Recognition for Innovation

Innovative research is at the heart of the University of Auckland’s mission, with the work of our 2,000+ researchers making major contributions to the wellbeing of the national community.

This month nine of our leading researchers have been honoured by the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Health Research Council of New Zealand. These awards recognise men and women who work at the cutting edge of their disciplines, producing research that has a significant impact on the world in which we live.

Their brilliant achievements are really something to be proud of.

Research Honours from the Royal Society of New Zealand

Rutherford Medal

Photograph of Michael Corballis.
Michael Corballis

Science, mathematics, social science and technology award for exceptional contribution in New Zealand, awarded annually.

Awarded to:

Professor Corballis has made significant contributions in the areas of evolution, linguistics and neuropsychology related to understanding the human mind, applying mathematics, physics, philosophy, genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary.

Professor Corballis is well known for his work on asymmetries in the brain, identifying the differences in function between the two cerebral hemispheres.  His research into this has included behavioural studies, brain imaging and genetics studies to determine how the hemispheres specialise for complex computation as required for language and as demonstrated by the phenomena of being right- or left-handed. Recent studies in identical twins, who don’t always have the same handedness, has led to new understanding about what role genes play in producing brain asymmetry.

He has championed the theory that human capacity for complex verbal language emerged from gestural communication in early hominins, gathering many supporters over time.

Another area where Professor Corballis’s research is well known is in understanding the evolution of the human mind’s capacity for ‘mental time travel’, a term coined by him and his then student Thomas Suddendorf, describing the human ability to think about both past and future events.

These two strands of research have been increasingly drawn together as he has suggested that language and the ability to conceive events in time may have mutually driven evolution of the human mind.


Pickering Medal

Photograph of Iain Anderson .
Iain Anderson

For excellence and innovation in the practical application of technology.

Awarded to:

Iain Anderson has been awarded the Pickering medal for the development and commercialisation of applications for artificial muscle technology.

Associate Professor Anderson, who heads up the Biomimetics Lab at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, leads a research programme for creating new technology that mimics nature to solve problems.

He has led a research programme that combines electric charge with soft polymer materials to mimic muscle action that includes force, movement and sensing of stretch. The technology can also be used for energy harvesting from wind, wave human and animal motion. The lab succeeded in developing wearable strain-sensing technology that has potential applications in healthcare, rehabilitation, sports training, animation and gaming industries.

To commercialise the technology, Associate Professor Anderson launched the spin-out company StretchSense Ltd in 2012 with two of his former students, Todd Gisby and Ben O’Brien (who won the Prime Minister’s Emerging Scientist Award in 2013). Anderson is a Director and the Chief Scientist of StretchSense.

The Biomimetics Lab is also patenting new stretchy electronic switches for use in soft robotic applications for agriculture, aquaculture and health. This technology holds great potential for new high-value industries for New Zealand.


MacDiarmid Medal

Photograph of Merryn Tawhai.
Merryn Tawhai

Scientific research award for outstanding scientific research that demonstrates the potential for application to human benefit, awarded annually.

Awarded to:

Professor Merryn Tawhai has been awarded the MacDiarmid Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for her research to create anatomically detailed models of the respiratory system, providing new tools for diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of lung disease.

Professor Tawhai has pioneered the creation of multi-levelled computational models of the lungs, spanning from individual cells to the entire organ. The models incorporate data on cell function, tissue and fluid mechanics and gas exchange.

These models have the potential to link basic imaging or symptom data with an advanced understanding of what is happening within the lungs, thus providing a virtual window into this complex organ. This has the potential for more rapid and accurate determination of the best treatment for individual patients and their risks of complications.


Hector Medal

Photograph of Stephane Coen.
Stephane Coen

Science award for outstanding work in chemical, physical or mathematical and information sciences by a researcher in New Zealand, awarded annually, in rotation among the disciplines.

Awarded to:

Associate Professor Stéphane Coen has been awarded the Hector medal for his fundamental physics research into optical phenomena in optical fibres and microresonators.

His speciality is temporal cavity solitons, which are pulses of laser light that can self-organise so as to travel indefinitely around a loop.

Associate Professor Coen and co-workers made the first experimental observation of these solitons in 2010, 30 years after they were predicted, using a loop of fibre optic cable, the same type of cable used for broadband internet and other applications.

His further research uncovered the ability of these pulses of laser light to ‘talk’ to each other, interacting via sound waves so weakly that it takes astronomical propagation distances to observe, and also the ability to ‘tweeze’ the pulses, in what’s called ‘temporal tweezing of light’. In the latter, ‘tweezers’ made of laser light themselves can change the temporal separation between the pulses of light. Published in 2015, it was the first time modification of the spacing between two light pulses travelling in a fibre loop has been achieved, enabling on-the-fly reconfigurability of optical data streams without requiring power-hungry, electronic conversion.

Associate Professor Coen has also linked understanding of temporal cavity solitons to the generation of optical frequency combs in so-called optical microresonators. Frequency combs, heralded through the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, are fundamental new tools for high-precision scientific measurement. Research on temporal cavity solitons in microscopic platforms therefore holds great potential for revolutionary applications in fields ranging from telecommunications to chip-scale ultra-accurate clocks and molecular spectroscopic sensors. 


Hutton Medal

Photograph of Wendy Nelson.
Wendy Nelson

Earth, plant and animal sciences award for outstanding work by a researcher in New Zealand, awarded annually, in rotation among the disciplines.

