Innovative Te Herenga Waka researchers receive Rutherford Discovery Fellowships

Four of 11 prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowships awarded this year by Royal Society Te Apārangi have gone to researchers from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.
Dr Calum Chamberlain, Associate Professor Jessica Lai, Dr Samuel Mehr, and Dr Michael Price will undertake projects ranging from recognising when earthquakes start and reimagining patent systems to remove existing barriers, to understanding how human minds perceive music, and developing environmentally-friendly solar cells to create a sustainable source of energy.

Professor Margaret Hyland, the University’s Vice-Provost (Research), says, “At Te Herenga Waka, we place strong emphasis on research that can help address real-world issues and look to design and develop innovative solutions for the future. As New Zealand’s number one university for research intensity, our research vigour, distinctiveness, and quality are recognised internationally.

“We’re extremely pleased to have these early career researchers and their work supported and recognised for the potential impact they will have.”

An earth scientist with a strong research focus on earthquake physics, Dr Calum Chamberlain’s research will focus on understanding key signals that precede an earthquake. Observations from previous studies have led to two main views of earthquake initiation—pre-slip, which is driven by mostly aseismic and often undetectable movements, and cascade, where successive earthquakes trigger others in a random fashion. To understand the roles of pre-slip and cascade processes in earthquake initiation, Dr Chamberlain will examine and model data from slow slip earthquakes, foreshocks, and mainshock ruptures from across Aotearoa. He will use state-of-the-art computational methods and modern machine learning to construct a detailed understanding of earthquake interactions and faulting processes.

Associate Professor Jessica Lai’s research will delve into the question of what defines a patentable invention and who benefits from it. While popular opinion presents patents as drivers of innovation that enrich us all, evidence suggests that the patent system is far from neutral, with Western males of privilege making preferential gains. Associate Professor Lai’s research will explore how the patent system reinforces existing power structures, particularly in terms of race and gender, and will analyse three case-studies of patents related to mānuka products, female contraceptives, and COVID-19 vaccines. Aiming for a knowledge governance system that is fair for all peoples of Aotearoa, the research will encourage discussion of alternatives to the current patent system.

With a keen interest in understanding how humans make sense of music and how this process has evolved over time, Dr Samuel Mehr’s research will explore why people are musical. An important part of the human experience, music appears across societies with remarkable diversity and appears to be ingrained in our psychology. The study will involve recruiting numerous volunteers through an online platform, including infants and those with rare music perception, to study the evolution of human music perception abilities. The research will unite ideas from the evolutionary and behavioural sciences to address the psychological and cultural foundations of music.

With current concerns around global warming driving the search for sustainable energy sources, Dr Michael Price will build on organic solar cells as a viable option by enhancing their energy efficiency. Challenges in controlling the blending process, through which organic solar cells are generated, have prevented these from emerging as a suitable, environmental-friendly option. Recently, Dr Price and his collaborators discovered how the organic compound Y6 can create organic solar cells without traditional blending techniques. Dr Price will, under the Fellowship, investigate the fundamental physics of Y6 and related compounds and explore the potential of Y6 and related compounds to power organic light-emitting devices.

Aimed at supporting early-to-mid career researchers to build and consolidate their research careers in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship scheme receives funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and awards $800,000 over five years to each research fellow.


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