Rutherford support for promising scientists

Investigations into brain cancer prevention and the origins of our solar system have seen two scientists from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland awarded prestigious fellowships.

Akshata Anchan, head and shoulders, at a black-sand beach.
Dr Akshata Anchan hopes her work will help prevent brain cancer.

Investigations into prevention of brain cancer and the origins of our solar system have seen two scientists from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland awarded prestigious fellowships.

The Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Rutherford Foundation fellowships are awarded annually to a select group of postdoctoral researchers, with two of five fellowships going to Waipapa Taumata Rau researchers this year. The fellowships provide a total of $400,000 over two years to support the  recipients’ research.

Preventing brain cancers

Dr Akshata Anchan in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences has been awarded a fellowship for research titled ‘Melanoma suspension particles and brain-metastatic extracellular vesicles in disruption of brain endothelial barrier integrity’.

Brain cancers are the most aggressive type of cancer, with devastating prognoses. Though brain cancers can originate within the brain, most are created by cancer cells travelling to the brain from other body parts. This process is called cancer brain metastasis, forming 'secondary' brain tumours.

Brain metastasis likely occurs primarily through the blood vessels.

Transitioning across blood vessels to the brain requires cancer cells to overcome the blood-brain barrier, a biological ‘checkpoint’ defending the brain  against toxins within blood.

In this Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dr Anchan aims to understand how brain metastasis occurs. She will investigate how cancer  tells infiltrate the blood-brain barrier using patient-derived metastatic cancer cells, and how by-products of cancer cells alter metastasis rates.

This research programme may suggest interventions that can prevent brain cancers from becoming established in the first place, protecting patients in  Aotearoa and the wider world. 

Dr Preeti Cowan, head and shoulders against a bush.
Dr Preeti Cowan will build and train machine-learning ‘neural network’ models that can better detect faint trans-Neptunian objects in large imaging datasets.

Discovering ‘small worlds’

Dr Preeti Cowan in the Faculty of Science has been awarded a fellowship for research titled ‘Discovering distant worlds in our solar system with deep learning’.

Our stellar backyard is teeming with ‘small worlds’, remnants from the solar system’s formation 4.6 billion years ago. Among the most distant of these small worlds are the trans-Neptunian objects that orbit the sun past Neptune.

These icy bodies are small and hard to detect but can offer key insights into how planetary systems form. 

Large-scale astronomical surveys use digital cameras on major telescopes to scan the night sky for trans-Neptunian objects, producing several terabytes of data. However, processing this data to detect trans-Neptunian objects is a  significant logistical challenge – one that Dr Cowan plans to solve.

In this Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dr Cowan will build and train machine-learning ‘neural network’ models that can better detect  faint trans-Neptunian objects in large imaging datasets, including a survey with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Neural networks teach computers to process data in a way inspired by the human brain, with the potential for accuracy and performance to be improved through training. These new models will significantly lower the time and effort required to detect trans-Neptunian objects, ultimately improving our  ynderstanding of these important small worlds.

Scholarships’ final year

From 2024, MBIE will support future leaders in research, science and innovation through the three Aotearoa New Zealand Tāwhia te Mana Research Fellowships schemes, which will replace the Rutherford Discovery, Rutherford Foundation and James Cook Research Fellowships.

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