explore how these proteins function together to turn on male germline development and determine if, and how, they are unequally inherited in the asymmetric division. This will provide valuable information on how plants utilize asymmetric division to generate diverse cell types and how a critical cell type in plant reproduction is generated, creating opportunities to manipulate male fertility in plants to enhance plant breeding and contain genetically modified and pest plants.
Dr Louise Bicknell, Pathology, Health Sciences, $959,000
Dynamic reorganisation of chromatin is an essential mechanism in the regulation of gene expression during development, with disruption strongly linked to neurodevelopmental disorders. While chromatin regulators have attracted a strong focus, histones, as the major substrate in chromatin, have received little attention. We have accumulated an international cohort of 23 patients with a novel neurodevelopmental condition, who have mutations in four of the 15 genes encoding histone H4 in chromatin. Our striking genetic evidence supporting histone H4 as a novel disease gene family is supported by strong preliminary evidence demonstrating engineered H4 mutations disrupt zebrafish development. We hypothesise such mutations alter chromatin dynamics, perturbing brain development. We will study these mutations in neural cells using both cellular assays and a multi-dimensional sequencing approach, aiming to understand the consequences of these mutations on cell functioning and the epigenome. Rare inherited variants in these genes could act as risk alleles in complex neurodevelopmental conditions, so we will also initiate genetic analysis of a large rare disorder dataset, seeking enrichment of these variants in neurologically-affected children. Together, this study will confirm H4 mutations perturb brain development, and has the potential to identify a new reservoir of genetic variants linked to neurodevelopmental disorders.
Professor Julia Horsfield, Pathology, Health Sciences, $960,000
To make a brand new animal from a fertilised egg, two important processes must be integrated. These are (1) cell division for embryo growth, and (2) cell differentiation, in which cells ‘decide what to be’. In the cell division cycle, replicated chromosomes are held together by a protein complex called cohesin, which also switches on developmental genes. We plan to test the idea that cohesin’s role connects cell division and gene expression, which independently inform cell fate decision-making in the embryo. This research will provide fundamental knowledge for developmental diseases and cancers that arise from mutations in genes involving the cohesin complex.
Professor Martin Hazelton, Statistics, Sciences, $706,000
In statistical linear inverse problems, the variable of interest is observed only indirectly. Applications involving count data are abundant, including such varied examples as inference on traffic flows in transport engineering, estimation of population sizes in ecology, and investigation of non-compliance rates in biosecurity surveillance. Traditional approaches to statistical inference are not possible, because the likelihood function in such problems defies direct computation. Consequently, simulation-intensive methods have been employed for model fitting and inference, but existing implementations scale very poorly to large problems. In this project we will develop novel samplers (theme 1) and saddlepoint approximations (theme 2) that will enable successful application of these models to realistically-sized problems that are well beyond the reach of current techniques. For theme 1, we shall explore methods that obviate the need for laborious computation of complete Markov bases of sampling directions, focusing instead on dynamic Markov bases and approximation methods with favourable geometric properties to promote fast mixing of the samplers. In theme 2, we will bypass simulation procedures and approximate the likelihood by saddlepoint methods, creating a suite of new approximations to exploit special attributes of count data. Methodological advances will be accompanied by supporting theory and open-source software.
Dr HGL Schwefel, Physics, Sciences, $899,000
Optical spectroscopy benefits from the ability to distinguish and identify the smallest molecular traces. Classically, high-resolution spectroscopy tended to be slow, bulky, or expensive – not anymore. Dual-frequency-comb spectroscopy can transform an optical spectrum into the digital domain, in near real time. We will realise the dual comb source through the electro-optic interaction of microwave and optical fields within a nonlinear crystal. The fields are enhanced in a ultra-high quality optical microresonator and a microwave cavity designed to focus the microwave field into the optical mode volume. With two stable microwave tones, the dual comb will be fully phase locked. We will not only realise absorptive, but also, dispersive microresonator based dual-comb spectroscopy in order to access the amplitude and phase information, thereby enabling calibration free spectroscopy immune to fast power fluctuations and with high dynamic range. By combining a cheap diode laser injection-locked to a tiny crystalline microresonator and a small microwave oscillator, we will provide all the components for a handheld battery-powered box, that can resolve optical spectra in an unprecedented way. With the combination of the right crystal and laser-diode it is also possible to operate in the desirable, but difficult to reach, UV and mid-IR regions.
