First woman awarded science honour

HIGH MANA: University of Otago research professor Christine Winterbourn has won New Zealand's top science and technology award.
HIGH MANA: University of Otago research professor Christine Winterbourn has won New Zealand's top science and technology award.

Christchurch biochemist and ground-breaking free radical researcher Professor Christine Winterbourn is the first woman scientist to be awarded New Zealand's top science and technology honour in its 20-year history.

Winterbourn, who is director of the free radical research group in the pathology department at the University of Otago, Christchurch, received the 2011 Rutherford Medal and $100,000 from the Government at last night's Royal Society of New Zealand research honours event in Wellington.

Winterbourn told The Press she had never experienced any real discrimination in the science lab, but had seen huge changes since the early 1970s.

"We were very much in the minority – when I did my masters [degree] in chemistry in Auckland there were four women and 30 in total, so you were always working in a minority group.

"But it was just a matter for me of knowing what I wanted to do and just doing it, not being hung up by thinking, `I'm a woman in a man's world'."

She had continued to work part-time while she had young children because in those days if you took a year or two off it was hard to get back into the academic world, she said.

While she was honoured to get the medal, she did not think it was particularly significant that it had taken 20 years for a woman to win it.

"I think it is more that the people who get these [Rutherford Medal] awards are at a certain time in their career, it is not a young person's award. It is more a randomness of coming from an era where women were very much in the minority. I know I will be the first of many," Winterbourn said.

Otago University vice-chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne said the award was richly deserved.

Winterbourn was an outstanding research leader whose support and mentoring of colleagues and students had been "truly remarkable", Hayne said.

Royal Society of New Zealand president Dr Garth Carnaby said her research into free radical biology had paved the way for groundbreaking research.

"Professor Winterbourn's passion and dedication over the past 40 years into research on free radicals and antioxidants has led to her making several seminal discoveries which have important implications for medical research.

"Her mana extends well beyond New Zealand's shores. She is recognised internationally as one of the founders of free radical research in biological systems and a leading world authority in this field."

Winterbourn has published more than 260 scientific papers, most in international journals. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that human cells produce free radicals as part of their normal function and to document some of the chemical reactions of free radicals that occur in diseases such as cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease and arthritis.

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, was presented with the inaugural Callaghan Medal for outstanding contribution to science communication, while Professor Jim Flynn, of the Otago University politics department, received the first Humanities Aronui Medal for work in political philosophy.

Other awards included the Thomson Medal and $15,000 to former Royal Society of NZ president Neville Jordan, and the Liley Medal to researcher Dr Chris Pemberton.

The Press