School of Chemical and Physical Sciences

2011 News

Prof Joe Schwarcz guest speaker at Chemistry Teachers' Day

24 November 2011

Chemistry Teachers' Day 2011 featured guest speaker, Professor Joe Schwarcz, Director of the Office for Science & Society at McGill University in Canada. His lecture was preceded by the launch of the knitted Periodic Table, commissioned by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC), The School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and the Royal Society of New Zealand, to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry, 2011.

Speakers at Chemistry Teachers Day

Suzanne Boniface, John Spencer, Sarah Wilcox and Joe Schwarcz in front of the knitted Periodic Table.

Prof Schwarcz is well-known for his entertaining talks and books that seek to demystify science and encourage robust debate about the place of chemicals in our everyday lives.

"Unfortunately negative comments about chemistry are not unusual these days as the lay press often focuses on 'toxic chemicals' in our air, water, food and even in our blood. The truth is that chemicals are neither safe nor dangerous. There are safe ways to use chemicals and dangerous ways to use chemicals", he says.

"The International Year of Chemistry is an especially appropriate time to try to build a dike of scientific reality to stem the rising tide of chemophobia."

Prof Schwarcz is the author of many best-selling books, and regularly speaks on radio and TV. He has received numerous awards for teaching chemistry and for interpreting science for the public. He was brought to New Zealand by the NZIC.

The Chemistry Teachers' Day was organised by Dr Suzanne Boniface and Helen Rowley, and also featured talks by Dr Joanne Harvey, Prof John Spencer and Muhammed Azeem.

On Tuesday this week, John Hannah ran a very successful Physics Teachers' Picnic.

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From Coronation Street to a Consummate Chemist, by Brian Halton

10 November 2011

Emeritus Professor Brian Halton recently published his chemical autobiography, which offers a fascinating insight into chemistry at Victoria University from 1968, when Brian joined the staff, until today. The reference to Coronation Street is a nod to his northern English heritage.

Brian eloquently describes his motivation to write the book in his own words.

"Many biographies and autobiographies of famous chemists have been published over the years, perhaps none better known than those from the American Chemical Society. So, one may ask, Why one from a not so famous (infamous?) chemist?

"The reason is simple enough. On his retirement from Monash University in Melbourne in 1996, Roger Brown encouraged retired and retiring chemists to provide an account of their careers.

"As few such documents exist in New Zealand, and as my life has been one immersed in chemistry, I can see no better way to move my career closer to its end than by recalling those things that have served me so well for so many years. In so doing, my more than 40 years at Victoria University of Wellington form the essence of what follows."

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Pablo Etchegoin elected as Royal Society Fellow

2 November 2011

Professor Pablo Etchegoin from the School was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand yesterday. He is recognised as one of the most successful condensed matter physicists worldwide, and a research leader in both experimental measurement and theory.

Twelve top New Zealand basic and applied science and humanities researchers were elected as Fellows at the annual general meeting of the Society’s Academy in Auckland yesterday. The Society also elected as an Honorary Fellow, Dr Donna Eberhart-Phillips who is working at the University of California, Davis, USA.

Other new Fellows from Victoria University were Martha Savage from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences and Susan Schenk from the School of Psychology. Richard Blaikie, former Director of the MacDiarmid Institute was also elected.

Academy chairperson Dr Stephen Goldson said: “Being elected as a Fellow is an honour given to our top researchers for showing distinction in research or in the advancement of science, technology or the humanities.

“These newly elected Fellows, from Universities and Crown Research Institutes, are leaders in fields as diverse as earthquakes, drug addiction, GM plants, and the study of reasoning. They reflect the wide range of work being undertaken by researchers in sciences and humanities in New Zealand. I am very pleased to announce their election today.”

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Podcast - Our Changing World features Peter Ferguson and Richard Tilley

3 November 2011

Magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnetic field to create detailed images of the inside of the body. Contrast agents made from magnetic materials can improve the resolution of these images, and the more magnetic the material, the better the contrast.

PhD candidate Peter Ferguson has been looking at iron nanoparticles as new contrast agents. Current contrast agents are often gadolinium-based, which can have biocompatability problems, or use iron oxide, which is not as magnetic as iron itself. The magnetic nanoparticles may one day be used in cancer therapy.

Listen to the podcast.

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Podcast - Dmitri Schebarchov on Our Changing World

27 October 2011

While single-wall carbon nanotubes are synthesised routinely in labs around the world, scientists are still unclear about what controls the structure and diameter of nanotubes as they grow.

As part of his PhD in the School, IRL’s Dmitri Schebarchov created a simple model which neatly explains why the diameter of carbon nanotubes appear to be almost, but not quite, the same as the catalyst particles on which they are grown.

Listen to the podcast.

