A renowned Auckland brain scientist has been recognised with New Zealand's highest honour for research - the Rutherford Medal.

Much of Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis' five decades in research have been devoted to such questions as how language evolves, what function memory serves and why the left hemisphere of the brain differs from the right.

The Royal Society of New Zealand, which last night awarded Corballis its top prize at a gala dinner in Christchurch, noted the "significant contributions" Corballis had particularly made to the areas of evolution, linguistics and neuropsychology.

He said he was "honoured and flattered" to receive the medal, which comes with a $100,000 prize from the Government.

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Largely based at Auckland University's School of Psychology since 1966, and becoming a Professor Emeritus in 2008, Corballis was well known for his work on asymmetries in the brain, identifying the differences in function between the two cerebral hemispheres.

His research into this has included behavioural studies, brain imaging and genetics studies to determine how the hemispheres specialise for complex computation as required for language and as demonstrated by the phenomena of being right or left handed.

Recent studies in identical twins, who don't always have the same handedness, had led to new understanding about what role genes play in producing brain asymmetry.

Corballis had championed the theory that human capacity for complex verbal language emerged from gestural communication in early hominins, gathering many supporters over time.

Another area where his research was well known was in understanding the evolution of the human mind's capacity for "mental time travel" - a term coined by him and his then student Thomas Suddendorf, describing the human ability to think about both past and future events.

These two strands of research had been increasingly drawn together as he has suggested that language and the ability to conceive of events in time may have mutually driven evolution of the human mind.

Along with his academic writing, Corballis had written a string of popular books including The Lopsided Ape, From Hand to Mouth, The Recursive Mind, Pieces of Mind and The Wandering Mind.

These titles have made the latest thinking on difficult topics such as the origins of human language, mental time travel and the question of human uniqueness easily accessible to a broad audience.

Other top researchers honoured

• The Health Research Council of New Zealand awarded the Liley Medal for outstanding contributions to health and medical science jointly to Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and Dr Paul Young from Capital and Coast District Health Board and Medical Research Institute of New Zealand. Professor Berridge received the medal as one of the lead researchers in a landmark paper that was first to demonstrate movement of mitrochondrial DNA between cells in animal tumours. Dr Young received the Liley Medal for leading the largest clinical trial ever conducted exclusively in New Zealand's intensive care units, comparing two intravenous fluid therapies.

• The Royal Society of New Zealand awarded the Pickering Medal to Associate Professor Iain Anderson for commercialising electroactive polymer technology that can mimic muscle action. He directs the Biomimetics Lab at the Bioengineering Institute of the University of Auckland and launched the highly successful StretchSense company with two of his former students, which has commercialised this research.

• The society's Thomson Medal for science leadership has been awarded to Dr Bruce Campbell of Plant and Food for his contributions to agriculture and horticulture, which has led to innovations in grazing crop, wine, kiwifruit and avocado sectors. The awarding of the medal also recognises how he has fostered both new science talent and beneficial linkages between science, business and the wider community.

Professor Hamish Spencer of the University of Otago received the Callaghan Medal for science communication. Photo / Supplied
Professor Hamish Spencer of the University of Otago received the Callaghan Medal for science communication. Photo / Supplied

Professor Hamish Spencer

, University of Otago, received the

Callaghan Medal

for science communication from the Royal Society of New Zealand for his leadership of successful partnerships engaging public in scientific activities involving the Allan Wilson Centre and both Uawa/Tolaga Bay and Ngai Tāmanuhiri. The awarding of the medal recognises these self-sustaining projects as exemplars of future public participatory partnerships.

Professor Merryn Tawhai, deputy director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland, has been awarded the MacDiarmid Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for her research to create anatomically detailed models of the respiratory system. The medal is awarded for outstanding scientific research that has the potential for human benefit, and the models created by Professor Tawhai provide new tools for diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of lung disease.

