Marsden Fund 2014 by the numbers

101

research applications provided Marsden Fund grants

$55.7m the total funding pool of this year's grants

1222 grant applications received this year, of which 248 progressed to second round

Advertisement

8.3% the overall success rate of applicants to this year's fund

39% of successful applications led by female principal investigators

5.2% of successful applications led by Maori principal investigators

28 of successful applications entered by the University of Auckland, the most of any institution. Victoria University had 25 successful applications, and the University of Otago 22.

1

What space-to-ice rays could tell us about the universe

For scientists trying to crack an outer-space mystery, it's fitting that the key might be hidden deep inside our own planet's major research frontier, Antarctica.

Cosmic rays, which constantly bombard our atmosphere and travel through our universe with the energy of more than a million times anything that could be made by man, have long baffled scientists.

Where they come from is made a conundrum by the magnetic fields in space that distort their direction of travel, yet in them lie possible answers to many questions about our universe.

Advertisement

The way to crack the code, though, could be found in cosmic neutrinos, which can travel through matter unimpeded and can reveal the birth sites of the cosmic rays that generate them.

Suspended from cables deep below the South Pole, more than 5000 optical sensors have been installed to pick up these neutrinos.

This system, which comprises the IceCube Observatory, provided the first strong evidence for the observation of cosmic neutrinos - recognised as the 2013 Physics World Breakthrough of the Year.

One of the researchers behind the work, Associate Professor Jenni Adams of the University of Canterbury, will continue investigating the phenomenon with scientists from Germany and the United States.

By developing sophisticated techniques to gather large samples of these neutrinos, her team could ultimately find new and exciting ways to explore the origin and acceleration of nature's highest-energy particles.

2

How to use Google Glass without bumping into things

By now, most of us know about the next game-changer in the personal tech world, Google Glass.

The headworn gadget enables you to check recipes while you cook, share what you see as you see it, speak to send a message and ask whatever's on your mind.

But how do we use this vehicle for augmented reality while negotiating reality - crossing the street while checking your Facebook updates, for example?

Professor Mark Billinghurst and his team at the University of Canterbury's HIT Lab NZ will use their grant to develop a safer, more productive, wearable system.

In their project, with Professor Deak Helton from the university's department of psychology, the team will regard the user and the wearable computer as a single hybrid system that will be effective if it can reduce the demand on the brain's working memory while the user performs several tasks, such as walking while searching through icons on the display.

Prototypes will be developed based on software such as the Java language and Android operating system, and wearable hardware such as Google Glass.


University of Canterbury scientists are using their grant to develop a safer, wearable system for Google Glass. Photo / NZ Herald

3

Using DNA to solve secrets of cancer

Cancer remains New Zealand's single biggest cause of death and more Kiwis are being diagnosed with the disease as our population ages.

Using advanced DNA research, three scientists will try to develop a new approach to understanding the complex biology of cancers.

Dr Austen Ganley and Dr Sebastian Schmeier of Massey University's Albany campus will zero in on a part of the genome known to encode genes that control production of all proteins in the cell.

Working with them is cancer researcher Professor Ross Hannan, who developed the first cancer drug that targets this part of the genome.

It's believed the structure and activity of the region is crucial in cancer cell survival, and Dr Ganley has documented this dependence in his DNA research.

Ultimately, this research will explore the way this complex region of DNA is regulated in normal and malignant cells, with a goal to identify the structure in malignant cells, and why cancer cells are dependent on it.

Such clarification could lead to a novel target for the development of further chemotherapy drugs.

4

Do "sin taxes" stop us buying unhealthy products?

Does lifting taxes on foods and products that hinder our health stop us from buying them so often?

And if so, by how much?

In answering this question, Professor John Gibson and colleagues at the University of Waikato will claim a world first.

His team will estimate the bias in conventional measures of price responsiveness by explicitly allowing for changes in quality.

By including this adjustment into the equation, it can be clarified whether a fall in consumption because of "sin taxes" is exaggerated, or whether the taxes' effectiveness is overstated.

According to the New Zealand Medical Association, taxing unhealthy food is the most cost-effective approach to tackling obesity, and most policies to address this involve taxing such items.

Generally, higher prices for specific items do discourage consumption.

This means people faced with paying more for carrots might substitute them with more potatoes in their shopping basket.

But for unhealthy foods, the reduction in the quantity purchased may not be as significant as earlier studies suggest, as people may compensate by switching to cheaper brands.

As the required data for New Zealand consumers is not available, Professor Gibson's team will analyse information collected from other countries.

It is hoped more accurate estimates will lead to better informed policies to deal with the long-term effects of things that are bad for us.

5

Stepping inside the shadowy world of state surveillance

From the Urewera police raids in 2007 through to the Edward Snowden files and the controversy over the Government's GCSB Bill, secret surveillance has been a headline-grabbing topic in recent years.

However - and perhaps for obvious reasons - the general history of this shady world in New Zealand is scant.

Although New Zealand joined the intelligence community more than a century ago, it is the only Western country to have no academic study on the history of its secret surveillance.

That's about to change, through a study by Victoria University's Professor Richard Hill, whose investigation will cover our history of surveillance, including how strategies changed during important periods, and what balances were made between state security requirements and civil liberties.

The aim is to produce a history of New Zealand's security policing system, set in an international context.

Professor Hill will be working with Dr David Burke from Cambridge University, an expert on espionage, and David Filer, who is a New Zealand military historian.

Whatever is uncovered, Professor Hill is confident of providing an informed platform for debate.

6

How robotics could help our youngest cerebral palsy patients

Researchers have looked to robotics to assist therapy for children with cerebral palsy.

In New Zealand, around one in 500 babies are born with the debilitating condition, for which there is no cure.