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Tell us a Story winners

25 October 2011

Pro Vice-Chancellor of Science and Engineering, Professor David Bibby with the winner Paul Mensink (right) and runner up Mohammed Azeem (left).

Victoria's Memorial Theatre played host to tales of inspiration, passion and life beyond the lab in the Tell us a Story postgraduate competition, sponsored by Victoria’s Faculties of Science and Engineering.

Mohammed Azeem, a PhD student in the School, won second place and also the audience prize. Biology PhD student Paul Mensink won first prize.

Tell us a Story was organised by Elizabeth Connor and Physics PhD student Elf Eldridge. School staff also participated in the judging panel.

Watch the finalists in action.

Three Marsden Fund grants awarded to support research in the School

10 October 2011

Researchers in the School have gained three of the 11 Marsden grants received by Victoria University.

Professor Pablo Etchegoin, was awarded $830,000 for a project titled, Surface Enhanced Raman (SERS) microscopy in the Kretschmann configuration and Dr Gillian Turner $615,000 to carry out a detailed study of the southwest Pacific's magnetic field over the last 10,000 years, that will help date events such as early settlement of New Zealand.

Dr Mattie Timmer received a Fast Start grant ($345,000) for a project titled Protecting-group-free synthesis: Avoiding the unavoidable in organic chemistry. All of the funded proposals are for three years.

Applications to the Marsden Fund are extremely competitive. Of the 1078 preliminary proposals received, 250 were invited to submit a full proposal and 88 were ultimately funded, giving a success rate of 8.2 %. A total of $53.8 million was allocated in this year’s grants.


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Sunshine - the energy of the future

Dr Justin Hodgkiss

Dr Justin Hodgkiss.

29 September 2011

Solar cells, incorporated into roofing materials to provide all the energy used in a home or office building, could become an affordable option in New Zealand within a decade. 

Although solar cells have been available for many years, uptake has been limited by their cost, says Dr Justin Hodgkiss, a lecturer in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences.

That’s because conventional solar cells use silicon and processing silicon into a working solar cell is expensive.

He is one of a number of scientists in New Zealand and overseas who are investigating making solar cells from polymers or plastics. They are building on the work of Alan MacDiarmid who discovered the electronic conductivity of polymers.

Dr Hodgkiss says the major advantage of using polymers is that they can be dissolved to make an ink and then printed in sheets

“That opens the possibility of making them quite cheaply. We might even be able to use existing machinery. In Australia, they are experimenting with printing polymer solar cells on the same presses used to print money.

The resulting solar cells would have a few layers made up of films of an active polymer sandwiched between transparent electrodes. “It’s not very different from a potato chip bag.

Polymer solar cells are currently less efficient than those using silicon but that is changing.

“Four years ago when I started working in this field,” says Dr Hodgkiss, “polymer solar cells had a power conversion efficiency of 4% and it’s now 8% (different types of silicon cells are 10–20%) so it’s on a steep trajectory.”

He estimates that if every New Zealand rooftop was covered in a material containing a 10% efficient solar cell, all of New Zealand’s energy would easily be generated.

Dr Hodgkiss and the PhD and Masters students working with him are focussing on what happens in the femtoseconds when light absorbed by a polymer begins generating free electrons.

“What makes that happen is still a mystery. If we can find out why, we can design materials that will encourage more electrons to break free and we will end up with more energy.

The ultra fast spectroscopy involves taking ultra precise measurements using highly specialised laser tools, and is being done in a specially built laboratory at Victoria. Scientists working on related light-based technologies will also be able to use the lab.

Dr Hodgkiss, says a range of other research projects in New Zealand are also delivering new knowledge that will help make solar energy a viable option. That includes developing quantum dot solar cells that can harvest more sunlight, printable nano-structured plastics that will improve the efficiency of solar cells, and creating new molecules to optimise the performance of polymer solar cells.

Dr Hodgkiss says he was motivated to study in his research field because of the pressing need to find new, clean and sustainable sources of energy.

“Solar energy is such an untapped resource and one that could easily meet global energy demands if properly harnessed. It’s also promising for New Zealand. The fabrication process for polymer solar cells is so simple, there is no reason we can’t do it here.”

Read more on the Ultrafast Laser Spectroscopy research group pages.

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Podcast – Mark Hunter on Our Changing World

22 September 2011

Mark is a research fellow in the Magnetic Resonance Physics group. He talks about his PhD research into fluid flows through complex, porous materials such as wood and rocks.

He recently became the first doctoral student in the Southern Hemisphere to receive the prestigious international Raymond Andrew Prize for his research on developing techniques to determine the nonlocal dispersion tensor, a key quantity in measuring and predicting the dispersion of liquids.

Having finished his PhD, Mark's focus is now developing hardware to make the NMR technique portable and suitable for magnets with a smaller magnetic field.

Listen to the podcast.