Professor Martin Kennedy, Pathology, Health Sciences, $956,000
The most common, predisposing genetic risk factors for Parkinson’s disease (PD) are mutations in a gene called GBA, which encodes an enzyme called glucocerebrosidase. Our team applied new technologies to discover that noncoding variation in GBA plays a major role in modifying the age at which PD occurs. This important finding arose from the application of nanopore sequencing, which can read long, single DNA molecules (haplotypes), to a well-studied New Zealand PD cohort. We found that the distribution of two common, normal haplotypes (with no GBA mutations) was associated with a five-year difference in age of onset. The key to understanding this effect comes from 3D genome analysis by our team, which identified a network of genes interconnected with, and regulated by, GBA. The two common, normal GBA haplotypes differ by only three tiny variants (single nucleotide polymorphisms) in non-coding regions of GBA. We will apply genomic methods to large PD cohorts, and in vitro studies of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) models, differing in these GBA haplotypes, to understand the molecular and cellular basis of this dramatic clinical effect. The knowledge we gain will inform our understanding of PD, and guide efforts to clinically modify onset of the disease.
Associate Professor Ivan Diaz-Rainey, Accountancy and Finance, Commerce, $869,000
How many hits will you take before you run? Exacerbated flood risks associated with climate change will affect future property values in vulnerable areas as the intensity and frequency of flooding increase. Since both property and financial markets are forward-looking, understanding the interplay between increasing flooding hazard, related financial losses, and when those losses will occur, has profound implications for homeowners, banks, insurers, and the stability of financial systems. The associated risks are long-term and susceptible to the ‘tragedy of the horizon’ in that current decision makers fail to fully account for future risks. Our research framework learns from Māori traditions of considering multiple generations in decision-making and Māori investment principles where environment and people are integral to a systemic view of investment decisions. Accordingly, this research will explore to what extent, and when, increasing flood frequencies will impact property values in New Zealand’s coastal cities given that markets are forward looking and have imperfect information. Further, we will examine if there are flow-on effects of these losses on the stability of domestic banking system. New approaches to answering these questions will be adopted by an interdisciplinary team of experts in geographical information systems, geology, climate change, real-estate and banking.
Professor Claire Freeman, Geography, Humanities, $729,000
Is the 21st century a good time to be a child? Childhood has changed enormously in the last three generations for many children in the Pacific-Rim with increasing urbanisation, rural to urban migration, changing mobilities and technologies. What action should governments and planners take to shape the places where children live? Our research focuses on children, parents and grandparents living in three-generation families in five Pacific Rim countries: New Zealand, Samoa, Vietnam, China, and Japan. We adopt a newly developed ‘child-centred multi-generational family approach’, recognising the interdependent familial relations that shape childhood. Through a novel combination of interviews, focus groups, Geographic Information Systems and childhood narrative maps we will identify how societal and built environments have changed over three generations, specifically examining childhood impacts and the factors supporting or inhibiting wellbeing. We will identify the ‘immutables’, core childhood factors that create and support wellbeing irrespective of time and space, and those that are locationally and culturally distinct. Through collective data gathering and story sharing, we aim to empower families and support professionals to identify ways that children’s lives have changed at family and neighbourhood levels. This research will inform and encourage urban planning and development that supports positive child-friendly futures.
Professor Anthony Kettle, Pathology, Health Sciences, $960,000
Neutrophils, our most abundant white blood cells, provide an essential front-line defence against pathogens. They consume vast amounts of oxygen when they kill bacteria, but the role oxygen plays in killing remains contentious. We aim to discover how and when neutrophils use oxygen to kill bacteria. Neutrophils ingest bacteria into specialized compartments, where they consume oxygen and discharge antimicrobial proteins. Half of the oxygen is converted to toxic chlorine bleach, the fate of the remaining oxygen is unknown. We showed that some bleach reacts with ingested bacteria and sometimes it is sufficient to kill them. Intriguingly, most of the bleach reacted with neutrophil proteins. The timing of bleach production was puzzling because in some compartments it appeared long after trapped bacteria should die. We will use radiation chemistry to mimic reactions of oxygen in neutrophil compartments, and mass spectrometry to identify the lethal oxidants neutrophils produce from oxygen. We will then use live cell microscopy to observe when these toxic species are formed in neutrophil compartments, and whether they always contribute to bacterial death. Our studies will show whether neutrophils use different strategies to kill each ingested bacterium, and thereby limit bacterial populations from evolving resistance to a specific toxin.
