Swine flu researcher Catherine Macken was born in Whakatane, when it had a population of 7000, and graduated to working in a lab which employs 11,000.

She and her colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are trying to pinpoint why the latest swine influenza virus can move relatively quickly between humans.

Ms Macken estimates there have been around 50 distinct incidences of pig-human transmission in the last three decades, but every other time the virus has hit a "dead-end" once it reached a human host.

If she can pinpoint places where the genetic sequence of swine flu has changed since earlier versions, researchers may be able to find the crucial point of difference - the first step towards the possible development of a vaccine.

Ms Macken's career has taken her to the forefront of work using mathematics to understand flu pandemics.

She was at Massey University when a lecturer suggested she complete a PhD in the United States. She had no idea what a PhD involved when she set off for Cornell University in 1977, but thought it would be a good chance to travel.

After teaching at Lincoln and Auckland Universities during the 1980s she was drawn back to Los Alamos because of its work using mathematics to understand biological processes such as flu.

Today she lives in Santa Fe and works works at the huge lab best known for its secret development of nuclear weapons.