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Appointment strengthens NZ involvement in $3 billion science project

22 September 2011

Dr Johnston-Hollitt

New Zealand’s profile as a potential co-host of the $3 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope has been boosted with the appointment of a leading Victoria University scientist to the SKA Board.

The SKA, a new generation radio telescope 50 times more powerful than current instruments, will be built in the Southern Hemisphere which has the best view of the Galaxy and the least radio interference. New Zealand and Australia are jointly competing with South Africa to be selected as the host.

Victoria University radio astronomer Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt has been appointed New Zealand’s science representative on the founding SKA board. Jonathon Kings from the Ministry of Economic Development has also joined the Board. Dr Johnston-Hollitt chairs the New Zealand SKA Research & Development Consortium and Mr Kings is New Zealand’s SKA director.

Representation at Board level results from New Zealand’s commitment to the SKA project which, says Dr Johnston-Hollitt, is stronger than that made by a number of other, bigger countries.

"New Zealand is really stepping up to the plate. Board membership has increased our visibility enormously and made us a serious player in a mega science project.

"It also strengthens our bid to host the SKA telescope as it demonstrates the Government’s commitment to the project and puts us at the table with the world’s leading radio astronomy nations."

A decision on where the SKA telescope will be located is expected early next year.

While Dr Johnston-Hollitt is upbeat about the Australasian bid, she says New Zealand will enjoy significant benefits from the project regardless of where the new telescope is built.

That’s because of New Zealand’s involvement in the $40 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia, one of three ‘precursor’ SKA instruments. The telescope is designed to probe the low frequency end of the radio spectrum

Dr Johnston-Hollitt has secured funding from both Victoria University and the Ministry of Economic Development for New Zealand to officially join the MWA project alongside organisations such as Harvard, MIT, the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore and Curtin University of Technology in Australia. Dr Johnston-Hollitt also becomes a member of the MWA Board.

Earlier this year, researchers from Victoria University and Curtain University of Technology involved in the joint New Zealand/Australia bid were donated a high performance computing facility by IBM—which acts as the brain of the telescope—to help get the most out of the MWA project.

MWA involvement is leading to new opportunities at Victoria says Dr Johnston-Hollitt.

From 2012, a post-doctoral fellowship is being created, and a range of PhD projects offered, for research made possible by access to the MWA telescope.

One focus, says Dr Johnston-Hollitt, will be looking for diffuse radio emissions—"faint, large patches of universe wreckage from cosmic collisions"—which are usually very difficult to detect.

Another will be developing new algorithms, in conjunction with Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, to interpret data from the MWA telescope.

Dr Johnston-Hollitt says the algorithms could ultimately be used for advances in other areas such as medical imaging.

"If we can find ways to detect these faint blobs in the universe we may be able to apply the technology to other things such as better detection of tumours in ultrasound imaging.

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Mission to knit the Periodic Table proves popular worldwide

22 Sep 2011

Work in progress - the first knitted elements to be returned.

To celebrate the International Year of Chemistry, more than 150 knitters from around the world are knitting the entire Periodic Table, one element at a time.

The mission has been very popular, with all the elements being taken only three days after it was launched. Also, 204 people have 'liked' the mission's Facebook page so far.

Knitters have chosen one of the 112 named chemical elements, or a blank square, following a pattern to produce a 20 cm square. When the elements are all sewn together, the completed table will be nearly three and a half metres wide.

Project curator, Sarah Wilcox, says the project is thought to be a world first. "People have done all sorts of things with the Periodic Table—it’s been sewn, baked, made into furniture and computer games—but as far as we know, no one has knitted one this big before.

"It’s been exciting to see people choosing an element that has a special meaning for them. A couple of students from the School have knitted platinum and palladium—elements they are using in their PhDs. Another knitter chose carbon, having worked in a carbon dating lab in the 1960s."

Judith Tizard, famous for knitting in Parliament, and her mother Dame Cath Tizard, former Governor General, are both knitting an element and are delighted to see the feminine aspects of science being encouraged. Dame Cath has a degree in zoology and taught at Auckland University.

The project is sponsored by the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC), Victoria University of Wellington and the Royal Society of New Zealand. The finished Periodic Table will feature at the NZIC Conference this year. It will then be on permanent display in the School. 

Keep up to date with progress on our Facebook page.

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Callaghan's lecture fills Town Hall

15 Sept 2011

Wellington Town Hall

Professor Sir Paul Callaghan delivered Victoria University's Inaugural Chancellor‘s Lecture to 1500 people in the Wellington Town Hall last night.

He spoke about creating a more prosperous New Zealand through science and technology and received a standing ovation at the end of the lecture.

The Chancellor's Lecture is funded by an anonymous donor through the Victoria University Foundation and was part of the Wellington City Council's Festival of Carnivale celebrations to showcase the city during the Rugby World Cup.

View a video of the lecture.

