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Young Scientists -- World-Spanning Winners

Young New Zealand researchers have the world open to them, if the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology FiRST Awards are anything to go by. Most have already clocked up a fair amount of international experience in research projects, post-graduate studies and fellowships.

Fiona Carswell, a FRST Post-Doctoral Fellow, can be found these days on the West Coast, studying the effects of climate change on forest photosynthesis. Her research on the Coast is aimed at seeing how our indigenous forests could act as "carbon sinks", which may help to offset overall carbon dioxide emission levels.

But her studies have seen her travel from Auckland University to the University of Edinburgh, and on to the Brazilian Amazon where she lived for almost a year high in the rainforest at canopy level, looking at photosynthesis there.

Catherine Morrow has been more down-to-earth, mixing it up with antelopes, dairy cattle and, more recently white rhinos. Oddly enough, the studies she made on African antelope reproduction were undertaken in the United States, at the Smithsonian Institute's Conservation and Research Center.

And the white rhinos? They have been a local effort, with Catherine helping staff at Hamilton Zoo, in between studying stress hormone levels in cows for AgResearch at Ruakura. Catherine did her PhD in Virginia, US, and came back to New Zealand in 1997 after being awarded a Lottery Grants Board Science Repatriation Fellowship.

"I'm helping reverse the 'brain drain'," she says.

On the other end of the "drain", too, is Megan McKenna, a Canadian who came to Palmerston North to start a PhD. Four years on and she is now a New Zealand citizen (gained the day after receiving her FiRST Award), looking at the effects that industry restructuring and globalisation have had on this country's pipfruit industry.

Megan's focus has been wide-ranging, with her background combining economic geographies, international development studies, rural sector analysis and community sustainability and revitalisation issues.

Times have been busy for Gina Mohi, a Tuapapa Putaiao Maori Fellow, with a growing family and a flourishing stand of kawakawa trees, sometimes known as pepper trees.

Gina has been investigating how to optimise the oil content of kawakawa, which has been a traditional Maori treatment for cuts, wounds and boils. Her stand is set for uprooting in August to analyse the effect of different growing regimes on oil production.

"More and more people are turning to alternative, and traditional Maori forms, of healing," she says. "This, however, is placing more pressure on our dwindling native forests so growing native plants in a horticultural situation is a necessary, more viable, alternative."

Gina's aim is to encourage the development of marae-based nurseries and horticultural training and employment opportunities for hapu and iwi.

Agriculture is the focus for Tuapapa Putaiao Maori Fellow Rachel Forrest. She's been looking at thermogenesis in neo-natal ruminants -- or why newborn lambs get cold and how to make them more cold-tolerant. The work has involved identifying variations in the beta3-adrenergic receptor gene which determines how the body uses its energy at any one time for heat, muscle or fat production.

"Fifteen to 20 per cent of all lambs born in New Zealand die within the first three weeks of life," says Rachel. "At least one-third of these deaths are due to starvation and cold exposure, so hopefully my work will result in less reproductive wastage."

She has isolated six variants within the gene and looked at those from cows and goats as well as sheep. Beta3-adrenergic receptors (ARs) are found mainly in fat, and are involved in regulating body temperature and fat levels. When animals are stressed, such as in cold conditions, they produce substances that stimulate the beta3 ARs, which in turn trigger thermogenesis and the breakdown of fat.

Rachel is testing large flocks of sheep to see whether animals with differing fat levels or differing abilities to withstand the cold possess different beta3 ARs variants. Identification of these could lead to better breeding programmes for cold-tolerant animals or leaner meat.

This has seen her collect dead lambs on numerous South Island highcountry sheep stations during recent lambing seasons.

"Many of my whanau are high country farmers, so doing my PhD researching cold tolerance should have a direct impact on their productivity."

Young Scientists, World-Spanning Winners Figure A (42KB)
Catherine Morrow trades a laboratory in the United States for one in Hamilton, where she is studying reproduction in cattle and white rhinos.