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The zoology professor was one of four scientists presented with a medal at a New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) ceremony in Wellington last night.
The Marsden Medal acknowledges a lifetime of outstanding service to science.
In its announcement of the decision, the NZAS said Prof Burns was world renowned for her work in limnology (the study of inland waters) particularly the large lakes of the South Island and had made a significant scientific contribution to conservation.
She was also a long-serving member of two statutory authorities, the Nature Conservation Council and the National Parks and Reserves Authority, both of which provided advice to the Minister of Conservation.
Her service to science was ''exemplary'' and her leadership influenced science within and outside universities.
In 1993 she was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and was the first chairwoman of the society's academy council.
University of Otago deputy vice-chancellor research and enterprise Richard Blaikie said he was delighted the NZAS had chosen her as the 2017 Marsden recipient.
The medal was a fitting and overdue recognition of her decades of service to science, tertiary education and research in New Zealand, Prof Blaikie said.
The Marsden Medal is named after Sir Ernest Marsden, an English-New Zealand physicist who was internationally recognised for his contribution to science while working under Ernest Rutherford.