To treat a feature of the disease, over-tight muscles, injections of Botulinium Toxin A (BTX) - the anti-wrinkle treatment Botox is one well-known form of it - has become clinical best practice.

But the way a child's muscles develop following BTX treatment is not well understood.

Factoring in the effect of the injections, Dr Andrew McDaid of the University of Auckland will put together a blueprint for robotic therapy for children with the disease.

This would include a robotic wrist that manipulates the muscles as a therapist would.

As the device could automatically adjust the therapy by continuously monitoring the effect of BTX and robot therapy on the child's muscle, specific therapies could be targeted to each individual.

It's hoped Dr McDaid's research will provide a deeper insight into the underlying effects of BTX on muscle development, while advancing intelligent and adaptable robotic therapies and possibly reducing the number of BTX treatments a child needs.

7

Asset sales: what do they mean for Maori?

The partial sale of three state-owned energy companies - Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy - was one of the biggest political hot potatoes for the National Government in its last term.

But what did these sales mean for the iwi who act as kaitiaki, or guardians, for the rivers that provide the energy source?

In a project four years in the making, Dr Marama Muru-Lanning of the University of Auckland will try to navigate through the complex issues for iwi that the Government's privatisation programme has created.

Dr Muru-Lanning, a researcher who once worked at Mighty River Power, will define what guardianship means for iwi today and explore the dilemmas that face tribal groups when they seek to buy into sales.

"One of the big questions is, have iwi bought shares in these companies and, if so, how do they balance their own kaitiaki obligations to protect these territories?" she told the Herald.

"Do you have more say in the capacity as a shareholder, as opposed to being a group that preaches the idea of kaitiaki?"

Dr Muru-Lanning belongs to the Waikato-Tainui iwi, whose commercial arm, Tainui Group Holdings, recently purchased 5.4 million shares in Genesis Energy.

Her study, which builds on her earlier PhD work on the Waikato River, would reveal for the first time the complex range of Maori experiences and responses to privatisation.

She hoped it would result in iwi having a more powerful voice in such sales in the future, while also contributing to international research.


Madson Fund receivers Marama Muru-Lanning and Jenni Adams. Photo / NZ Herald

8

Groundbreaking soil science making the leap from dirt to drugs

Could the secret ingredients of tomorrow's wonder drugs be found beneath our feet?

That's what a team of scientists, who will seek DNA directly from New Zealand soils, want to find out.

Obtaining drug compounds from natural products has led to some of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history.

The discovery of penicillin in 1928 meant many life-threatening diseases could be discovered by antibiotics, while cyclosporin, isolated from a fungus in the 1970s, is now widely used to prevent rejection during organ transplant operations.

Both of these belong to a class of molecules called secondary metabolites, which are among the most important natural products for human health and are made by tiny biosynthetic factories inside bacteria and fungi.

Working alongside Dr Sean Brady from the Rockefeller University in the US, Victoria University's Dr Jeremy Owen will use "metagenomic" methods to discover gene clusters that produce potentially medically important compounds.

By obtaining DNA directly from soil, they hope to open a treasure trove of new organisms and their secondary metabolites. After making a library of these gene clusters, the researchers can then persuade a common laboratory bacterium to produce the compounds.

The new compounds will eventually be screened for biomedical properties such as antibiotic or anti-cancer activity.

9

Why our wax-eyes could offer more than just a pretty song

We know them as one of the smallest, friendliest and most musical visitors to our gardens, but could the wax-eye also be the answer to one of the natural world's most challenging puzzles?

How some groups of animals are found in such a wide variety of forms across much of the planet remains an enigma to scientists.

Their broad distribution suggests excellent ability to disperse, yet their gradual separation into distinct forms would require isolation.

To solve what's called the "paradox of the great speciators", Dr Bruce Robertson from Otago University, with Dr Sonya Clegg from the University of Oxford and Professor Ian Owens from the British Natural History Museum, will look to the wax-eye, also known as the silver-eye or white-eye.

They suggest that after dispersal has occurred, the dispersal ability of some groups of animals might turn off using genetic switches in genes that are active in migratory behaviour.

Dr Robertson and his colleagues will study the genetics of the wax-eye and its cousins in Australia and the Pacific Islands.

If such genetic switches can be identified, further testing will examine whether they explain the wide diversity of wax-eyes living throughout the Pacific region.

Their novel approach draws on bird studies of altered migratory behaviour associated with climate change.

These have shown that changes in "migration genes" can result in migratory populations becoming year-round residents.

Newly developed genetic techniques will be used to see whether similar mechanisms are involved in the wax-eyes.

If Dr Robertson and his team are proven correct and can identify such mechanisms, it would give an answer to an enduring mystery about the diversity of life that surrounds us in the natural world.


The wax eye could be the answer to one of the natural world's most challenging puzzles. Photo / NZ Herald

10

Mapping the causes of asthma

Combining mathematical models with new experimental data could shed new light on the causes of asthma.

According to the Asthma Foundation of New Zealand, one in six adult Kiwis and one in four of our children - more than 600,000 people - have symptoms of the disease.

It remains the most common cause of admission to hospital for our children, and admission rates have doubled in the past 30 years.

The disease constricts airways in the lungs. If a single airway in a lung closes, it doesn't cause a problem, but often one airway closing causes others to close as well.

This cluster of closed airways leads to impaired breathing and can trigger an asthma attack.

By combining mathematical models with new experimental data, Dr Graham Donovan of the University of Auckland will investigate how airway closing spreads from one airway to another, and whether this occurs via the airways themselves or via the tissue between them.

The knowledge and techniques developed during this project will be of wider use to applied mathematics.

Importantly for people with the disease, the study results will have clinical applications, such as breathing control, and will give an insight into the inner workings of asthma.