Associate Professor C Fraser, Marine Sciences, Sciences, $960,000
We have long considered Antarctica to be isolated, protected by the vast Southern Ocean, but recent discoveries reveal that floating seaweed rafts carrying animals can reach Antarctica from northern sources. These seaweeds and animals currently don’t survive because of Antarctica’s extreme environment, but that could change with global warming. This research will combine oceanographic and sea ice modelling with biological experiments to determine whether and where dispersing species will be able to establish in the future. The findings will help us to understand both the evolution of Antarctic species in the past, and the vulnerability of Antarctic ecosystems to future change.
Associate Professor Joanna Kirman, Microbiology & Immunology, Health Sciences, $960,000
The BCG vaccine confers some protection against most strains of tuberculosis (TB), but offers no protection at all against TB strains of the emerging Beijing genotype. The Beijing genotype strains show increased virulence in animals, and in the clinic lead to increased relapse after treatment. These strains now predominate in parts of East Asia and have disseminated across the globe. The recent discovery that cells of the innate immune system are ‘trained’ by the BCG vaccine, and contribute to its ability to protect against TB, has transformed the way we think about protective memory immunity. This proposed research will test the hypothesis that the Beijing TB strain evades and subverts BCG-mediated trained innate immunity in a pre-clinical model of BCG vaccination and aerosol challenge with Beijing TB strains. This fundamental knowledge will contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms of trained innate immunity and will be used to inform improved vaccine design and delivery strategies.
Professor Pauline Norris, Centre for Pacific Health, Health Sciences, $870,000
Big Data is being lauded as a powerful new tool to predict outcomes for individuals and groups, and better target social services. However, if accepted at face value, it can also reproduce and exacerbate social inequality. Much of the Big Data used in New Zealand is from administrative processes in healthcare, justice, tax etc. We will critically examine how this data is created from interactions between people, using two case studies, one in health and one in child protection. Each case study will involve interviews with people involved in creating the data, and review of documents. Findings from these case studies can then inform future research across a broader range of areas in Big Data.
Fast Start Funding – $300,000
Dr Kirsty Danielson, Surgery, Health Sciences
Tissue grafting involves complex cross-talk between multiple cell types in donor and recipient tissue, including through the transfer of membrane bound packages called extracellular vesicles (EVs). EVs released from adipose-derived stem cells (ASCs) can have positive effects on neighbouring cells, but we currently know very little about how this works in fat grafts for breast reconstruction post-cancer treatment. This project will use culture models with human cells to investigate inter-cellular signalling via ASC-EVs, including models employing multiple cell types and 3D structures. We will also analyse pre- and post-graft tissue using single nucleus sequencing techniques to determine how cells change in the tissue graft microenvironment. Together, this work will help us understand how cells behave in multi-cellular systems that more closely reflect true tissue microenvironments.
Dr Judith (Jude) Ball, Public Health, Health Sciences
“Adolescent smoking, drinking and drug use have declined dramatically over the past 15-20 years in New Zealand and other OECD countries, a ‘megatrend’ which is poorly understood despite its public health importance. This qualitative study investigates the possible contribution of the changing function(s) and meaning(s) of substance use in adolescents’ lives, both Māori and non-Māori. It also addresses the question of whether other practices (e.g. social media, gaming) are fulfilling the functions that smoking, drinking and drug use once did: e.g. projecting a ‘cool’ or ‘grown up’ identity, bonding with friends and meeting new people. It compares archival qualitative data collected 20 years ago (when adolescent substance use was at its peak) with contemporary data collected for this study. Both archival and contemporary interviews are with 14-17 year olds and cover friendships, lifestyle, and perceptions about substance use and non-use. Comparison of archival and contemporary qualitative data is a novel method for understanding socio-cultural change, never before applied to this topic. The findings will contribute to international efforts to understand why substance use has declined in adolescents, and may inform local efforts to reduce substance-related harm.”
