A scientist whose work has helped millions of newborns and mothers around the world has received New Zealand's top research honour.

Distinguished Professor Jane Harding's Rutherford Medal – just awarded by Royal Society Te Apārangi at a Dunedin ceremony – adds to a remarkable career for the former Rhodes scholar, doctor and world-renowned scientist.

A professor of neonatology at the University of Auckland-based Liggins Institute, Harding led work on the development of a cheap and easy way to treat an ailment that can cause brain damage in babies.

Neonatal hypoglycaemia - or low blood sugar - is a common problem that affects up to 15 per cent of otherwise healthy babies and is a preventable cause of brain damage.

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Harding's research group found that massaging dextrose gel into the inside of the baby's cheek was an effective way to treat the problem.

This simple treatment, roughly costing just $2 per baby, proved effective in reversing low glucose levels, halving admissions to neonatal intensive care for this problem while improving breast-feeding rates.

It was now being adopted around the world, saving millions of families from separation soon after birth, and millions of dollars for healthcare systems.

"It's tremendously exciting and satisfying because it is making a difference for many families," she said.

Her work on the regulation of a baby's growth before and after birth has also led to paradigm changes in the field.

She has shown that remarkably brief changes in maternal nutrition during pregnancy could change a baby's growth, metabolism and hormones in ways that alter risk of metabolic disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes in adult life.

She provided the first evidence in humans that widely-used treatments given to pregnant women could have implications for the later health of their adult offspring.

And she also uncovered a previously unknown association between a routinely-used therapy for extremely preterm babies – chest percussion – and severe brain damage.

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Her careful progress from clinical observation to confirming chest percussion caused brain damage had been a major contribution to improved neonatal care in the world.

But the Rotorua-raised researcher said she'd never aspired to enter the field.

"At some point, I decided that I wanted to go to medical school, but for no obvious reason, I didn't think I really knew what a doctor did," she said.

"While I was at medical school, the plan was to become a GP - but I got side-tracked into research, and then into paediatrics, and most of my career has been doing both."

She said New Zealand had a proud track record of making an important impact on the world of mothers and babies, spanning right back to the seminal work of Sir Graham "Mont" Liggins and Sir William Liley in the 1960s.

"Certainly, there are more things that we don't know - or things that we think could be done better - and we continue to make major contributions. It's an exciting field to be in."

Harding said the medal recognised the work of many talented people she'd collaborated with over the years, and considered herself accepting it on their behalf.

"We have the privilege of working to enhance outcomes at that most crucial time in the life of any family; the birth of a baby," she said.

"We know that our focus on optimising care of mothers and babies has the potential to enhance health and wellbeing for their lifetimes, and for future generations."

Going forward, she said her research focus would be on long-term effects of interventions.

"There are lots of treatments now that we know have short term benefits, and that can reduce illness, or in some cases prevent death, in mothers and babies.

"We have the privilege of working to enhance outcomes at that most crucial time in the life of any family; the birth of a baby," Distinguished Professor Jane Harding says. Photo / Supplied

"Our focus is increasingly on the long term effects - what does it mean for the later health of the child, or their risk of adult disease, or their growth and development?"

The Rutherford Medal – whose recipients include luminaries such as Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr, Dame Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, Professor Alan MacDiarmid and Dame Professor Anne Salmond – wasn't the first major honour to recognise Hardings' achievements.

An Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Harding has been awarded the Health Research Council's Beaven Medal and the University of Auckland's Vice-Chancellor's Research Excellence Medal, and named North and South magazine's joint New Zealander of the Year in 2004.

Researchers celebrated

The Health Research Council of New Zealand awarded the Te Tohu Rapuora Award to Dr Matire Harwood of the University of Auckland for her outstanding leadership and contribution to Māori health. Harwood is a doctor at a busy general practice and an inspirational leader and teacher in hauora Māori, yet she has still managed to find the time to excel in a clinical research career that has improved Māori health in key areas such as asthma, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

Dr Ocean Mercier. Photo / Supplied
Dr Ocean Mercier. Photo / Supplied

For excellence in translational health research, the Health Research Council of New Zealand presented the Beaven Medal to Professor Richard Beasley from the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand. Beasley's research helped halt an epidemic of asthma deaths in New Zealand and has gone on to change the way the world manages asthma, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

Distinguished Professor Ian Reid, Dr Anne Horne and their team at the University of Auckland were awarded the Liley Medal from the Health Research Council of New Zealand for their significant medical breakthrough in the field of bone disease prevention. Their groundbreaking paper, published in the New England Medical Journal, could help reduce the number of older women presenting with fractures by up to half, and is leading to a global rethink of how to prevent fractures in older people.

