Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Feted chemist wins top NZ medal

Professor Margaret Brimble (centre) says working with students like Tsz Ying Yuen (left) and Orla Finch is the reason she comes to work each day. Photo / Supplied
Professor Margaret Brimble (centre) says working with students like Tsz Ying Yuen (left) and Orla Finch is the reason she comes to work each day. Photo / Supplied

A globally renowned chemist who encourages her students to "think big" has been awarded New Zealand's highest honour for science and technology.

Just five years after winning one of the world's most prestigious awards, Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble last night became the second woman to win the Royal Society of New Zealand's Rutherford Medal.

The medal, one of three presented to her at the Research Honours ceremony in Auckland, recognised her world-leading contributions to the synthesis of bioactive natural products and novel peptides.

Society president Sir David Skegg described her research into synthesising naturally occurring compounds as "world-class".

"That Professor Brimble has won not only the Rutherford Medal, but also the Hector Medal - for excellence in Chemistry - and the MacDiarmid Medal - for science of potential human benefit - testifies to the excellence and importance of her achievements," he said.

In 2007, Professor Brimble was the first New Zealander to win the L'Oreal-Unesco Women in Science Asia-Pacific Laureate in Materials Science, an honour celebrated in newspapers around the world.

Winning the Rutherford Medal rated as another of her major career highlights - and one "about national pride", she said.

"I have a sense of trying to do things in New Zealand, for New Zealand, with New Zealanders and the Rutherford Medal really epitomises that."

"I am ... very pleased that New Zealand has now recognised me, not for being a woman in science, but for my science."

As chair of Organic and Medicinal Chemistry at The University of Auckland, principal investigator at the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, director of Medicinal Chemistry for Neuren Pharmaceuticals and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Rutherford Foundation Trust, Professor Brimble's work has proven significant academically and commercially.

A major project was modifying a naturally occurring peptide that is found in the brain after traumatic brain injury that helps prevent secondary cell death.

She and her team created 120 similar versions of the natural peptide.

One of these peptides, called NNZ-2566, is more stable and is better able to cross the blood-brain barrier than the natural version. The US army has invested US$23 million ($28 million) in this potential drug, which is now undergoing advanced human clinical trials internationally.

The molecule could be beneficial for a wide range of patients, from those suffering concussion or head injury from accidents, ballistic head wounds, stroke sufferers and even those who had been exposed to certain toxins.

Professor Brimble gained just as much satisfaction from her academic work as what she described as her "day-to-day job" - working with post-graduate students.

"They are the reason I come to work each day," she told the Herald.

Professor Brimble has supervised more than 50 PhD candidates and encourages them to aim high.

"The philosophy I try and instil in my students is to think big and do big science that will be noticed outside New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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