Dr Siew Hoong (Joe) Yip, Anatomy, Health Sciences
This proposal evaluates neuronal adaptation to motherhood. Neurons are often identified by their neurotransmitter and it is widely assumed that this identity remains fixed for the lifetime of that neuron. Our recent finding shows, however, that during lactation a population of hypothalamic neurons switch from producing dopamine to the neuropeptide enkephalin. The physiological consequences of this remarkable transition are unknown, but it may essentially reverse the action of these neurons from inhibiting to enhancing prolactin release from the pituitary. This is a critical adaptation for lactation, which requires elevated prolactin. But where is this enkephalin released? Is it 1) at the median eminence allowing it to act directly on the pituitary, and/or 2) within the hypothalamus where it may influence additional maternal adaptations? These two hypotheses will be investigated using transgenic rats expressing Cre-recombinase in these neurons, thus enabling their selective manipulation and tracing. Enkephalin-responsive biosensor cells will be used to monitor real-time neuropeptide release from hypothalamic slices prepared from these animals at an unprecedented anatomical resolution. These sophisticated methodologies will allow the first assessment of enkephalin secretion from these important hypothalamic neurons and thereby provide original insight into an original example of neurotransmitter switching with significant physiological implications.
Dr Michelle Munro, Physiology, Health Sciences
“Heart failure is a chronic condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. Unfortunately, approximately 60% of heart failure patients die within five years of diagnosis, despite the treatment options currently available. This means new treatment strategies are desperately needed. The risk of developing heart failure is increased in patients with diabetes. Diabetes is a serious health condition which affects over 250,000 New Zealanders, with this number predicted to continue to grow over the coming years.
A key problem in both heart failure and diabetes is abnormal calcium signalling within the cells of the heart, which remains understudied in humans. Our team will combine access to human heart samples and cutting-edge imaging techniques to investigate a novel mechanism associated with altered calcium signalling in both diabetes and heart failure. This novel mechanism (calsequestrin modification) will be targeted in samples from patients with heart failure or diabetes to improve function. This project will ultimately identify a new potential treatment target for restoring calcium signalling in the failing human heart.”
Dr Dominic Searles, Mathematics, Sciences
“Many important problems in geometry and representation theory can be rephrased as combinatorial problems in terms of families of polynomials. A central example is the longstanding Schubert problem, which concerns finding an explicitly-positive formula for the structure constants of the Schubert basis of polynomials; these numbers are intersection numbers for Schubert subvarieties of flag varieties. Progress on this problem is largely restricted to the case where the polynomials involved are symmetric. The combinatorial theory of the ring of polynomials is much less well-developed than that for the important subrings of symmetric and quasisymmetric polynomials. Recently, a program was initiated to extend known theory of symmetric/quasisymmetric polynomials to general polynomials. The proposed work involves developing this program in several directions. It will extend known results to important generalisations of polynomial bases, introduce new bases and analyse their structure, and interpret bases relevant to this program in terms of representation theory. The structures developed and results obtained will provide new angles of attack towards important and longstanding problems concerning polynomials.”
Dr Karen Reader, Pathology, Health Sciences
Poor oocyte (egg) quality is a leading cause of reduced fertility in humans and animals. However, the factors underpinning oocyte quality are poorly understood. The overall aim of this research is to understand how mitochondrial structure, function and oocyte quality are interconnected, in order to identify novel ways of predicting and modifying oocyte quality. The number and distribution of mitochondria are known to be important determinants of oocyte quality. We have observed changes to the structure of oocyte mitochondria during oocyte maturation and differences in the timing of this morphological change between good and poor quality oocytes in our sheep model. Oocytes will be treated with specific mitochondrial inhibitors and subsequent changes to mitochondrial structure, activity and gene expression will be examined using advanced microscopy and molecular biology techniques. This will generate new knowledge that could lead to the development of methods for improving oocyte quality, in vitro maturation and assisted reproduction success in human and animal species.
Dr Jemma Geoghegan, Microbiology & Immunology, Health Sciences
Emerging infectious diseases have the potential to wreak havoc on agricultural industries as well as native flora and fauna; and can further pose significant challenges to the health and economic status of both developed and developing countries. Emerging viruses are most often associated with host jumping – where a virus changes its host range and causes an epidemic outbreak of disease. In humans, this confluence of factors has led to the emergence of a new coronavirus, leading to world-wide lockdowns, economic collapses and healthcare systems being overrun. This project aims to gain a deep understanding of how viruses overcome genomic and ecological barriers to invade novel host species and emerge in new populations. Knowing how viruses and their hosts co-evolve in diverse natural ecosystems is central to revealing the nature of virus evolution and the determinants of disease emergence. New Zealand’s native and invasive fish provide an opportunity to investigate viral host-jumping in unparalleled detail. Using novel meta-transcriptomics and bioinformatic techniques that I have pioneered, I seek to compare the viromes of native and invasive fish, determine the extent of viral host-jumping between species over ecological timescales and reveal the parameters that promote or inhibit virus emergence.
