University of Otago scientist awarded Marsden Medal

Prof Warren Tate. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Prof Warren Tate. Photo: Peter McIntosh
A leading Kiwi scientist says his receiving a top science award was a special way to pay tribute to the research of his own late brother.

Professor Warren Tate, of the University of Otago's Department of Biochemistry, was today presented the Marsden Medal by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS).

The medal, awarded for a lifetime of outstanding service to science, recognised Tate's internationally recognised research discoveries in molecular biology and human disease, and his collaborative research.

He was jointly awarded the honour with respected University of Auckland marine scientist Professor John Montgomery.

Tate won the Rutherford Medal in 2010, administered by the Royal Society and recognised as the top science award in New Zealand, but said the Marsden Medal had special significance for him both personally and for what it represented.

His brother, Kevin, a former scientist for Landcare Research working on climate change, won the same award in 2005.

Kevin Tate died earlier this year after he was afflicted with motor neuron disease last year.

"Accepting nomination for the award was a special way for me to honour his memory and his major contribution to science," he said.

"As well, the prescription of this award – 'contribution to science in the broader sense' – is an ethos I have lived by during my extensive career," he said.

"Not only to try to do excellence scientific research, but also to nurture the discipline by being involved in important policy and investment development in New Zealand and globally, and especially through the mentoring of young and emerging scientists and helping them reach their full potential."

Tate has trained more than 100 postgraduate students, many of whom have gone on themselves to have stellar research careers here and overseas.

The medal also acknowledged Montgomery's wide-ranging contribution to science, ranging from marine science to brain research, and particularly in Antarctic fish biology, bioacoustics, shark sensory biology and cerebellar evolution.

Montgomery's strong contribution to the international research was recognised through numerous high-profile publications, including papers in Nature and Science and a recent book on cerebellar evolution, as well as numerous national and international honours.

Tate's fellow Otago University researchers Associate Professor Sian Halcrow and Dr Judith Bateup were also honoured by the NZAS, along with Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic of the University of Auckland and the MacDiarmid Institute.

Halcrow received the Hill Tinsley Medal, awarded to outstanding young scientists, in recognition of her already world-recognised work in the field of childhood bioarchaeology.

Her studies in Southeast Asia and South America investigating the adoption and intensification of agriculture have led to significant insights into the origins of factors affecting human health, fertility and disease.

Bioarchaeology – the study of humans from archaeological contexts – remained the only direct way to look at human experiences from the past, she explained.

"Because our biology is affected by environmental pressures, we can track major social and environmental transitions, such as the development of agriculture and the effects that has on past human health."

Last month, she received the University's Rowheath Trust Award and the Carl Smith Medal, awarded annually to recognise the outstanding scholarly achievement of researchers in the early stages of their careers.

Bateup meanwhile received the Cranwell Medal for excellence in science communication.

Bateup was the convenor of Hands-On at Otago, a programme that enabled senior secondary school pupils to experience study and research in science at the university.

She was also on the organising committee of the International Science Festival, was a Schools Science Fair judge and regularly spoke at conferences for scientists and science communicators.

She considered being a tertiary educator carries wider responsibilities than simply teaching.

"Just as a language is central to a culture, it is important that science is seen, heard and understood in the community," she said.

"Motivating young minds into science and understanding aspects of the world around them, such as antibiotic resistance, vaccination and genetic modification, helps them to make informed decisions in the future."

Travas-Sejdic was awarded the Shorland Medal, recognising a "major and continued contribution" to basic or applied research that furthered scientific understanding or resulted in significant benefits to society.

Travas-Sejdic had made an outstanding contribution to the field of advanced polymeric and nanomaterials and their application in biomedicine and bioelectronics, as well as sustained innovation and leadership in science and science translation.

As the director of the Polymer Electronics Research Centre at the university's School of Chemical Sciences, she had initiated and led programmes crossing chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering disciplines.

The NZAS described her research as "highly multidisciplinary and collaborative, vibrant, creative and impactful, both nationally and internationally".

She was also the co-founder and the Executive Director of SpotCheck Technologies, a spin-off company based on her research in developing hand-held, cost-effective systems for the electrical detection of DNA, with applications including the detection of bacteria in water and of cancerous cells in human fluids.

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