Awarded to:

Professor Wendy Nelson has dedicated her career to understanding New Zealand’s flora that lives in the sea. She has been awarded the Hutton Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for significantly expanding the knowledge of New Zealand’s seaweeds, also known as marine macroalgae.

In her career, spanning 35 years, she has discovered and documented the diversity of New Zealand flora throughout the region from Te Rangitahua/Kermadec Islands to the Subantarctic Islands and conducted research on taxonomy, evolution, algal ecology, alien seaweeds, seaweed aquaculture and commercial harvesting.

Professor Nelson’s work has demonstrated the importance of New Zealand in understanding the evolutionary relationships of macroalgae in the world’s oceans and she is highly respected internationally.

Her work on the ancient Bangiales lineage, a type of red algae that includes Japanese nori seaweed, has resulted in New Zealand being recognised as a centre of diversity and requiring a reinterpretation of evolutionary relationships between world species, identification of species that occur only in New Zealand waters and discovery that some of the species reproduce in new ways.

Over the past decade her research has focussed on the ecological importance of coralline algae, a calcified group of red algae, their vulnerability to climate change and the need for better understanding of their taxonomy, diversity and ecology.


Mason Durie Medal

Viviane Robinson
Viviane Robinson

Award for advances in the frontiers of social science, awarded annually.

Awarded to:

Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson has been awarded the Mason Durie Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for her research and development programme on educational leadership.

Professor Robinson identified the impacts of different types of leadership on student outcomes and subsequently focused on researching and developing the capabilities that leaders need to engage in those types of leadership that make the biggest difference for students.

Her research has helped to shift the field from a focus on school management to a stronger additional focus on how to lead the improvement of teaching and learning. Effective educational leadership, she argues, is student-centred in that priority is given in every decision to its implications for student learning and well-being.

She has designed and evaluated interventions to increase school leader’s skills for improving teaching and learning and her trademarked leadership development resources are being used, under licence, in New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavia.

Dame Joan Metge Medal

Photo of Stuart McNaughton
Stuart McNaughton

Social sciences award for excellence and building relationships in the social science research community, awarded every two years.

Awarded to:

Professor Stuart McNaughton has been awarded the Dame Joan Metge Medal for his contributions to the building of research capacity in educational sciences, advancing literacy and language development, and for his evidence-based impact on educational policy both nationally and internationally.

Professor McNaughton has pioneered techniques that allow schools to improve teaching outcomes by monitoring their own results, and adjusting teaching approaches accordingly, particularly in literacy and language development.

Professor McNaughton’s research has led to successful intervention programmes and new assessment tools in both English language and Māori language instruction in New Zealand, as well as in English language instruction in other countries.

His current work focuses on digitally-based teaching across low decile school clusters, and investigating how to improve the teaching of early literacy in the Cook Islands, Tonga and the Solomon Islands.

Professor McNaughton is the Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at the University of Auckland, which he co-founded with Professor Graham Hingangaroa Smith in 1998.

Working with both practicing teachers and educational scientists, the centre has pioneered school change interventions in New Zealand, and new scientific approaches to redesigning schools to be more effective for students from diverse communities.

Jones Medal

Photo of Alastair Scott
Alastair Scott

Mathematical sciences award for lifetime achievement, awarded every two years.

Awarded to

Professor Alastair Scott was awarded the Jones Medal for a career in statistics spanning over 50 years where he contributed through path-breaking research in survey sampling and biostatistics, and through service to the wider statistical profession in academia, government, and society.

His methods are applied in a wide range of application areas and he has also contributed substantially to research in public health.

His work has particular relevance to obtaining reliable data from sampling, developing effective and simple methods that can take account of survey design features and deal with missing data.

His 1981 paper on categorical survey data was recognised as one of the 19 landmark papers in survey sampling by the International Association of Survey Statisticians in their 2001 Centenary volume. These methods, developed with Professor Rao, called Rao-Scott adjustments are widely used and incorporated in several software packages for survey data analysis.

In addition to developing a large body of novel and important statistical methodologies, he has been an advisor to official agencies nationally and internationally, including Statistics NZ, The Australian Bureau of Statistics and Statistics Canada. He served as Principal Investigator on the New Zealand Quality of Health Case Study and the National Primary Medical Care Survey.

Health Research Council of New Zealand Medals

Beaven Medal

Photo of Jane Harding
Jane Harding

For excellence in translational health research.

Awarded to:

The HRC Beaven Medal, named after the late Professor Sir Don Beaven, recognises Distinguished Professor Jane Harding’s significant contribution to translational research in the field of neonatology.

Professor Harding and her team’s Sugar Babies Study involving 400 babies born at Waikato Hospital at risk of low blood sugar was published in the Lancet in 2013. It was the first study to show that dextrose gel massaged into the inside of a baby’s cheek is more effective than feeding alone for treating low blood sugar. A follow up study of these babies at two years of age confirmed the treatment was safe in the longer term.

Seventy-five per cent of birthing units in New Zealand are now using this oral dextrose gel treatment, and they are reporting reductions in the number of babies admitted to neonatal intensive care units for low blood sugar. Similar reports are appearing around the world, including in the UK, Australia, and the US. Research findings throughout Professor Harding’s career have significantly informed and changed health policy and practice in New Zealand and globally.