Prestigious fellowships for renewable energy, unsolved mathematical questions

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington researchers using materials science to tackle climate change and working to solve complex mathematical challenges have been awarded prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowships.

Dr Davis and Dr Lupini
Dr Nathaniel Davis and Dr Martino Lupini

Dr Nathaniel Davis from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and Dr Martino Lupini from the School of Mathematics and Statistics are among 10 early to mid-career researchers around the country to receive fellowships.

Dr Davis has an established track record of international research success, having received several research grants to study and work at the University of Cambridge, as well as a range of funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Marsden Fund, and the National Science Challenges to support his research.

“Receiving this Fellowship makes me feel absolutely on top of the world. This represents a culmination of my research career and everything I have worked so hard to achieve, and places me in the best position for my future career. I’m very excited for all the amazing science the fellowship will allow me to do,” Dr Davis says.

Dr Davis received his Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for his ongoing work on renewable energy technology. He will use the funding to develop new technology, known as photoactive antenna complexes, for harnessing light energy.

This technology is not currently widely used, as it is chemically complicated to produce, but Dr Davis will use his expertise and the support of the Fellowship to work on this technology. He aims to fabricate technology that processes light in a similar way to plants photosynthesising and allows for more efficient use of the sun’s energy. Once developed, this technology will have a range of applications, including renewable energy.

“The world stands on a tipping point due to climate change,” Dr Davis says. “The fellowship gives me the freedom to research new materials and create new technologies and systems that will benefit New Zealand directly and aid in the transition to a more renewable energy base.”

Dr Lupini is planning to use elements of mathematical logic to develop algebraic topology which will include the complex, repeating and seemingly never-ending patterns of fractals. These shapes are often seen in the natural world in the form of branching rivers or spiralled chambers inside seashells.

Traditional algebraic topology, which defines the shape of “smooth” curves and surfaces, has struggled to cope with fractals, which are highly sensitive to the initial conditions that formed them. Such systems are called chaotic.

Dr Lupini wants to spark new collaborations between world-leading New Zealand researchers studying topology, operator algebras, and mathematical logic. He says the newly developed methods to compare and categorise these objects could be used to study systems in quantum physics.

“It is hoped this new multidisciplinary, multi-university research cluster will be able to tackle other unsolved mathematical questions, strengthen New Zealand’s research capacity, and attract talent from around the world.”

Dr Lupini finished his PhD at York University in Canada in 2015, and then spent three years at the California Institute of Technology, where he was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The fellowships—awarded by the Royal Society Te Apārangi—are designed to attract and retain early- to mid-career researchers in New Zealand and help them accelerate their research careers. Each Fellow receives $800,000 over five years.

Chair of the selection panel, Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith FRSNZ, said the high calibre of applicants made it extremely difficult to select 10 new research fellows out of more than 102 who applied.

“In my opinion, after watching the outcome of 10 years’ worth of awards, the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships provide some of the best bang for your buck when it comes to research funding. They provide opportunities for both attracting and retaining the research leaders of the future and giving them the time necessary to really develop not just a research project, but a long-term programme,” she says.