Science of tides and droplets seen as liquid asset

JODY O'CALLAGHAN AND SHABNAM DASTGHEIB
Last updated 05:00 25/10/2012

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Wellington researchers will be able to study topics such as climate change, attitudes to blue and white collar offending and motivation in education thanks to this year's round of Marsden grants.

Victoria University researchers have been awarded 12 grants, worth $6.75 million in total. Nearly $55 million in funds will be divided between the successful 86 research projects that were whittled down from 1113 applicants, and announced today.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh said the grant process was highly competitive and the successful researchers should be very proud. ''It's excellent to see the grants spread across six of our faculties, including eight schools and one research centre-showing the diversity and breadth of the research being carried out.''

Also among the grants is Otago University physical oceanographer Ross Vennell who plans to determine whether tidal turbines in the strait could produce a viable amount of energy for the country. He will use his $940,000 grant to answer the question of whether it's worth going there.

"We're going to have to have tens to hundreds of these things. What I'm trying to focus on is how much power you will get from them."

Tidal power turbines were far more complex than wind turbines, and deploying too many could actually lead to a reduction in energy generated, Dr Vennell said. The Cook Strait, with its strong tidal flows, "is probably one of the best places on the planet in terms of energy".

Lower Hutt's Industrial Research physicist Geoff Willmott will use a $345,000 grant to study droplets.

Using high-speed photographic equipment, Dr Willmott will research how to control the way they land, and how the patterns are affected by different surfaces.

Although the findings would be applied to uses such as the spray-painting of cars and and ink-jet printers, they could be applied to all liquids, including the forensic examination of blood droplets for criminal trials.

Environmental Science and Research expert Michael Taylor - who captures the actual formation of bloodstain patterns - is the project's associate investigator and high-speed photographer.

Marsden Fund Council chairwoman Professor Juliet Gerrard said she was impressed with the quality of the applicants.
They were the very best investigators with world-class research ideas expected to make a difference to New Zealand's economic growth and social issues, and gaining a wider understanding of New Zealanders.

"Marsden lets our brightest investigators work on their best ideas, without worrying about short-term priorities," she said. "Many of these ideas are high risk, but potentially very high gain."

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The grants are administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and funded by the Government. The money can be used for salaries, overheads, equipment and any costs associated with the research.

There are two types of grants - the fast-start grants, worth $115,000 a year for three years for early-career researchers, and standard grants of up to $330,000 a year for three years.

Named after physicist Sir Ernest Marsden, the fund was created in 1994 to support scientific research as a hallmark of excellence.

SCIENTIST FINDS LINK TO OVARIAN CANCER

After 12 years and almost $3 million in Marsden grants to study sheep fertility, a Victoria University researcher has found links to the cause of ovarian cancer in humans.

The last of his three grants of about $900,000 each since 2000 expired at the start of this year, but biological scientist Ken McNatty is now steering his research away from sheep and towards humans - particularly, how environmental and lifestyle factors affect the death of eggs in women and the link to ovarian cancer.

Dr McNatty chose sheep because they were "easily accessible" and there was a breed with a genetic mutation that made them extraordinarily fertile.

"We did all our work on sheep for the Marsden grant, but what we see in sheep is also found in humans, rats and pretty much all living species," he said. "What we have learnt is that the egg is such a major controlling cell in the ovary that when you lose eggs prematurely, there is a very strong link to ovarian cancer."

His sheep research had also shown how the number of eggs released at fertilisation led to rats having 15 babies and humans not so many.

And he had been "reasonably successful" in identifying which eggs were most likely to end in a baby.

"Without the Marsden grant, we would have not been able to be in the position we are in now," Dr McNatty said.
The grants had also allowed him to employ staff and graduate several PhD students.

Although he is aiming to retire in the next two years, his study will continue under the leadership of his colleagues.

STUDY TOPICS

Other studies winning grants include:

Professor Michael Corballis, Auckland University: "Gesture, speech and the lopsided brain". Comparing brain function between left-handed and right-handed people - $760,000

Dr Phil Battley, Massey University: "How do birds tell the time when to migrate?" Looking at the potential for evolutionary change in bird migration schedules and finding out how migrating birds know exactly when to take off - $920,000

Associate professor Helen Moewaka-Barnes, Massey University. "Identity and wellbeing in Aotearoa NZ". What emotional response Maori and non-Maori have to Anzac Day and Waitangi Day - $850,000

Dr Robert Thompson, Otago University: "Cloaked in invisible bending light". Potential design of metamaterials that bend light around an object to provide cloaking, or invisibility - $345,000 Dr Greg Anderson, Otago University:

Overcoming anxiety: the neuroendocrine strategy of new mothers. Decreasing anxiety during pregnancy and lactation helps prevent later-life diseases, and allows mothers to focus on nurturing offspring - $975,000

Dr Lisa Marriott, Victoria University: The Colour of Crime: Investigation of attitudes towards blue and white-collar offending. New Zealand may be prosecuting white-collar crime more leniently than financially equivalent blue-collar crime - $345,000.

- The Dominion Post

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