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Justin Hodgkiss wins Rutherford Discovery Fellowship

8 September 2011

Dr Justin Hodgkiss, a lecturer in Physical Chemistry and a Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute, is one of three researchers from Victoria University to win the prestigious award.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships support New Zealand’s most talented early- to mid-career researchers by providing financial support of up to $200,000 per year over a five-year period to investigate a particular research topic, and help them further their career in New Zealand.

Justin will lead a research programme to develop and exploit advanced laser tools to understand the physics of photocurrent generation and guide the design of more effective solar materials. With the ability to see extremely fast processes using short laser pulses, his team will draw inspiration from photosynthesis to artificially engineer solar cells that optimise light harvesting and energy conversion.

The chairperson of the selection panel, Professor Margaret Brimble, said the high calibre of the applicants made choosing the final ten people a very difficult decision.

“Those chosen demonstrated exceptional talent and promise. We believe they will be New Zealand’s future research leaders and are worthy of this investment.”

The two other recipients from Victoria University are Dr Nancy Bertler, for the Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution project and Dr Nicole Moreham, who will write a book setting out the protection of privacy in English private law.

The fellowships are administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Read more about Justin's research.

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Science Fair winners ‘next generation of scientists’

29 August 2011

Cheyaanthan Haran from Wellington College. Credit: NIWA photographer Dave Allen.

Cheyaanthan Haran was the star of the 2011 NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair, winning a number of prizes, including the Innovation Prize from Victoria‘s Faculty of Science.

The Year 13 student from Wellington College conducted an experiment to determine whether Ponni Rice lowers blood glucose levels, which would be useful for people living with diabetes.

Mr Haran also won the $1000 Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch prize for best overall exhibit, a nomination for Realise the Dream, and was judged first in his category.

Nearly 600 intermediate and secondary school students took part in the science fair, which is hosted at Victoria each year.

The Chief Science Fair Judge Dr Gillian Turner says that the fair shows that science and technology are alive and thriving in the secondary and intermediate schools of Wellington and the Hutt Valley.

Judges Natalie Plank and Rex Bartholomew interview students about their science fair exhibits.

"The 450 exhibits which packed the undergraduate laboratories of our School evidenced the enormous level of enthusiasm and innovation of the next generation of scientists and the dedication of their teachers, parents and caregivers in supporting them.

"If yesterday's fair is any indication, we will be in excellent hands when this generation of students moves through tertiary education and into the workforce."

Lachlan Sim, a Year 8 student from Wellesley College, won the Faculty of Science prize of an iPad for the best Class 1-4 (Years 7-10) exhibit. Mr Sim's project 'Treatment of Farm Effluent Using Osmosis' investigated how to reduce run-off and local pollution when applying effluent to farm land. Mr Sim was also judged first in his category.

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Victoria scientist honoured for magnetic resonance research

23 August 2011

Dr Mark Hunter

A Victoria University scientist has become the first person in the Southern Hemisphere to win a prestigious international prize for outstanding PhD research in the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) field.

Dr Mark Hunter, a Research Fellow in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, has been awarded the 2011 Raymond Andrew Prize for his doctoral research into using NMR to measure the properties of flow.

The prize is awarded annually by the Ampere group which is made up of leading European scientists and laboratories focusing on NMR research. The 33-year-old researcher was presented with the award yesterday at the Euromar magnetic resonance conference in Frankfurt.

He is the second Victoria University scientist to take the stage at the annual Euromar conference. Dr Hunter's PhD supervisor and eminent New Zealand scientist Professor Sir Paul Callaghan, received the Ampere Prize in 2004 for his research into the use of NMR to study complex fluids. Professor Callaghan remains the first scientist outside Europe to be awarded the honour.

Dr Hunter's research field is the use of NMR to measure properties of flow in porous materials. He is focused on finding techniques to measure dispersion - the way liquid flows and is diffused -through samples that you can 't see inside such as rocks or wood.

Over the past two decades, new theories have been developed on how to accurately predict dispersion but there has been no way to measure a key quantity, called the nonlocal dispersion tensor.

"For years before I started my PhD research I noticed that many scientific papers had a clause saying you would need to know the nonlocal dispersion tensor to come up with a full measurement. We set out to develop techniques to do that. "

The project was successful and Dr Hunter and his colleagues have developed techniques that work both in experiments and in numerical simulation.

He says winning the Raymond Andrew Prize is both a personal honour and brings further international recognition for the NMR work being carried out at Victoria. It also offers an opportunity to present his findings to an international audience as Dr Hunter will give a presentation on his research at the Euromar conference.

Dr Hunter, who received his PhD at the end of 2010, was part of the Victoria University Magnetic Resonance Innovation team that received the 2010 Prime Minister 's Science Prize.

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Ever Wondered Series 2 now screening on TVNZ 7

15 August 2011

Dr John Watt

Dr John Watt

A second series of Ever Wondered? presented by Dr John Watt, is showcasing more of the exciting areas being explored by New Zealand scientists.

