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Source: University of Otago

Wednesday 9 September 2020 9:55am
Joint winners: Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson, School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences (left), and Dr Louise Bicknell, Department of Pathology. Photo: Sharron Bennett
Two outstanding New Zealand researchers have been named joint winners of the 2020 University of Otago Rowheath Trust Award and Carl Smith Medal.
They are Dunedin geneticist and Rutherford Discovery Fellow Dr Louise Bicknell, and Māori Physical Education and Health kairangahau (researcher) Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson.
The award is one of the University’s highest research honours and is given to recognise outstanding research performance of early career staff.
Dr Bicknell’s research focuses on understanding how changes in a person’s DNA can impact development and lifetime health. Her particular focus is on single gene disorders of body and brain growth.
Associate Professor Jackson studies how connections of wai (water), moana (ocean), and mātauranga (Māori knowledge) are beneficial for mauri ora (flourishing health), and she strives to create opportunities for Māori research excellence that, most significantly of all, serves Māori communities.
Born and raised in the Hawke’s Bay, Dr Bicknell says her thirst for questioning, learning and science came early. She came to Otago to do medicine, but halfway through Health Science First Year realised it wasn’t for her.
“I’d got hooked by the science. I just found it all really interesting, that understanding of how things worked. I enjoyed the anatomy side of it, learning about our bones and how our brain develops, and I loved the genetics, connecting our DNA with the biology.”
After completing her PhD at Otago in 2007 she moved to the University of Edinburgh for her post-doctoral work, where she worked alongside Professor Andrew Jackson who was studying human genes acting in growth and inflammation. It is a focus she has continued with since her return to Otago in 2015.
Changes in genetic “instructions” determine many conditions resulting in size differences among humans, she says. Some of those conditions are very rare and the quest for knowledge about them is vital.
“One, for the families. They get an answer. Some of these conditions are more rare than one in a million, so just getting a genetic answer for the family is actually very powerful.
“The second reason is the biology, and the insight these spelling mistakes give into what instructions help control our bodies and brains to grow. I am in awe of the power these spelling mistakes have – that a tiny alteration can have such dramatic consequences to development. We can harness this power to really help understand the biology of growth.”
Associate Professor Jackson grew up in rural Southland, and with a Māori and non-Māori parent, says she learnt lots of things about work ethic, community and service but also the negative aspects that came with being Māori at that time.
She started as a lecturer in the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences in 2011, and co-founded kaupapa of Te Koronga, which she still co-leads.
She co-leads two other research programmes: Te Tiaki Mahinga Kai (customary fisheries) and Tangaroa Ara Rau (Māori Water Safety), the later involving the development of a free Māori water safety programme that strengthens whānau connection to the water.
Her most recent research collaboration Coastal People: Southern Skies brings together education, government, and community partners across Aotearoa, and focuses on the changes resulting from ocean warming and acidification, sea-level rise, and climate and how these issues affect our identities, histories and wellbeing as coastal people.
“Climate change is the biggest issue we are facing so we need holistic thinkers who can address such questions.”
Last year Associate Professor Jackson’s research was recognised with the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award for research forging new knowledge at the interface of mātauranga Māori and physical sciences.
She has also recently received a national Tertiary Teaching Excellence award in the Kaupapa Māori category from Ako Aotearoa for her sustained excellence in teaching, and believes the key to this success is understanding her own ‘why’.
“I’m hugely passionate about my research which is what I teach on, so I think this enthusiasm is maybe part of the success. But I love seeing students develop their own passion and enthusiasm and then become engaged to go out into the world and do something about it in a practical way too.
“It’s important I provide leadership as well as capability building for Māori research and researchers by making sure we walk our talk and deliver.”
In researching about the late Sir Carl Smith and his family’s establishment of the Rowheath Trust, Associate Professor Jackson learnt that he spent a significant amount of time in the south, was involved in various community activities and had strong connections to the University of Otago.
“Winning this award is more significant because of the importance in my own career on service and community through research excellence, which I hope encapsulates some of the spirit of the intent of the award.”
Dr Bicknell says she uttered “a wee gasp” when she learned of her win.
“It’s certainly humbling. Then I also thought about my team in the lab, who do so much work. Research is very much a team effort and they should be equally chuffed their efforts are regarded so highly.”
The support of her family, particularly her parents and her “endlessly supportive” husband, has been vital, she says.
University of Otago Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise Professor Richard Blaikie described Associate Professor Jackson and Dr Bicknell as “exceptional examples of the wealth of talent and leadership Otago has with its early career researchers”.
“They are both award winning academics with significant bodies of work behind them, and exciting futures ahead.
“Their families, their teams and those who have contributed to this success can be very proud of them, they are both outstanding winners of this prestigious award.”
To celebrate their awards Associate Professor Jackson and Dr Bicknell will both present a Carl Smith Medal Lecture. Times, dates and venues are still to be confirmed.
For more information, contact:
Dr Louise BicknellRutherford Discovery FellowSenior Research FellowDepartment of Pathology (Dunedin)University of OtagoTel +64 3 479 7172Email louise.bicknell@otago.ac.nz
Associate Professor Anne-Marie JacksonSchool of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise ScienceUniversity of OtagoEmail anne-marie.jackson@otago.ac.nz
Craig BorleyCommunications Adviser (Division of Health Sciences)Mob +64 21 279 4144Email craig.borley@otago.ac.nz

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