Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Teenager's discovery opens eyes

Hannah Ng's research into short-sightedness has been recognised with a $50,000 Prime Minister's award

Hannah Ng has worked on her research during her spare time over four years. Photo / Martin Sykes
Hannah Ng has worked on her research during her spare time over four years. Photo / Martin Sykes

An Auckland teenager has proved a fresh pair of eyes should never be underestimated when it comes to science.

And eyes are the forte of 17-year-old Hannah Ng, a Year 13 student at St Cuthbert's College who yesterday was awarded the Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize.

Even before reaching university, Hannah has given researchers a novel theory that may have shed new light on global eye problems - and could change the way glasses are designed.

Often at the expense of her free time, Hannah spent four years researching childhood myopia, or short-sightedness, which is a focusing error of the eye that causes blurry vision.

Hannah grew interested in myopia - affecting up to 40 per cent of Europeans and 90 per cent of some Asian populations - when many of her peers started to wear glasses after eye checks at school.

Having won a scholarship with the Liggins Institute scientist mentorship programme, Hannah began working with principal investigator John Phillips, at the University of Auckland's Myopia Laboratory.

Drawing on other research, she used chicken models and made tiny sets of goggle-like multifocal lenses and placed them over their eyes to investigate different effects on their vision.

From monitoring the chicks, which have similar eye structures to humans, Hannah discovered that blurring of peripheral vision could increase the rate of short-sightedness.

She said optometrists usually did not take into account peripheral vision when prescribing glasses and the constant blurring induced may exacerbate myopia levels.

Her theory suggested the density of photoreceptors in the eye exposed to blurring determines the degree of myopia progression.

"I have done a number of projects on UV light and sunglasses, and I did a similar project on short-sightedness and its relationship to light intensity," she said.

"I managed to publish a paper with the university and we found that light intensity did not have a significant impact on short-sightedness, which is why I continued to find another reason."

She said the scientists she had worked with had inspired her - and she them.

"I think I definitely allowed them to see things in different ways. I may say silly things that might not have occurred to them and they think, 'oh yeah - that might actually work'."

Dr Phillips said Hannah's research project, as complex as those being conducted by university researchers, may change the way spectacles and contact lenses are designed to help reduce the rate at which myopia progresses in childhood.

"Her ability to see the bigger picture, while also being able to focus on the important elements of a problem, is an indication of her intellectual maturity."

Hannah said science had long fascinated her, but she wanted to build a career in medicine.

"I really want to have close interaction with people and improve their quality of life, to incorporate my love of science and research into it, and I know medicine has a very large component of teaching in it, so I would like to have a career that would enable me to do all three."

She plans to put her $50,000 in prize money toward her studies at a university she's yet to choose.

When she's not studying, Hannah is usually hard at work with her school subjects.

She recently completed six scholarship exams and already has a long list of achievements, including a top English prize last year and double science prizes in Year 11.

Does she get time to be a teenager?

"I do try my best, and definitely throughout the year I've had to have days where I'm like, okay, it's time to spend time with friends," she said.

"But during my holidays, I've just been doing my project, which has been quite tough, yet rewarding and worthwhile."


The winners

Prime Minister's Science Prize

Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan and Professor Harjinder Singh. Their contribution to advancing knowledge in food protein science has become universally acknowledged since they established the Riddet Institute at Massey University more than 10 years ago. Since then, the world-leading 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. It has also trained 80 postgraduate scholars and 30 postdoctoral fellows.

PM's Future Scientist Prize

Hannah Ng. The 17-year-old Auckland student's study on short-sightedness has given university researchers a novel theory that may provide solutions to a global eye problem. Her theory, developed during four years of research, suggests that the density of photoreceptors in the eye exposed to blurring determines the degree of myopia progression.

PM's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

Dr James Russell. The University of Auckland researcher's innovative combination of ecology, statistics and genetics to prevent rats and other mammalian pests invading predator-free islands is helping keep endangered species safe and strengthening New Zealand's reputation as a world leader in island conservation. His unique DNA fingerprinting of rats, sophisticated statistical modelling and application of scientific tools has helped solve many conservation problems.

PM's Science Teacher Prize

Peter Stewart. His work as head of chemistry at Papatoetoe High School has inspired academic excellence at the school. Chemistry class numbers have increased by 44 per cent at level two and more than 100 per cent at level three, from 30 students to more than 70, while the school roll has remained static. Chemistry achievements are outperforming other subject results in the school and students are now frequently studying for and earning chemistry scholarships, which hadn't happened for almost 10 years. Mr Stewart has also produced a range of resources to help prepare students, particularly ESOL students, for lessons.

PM's Science Media Communication Prize

Professor Shaun Hendy. The commentator and professor of computational physics at Victoria University of Wellington also writes the blog A Measure of Science, is a physics correspondent on Radio New Zealand's Nights programme and frequently talks about his work at public events or conferences for policy makers. His work is credited with changing attitudes and behaviour in government and business.

- NZ Herald

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