A leading Kiwi geologist will use a major new science fellowship to probe clues to future climate change buried deep beneath Antarctica's seafloor.

At a ceremony in Sydney tonight , Otago University's Dr Christina Riesselman was awarded the inaugural L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship, part of a wider programme encouraging women to take up careers in science.

The $25,000 fellowship would allow her to recruit a research assistant to help process thousands of samples taken from sediment cores extracted from the Antarctic seabed.

For geologists like Dr Riesselman, these samples could provide an invaluable window into the past -- sometimes stretching as far back as 56 million years -- when it came to understanding how the Earth's climate has changed over time.

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With carbon dioxide levels now at around the same point they reached three million years ago -- when temperatures were much higher and sea levels were around 20 metres higher -- the lessons the past could teach us were key in predicting what might unfold as the planet warms over coming decades and centuries.

The fellowship would support a study reconstructing East Antarctica's climate history since the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,000 years ago, when temperatures increased quickly and sea levels rose to those today.

Microfossils such as diatoms hidden within the core samples revealed a story of what conditions were like when and where they grew in Antarctica.

The frozen continent itself is crucial to scientists because it holds 90 per cent of the planet's ice and acts as a giant engine room for the world's climate.

As Antarctic ice was intimately linked to ocean and atmospheric circulation, sea level, and how much CO2 is stored in the ocean, unravelling its history would enable her to identify key drivers of Southern Hemisphere climate dynamics during intervals of rapid change.

"While climate changed in the past due to natural causes, it happened over thousands or hundreds of thousands of years," Dr Riesselman said.

But since the industrial revolution, tens of thousands of years of change had been packed into just 100 years.

"Researching another example of rapid climate change helps us to understand what the climate could look like in a couple of generations and gives indicators of what humankind needs to do to address the challenges it will bring."

She felt "delighted" and "incredibly privileged" to be named the first fellow.

"Science can change everything; it's a career for the curious, for people who want to solve puzzles and know why -- it's so fantastic that New Zealand now has access to this fellowship for women working in the sciences."

Following the Sydney ceremony, Dr Riesselman will this week attend a cocktail function held in her honour at Auckland University, before joining more than 150 girls from 15 Auckland schools in the L'Oréal For Girls in Science event, to be chaired by high-profile scientist and Weekend Herald columnist Dr Michelle Dickinson.

Dr Christina Riesselman

*An early career academic with a position shared between the Otago University's Departments of Geology and Marine Science.

*Her research interests span a large part of the globe but since beginning her academic career at Otago she has focused on the Southern Ocean and investigating how it responds to changes in climate.

*Was tonight presented the inaugural L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship at a ceremony in Sydney.