Biology wins big in Marsden Fund grants

Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences is a big winner in the latest round of Marsden Fund grants.

Staff in the School have received five of the 13 grants awarded to Victoria this year, confirming the School’s standing as a world-class centre for biological science research and the research leader in New Zealand in this field.

This builds on endorsement of Victoria’s strength in the field earlier this week, when postdoctoral academic Dr Shaun Wilkinson, also from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, received a Rutherford Foundation Trust Award for his research on the effects of climate change on coral reefs. The award provides more than $150,000 in funding over the next two years.

Victoria’s Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath says both are outstanding results in an area where Victoria has a sustained track record of success.

Overall, Victoria received Marsden funding of more than $8 million, which goes towards leading-edge projects in the Faculty of Science (five grants to the School of Biological Sciences, one to the Antarctic Research Centre and one to the University’s world-leading Ferrier Research Institute), the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (four grants) and the Faculty of Engineering (2 grants).

Marsden funding has also been awarded to a researcher from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at Victoria’s Kelburn campus and is a key partner of the University.

Victoria received 10 Standard grants from the Marsden fund and three Fast-Start grants, which help to support researchers in the early stages of their career.

Professor McGrath says the University is particularly proud of recipients who have received multiple Marsden funding over the years, notably Professor Kevin Gould who receives his fifth Marsden grant and Associate Professor Jeff Shima and Professor Mengjie Zhang who have each been awarded their fourth Marsden grant.

“Marsden funding recognises excellence in leading-edge research. To receive multiple Marsden Fund grants is an outstanding achievement.”

Associate Professor Shima’s research investigates the role parental investment, the timing of birth and ongoing development play in an organism’s reproductive fitness. His new research focuses on coral reef fish, and explores the ecological and evolutionary drivers of
parent and offspring decision-making, to better-understand the life-history strategies which shape the diversity of life on earth.

Professor Zhang is researching the challenging problem of Flexible Job Shop Scheduling. In this case, using an algorithm-based methodology known as genetic programming to automatically evolve working rules so as to allocate jobs to machines and determine the order of the allocated jobs to each machine for optimising manufacturing. His focus is on dynamic scenarios where the requirements of particular jobs are not known in advance, which more readily reflects real-world systems.

“These grants are a critical part of our diverse research portfolio,” says Professor McGrath. “Given the component of international assessment in the Marsden process, our success gives us assurance that our research is of the highest calibre.”

Victoria has received $32 million from Marsden Grants in the last three years, making it the third highest recipient of grants and funding in New Zealand during that period.

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government.

Victoria University recipients of Marsden Grants (with funds to be distributed over three years) are:

Standard grants

  • Professor John Pratt (Social and Cultural Studies): Intolerable Risks. The search for security in an age of anxiety, $580,000
  • Professor Miriam Meyerhoff (Linguistics and Applied Language Studies): Rethinking language change in a super-diverse city, $580,000
  • Professor Kevin Gould (Biological Sciences): Salinity Tolerance and Betalain Pigments: Unlocking how an extraordinary plant alkaloid combats salt stress, $810,000
  • Associate Professor Jeff Shima (Biological Sciences): Born at the right time?  Disentangling the effects of birthdate and developmental trajectories on fitness, population dynamics, and the evolution of life-history strategies, $840,000
  • Associate Professor David Ackerley (Biological Sciences): Better, Faster, Stronger: Bionic enzymes for artificial substrates, $825,000
  • Professor Mengjie Zhang (Engineering and Computer Science): Genetic Programming for Dynamic Flexible Job Shop Scheduling, $550,000
  • Associate Professor Anna Green (Stout Research Centre): The Missing Link: Pakeha intergenerational family memory, $520,000
  • Dr Peter Tyler (Ferrier Research Institute): Synthetic Sulfated Saccharides in Cell Signalling, $790,000
  • Associate Professor James Bell (Biological Sciences): Soaking it Up: Unlocking mechanisms of sponge acclimation in a changing world, $840,000
  • Associate Professor Nancy Bertler (Antarctic Research Centre):  Predicting a Sea Change: Antarctic ice-ocean interactions in a warming world, $810,000

Fast-Start grants

  • Dr Sasha Calhoun (Linguistics and Applied Language Studies): Searching for a Shared World: The integration of prosody and word ordering in cross-linguistic speech perception, $300,000
  • Dr Julie Deslippe (Biological Sciences):  First come, best served? The role of generalist and specialist species in the assembly, diversity and productivity of ecosystems, $300,000
  • Dr Hui Ma (Engineering and Computer Science): Distributed Data-Intensive Service Composition, $300,000

More information on Marsden Fund recipients can be found on the Royal Society's website.