Dr KO Smiley, Anatomy, Health Sciences
The aim of this study is to investigate how male mice transition from displaying infanticidal to paternal behaviour. Like humans, male mice significantly contribute to rearing offspring. For mice, this involves a dramatic behavioural switch from being infanticidal as virgins to being paternal as fathers. This remarkable transition is induced by mating, and takes approximately two weeks to manifest, but the neural mechanisms mediating this shift in behaviour are unknown. My work has shown that the hormone prolactin is essential for paternal behaviour in male mice. Interestingly, males show a surge of prolactin following mating, which we hypothesise is involved in the transition to paternal behaviour. Prolactin has been shown to stimulate neurogenesis, resulting in new neurons in the olfactory region of the adult brain. In females, this effect is essential for maternal care, an olfactory-guided behaviour. We hypothesise this is also important for paternal care. The process of neurogenesis leading to mature neurons in the olfactory bulb takes approximately two weeks, potentially accounting for the delayed change in behaviour following mating. To test these hypotheses, we will investigate whether the mating-induced release of prolactin induces neurogenesis in males, and whether this is required to show subsequent paternal behaviour.
Dr GA McCulloch, Zoology, Sciences
According to evolutionary theory, adaptation allows lineages to adjust to changing environmental conditions. However, the pace of such evolutionary shifts remains a key question in biology. Recent studies suggest that human-driven ecosystem change can lead to rapid evolutionary change in wild animal populations. In the case of New Zealand, anthropogenic impacts on native ecosystems have been extensive, including dramatic reductions in forest cover within a few centuries of human arrival. These fundamental changes in our ecosystems have potentially far-reaching implications, but the extent of linked evolutionary change remains unclear. Preliminary data suggest that this recent deforestation and increased exposure have increased both the abundance and geographic ranges of flightless insects, relative to flighted lineages, over much of South Island. This project combines fine-scale ecological sampling and cutting edge next-generation sequencing methods to test the role of human-driven deforestation as a driver of rapid distributional shifts, genetic divergence, flight loss, and even potential speciation in New Zealand’s unique upland insect assemblages.
Dr KJ Mitchell, Zoology, Sciences
Among birds and mammals, males are typically larger and/or more colourful than females. In contrast, among New Zealand’s extinct moa, females were much larger than males. This phenomenon, “Reverse Sexual Dimorphism”, is comparatively rare and its causes and consequences are hotly debated. I will use ancient nuclear genomic data to test the hypothesis that female moa competed for territory and access to males (a reversal of the usual situation). This study will develop moa as a globally significant model system for studying the evolution of mating systems and provide new insight into the biology of these vanished giants.
Dr Erica Newman, Te Tumu, Humanities
Māori adoptees who have no knowledge of their Māori heritage pass the unknown to their descendants. Absence of tūrangawaewae for descendants of Māori adoptees has an effect on their identity, their health and their wellbeing; finding whakapapa connections can benefit and strengthen their Māori identity by knowing who they are and where they come from. Focusing on these descendants and following them on their journey home, this project will explore; how they identify with their taha Māori, avenues undertaken to connect to their tūrangawaewae, and how they are accepted by their whānau and hapū. Oral narratives will be the primary base for this project, while a private Facebook page specifically for descendants will provide ongoing support as they begin, or continue, their journey searching for their taha Māori. As the first project to focus on the descendants of transracially adopted Māori adoptees, this research will advance a new direction within the field of transracial adoption globally through an international symposium and a monograph. This research is socially significant as it will bring to light the consequences of transracial adoption on identity and well-being for adoptees and their descendants in Aotearoa New Zealand as they journey home.
