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Seven early career researchers at Victoria University of Wellington have received a total of $2.24 million to pursue their research into issues ranging from health and wellbeing to climate change after receiving MBIE Science Whitinga Fellowships.

The one-off fellowships, worth $320,000 each over two years, are among 30 awarded in an MBIE initiative administered by Royal Society Te Apārangi to support up-and-coming researchers at New Zealand-based research institutions during the constraints of COVID-19.

Welcoming the new Whitinga fellows, the university’s Vice-Provost (Research), Professor Margaret Hyland, says these early career researchers epitomise University strengths that have helped it top the main measure of research quality in the past two rounds of the Government’s six-yearly Performance-Based Research Fund.

“Early career researchers and the work they do are a crucial part of the research culture at Te Herenga Waka that enables us to produce world-leading and often world-changing research,” says Professor Hyland. “I congratulate all seven fellowship recipients, who are at an an exciting stage in their research career. This is a wonderful opportunity to further their research into issues of importance to both Aotearoa and the world beyond.”

Dr Samuel Crawley from the Political Science and International Relations programme will compare public opinion on climate change in New Zealand and Australia, investigating people’s beliefs about whether climate change is happening and how important it is relative to other issues. He aims to help explain why very different climate policies have been adopted in the two countries.

Dr Tara McAllister (Te Aitanga ā Māhaki, Ngāti Porou) will join the university’s Centre for Science in Society, where her research will contribute to understanding how mātauranga Māori has been and can be used alongside western science. It will highlight areas of opportunity and show how drawing from two knowledge systems enhances both understanding of problems and the likelihood of creating solutions. Dr McAllister aims to transform how we do science in New Zealand from the work we do on the ground in communities to our overall research and institutional structures.

Dr Julian Mackay will join the School of Engineering and Computer Science to work on developing Chainmail, a novel specification language for ensuring robust and secure software. “Data security is an urgent problem concerning every sector of society. Data breaches have severe implications. Are our data, money, and elections secure? These questions need to be confronted by the software underpinning our modern world,” he says.

Dr Matt Majic from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences will investigate the mean distance travelled by light in objects such as ice crystals, air droplets or solar cells. “We hope to determine simple formulas by using the theory of chaotic billiard tables and to study the effect of scattering and imperfections,” he says.

Dr Jürgen Österle is from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. With carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere approaching concentrations not seen for the past two to three million years, he will apply cosmic ray and radioactive decay tracers to determine erosion rates through this time period in sediments in Canterbury. He will use this archive of past change to predict future erosion.  

Dr Katharina Robichon from the School of Biological Sciences will ask how it is that the efficacy of medications varies between multiple sclerosis patients. “Most current treatments target the immune system to improve symptoms,” she says. “My research will focus on establishing an analysis of the immune systems in correlation with the treatment outcome of multiple sclerosis patients on different drugs. This will lead to more accurate prediction for any new patient for the most effective treatment.”

Dr Jessica Tupou (Ngai Tāhu) from the School of Education will work in partnership with Māori and educators to co-design a culturally responsive support programme for tamariki Māori on the takiwātanga/autism spectrum. Many Māori children in New Zealand are affected by autism yet current evidence-based approaches to supporting them are largely based upon Pākehā theories and research. Dr Tupou’s research will focus on integrating mātauranga Māori and western science to provide support that is both culturally responsive and effective.

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