Lauded scientist wants to keep inspiring other women after $200k award

University of Otago Rutherford Discovery Fellow Dr Jemma Geoghegan has won the prestigious Te...
University of Otago Rutherford Discovery Fellow Dr Jemma Geoghegan has won the prestigious Te Puiaki Kaiputaiao Maea Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
If there is one thing Covid-19 genome sequencing scientist Dr Jemma Geoghegan would like to see go viral, it is the demolition of the stereotype of what a scientist looks like.

And it is starting to happen after the University of Otago Rutherford Discovery Fellow was awarded the prestigious Te Puiaki Kaiputaiao Maea Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize yesterday.

Geoghegan is only the second woman to have won the award.

She is one of the scientists behind New Zealand’s world-leading Covid-19 genome sequencing programme.

Geoghegan is based at the University of Otago’s microbiology and immunology department, where she works with the Institute of Environmental Science and Research to understand how viruses might evolve and spread.

"Sequencing a genome is basically reading the instruction manual of that living organism," Geoghegan said.

"All living organisms have a genome; they are made up of letters which provide instructions about what that organism will do and viruses actually have quite small genomes."

That information enabled public health decision-makers to avoid having more lockdowns than necessary, and improved their understanding of Covid-19 transmission during flights and in managed isolation facilities.

Geoghegan’s work was described as unique, highly-cited and influential.

She said she was "still in shock" after receiving the $200,000 prize on Tuesday.

She planned to use it to inspire more women to pursue science.

"Being the second woman to have received this award makes me feel like I’m contributing to breaking the stigma of what it means to be a person in science, and it’s also so rewarding to see the research we are doing on infectious diseases getting this recognition and support."

She believed the pandemic presented an opportunity to highlight the importance of infectious disease research and planned to use the funds from the award to support further research and student training.

john.lewis@odt.co.nz

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