Can we save the kauri? Are video games training our kids to gamble? Are we eating the same plastic we put in our oceans? Those are some of the questions that $85m in grants just awarded through the Marsden Fund will enable our brightest minds to answer. Jamie Morton looks at 10 of 136 new projects given the green light.

Untangling the link between self-injury and suicide

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world – and rates are particularly appalling among Maori and Pasifika.

Another alarming statistic: half of young Kiwis engage in non-suicidal self-injury like cutting.

Research has shown that self-injurious thoughts and behaviour can predict suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

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Yet the causal link between non-suicidal self-injury and suicide is poorly understood.

In an $827,000 study, a team led by Victoria University's Professor Marc Wilson will investigate why so many young people deliberately hurt themselves - and whether non-suicidal self-injury is a gateway to suicidal thoughts and behaviour or vice versa.

They'll survey around 2000 secondary school students each year on measures of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and possible contributing factors such as self-esteem, social connectedness, and perfectionism.

They'll also examine this relates to physiological markers of stress such as pain sensitivity, endocrine function, and heart-rate variability.

A team led by Victoria University's Professor Marc Wilson will investigate why so many young people deliberately hurt themselves. Photo / Supplied
A team led by Victoria University's Professor Marc Wilson will investigate why so many young people deliberately hurt themselves. Photo / Supplied

The study will prove the first longitudinal study of its kind in the world, and answer some crucial questions facing the welfare of our at-risk youth.

A new "waka lab" to study the Pacific's volcanoes

Ian Schipper and Yves Moussallam at the foot of Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador. Photo / Trail By Fire
Ian Schipper and Yves Moussallam at the foot of Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador. Photo / Trail By Fire

All active volcanoes give off gases and these emissions play an important role in the timing and nature of volcanic eruptions, while profoundly influencing the climate.

The volcanoes of Melanesia occupy an intensely active segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volatile area where many earthquakes and eruptions occur.

Satellite estimates indicate that one third of all the world's volcanic gases originate from Melanesian volcanoes.

However, current sampling is biased towards easily accessible volcanoes in developed countries.

This bias limits our understanding of the levels and environmental impacts of volcanic gas emissions.

In a $928,000 study, Dr Ian Schipper of Victoria University and Dr Yves Moussallam, of the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France, will sample gas emissions from the active terrestrial and underwater volcanoes of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

A world-first study using traditional knowledge to learn about volcanic emissions will be first trialled at White Island. Photo / File
A world-first study using traditional knowledge to learn about volcanic emissions will be first trialled at White Island. Photo / File

Working with Māori and Melanesian voyaging societies, they'll build a mobile volcano observatory in Melanesia using modern waka.

From this "waka lab", the team will use aerial drones and ocean submersibles to collect samples from submarine volcanoes and provide insight into how volcanoes release gases.

This world-first concept will be trialled at White Island using the double-hulled waka Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, and Māori youth and communities will be invited to participate in recording observations.

By combining modern technology with traditional knowledge, Schipper and Moussallam embrace the notion that, for people all around the Pacific, volcanic hazards and their effects on climate are "He waka eke noa' or 'the canoe we are all in together".

The work will help to identify potentially hazardous volcanoes in Melanesia, many of which are currently unmonitored.

The findings will also increase our understanding of the environmental impacts of volcanic gasses and help create better models of our changing global climate.

Drug trading on the "dark side" of the net

The
The "darknet" is a part of the internet where both publishers and web surfers can be anonymous. Photo / 123RF

The "darknet" is a part of the internet where both publishers and web surfers can be anonymous.

These sites can't be indexed by Google or other search engines and are only available to authorised users, making them for illicit drug buying and selling.

The online drug trade has developed exponentially during the last decade, in step with technological improvements such as encryption, rating systems, and digital currencies.

Current research suggests that darknet drug markets have proliferated in geographically
isolated countries, such as New Zealand.

However, no empirical research on the illegal online drugs market has been conducted here.

Associate Professor Chris Wilkins from the SHORE & Whariki Research Centre at Massey University, has been awarded a $836,000 grant to investigate clandestine websites and their impact on our illegal drug market.

Using specially-designed bots called web-crawlers, his team will estimate the volume of sales and prices in New Zealand for major drug types from the seven largest darknet sites.

