Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Scientists win prize for research

Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh, co-directors of the Massey University-based Riddet Institute. Photo / Supplied
Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh, co-directors of the Massey University-based Riddet Institute. Photo / Supplied

Two scientists whose work behind the scenes in New Zealand's food and beverage industry has been described as a "marriage made in heaven" have been recognised with the $500,000 2012 Prime Minister's Science Prize.

The top award, announced this morning, goes to Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh, co-directors of the Massey University-based Riddet Institute, which they up more than a decade ago to establish the Riddet Institute as a world-leading centre for food science research.

Since then, the institute has secured more than $40 million in research funding and used it to carry out fundamental and strategic research and apply the knowledge to create new food products and systems.

The institute has also trained 80 postgraduate scholars and 30 postdoctoral fellows.
Examples their work include the development of a hghly effective probiotic, ProBioLife, establishing the health benefits of kiwifruit, and a technology that allows high doses of fish oil-derived Omega-3 fatty acids to be added to food products without a fishy smell and after taste.

"A lot of new ideas and new ways of thinking are generated at the Riddet Institute and graduates take that knowledge out into industry," Professor Singh said.

Professor Singh's expertise is in food protein structures and how they interact in food systems while Professor Moughan's work focuses on how proteins are broken down and absorbed in the digestive system and the resulting physiological benefits.

Professor Moughan saw it as a "marriage made in heaven".

"Between us we cover the whole spectrum of food protein science which is rare worldwide."

In addition, the institute has established Riddet Foodlink, a network of more than 100 companies interested in food innovation and research that work with Riddet Institute researchers.

Fonterra has commercialised a number of products and processes that build on Professor Moughan and Profesor Singh's work and the two have worked with Zespri staff for many years to help position kiwifruit as both a great tasting and healthy fruit.

Their expertise is also sought after by multinationals such as PepsiCo.

The technology they developed that allows Omega 3 fatty acids to be encapsulated and included in other foods is being sold in Europe by Riddet Institute spin-out company Speirs Nutritionals.

A recent focus has been developing a novel process to isolate proteins and peptides in low cost meat and use them in a food product that has been shown to have health benefits for older people.

The product is being commercialised by a New Zealand meat company.

Massey University Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey said Professor Moughan and Professor Singh were a formidable team and an exemplar of how to create a successful innovation pipeline in a critical industry.

"Food supply is one of the major issues that faces the world and New Zealand has an enormous amount to contribute," he said.

"Professors Moughan and Singh realised this early on and have championed it throughout their professional careers. The rest of the country is now catching up and realising how important it is."

The winning team plans to use the $400,000 of the prize money tagged for on-going research to commercialise discoveries made at the Riddet Institute.

"We have a lot of bright minds that come up with really good ideas," Professor Singh said.

"The prize money will allow us to screen those ideas and take the most promising through to the next stage."

A 17-year-old Auckland student's study on shortsightedness has won her the 2012 Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize, worth $50,000, and has provided university researchers with a novel theory that may provide solutions to the global eye problem. Hannah Ng, a Year 13 student at St Cuthbert's College, has spent four years researching childhood myopia, or shortsightedness, which is a focusing error of the eye that causes blurry vision. Her theory suggests that the density of photoreceptors in the eye exposed to blurring determines the degree of myopia progression.

Papatoetoe High School's Head of Chemistry Peter Stewart has picked up the 2012 Prime Minister's Science Teacher prize. Chemistry class numbers have increased by 44 percent at level two and more than 100 percent at level three, from just 30 students to more than 70, while the school roll has remained static. Chemistry achievements are outperforming other subject results within the school and students are now regularly studying and earning chemistry scholarships, which hadn't happened for almost a decade. Mr Stewart has also produced workbooks and summaries to help prepare students, particularly ESOL students, for lessons.

A University of Auckland researcher who is internationally recognised for his conservation work has won the 2012 Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize. Dr James Russell's innovative combination of ecology, statistics and genetics to prevent rats and other mammalian pests invading predator-free islands is helping to keep endangered species safe and strengthening New Zealand's reputation as a world leader in island conservation. The prize is worth $200,000 and rewards the 33-year-old for his unique DNA fingerprinting of rats, sophisticated statistical modelling and application of scientific tools to solve conservation problems.

Professor Shaun Hendy, who was chosen by the late Sir Paul Callaghan to continue Callaghan's writing on innovation, has been honoured for his communication and commentary on the links between science and technology and economic prosperity. Winning the prize sees Professor Hendy receive $50,000 with another $50,000 allocated for further developing his science media communication skills.

Professor Hendy is a Professor of Computational Physics at Victoria University of Wellington, Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, and an Industry and Outreach Fellow for Industrial Research Limited. His blog, A Measure of Science, attracts a monthly audience of more than 1000 readers, many of whom are policy makers in New Zealand's innovation sector.

Some of his posts, including one on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, have been syndicated by leading newspapers and read by a large international audience.

The Prime Minister's Science Prizes combine recognition and reward, with total prize money of $1 million.Presented annually, they are New Zealand's most valuable science awards and were introduced to raise the profile and prestige of science. The prizes celebrate scientific achievement, highlight the impact science has on New Zealanders' lives and aim to attract more young people into science careers.
There are five prizes with the top award, valued at $500,000, recognising a transformational science discovery or achievement which has had a significant impact on New Zealand or internationally.


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