To a young Margaret Brimble, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Charles Darwin were giants of the science books she grew up reading.

Now, in another certain book that carries those names and others - Sir Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and New Zealand's Sir Ernest Rutherford and Sir Paul Callaghan - the distinguished professor is about to sign her own.

Brimble has just become the first New Zealand woman to be elected a fellow to the world's oldest and most prestigious scientific academy, the Royal Society of London.

Brimble, a world-renowned chemistry researcher at the University of Auckland, said the honour wasn't just a win for New Zealand, proving it was possible to reach such heights from our comparatively small science sector, but also for women in science.


She was a passionate advocate for female scientists and regularly spoke to groups of young women to encourage them to consider science as a career.

"It's nice, especially for my students, as it shows we can actually achieve these things if we put our mind to it - but it doesn't come quickly, and it's a long, slow process."

On a personal level, Brimble felt humbled to be joining a fellowship that included her childhood heroes.

Born and raised in Auckland, Brimble attended the University of Auckland and has done almost all her research in New Zealand.

In 2012, she received this country's top science honour: the Royal Society Te Apārangi's Rutherford Medal.

As a young woman, she was encouraged to consider a career in medicine - but the horror of being asked to dissect a rat in biology class steered her towards science research.

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon congratulated Brimble, and echoed her comments.

"This fellowship really is an honour and a milestone not just for women scientists in New Zealand but for our science sector in general and for New Zealand," McCutcheon said.


"To have one of our leading scientists recognised in this way is a wonderful achievement."

In a happy co-incidence, the announcement came in the same week Brimble was awarded the UK Royal Society of Chemistry's 2018 George and Christine Sosnovsky Award in Cancer Therapy, for developing a novel innovative chemistry platform for the development of cancer vaccines.

Her work sits at the interface of chemistry and medicine and focuses on developing bioactive compounds from natural products such as marine algae or fungi.

These compounds are synthesised in larger amounts for further research and development as potential drugs to treat a range of diseases including cancer and infectious disease.

Developing these compounds could take several years.

Her research in drug discovery in New Zealand is pioneering, developing a new treatment for Rett Syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and autism disorders. The drug, called trofinetide, is in phase III human clinical trials with Neuren Pharmaceuticals.

It will be the first drug to be developed successfully by a New Zealand company and one of only a few to be discovered in an academic laboratory.

Her research group is also developing innovative chemical technology to generate cancer vaccines.

This work is being translated for clinical use by the spin-out company SapVax which is developing a pipeline of products for the treatment of different cancers.