Further, the team will perform a comprehensive wastewater analysis to assess the total quantity of each drug type consumed in New Zealand.

Monitoring the presence of drugs in wastewater will help capture information on consumption that may not be accessible through surveys.

A new hope against kauri dieback disease

Our cherished kauri is under threat from an incurable disease caused by a fungus-like pathogen - and efforts to fight the scourge have so far failed. Photo / File
Our cherished kauri is under threat from an incurable disease caused by a fungus-like pathogen - and efforts to fight the scourge have so far failed. Photo / File

Our cherished kauri is under threat from an incurable disease caused by a fungus-like pathogen – and efforts to fight the scourge have so far failed.

The spores that fuel kauri dieback disease, often introduced by people, swim through waterlogged soil towards the roots of host kauri and initiate infection.

The molecular mechanisms controlling this movement and infection involve a specific class of receptor proteins on the surface of spores.

This class of proteins are present within almost all non-bacterial species, from the kauri dieback pathogen to humans, and mediate virtually every important physiological process in cells.

It also happens to be that they're the target of approximately 30 per cent of all current human medicines.

Professor Michelle Glass from the University of Otago and her team have been awarded a $939,000 Marsden Fund grant for research on kauri dieback. Photo / Supplied
Professor Michelle Glass from the University of Otago and her team have been awarded a $939,000 Marsden Fund grant for research on kauri dieback. Photo / Supplied

Professor Michelle Glass from the University of Otago and her team have been awarded a $939,000 Marsden Fund grant to tackle the problem using an innovative approach modelled on human drug discovery.

Glass will study the role of these specific receptor proteins in the migration of - and infection by – these spores.

Next, she'll identify compounds that can interact with these proteins and inhibit their activity, enabling new atomic models to pick apart the interaction between these compounds and receptor proteins.

This project might enable the development of novel treatments that could help in the fight against this devastating dieback disease and protect our taonga species.

Are games teaching our kids to gamble?

Politicians, gamers, and parents around the world have sounded serious concerns about the recent emergence of gambling-related design features in video games. Photo / 123RF
Politicians, gamers, and parents around the world have sounded serious concerns about the recent emergence of gambling-related design features in video games. Photo / 123RF

Video games are big business – and here in New Zealand, their development makes up our fastest growing technology export sector.

Yet politicians, gamers, and parents around the world have sounded serious concerns about the recent emergence of gambling-related design features in video games, particularly those available to children.

Traditionally, video gamers were rewarded for their skills in mastering the game, but now many video games are starting to feature what are called "loot boxes"- some of which can be unlocked and sold with real money.

Dr Aaron Drummond will examine the psychological impact that in-game gambling-related features have on video game players. Photo / Supplied
Dr Aaron Drummond will examine the psychological impact that in-game gambling-related features have on video game players. Photo / Supplied

It's thought this type of reward might lead to children quickly developing new behaviours which produce habits typically seen in conventional gambling.

To date, there has been almost no research exploring the potential psychological and financial risks that these gambling-related features pose.

In a new $300,000 project, Dr Aaron Drummond from Massey University, along with Dr James Sauer of the University of Tasmania and Professor Christopher Ferguson, of Stetson University in the US, will examine the psychological impact that in-game gambling-related features have on video game players

The researchers will combine online surveys of gamers with experimental psychology studies to examine how in-game random reward systems affect player behaviour.

The results will help identify the extent of excessive gameplay behaviour and the psychological and financial harm associated with these gambling-related mechanisms.

As New Zealand has more video game developers per capita than any country in the world – and with the games industry set to figure prominently our economic future and social lives - this research is both critical and timely.

Next-generation super-glasses

Early experimental prototypes for vision augmentations developed in a related project will serve as a starting point for this research. Photo / Supplied
Early experimental prototypes for vision augmentations developed in a related project will serve as a starting point for this research. Photo / Supplied

Imagine wearing glasses that could amplify your awareness of changes in your environment in real time.

For example, if you were looking for a needle in a haystack, the glasses would work like a subtle Instagram filter to make any bright, shiny object stand out from the hay, allowing you to find that elusive needle.

The glasses could alert the wearer to potential dangers as they happen, a feature particularly useful in high-risk environments such as construction sites.