Research into seaweeds has earned Professor Wendy Nelson, of NIWA and University of Auckland, the Hutton Medal. Photo / Supplied
Research into seaweeds has earned Professor Wendy Nelson, of NIWA and University of Auckland, the Hutton Medal. Photo / Supplied

• The society awarded the

Hector Medal

for an outstanding advancement in the physical sciences to

Associate Professor Stephane Coen

, of the University of Auckland, for his research into optical phenomena in optical fibre. He has observed pulses of light, called temporal cavity solitons, that can self-organise to travel around a loop of fibre optic cable and linked understanding of these to optical frequency combs. Frequency combs, heralded through the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, are fundamental new tools for high-precision scientific measurement.

• Research into seaweeds has earned Professor Wendy Nelson, of Niwa and the University of Auckland, the Hutton Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand for plant sciences. She has significantly expanded knowledge of New Zealand seaweeds and the evolutionary relationships between seaweeds worldwide. She has also campaigned against seaweed pests and advanced understanding of the ecological importance of coral seaweeds and their vulnerability to climate change.

Professor Tony Ballantyne, of the University of Otago, has been awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand's Humanities Aronui Medal for reshaping scholarly thought on British imperial history. His research on the history of the British empire during the nineteenth century has shown how ideas about cultural difference structured colonial power, and how these ideas influenced and continue to influence both colonised and colonising people. His idea of the "web of empire" draws attention to the importance of both direct connections between Britain and its colonies and connections between colonies.

Professor Merryn Tawhai, Deputy Director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland, has been awarded the MacDiarmid Medal. Photo / Supplied
Professor Merryn Tawhai, Deputy Director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland, has been awarded the MacDiarmid Medal. Photo / Supplied

The Mason Durie Medal

for social sciences has been awarded by the Royal Society of New Zealand to

Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson

, University of Auckland, for her research and development work on educational leadership. She identified that school leadership styles effected student outcomes and has designed and evaluated interventions to increase school leader's skills to improve student learning and well-being. Her resources are being used in New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavia under licence.

Professor Stuart McNaughton, of the University of Auckland, has been awarded the Dame Joan Metge Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand for excellence in research and capacity building in the social sciences. Professor McNaughton has pioneered techniques that allow schools to improve teaching outcomes by monitoring their own results, and adjusting teaching approaches accordingly, particularly in literacy and language development. His research has had a large impact on education policy nationally and internationally.

Associate Professor Stephane Coen, University of Auckland, was awarded the Hector Medal for his research into optical phenomena in optical fibre.
Associate Professor Stephane Coen, University of Auckland, was awarded the Hector Medal for his research into optical phenomena in optical fibre.

Emeritus Professor Alastair Scott

, of the University of Auckland, has been awarded the

Jones Medal

by the Royal Society of New Zealand for his lifetime contribution to statistics. The medal recognises him as a world leader in the areas of survey sampling theory and analysis of case control studies. His methods are applied in a wide range of application areas and he has also contributed substantially to research in public health.

Professor Rick Millane, of the University of Canterbury, has been awarded the T.K. Sidey Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand for his research into using electromagnetic radiation to image biological material. His theoretical and computational methods for imaging biological molecules and tissue using X-rays and optical radiation allow their structures to be determined, which is key to understanding disease for drug design and for non-invasive medical imaging.

Professor Richard Beasley, of the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand and Capital & Coast District Health Board, has been awarded the Sir Charles Hercus Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for his wide ranging contributions to advancing respiratory medicine and health science research in New Zealand, which have had a major impact on clinical practice and public health.

Distinguished Professor Jane Harding, from the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute, has been awarded the Beaven Medal from the Health Research Council of New Zealand for her research into treating babies with low blood sugar with a cost-effective dextrose gel massaged into the inside of a baby's cheek. This research is expected to change the way millions of babies are monitored and treated for low blood sugar around the world, given it also supports mother-baby bonding and breastfeeding.