Dr Ocean Mercier, of Victoria University, was awarded the Callaghan Medal from Royal Society Te Apārangi for her pioneering work engaging audiences in science and mātauranga Māori. Mercier's science communication spans television, public talks, writing, and university.

The Thomson Medal was awarded to Dr Tim Haskell, formerly of Callaghan Innovation, for his outstanding contributions to the organisation, support and application of science and technology in New Zealand.

Professor Jadranka Travas-Sejdic, from the University of Auckland and the MacDiarmid Institute was awarded the Hector Medal, for an outstanding contribution to the field of advanced polymers and nanomaterials. Travas-Sejdic explores the fundamental aspects of materials composed of polymers and applies these findings to create electronic devices for a wide range of biomedical applications. These include hand-held sensors for electrical detection of DNA, such as detecting bacteria in water; stretchable electronics that can be worn or implanted to mimic biological functions; and novel carbon-based "nanodots" for cell imaging.

Professor Richard Beasley. Photo / Supplied
Professor Richard Beasley. Photo / Supplied

Distinguished Professor Philip Hulme

, from the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University, has been awarded the Hutton Medal for advancing knowledge on how non-native plants become invasive weeds in New Zealand.

Professor Edwina Pio, of the Auckland University of Technology, was awarded the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for her pioneering research into intersectional diversity and its implications for business, government, education and society. Pio studies how the intersection of ethnicity, religion and gender impacts on – and is influenced by – the world of work.

Associate Professor Selina Tusitala Marsh, of the University of Auckland, was awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal for her outstanding creative and scholarly work to bring the voices of Pasifika poetry to a broad audience. An acclaimed poet, Marsh has just finished her two-year term as New Zealand's Poet Laureate and was the Commonwealth Poet in 2016.

Emeritus Professor Roger Horrocks, of the University of Auckland, was awarded the Pou Aronui Award by Royal Society Te Apārangi for his tireless work over five decades to support New Zealand culture in the creative arts. Horrocks pioneered teaching Film, Television, and Media Studies in universities, just as a new film industry was emerging in New Zealand in the 1970s.

The inaugural Te Rangaunua Hiranga Māori Award was presented to Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand's Māori Centre of Research Excellence, for successful fostering and leadership that has carved out a space for community-led mātauranga Māori, te reo and tikanga Māori science research.

Professor Keith Gordon, of the University of Otago, was awarded the MacDiarmid Medal for his innovative use of light to understand the molecular structure of a wide range of materials from solar cells, fish oils, to plastics in the environment. He uses interactions between light and matter—known as spectroscopy—to achieve this. His research has optimised solar cells, and he has developed methods to identify the different crystalline forms of pharmaceuticals, even at the nano-scale. He has also developed methods to assess the quality and composition of foodstuffs, including dairy, fish and horticultural products.

Professor Cather Simpson, of the University of Auckland, received the Pickering Medal from Royal Society Te Apārangi for her pioneering research and commercialisation of innovative photonic technologies, which are addressing challenges with a New Zealand focus and global impact. Her research uses ultrafast laser pulses to probe molecules in the millions of billionths of seconds after absorbing light. She has developed this technique for micromachining and microfabrication and she has also spun out the technology to solve problems in New Zealand's agricultural sector.

Associate Professor Cather Simpson. Photo / Supplied
Associate Professor Cather Simpson. Photo / Supplied

Professor Don Cleland

, of Massey University, was awarded the Scott Medal for making advances in the field of food refrigeration and heat pump technology. Cleland has provided a suite of tools that allow accurate predictions for how a food will respond during processing, cool storage and transport.

Dr Lee Streeter, of the University of Waikato, received the Cooper Award for making key advances in the theory and practice of time-of-flight imaging, a technique used in many industries to produce rapid 3D images of moving objects.

Dr Lisa Te Morenga, of Victoria University, was awarded the Hamilton Award for providing irrefutable evidence that sugar in the diet contributes to weight gain. Te Morenga's breakthrough meta-analysis study demonstrated a link between free sugars in the diet and the risk of excessive weight gain.

Dr Bronwyn Wood, also of Victoria University, received the Early Career Research Excellence Award for social sciences for her research on how today's young people engage as citizens – especially in the school context.

Christian Offen, a PhD candidate at Massey University, was the winner of the Hatherton Award for his paper that outlines the development of a new framework to study a class of non-linear differential equations that have values at which the number of solutions changes. These equations can be used to model physical systems with tipping points or where effects lag behind causes.

Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, of the University of Otago, received the Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award for forging new knowledge at the interface of mātauranga Māori and the physical sciences. Jackson studies how traditional connections with water and ocean can bring flourishing health.