They could also highlight mechanical parts in jet engine that require attention, such as a loose screw.

The rise of glasses with an integrated semi-transparent display in the user's view, known as "optical see-through head-mounted displays", or OSTHMDs, offer the potential to move beyond what is possible with purely optical prescription glasses.

However, glasses currently on the market are not designed for enhancing our vision but for games and other augmented reality applications.

Dr Tobias Langlotz of the University of Otago has been awarded a $300,000 grant to develop a computational prototype for glasses that will enhance, rather than alter, the visual field of the user.

He will design the hardware and software aimed at conventional-style eyewear that senses and amplifies the environment using a semi-transparent display with pixel-perfect precision.

Dr Tobias Langlotz (right) with Dr Yuta Itoh from Tokyo Institute of Technology showing existing eyewear as typically used for augmented reality applications. Photo / Supplied
Dr Tobias Langlotz (right) with Dr Yuta Itoh from Tokyo Institute of Technology showing existing eyewear as typically used for augmented reality applications. Photo / Supplied

The resulting glasses will provide subtle cues to the wearer so that they are not distracted from the task at hand, or have the feeling of being controlled by the glasses.

This project will contribute substantially to the growing field of wearable and visual computing – and the results may also even help extend human vision and compensate for visual impairments.

Are we eating our own plastic?

Nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the marine environment every year. Photo / 123RF
Nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the marine environment every year. Photo / 123RF

Nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the marine environment every year and most of it breaks up into very small particles or microplastics in the ocean.

Alarmingly, these microplastic particles are finding their way into our food.

A recent study confirmed humans were eating microplastics in Europe, Japan and Russia and in New Zealand we are likely now consuming these contaminants in our delicious Friday fish and chips as well.

The long-term effects on human health are largely unknown.

We also don't understand how these microplastics enter our food chain in the first place.

Dr Julie Hope of the University of Auckland thinks the first and most critical step might be microalgae, a key food source for many fish and other marine animals.

She's been awarded a $300,000 grant to explore whether plastics enter our food chain via microalgae.

Her study will examine how the complex interactions of coastal microalgae and their sedimentary environment affect the distribution and initial ingestion of microplastics.

New Zealand's many kilometres of varied and fertile coastline provide the ideal laboratory to explore this issue.

Her project stands to boost our knowledge about the distribution, fate and impact of microplastics in our coastal environments, contributing to understanding and mitigating this growing global threat.

Cracking under pressure

A new study will focus on the South Island's Tasman Glacier. Photo / File
A new study will focus on the South Island's Tasman Glacier. Photo / File

Whether glaciers advance, retreat, or stay put depends on the amount of accumulating snow and melting ice.

As the world warms, the snow cover on mountain glaciers is thinning, so that crevasses are exposed earlier in the summer season and have a greater potential impact on glacier melting.

Crevasses in a glacier's surface change the way the glacier interacts with wind and sun, leading to an increase in the rate of melting.

Dr Heather Purdie has been awarded a $300,000 grant to pioneer a study comparing melt rates of crevassed and un-crevassed regions of the same glacier.

To do this, Purdie will use a drone equipped with an infrared camera to map the shape of the surface of Haupapa/Tasman Glacier.

High-tech weather stations erected on the glacier will provide detailed measurements of heat exchange between the crevasses and snow surface, and the overlying atmosphere.

The information will feed into mathematical models to determine the impact that crevasses have on surface roughness of the glacier and the turbulent movement of heat above it, both of which effect melting.

The results will demonstrate the influence of crevasses on glacial melt rates.

This will help scientists develop better models to predict the health of high mountain glaciers around the world and more accurate estimates of glacial response to a warming climate.

Rejuvenating Māori navigation knowledge

A new study will help a new generation of Māori voyagers reconnect with their tupuna and with Polynesian navigators across the Pacific. Photo / File
A new study will help a new generation of Māori voyagers reconnect with their tupuna and with Polynesian navigators across the Pacific. Photo / File

Māori ancestors undertook deliberate voyages to and from Aotearoa using complex navigation skills and the cutting-edge technology of the time: the double-hulled waka.

For successive generations, the Pacific Ocean was a superhighway of voyaging passages and complex networks of culture and trade.

