Food researchers scoop science awards

Professors Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh are joint recipients of the 2012 Prime Minister’s top science prize, worth $500,000.
Professors Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh are joint recipients of the 2012 Prime Minister’s top science prize, worth $500,000.

The top awards in this year's Prime Minister's Science Prizes have gone to a pair of Palmerston North researchers for their work in the field of food protein.

Professors Paul Moughan and Harjinder Singh, from Massey University, have been awarded $500,000 to continue their research into projects hoped to strengthen New Zealand's growing food and beverage industry.

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, which recognise some of New Zealand's leading scientist by offering research grants from a total pool of $1 million, were presented in Wellington today.

Moughan and Singh's research was described as both "world leading and original", as it covers close to "the entire spectrum" of food protein science.

"Which was rare," said Moughan.

Their developments included the creation of a probiotic, establishing the health benefits of kiwifruit - which has given New Zealand company ZESPRI an edge globally, and a technology that allows high doses of fish oil-derived Omega-3 fatty acids to be added to food products without a fishy smell and aftertaste.

Another major focus of theirs has been the development of a process to isolate proteins and peptides in low cost meat and use them in a food product that has been shown to have health benefits for older people.

The product is already being commercialised by a New Zealand meat company.

The two scientists established and are co-directors of the Riddet Institute at Massey University, which is focused on food, nutrition and health sciences.

They also drive the Riddet Foodlink network, which involves 90 companies collaborating with the Riddet Institute on research and commercialising intellectual property.

Since 2003, the institute has secured over $40 million in research funding and used it to carry out research and create new food products, processes and systems.

It has also trained 80 postgraduate scholars and 30 postdoctoral fellows.

The pair said they were "incredibly honoured" to receive the award, but said it was not just their work that made it possible.

"We have a lot of bright minds that come up with really good ideas,” said Singh.

“The prize money will allow us to screen those ideas and take the most promising through to the next stage.”

Massey University Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey said they were a "formidable team".

"Food supply is one of the major issues that faces the world and New Zealand has an enormous amount to contribute. Professors Moughan and Singh realised this early on and have championed it throughout their professional careers.

"The rest of the country is now catching up and realising how important it is."

Other winners included Dr James Russell, of Auckland University, who is internationally recognised for his work in conservation. He was awarded $200,000, $150,000 off which will be used for further research.

The 2012 Science Teacher Award was given to the Papatoetoe High School Head of Chemistry, Peter Stewart.

Teaching in a decile three school where "english is most commonly a second language", class numbers at the school have risen 44 per cent at NCEA level two, and 100 per cent at level three, according to his citation.

He was awarded $50,000, while Papatoetoe High School receives $100,000. And at the other end of the Schooling spectrum, a 17-year-old student has been awarded $50,000 to fund her tertiary study.

Hannah Ng, of St Cuthbert's College in Auckland, has been researching childhood myopia, or shortsightedness, which has given university researchers a novel theory that may provide solutions to the global eye problem.

Her theory is optometrists "do not usually take peripheral vision into account when prescribing glasses and the constant blurring induced may exacerbate myopia levels".

The idea is being further developed at Auckland University.

Shaun Hendy, a Professor of Computational Physics at Victoria University and Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, won a total of $100,000 for his work in science media communication.

"His regular blogging, writing, public lecturing and commentating is credited with changing attitudes and behaviours in government and business."