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Source: University of Canterbury

11 November 2020

Six University of Canterbury (UC) researchers have been awarded a total of $3.85 million in 2020 Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Funding towards five ground-breaking research projects.

From developing sustainable lead-free materials, exploring computer chips with brain-like function and understanding the relationship of Māori settlers and ecosystems, to learning more about children’s speech development, every project looks forward to the betterment of society and a more sustainable future. The work spans the fields of Social Science, Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Statistics.

UC Deputy Vice-Chancellor Ian Wright says the successful Marsden projects have the potential to unlock potentially groundbreaking discoveries that could change the way we live our lives.

“This funding validates and recognises the leading-edge research that’s happening at UC and some of the fertile collaborations that are under way with international researchers. These projects are all about pushing boundaries of our knowledge in important fields such as biodiversity, information processing, sustainability and even the history of settlement in Aotearoa.”

He says it’s exciting to see world-first research into children’s speech that brings together two UC institutes, the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour and Child Well-being Research Institute.

“Language is absolutely fundamental to being human – it links to our identity, health, wellbeing, education, and economic advancement, and it will be interesting to see the part children play in the ongoing evolution of language in our communities.”

The successful UC research projects are:

Understanding the onset of vernacular reorganisation – Dr Lynn Clark, New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, College of Arts

Two University of Canterbury research institutes, the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour and Child Well-being Research Institute, will conduct this research, the first of its kind, to track the changes in children’s speech as they enter formal schooling. The study will explore the assumption that children’s speech departs from the adult model at age 5, and accelerates into a period of reorganisation, shaped by their peers. It will also shed light on the speed and mechanism through which these changes take place. Before the age of 5, a child’s accent resembles their caregiver’s. From around age 5, they begin to resemble the accent of their peer group. It is widely believed that at this time, children also begin to accelerate the momentum of ongoing language changes taking place in their community.

Diversity indices and extinction cascades: New mathematical techniques to capture the disappearing ‘Tree of Life’ – Distinguished Professor Mike Steel and Professor Charles Semple, Mathematics and Statistics, College of Engineering

The project will develop and apply new mathematical techniques and models to investigate the relationships between different measures of biodiversity and explore the extent to which extinction of species is linked to the loss of feature diversity. Life on earth has been shaped by five mass extinction events over the last 500 million years. Unfortunately, human impacts on the natural world are precipitating a sixth. The resulting widespread loss of species also means the loss of the unique features and the genetic diversity they carry. The project will provide a mathematical framework for addressing some fundamental questions in biodiversity theory and conservation.

Are interface transitions the key to controlling ferroelectric aging and fatigue? – Associate Professor Catherine Bishop, Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering

This world-first research will inform the design of next-generation perovskite solar cells, crucial for our sustainable, collective future.

Two lead-free materials will be studied in detail to explain the underlying physics controlling how they degrade. The project aims to identify the microstructural, processing and loading conditions that minimise ferroelectric aging and fatigue. The outcome will allow targeted development of novel lead-free materials, reducing toxic environmental waste.

Ferroelectric devices (actuators, sensors and capacitors) enable our way of life in energy systems, communications, computing and manufacturing. Many of these ceramics contain toxic lead, and there has been a long search for their replacement. A key consideration of this is electromechanical degradation which is widely observed, but not well-understood.

Māori-ecosystem interactions and adaptations on the offshore islands of Aotearoa/New Zealand: agricultural niche construction during the initial settlement of southern Polynesia  – Dr Matiu Prebble, Earth and Environment, College of Science

The research project will investigate the complex interplay between Māori settlers and the ecosystems of small sub-tropical to sub-Antarctic Aotearoa offshore islands investigating the history of mahinga kai (traditional foods, other natural resources, and places where these are obtained).

To understand the complexity of past mahinga kai practices, researchers will use niche construction (NC) theory, processes where people modify their own and the niches of other organisms, altering selective environments. The research will investigate six small offshore islands. Materials collected from each study island will be analysed to investigate the complex ecological relationships of Māori settlers.

Correlations and randomness: Brain-like computation using nanoparticle networks – Professor Simon Brown, Physical and Chemical Sciences, College of Science

Brain-like (or “neuromorphic”) computing is a new approach to information processing that is predicted to allow computers to do tasks that are currently impossible with traditional technologies, using far less energy.

Having developed the chips, the project will test long-standing predictions that the characteristics of the chips allow for optimum information processing, and dramatic improvements in both computational efficiency and energy consumption over standard computers.

This research will uncover a new way forward for the emerging field of neuromorphic computing, and potentially shed light on some of the mysteries of information processing in the brain.