Dr LA Robertson, Preventive & Social Medicine, Health Sciences
Although tobacco companies have generated vast profits by producing and selling tobacco products, new nicotine products such as e-cigarettes, developed initially by independent manufacturers, posed a serious threat to this profitability. Tobacco companies have responded by acquiring many of these independent e-cigarette enterprises and developing their own novel nicotine products, such as heated tobacco. They have simultaneously undertaken significant corporate rebranding and reframed themselves as stakeholders pursuing the same goals as the public health community. But can corporate pariahs re-invent themselves as public health saviours? Critics argue this apparent paradigm shift is simply a new strategy to consolidate the industry’s power and influence and expand its profits. I will investigate the rapidly evolving nicotine market to assess whether, how, and in what circumstances tobacco companies could contribute to smokefree goals. A critical synthesis of the industry’s arguments and political activities will extend an existing taxonomy of corporate strategies, and inform in-depth interviews that explore stakeholders’ perceptions of tobacco companies’ legitimacy and power. Using these findings, I will develop a detailed case study of tobacco industry transformation and political influence in New Zealand, examine whether and how industry rhetoric permeates stakeholders’ discourse, and extend conceptual frameworks of corporate power.
Dr Htin Lin Aung, Microbiology & Immunology, Health Sciences
Tuberculosis (TB, “mate kohi” in the Māori language) is a curable disease caused mainly by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), and yet paradoxically it claims 5000 people’s lives daily. Despite New Zealand being a low TB country, TB disproportionally affects Māori and Pasifika compared to New Zealand Europeans. Remarkably, there are Mtb strains endemic to Māori and Pasifika communities. The Mtb strain “Rangipo” is strongly associated with Māori. It is hypothesised that this association may be driven by both host and bacterial genetic factors as well as socioeconomic factors. The aim of this study is to decode genetic determinants of the Rangipo strain for its virulence in Māori using next-and third-generation sequencing technologies. This study will identify Rangipo strain-specific genetic factors to add to a deeper understanding of the biology of Mtb, which is critical for the development of both new vaccines and treatments. This study will help explore factors that contribute to the disproportionally high rates of TB in Māori, a health inequity that needs to be understood and addressed.
Dr Karen Greig, Archeology, Humanities
Domesticated animals, especially pigs, have been important items of exchange between networks of communities across the Western Pacific. Their use as a food item is often secondary to their role in social interactions, where status and wealth could be obtained and manipulated through the exchange of valuables. But our understanding of the role of animals in the development of these networks has been extremely limited. Archaeologists have used stone and pottery artefacts to study exchange networks as they survive well in tropical Pacific sites, and can be traced from where they were made to their final resting places. By comparison, studying animal bones is challenging. They are fragile and even if present, they are often highly fragmented and difficult to identify, let alone determine where they may have come from. We will use exciting new biomolecular techniques to identify pigs, dogs and chickens in the archaeological record, examine human-animal interactions and animal husbandry practices, and detect change through time. This research will contribute to understanding the cultures and history of Western Pacific, and to the wider story of human-animal relationships and their place in human societies, from the past to the present day.
Dr Kimberley O’Sullivan, Public Health, Health Sciences
Six of New Zealand’s top ten warmest years occurred between 2010 and 2019, and increasingly frequent and severe heat days will feature in our future climate. But how do New Zealanders manage summer heat flows in their homes? Current evidence suggests households are turning to mechanical cooling. How might we need to challenge these evolving energy behaviours to curb summer emissions and energy demand in NZ? This innovative mixed methods research will combine data from a survey, multigenerational interviews, temperature and humidity dataloggers, and energy-use diaries to form recommendations for householders and policy on sustainable practice for summer heat management.
Dr Romain Meyrand, Physics, Sciences
Coronal heating, the abrupt rise in temperature into the Sun’s corona (outer atmosphere), remains one of the greatest mysteries of modern astrophysics. At 2 million degrees, the corona is in the plasma state: it is an ionised gas that is strongly affected by electromagnetic fields. The proposed project will address how electrons — the lightest particles, which govern heat flow and interact with the smallest scales in the system — affect coronal heating. This will be achieved through the development of a detailed “electron turbulence theory” of strongly magnetised plasmas. The theory will quantify the flux of energy through the six-dimensional position-velocity phase space, linking the largest scales, where energy is injected, with the smallest, where it is dissipated. We will use massively parallel numerical simulations with advanced diagnostic techniques, leveraging recent fundamental advances from the closely related field of fusion physics. The theory will set the stage for a deeper understanding of turbulent energy and heat flow in magnetised plasmas, including how electron turbulence controls the thermodynamics of the solar corona.
For more information, contact:
Lea JonesCommunications Adviser, Media EngagementTel +64 3 479 4969Mob +64 21 279 4969Email lea.jones@otago.ac.nz

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