As Māori adapted to the unique environment of Aotearoa, however, knowledge of the technology and skills for long-distance voyaging declined.

Dr Haki Tuaupiki from the University of Waikato's Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao (School of Māori and Indigenous Studies) has received a $300,000 grant to rediscover and regenerate Māori navigational knowledge.

The recent revitalisation of Polynesian voyaging has focused mainly on Micronesian and Hawaiian navigational practices.

By contrast, Tuaupiki will examine karakia (chants), mōteatea (songs), whakataukī (proverbs) and pūrākau (ancient narratives) and conduct interviews with knowledge holders to recover traditional Māori navigational knowledge.

Tuaupiki will also work with contemporary Māori navigators to understand their practices, culminating in a waka voyage from Aotearoa to Hawai'i in 2020.

Finally, he will combine traditional and contemporary knowledge to produce the first comprehensive Māori navigation system.

Available in te reo Māori and English, the resulting manual will incorporate environmental indicators used in unique ways by Māori, such as the sun and stars, winds and clouds, ocean movement, and bird and whale migrations.

The project brings astronomy, maritime studies, and marine biology together with mātauranga Māori to enrich waka voyaging in Aotearoa and make a major contribution to the recent revitalisation of trans-Pacific navigation.

The research will help a new generation of Māori voyagers reconnect with their tupuna and with Polynesian navigators across the Pacific.

Better cancer immunotherapy treatments

New cancer therapies genetically engineer a patient's own immune cells, known as T cells, to express antibodies that target cancer cells. Photo / 123RF
New cancer therapies genetically engineer a patient's own immune cells, known as T cells, to express antibodies that target cancer cells. Photo / 123RF

Cancer continues to be the number one killer of New Zealanders.

A promising new strategy for treating cancer, called immunotherapy, harnesses the patient's own immune system to destroy cancer cells.

One such groundbreaking therapy genetically engineers the patient's own immune cells, known as T cells, to express antibodies that target cancer cells.

This process generates a cancer therapy using chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR T cells).

However, there are still two major problems with this exciting new therapy.

Firstly, these therapies have been more effective at treating blood cancers than solid tumours.

Secondly, this therapy can trigger an excessive immune response leading to serious, potentially life-threatening, side effects for the patient.

Dr Sarah Saunderson of the University of Otago believes that the key to solving both of these problems is to design the immunotherapy to function specifically within the conditions found inside the solid tumour mass.

One key difference between normal tissue and cancer is that solid tumours becomes highly acidic due to a build-up of tumour cell waste products.

Saunderson has been awarded a $300,000 grant to exploit this pH difference to design an antibody "safety switch".

This antibody switch can be incorporated into CAR T cells so they attack cancerous, but not normal, cells.

She will first identify antibodies that are naturally pH dependent, then test them to determine if they are safe and effective novel therapies for solid tumours.

This project utilises the differences between solid tumours and normal tissues to develop more effective cancer immunotherapies.

The results will also mean patients experience fewer negative side effects from the treatment.

New Zealand's home of 'blue sky' research

The Marsden Fund is administered by Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government and is designed to help our top researchers develop their most ambitious and exciting ideas.

"This 'blue-sky' funding is vital to ensuring a vibrant research culture in our country, and the resulting work will help us better understand our environment and society," Marsden Fund Council chair Professor David Bilkey said.'

"Some of these fundamental discoveries will also lead to new, and sometimes unexpected, solutions to current problems, in areas as diverse as health care, sustainability and social policy."

Eighty-three grants have been awarded to established researchers in this year's Marsden Fund round, while grants to early career researchers have risen from 49 last year to 53 in 2018.

The overall success rate for applicants had continued to rise slightly, from 10.7 per cent in 2016 to 12 per cent in 2017 and 12.4 per cent this year.

The success rate for $300,000 Fast-Start grants for early career researchers was 14.8 per cent.

Bilkey was pleased to see steadily increasing representation of women and Māori amongst the successful researchers.

"It is also gratifying that Marsden Fund applicants who identify as female or Māori have been as successful as male and non-Māori applicants over the past five years," he said.

"We will continue to monitor the fund's processes to make sure under-represented groups are not disadvantaged."

The grants are distributed over three years and are fully costed, paying for salaries, students and postdoctoral positions, institutional overheads and research consumables.