Appropriately in the International Year of Chemistry, the series begins with stories from James Wright from the University of Auckland and Julian Eaton-Rye from the University of Otago. James has research interests in transition metal chemistry and 'green' chemistry and Julian in the biochemistry of photosythetic reactions.

The programmes screen on TVNZ 7 on Thursdays at 7.05 pm, but are also available on TVNZ On Demand.

"Once again, John and the team have done an outstanding job presenting New Zealand science in an interesting and entertaining format," says Head of School, Prof John Spencer.

TVNZ 7 has a major focus on science throughout August, its Spotlight on Science and Innovation Month, with most of the regular features taking a science perspective. Other connections with the School this month are:

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School student attends AINSE Winter School

15 August 2011

AINSE attendees

Attendees at the AINSE Winter School. Felix is in the centre of the back row.

Felix Barber, a third-year physics student, recently gained entry to an AINSE (Australian Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Engineering) Winter School at the Australian Nuclear Sciences and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Around 45 students, including 4 from New Zealand, attended the school at ANSTO, near Sydney, from 2–6 July. 

“The school was a fantastic experience all round, both academically and socially. The staff and students I met were all incredibly friendly, and I made some strong and lasting connections with students from across Australia who share similar interests and passions. It also provided an excellent chance to meet and talk to well-established researchers in a wide variety of fields, says Felix.

Victoria University is a member of AINSE, a not-for-profit consortium of 39 universities and institutes in Australia and New Zealand, and members gain access to ANSTO facilities, including their nuclear reactor, financial assistance for experiments and PhD scholarships.

The Winter School allows undergraduate students from around Australia and New Zealand to learn about and use ANSTO's nuclear facilities through a programme of lectures, demonstrations and hands-on experiments.

AINSE Winter School lecture

"The academic side of the school was staggering—getting a chance to see world class neutron diffraction equipment in use, while learning the theory behind it from experts in the field, was a great combination.

"It opens up a whole range of opportunities for those interested in doing research at ANSTO as part of their Honours or PhD study."

For more information, please contact Dr Ben Ruck.

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Kirshenbaum's mix of chemistry and cuisine proves popular

Kent Kirshenbaum

11 August 2011

Professor Kent Kirshenbaum from New York University has been visiting New Zealand as part of the Wellington on a Plate festival.

His public lecture called 'A Plate of Molecules: Chemical Gastronomy' was booked out in one day and a repeat lecture, organised for an additional night, was also fully booked.

Kent is a chemist with research interests in biomimetics, bionanotechnology and materials, and in experimental cuisine. He co-founded the Experimental Cuisine Collective, a working group that assembles scholars, scientists, chefs, writers, journalists, performance artists and food enthusiasts. The collective seeks to get experts from different disciplines together to share ideas and advance both science and cuisine.

At the lecture, he and assistant Anne McBride, director of the collective, made a vegan pavlova using a saponin instead of egg white, and topped it with a raspberry foam and diced kiwifruit. Samples of the baked meringue mixture were given away to guests at the end of the talk.

Kent discussed the molecular structure of a stretchy ice-cream called Salep from Turkey and attempts to replicate its properties using more readily available materials. The polysaccharide used to prepare Salep traditionally comes from the root of the endangered 'fox testicle' orchid.

He also gave examples of chemistry lab equipment that was finding new uses in the kitchen, such as rotary evaporators being used to prepare reduction sauces.

While in Wellington, Kent gave a talk at the School about his research into 'peptoid' structures that mimic functional biomolecules, and a lecture about chemical gastronomy to high school students. He will also lead an event at Ruth Pretty catering. 

Kent's visit was sponsored by the Wellington branch of the NZ Institute of Chemistry as part of celebrations to mark the International Year of Chemistry.

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Inaugural Chancellor’s Lecture—Professor Sir Paul Callaghan

11 August 2011

New Zealander of the Year and renowned scientist Professor Sir Paul Callaghan will deliver Victoria University’s Inaugural Chancellor’s Lecture next month.

The Victoria professor will give his lecture—A prosperous 21st century New Zealand: educating for the new 'Tiger Economy’—at the Wellington Town Hall on Wednesday 14 September at 6 pm.

Drawing upon his excellence in science and wide ranging experience generally, Sir Paul will argue that New Zealand’s decline in prosperity is largely a result of our own choosing and that we have the capacity, simply by thinking and acting differently, to rapidly move ahead.

University Chancellor Ian McKinnon says the lecture promises to be an insightful and stimulating address.

“Professor Callaghan is a world-renowned scientist and someone committed to ensuring New Zealand is able to punch above its weight financially and internationally. I am very pleased that we are able to offer a speaker of his calibre for Victoria University’s Inaugural Chancellor’s Lecture.”

