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From maths to Matariki: 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes


The 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes have been awarded to some of Aotearoa New Zealand's most exceptional researchers, students, communicators and teachers.

The awardees include a team of Antarctic melt and sea level rise researchers, a student who designed a robotic wheelie bin transporter for people with physical impairments, a Tūhoe astronomer and storyteller, a physicist who is creating innovative new laser technologies, and an inspirational kaiako in Christchurch who is the first maths teacher to win the teacher prize.

The Prizes recognise the impact of science on New Zealanders’ lives, celebrate the achievements of current scientists and encourage scientists of the future.

The winners were announced in a digital livestream event today.

2019 Prime Minister's Science Prize

The top honour of winning the Prime Minister's $500,000 Science Prize - the premier award for science that is transformational in its impact - went to the Melting Ice and Rising Seas team. This is a group of more than 20 geologists, glaciologists, climate and social scientists from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, GNS Science and NIWA, led by the university’s Antarctic Research Centre Te Puna Pātiotio.

These scientists are behind the breakthrough discovery that Antarctica’s rapidly melting ice sheets could have a significant impact on global sea level rise over the next 80 years.

They found that Antarctic melt caused by climate change could contribute to global sea level rise of 1.4 metres by the year 2100, rather than the one metre predicted in 2013 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). When the effect of land subsidence is taken into account, the rise could be as much as two metres for some places in Aotearoa New Zealand.

They also found that Antarctica’s ice sheet has a stability threshold of 2°C of global warming, and that there is still a pathway to mitigate the impact of sea level rise around the world.

Team leader Professor Tim Naish from Victoria University of Wellington says the effects of climate change are incredibly urgent.

"With the new evidence, scientists are moving their focus to communicating with decision makers on how to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," he says.

Six leaders from the winning team at Victoria University.

Some leaders from the winning team (left to right): Associate Professor Nancy Bertler, Emeritus Professor Peter Barrett, Professor Tim Naish, Associate Professor Richard Levy, Emeritus Professor Lionel Carter, Associate Professor Rob McKay.


The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize

Christchurch teacher Dr Michelle Dalrymple is the first maths teacher to win the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize.

Dr Dalrymple, Mathematics and Statistics Faculty Head at Cashmere High School, says every student deserves a champion and is devoted to sharing her research and knowledge with other teachers around the country.  She uses engaging and novel ways to connect her students and other teachers into mathematics and statistics, and says a fundamental part of her teaching is incorporating whanaungatanga, or teaching through relationships.

Her nominator says her teaching stands out because it is strongly based on cutting-edge mathematics and statistics education research, while providing creative and fun strategies that are inspiring for her students.

Dr Michelle Dalrymple


The Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize

Professor Rangi Matamua, a Tūhoe astronomer who’s raised awareness about the significance of Matariki, is the Prime Minister’s Science Communications Prize winner for 2019.

Professor Matamua didn’t realise the significance of the manuscript crafted by his ancestor when first given it, but came to fall in love with Māori astronomy and educating thousands of New Zealanders about Matariki. Through his research, he has discovered a narrative of the Matariki constellation comprising of nine stars.

Professor Matamua has drawn a large following on social media with podcasts and videos in English and te reo Māori. His web series reached 1 million views in four months and more than 20,000 people follow his Living by the Stars Facebook posts.

In 2019 Professor Matamua presented his work to more than 10,000 people in a roadshow at 21 events in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.   

Professor Rangi Matamua in front of a Māori carving on a wharenui


The Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize

This prize was won by world-leading University of Auckland physicist Dr Miro Erkintalo, who has made pioneering contributions towards the development of new laser technologies.

Dr Erkintalo researches and develops new kinds of laser devices that could enable many new and improved applications, including faster and cheaper internet. He has introduced a theoretical model for the description of a new technology that can convert a single laser beam into hundreds or thousands of beams of different colours, known as a microresonator frequency comb.

Nominator Professor Roberto Morandotti, of Montreal’s Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, says “micro-combs” are projected to have a big role in many future technologies and “therefore quite likely to have wide societal impact as well.”

Miro Erkintalo sitting amongst many computers and wires


The Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize

A robot that’s designed for elderly and people with disabilities to take wheelie bins to and from the kerb, has won 17-year-old Christchurch school student Thomas James the Prime Minister’s 2019 Future Scientist Prize.

A year 13 student at Burnside High School, Thomas designed “Wheelie Drive” after noticing his elderly neighbour and grandparents struggled to use their wheelie bins. For a student who doesn’t study technology or design, Thomas showed great tenacity in researching and problem solving. He used lego models for his first prototype before learning about micro-processors, programming, autonomous navigation and sourcing the many intricate components he needed to build a full-size self-navigating robot.

Thomas's nominator says he is a very talented engineer who’s developed and produced a system that adult technologists would struggle to design and make.

Thomas James crouching next to his prototype invention.

Read more about the winners on the Prime Minister's Science Prizes website


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