Covid-19 researchers have taken home the big award for “contributing to New Zealand’s internationally coveted status” as a coronavirus-free country at the 2020 Prime Ministers Science Prizes.
The five awards, which were announced at an event in Wellington on Tuesday, recognised the achievements of scientists and the impact of science on New Zealanders’ lives.
The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize, the premier award, went to Complex System, a research centre which was set up to apply complex science to “critical issues of our time”.
In 2020, the centre was primarily focused on conducting research and providing data to the Government around its response to Covid-19.
Centre director Professor Shaun Hendy said it had been a pleasure to work with the team on such an “unrepeatable experience”.
“[Thank you for] listening to us, for trusting us – it’s been incredible – and if we hadn’t had that trust, it would have all been for nothing.”
The World Health Organisation’s Diane Abad-Vergara said the work done by Te Pūnaha Matatini on the Covid-19 response has had significant health and social impacts for New Zealand.
It is part of the reason why New Zealand is one of the few countries to eliminate the virus, she said.
Science Communication Prize Winner
Professor Michael Baker has racked up more than 2000 interviews since last January, contributing to more than 30 per cent of the total science output by science commentators.
In what he describes as the most intense period of his working life, Baker developed a concept for Covid-19 elimination, concluded it was the optimal strategy, and then worked to promote these ideas to the New Zealand public.
“With this pandemic I felt absolutely compelled to communicate because at some points I thought New Zealand was heading off a cliff… so that’s one of the things that drove me,” he said.
While communication is a key part of the response, he said a “courageous” Government that was prepared to act decisively was also very important.
Baker said he was hugely appreciative of his whānau who were supportive of him devoting so much time to his Covid-19 work over the last 15 months.
Michael was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit at the start of the year for his services to public health science and was also recently announced as Wellingtonian of the Year.
Emerging Scientist Prize Winner
For research on how marine organisms will fare under climate change, Rutherford Discovery Fellow at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington Dr Christopher Cornwall was awarded the Emerging Scientist Prize.
Cornwall’s research found that a warmer and more acidic ocean would affect the ability for calcifying marine organisms to grow and make their skeletons.
He and is team have modelled the impact of varying carbon dioxide levels on 233 reefs, and warn they will be “badly impact” by both warming and ocean acidification.
“Our ability to keep CO2 emissions down is really the best way we can protect these reefs for the future,” he said.
After the team started the research, he realised they might be the first people to uncover that knowledge, he said, inspiring him to keep going.
“It was like putting the pieces of a giant puzzle together.”
Science Teacher Prize Winner
As the first technology teacher to win the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize, Sarah Washbrooke puts her motivation down to seeing her students overcome challenges.
The prize panel said the Remarkables Primary School teacher’s hands-on approach engages the students in such a way they often remain unaware of the depth and range of learning they are doing.
“My passion stems from seeing the engagement of my students. They really love technology, they love the creativity and the problem-solving, they love making things for people,” Washbrooke said.
Seeing their ‘eureka’ moments when they finish a challenge is what fuels their learning, she said.
Future Scientist Prize Winner
Former Bethlehem College student James Zingel took home the Future Scientist Prize for a research project on breast cancer which pitted a classical computer against a quantum computer.
Zingel spent hundreds of hours getting a general understanding of quantum physics theory, then describing it in maths before finally coding it in a language that generates coherent results.
His findings showed that currently, the classical computer beats out the quantum one, but Zingel doesn’t think that will be the way for much longer.
“Ideally I want to get in involved in quantum physics. I’d love to become a quantum physicist and discover some new things about quantum physics or quantum computing, but we will see what happens at university.”
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