The Chancellor’s Lecture is funded by an anonymous donor though the Victoria University Foundation.

Please reserve a place by contacting the Alumni Relations office.

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National chemistry quiz won by team from Auckland

7 July 2011

The top chemistry students from around the country competed in the NZIC IYC National Secondary Schools' Quiz final on Tuesday evening. Six teams of four competed, answering a total of 54 questions.

Quiz winners from Macleans College

The winning quiz team from Macleans College, with their teacher and Agilent Technologies representative Wayne Sprosen, right.

Dr Rob Keyzers was part of the organising team and was quizmaster on the night. "It was a really good event and the kids enjoyed themselves. Some of the questions were pretty tough, but I was very impressed with their level of knowledge."

The students were tested on a range of topics, for example:

1. A number of chemical elements are named after countries, such as Americium and Germanium. But which country is named after a chemical element?

2. Identify these women of science and what they are famous for.


"It was very close going into the last round. Auckland led Waikato by only half a point. In the end, they beat Waikato by one and a half points, followed by Canterbury, Wellington, Manawatu and Otago."

Agilent Technologies sponsored the event and provided prizes worth $3000.

The teams were from Macleans College Auckland; St Paul’s Collegiate School, Hamilton; Burnside High School, Christchurch; Wellington College; Palmerston North Boys' High School and James Hargest College, Invercargill.

While the students were in Wellington, they visited the Science and Engineering Faculties and the Malaghan Institute. After an introduction by John Watt, a former New Zealand Young Scientist of the Year and presenter of TVNZ's Ever Wondered series, they heard a series of short talks and toured research labs in biology, Earth sciences, robotics, chemistry and physics. They also visited Industrial Research Ltd and Victoria's Coastal Ecology Lab.

The event was sponsored by the Faculty of Science at Victoria University and the Wellington Branch of the NZIC. Local branches also contributed.

Answers: Argentina is named after the element Ag, silver. The women are (from left), Rosalind Franklin, Maire Curie, Dian Fossey, Jean Grey and Beatrix Potter.

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Chemistry scholarship day held in the School

5 July 2011

The School held a scholarship practical day last week offering top chemistry students an opportunity to develop their problem solving skills in a practical setting, using equipment and chemicals that they may not have access to at school.

This year the event proved very popular with five schools from Palmerston North attending, as well as schools from Masterton and the Wellington area.










The day featured practical lab sessions where students were challenged to think about the advanced critical thinking and communication skills they require in moving from NCEA Level 3 to the scholarship exam. The programme also runs a theory workshop for scholarship students in October.

A similar event for physics students is to be held on Thursday. 

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Researching better ways of generating electrical currents

4 July 2011

School researchers are part of a worldwide effort exploring new ways of generating electrical currents.

Switching on an electrical device usually means connecting it to a voltage source such as a battery or power socket, but new possibilities and new challenges are emerging as the size of electrical wires and transistors shrinks to the nanoscale.

“As electrical devices become smaller and smaller, rather exotic mechanisms may turn out to be more effective for generating electrical currents than the conventional battery,” says Prof Uli Zuelicke.

Schematic of a device where charge could be pumped by manipulating the electrons' magnetic degree of freedom. Courtesy of Alex Hamilton.

Victoria theoretical physicists Thomas Kernreiter, Michele Governale and Uli Zuelicke are working with experimentalist Alex Hamilton from the University of New South Wales on the issue.

Their research was recently published in leading international journal Applied Physics Letters and shows how currents can be generated without a battery by manipulating electrons in a different way. 

“Electrons not only carry a charge, they are also tiny permanent magnets—a property you can use in these nanoscale devices,” says Zuelicke.

The researchers have investigated a scenario where electrons would be ‘pumped’ as electricity through a wire using these magnetic properties.

“The rules of classical physics that govern our everyday life no longer apply to the same degree at the nanoscale and we can use quantum physics to open up new possibilities.”

The team is part of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, which has provided crucial funding for this research project.

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HEKE appeal paying off

27 June 2011

A sharp rise in expat graduates paying off their student loans is good news for Christchurch says the founder of the Heroic Educated Kiwi Expatriate (HEKE) campaign, Professor Sir Paul Callaghan from the School. 

The HEKE campaign to encourage overseas New Zealanders to pay off their student loans has been given a boost by IRD figures for April showing a 43% increase in student loan repayments over the last year.

“And the value of a positive response has never been more obvious,” says Sir Paul.

“The recent Christchurch aftershocks and the need for government to provide some financial assurance to residents in badly affected areas, has rammed home to us how much New Zealand has taken an economic hit. The effect on New Zealand's economy is two or three times that of Japan's earthquake and tsunami on their economy and eight times the effect of Hurricane Katrina on the USA.”

Sir Paul says that while there was no way to gauge if the increase was a direct result of the HEKE campaign, it was extremely encouraging news.

