Role in 'greening' planet earns award

University of Otago chemistry professor and Royal Society Hector Memorial Medal recipient Sally Brooker (front) with some of her research team (clockwise, from front left) Sandhya Singh, Hannah Davidson, Stuart Malthus, Fabrice Karabulut, Folaianmi Akogun
University of Otago chemistry professor and Royal Society Hector Memorial Medal recipient Sally Brooker (front) with some of her research team (clockwise, from front left) Sandhya Singh, Hannah Davidson, Stuart Malthus, Fabrice Karabulut, Folaianmi Akogun, Santiago Rodriguez Jiminez and Humphrey Felton. Photo: Christine O'Connor
Chemistry is a long-standing discipline but it is not standing still, award-winning University of Otago chemistry professor Sally Brooker says.

Jonathan Broadbent
Jonathan Broadbent
''We chemists have a very big role to play in solving some of the problems the world is facing,'' Prof Brooker said. Her work was recognised last night by the Royal Society with the presentation of its prestigious Hector Medal.

The medal is presented annually to a researcher who ''has undertaken work of great scientific or technological merit and has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the particular branch of science''.

Prof Brooker has been at the University of Otago since 1991. Her main work has been constructing new metal molecules for a range of purposes but recently, inspired by her students, her research has turned to ecological problems.

''There is a lot of interest worldwide, as well as with the young students coming in, in trying to 'green' the way we operate as a planet and look after our world a bit better, and I absolutely share that view,'' Prof Brooker said.

Ryan Thomas
Ryan Thomas
Her current focus was towards trying to produce hydrogen gas sustainably from water, because it was something that cannot be done well enough for it to be an alternative green fuel.

''We want to drive that process using solar energy, so we harvest the light and use that to drive the production of hydrogen from water.

''Once we have that we can burn it in a controlled way and the fuel cell will regenerate water, so it has no carbon footprint ...

She was involved in designing and making the catalysts for that process, and trying to use benign rather than toxic ions.

The other ''green'' project Prof Brooker and her team are working on involves trying to make catalysts for the manufacture of biodegradable plastics from non oil-derived material.

The world was living in the ''plastic age'' and a worldwide effort was required to deal with the ever increasing amount of plastic waste.

''Plastic isn't going away and it's a really important product, but all these plastics have different properties: you control those properties by controlling how their building blocks go together,'' Prof Booker said.

''One of the things we want to do is get the lifespan of those plastics right, so plastics we only need for a short period of time can be more readily broken down.''

Prof Brooker has a lengthy resume of awards, and earlier this year became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Satisfying though those awards might be individually, seeing the team of researchers she affectionately calls ''the Brooker Bunch'' succeed was equally pleasing.

''You don't win awards without having incredibly talented research students and postdoctoral fellows alongside you,'' she said.

Two other Otago researchers were honoured at last night's ceremony.

Associate Prof Jonathan Broadbent, head of preventive and restorative dentistry, was awarded the Health Research Council of New Zealand Liley Medal, for leading a study which used data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study to investigate socioeconomic inequalities in dental health.

The Hatherton Award for early career research went to PhD student Ryan Thomas for work studying atomic collisions.

The evening's top award, the Rutherford Medal, was presented to Victoria University volcanologist Colin Wilson for his work on how large volcanoes behave before and during explosive eruptions.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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