Two marine scientists who fronted up to hundreds of worried Tauranga residents during the darkest days of the Rena disaster have been honoured with a major award by the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

Waikato University's chair of coastal science Professor Chris Battershill and Canterbury University marine scientist Professor David Schiel last night jointly received the association's award of Science Communicator of the Year.

It acknowledged the much-needed scientific insight they provided to the public after the containership grounded off the Tauranga coast in October 2011 before spilling hundreds of tonnes of heavy fuel oil and debris and causing the country's biggest maritime environmental disaster.

The pair became well-known faces during the disaster, with Professor Battershill communicating the complexities of the situation to a packed hall of concerned residents in the event's earliest days.


Over a period of 30 months, they gave over 100 talks at numerous marae, public meetings and conferences and many media interviews.

Professor Battershill, who has been widely acknowledged for the urgent ecological stock-take he took in the days before the oil spill - something which proved critical when later assessing impacts - said he was honoured to receive the award.

"The grounding of the Rena on Otaiti (Astrolabe Reef) led to a remarkable chain of events that continues to have an impact on the national psyche," he said.

"The outrage expressed locally and nationally was considerable. It quickly became apparent the public wanted to know what was being done to minimise environmental impacts and what the likely consequences of the oil spill and the debris contamination would be.

"In the early days, many of the meetings were quite heated as people vented their outrage about the oil spill.

"Over time the public became increasingly well informed and grew interested in following the science behind the impact and the environmental recovery phases of the incident.

"It was also important to the citizens involved in the clean-up operation that they knew their efforts were worthwhile and would lead to quick recovery of the marine environment."

Professors Battershill and Schiel devoted the years following the Rena incident to communication and follow-up about the science related to environmental recovery from the oil spill.


Both professors agreed the public and media had benefited from having top quality scientists front recent disasters in New Zealand.

"This has helped to thoroughly explain events in understandable terms to every audience and help allay fears about potential consequences from that disaster."

Prof Schiel said he saw the award as recognition of the tremendous effort put in by many people across the Bay of Plenty in dealing with the aftermath of the Rena Oil Spill.

"Professor Battershill and I were honoured to play our role in communicating the science relating to environmental effects," he said.

"We were also able to support scores of research students from the Bay of Plenty, especially many affiliated with local iwi, who studied various aspects of the oil spill.

"The legacy effects of the Rena wreck are still being dealt with and we continue our work with the numerous partnerships formed during the crisis."

Other scientists honoured

The Marsden Medal was awarded to Dr Mike Andrews, who has been a practicing experimental physicist for more than 40 years, having trained academically in wave propagation, plasma physics and vacuum techniques.

This vocationally broad educational background led to over thirty years devoted to transfer of applied research to New Zealand industry, through DSIR and IRL, Lower Hutt.

His major impact has been developing acoustic grading tools useful in production forestry, and producing Hitman, an acoustic tester now used world-wide to assess log quality and which provides NZ industry with more than $20 million in benefits each year via early identification of tree properties and appropriate end use.The medal is awarded for a lifetime of outstanding service to the cause or profession of science, in recognition of service rendered to the cause or profession of science in the widest connotation of the phrase.

The Shorland Medal was awarded to Callaghan Innovation scientist Dr Ian Brown, who has had a successful 41-year research career as a materials chemist.

His research began in the fields of ceramics and glass manufacture, before he developed applications of significant benefit to New Zealand including the utilisation of waste glass and NZ iron-sands to produce new ceramic materials, and research the chemistry of fertiliser manufacture from phosphate rock.The medal recognises major and continued contribution to basic or applied research that has added significantly to scientific understanding or resulted in significant benefits to society.

The Research Medal was awarded to Associate Professor Stephane Coen, of Auckland University's Department of Physics.

His work includes fundamental and applied studies of nonlinear optical phenomena in optical fibres with the aim to develop new light sources and new all-optical devices.

In particular, he is researching temporal cavity solitons - pulses of laser light that can be maintained indefinitely around a closed loop - which has revealed fascinating physics for seemingly simple objects, and could also lead to revolutionary applications in fields ranging from telecommunications to ultra-accurate clocks.

His first observation of these solitons, 30 years after their prediction, led to a landmark publication and subsequent research confirmed temporal cavity solitons as one of the few new fundamental concepts in nonlinear optics in recent years.

"I am very honoured to receive this award from the New Zealand Association of Scientists, especially so in 2015 which is the International Year of Light," he said.

"This represents the end of a long road, with very humble beginnings. But of course each step has only been made possible thanks to the many colleagues and students who have supported me, and worked with me."