“Before the campaign started the February 2011 repayments were the same as in 2010. But with the launch of the campaign in late March, both the March and April repayments from overseas have shown a significant increase over last year, up $1.8 million in March and up $2.5 million in April," says Sir Paul.

“Work being down by the Government in this area, and students coming off their loan holiday may be a factor, but a 43 percent increase is huge, and we need to keep that momentum going.”

He says if the higher level of repayment is sustained, it would represent a significant contribution to New Zealand’s ability to rebuild Christchurch.

New Zealander of the Year Professor Sir Paul Callaghan launched the HEKE campaign in March after the devastating February earthquake in Christchurch. The campaign asks expat Kiwi graduates to make a significant contribution to the Christchurch earthquake recovery mission by paying back their student loans.

For more information visit www.heke.ac.nz.

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NZIC Chemistry Quiz and Titration Competition

20 June 2011

School teams during the quiz

Last week the School hosted the NZIC Titration Competition and the NZIC Chemistry Quiz for secondary school students. Wellington College were the winning quiz team.

30 teams from 21 different schools competed and, despite the competition being more serious than in previous years, students commented on how much they had enjoyed the evening.

During the quiz, the accompanying teachers were entertained and informed by Dr Gillian Turner talking about geomagnetism and her very successful book, North Pole South Pole.

Thanks to Jacqui Barber and Peter Moore for their efforts in organising such a successful event. 

To celebrate the International Year of Chemistry, this year a national final will be held in Wellington, with teams from each region competing. Students will travel from Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Invercargill, and compete with the local winners from Wellington College.

The event will be held in LT2 Rutherford House, on Tuesday 5 July from 6.30–8.30 pm. The public are invited to this event, where students will answer questions about chemistry theory and trivia as well as solving chemistry problems. The top prize is $2500, sponsored by Agilent, and the evening is being hosted by the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry and Victoria University of Wellington.

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Three Minute Thesis competition results

Winners of the Three Minute Thesis competition

Competition winners. From left: Matt Thomson, Penny Tok and Janice Cheng.

14 June 2011

In the competition held on June 7, Matt Thomson was awarded second place and won $1000. Janice Cheng won the English as a Second Language prize of $250. Penny Tok won first prize.

The 3MT is an exercise in developing academic and research communication skills. Participants have three minutes to give an engaging talk on their thesis topic in language appropriate to a non-specialist audience. This year’s winner received $3000 and will compete in the Australasian final at the University of Western Australia.

Matt says the chance to explain his research to a general audience was challenging, but something he enjoyed. Unable to use specialised terminology, some aspects of the talk take longer to explain than they would if speaking to a peer group. This means the speaker has to be very selective about what he or she says in order to clearly communicate the essence of their research within the three minutes allowed.

"Seeing the audience react positively builds confidence", says Matt, "and means you know you’re doing a good job."

Whilst Matt has always been confident speaking to an audience, the same can’t be said for Janice. Initially reluctant to take part, Janice felt the opportunity to build her confidence in public speaking was too good a chance to turn down. The difficulty presented by the 3MT was to have your research understood by a lay audience without compromising on the depth of the project. She admits that it is sometimes impossible to avoid using scientific terminology, but feels this can be explained through the use of analogies and brief definitions.

Matt and Janice agree that knowing your subject well helps build confidence and having a passion for your research helps build a connection with your audience. Both strongly recommend the competition to other students for next year. 

Matt collecting his prize money from the initial round.

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Local team finds ‘orphan’ planets

19 May 2011

Gravitational microlensing schematic

An illustration of the gravitational microlensing technique, showing an Einstein ring. Credit: Timberlake Studios.

Research just published in a Nature Letter by a team of New Zealand and Japanese astronomers including Professor Denis Sullivan from Victoria University, provides convincing evidence of the existence of so-called free-floating planets with Jupiter masses.  Ten such astronomical objects have been discovered in our galaxy by the gravitational microlensing technique.

This technique uses the amplified light from a background star to 'measure' the mass of a foreground lensing object.  As predicted by Einstein about 80 years ago, due to the gravitational field of the lens star there is an increase in the star's brightness when the star, lens and observer are in close alignment.

The research was carried out by the collaboration of astronomers known as MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics) together with another group based in Chile called OGLE.  The MOA group was established in the mid nineties and uses New Zealand's largest optical telescope based at Mt John in the South Island, to regularly monitor the brightness of a large number of stars using a special large format electronic camera system.

This work provides unique insights into our understanding of the formation of stars and planets.  A key property called the initial mass function, measures the relative values of the resulting masses when interstellar gas and dust condense under the attraction of gravity, to form astronomical objects.

The objects we can readily see are the stars. Little was known about the numbers of isolated planetary mass objects as they relatively cold and therefore emit little light and energy. Microlensing circumvents this difficulty by using the light from background stars to detect the cold low-mass objects.

Read the full article: Unbound or distant planetary mass population detected by gravitational microlensing. Nature Letter, 473, pp349–352 (2011).

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New Director for MacDiarmid Institute

17 May 2011

A/Prof. Kate McGrath

The Board of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology is delighted to announce that Associate Professor Kathryn McGrath has been appointed as Director of the institute, to succeed the outgoing Director, Professor Richard Blaikie.  She will begin the role on 1 July 2011.

Associate Professor McGrath, from Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, has been a Principal Investigator with the Institute since 2002, and is
a member of the Institute’s Science Executive Committee.

“Kathryn is considered to be one of New Zealand’s leading young physical scientists and we are delighted she will be the new Director of the Institute,” says Chairman of the MacDiarmid Institute, Dr Steve Thompson.

The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology is a national Centre of Research Excellence based at Victoria University.

As Director of the Institute, Associate Professor McGrath will be providing leadership in both scientific and strategic matters.

Some of her research mimics a natural process that could assist in wound care and medical implants. She researches how organisms grow their hard tissue—skeletons, teeth, shells—with potential uses including better hip replacements.

Other research interests are molecular self-assembly, complex fluids and hierarchical solid formation. She has also made important new fundamental discoveries especially in emulsion research where she has managed to characterise a new class of emulsion behaviours.

Associate Professor McGrath won the Easterfield Medal in 2003 and the New Zealand Association of Scientists Research Medal in 2007.

She is also an Associate Investigator at the Riddet Institute, and is a past president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

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Seven School Marden Fund applications through to second round

3 May 2011

Of the 31 successful proposals from Victoria University through to the second round of the highly competitive Marsden Fund, seven are from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. The Principal Investigators of the proposals are: Pablo Etchegoin, Michele Governale, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, Richard Tilley, Mattie Timmer, Gillian Turner and Uli Zuelicke.

The University submitted 150 applications this year, and around 21 percent of these are through to the second round.

Successful applicants have until the end of May to prepare a full application. These will be subject to review by top international specialists and then decisions are made by a panel of New Zealand based academics. The results will be announced in October.

Applications that make it through to the second round have a roughly 50 percent chance of being funded.

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From Minerals to Miracles - a Marie Curie lecture

28 April 2011

Associate Professor Kate McGrath was invited to speak in Dunedin this month as part of the International Year of Chemistry's year-long Marie Curie lecture series. The Royal Society of New Zealand is running the series as a celebration of women in chemistry.

In her talk, Kate told the story of the beginnings of biomineralisation.

"When it was discovered that the humble chiton, a member of the mollusc family, can produce minerals in its teeth that are strong enough to leave marks in rocks, this new field was born. The biomineral in chiton teeth is a magnetite similar to the mineral that gives lodestones their magnetism, but what intrigued scientists was that the magnetite of chiton teeth is tougher than that of geologically formed magnetite despite being essentially the same material."

In the lecture, Kate highlighted the minerals that have been produced by living organisms for the past 550 million years, and how close we are now to artificially reproducing these materials to use in everything from wound care to engineering.

Dr McGrath is a Principal Investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences where she and her team are studying complex fluids and soft matter. She has made important discoveries in emulsion research, and characterised a new class of emulsion behaviours using various physical techniques.

Dr Bridget Stocker from the Malaghan Institute gave a talk in New Plymouth in March called, 'Chemistry, Immunology and the Sweet Stuff' as part of the series.

For more information about future talks, see the Year of Chemistry website

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Strait A student

21 April 2011

Emma Aitken in Cook Strait

Emma Aitken in good spirits before the swim.

Earlier this month, MSc student Emma Aitken became the 80th person to successfully swim Cook Strait. Under the watchful eye of swimming legend Philip Rush, Emma completed the 26km swim in 9.5 hours.

Emma’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable for it being her first attempt at a long distance swim. In fact, before deciding to take on the challenge, she hadn’t swum regularly since taking swimming lessons at her local pool at the age of twelve. In mid 2009, to improve her fitness, Emma had decided to take up swimming again. A friend suggested she set a target and, by the end of the day, Emma had signed up to swim Cook Strait.

A rigorous training schedule involved 20km to 30km of open water swimming each week. This increased to 90km after the end of the second trimester last year. Unlike many who attempt to swim the Strait, study commitments precluded Emma from joining a training squad. Instead, a majority of her preparation was undertaken alone in the waters along Wellington’s south coast.

Emma also spent a great deal of time raising the $5,500 needed for the attempt through baking and ice cream sales. Despite the many hours spent focusing on the swim, Emma managed to keep up her studies in chemistry and maintain a straight A average.

Connecting the Tasman Sea on the west with the South Pacific Ocean on the east, Cook Strait is one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world. On each side of the strait the tide is almost exactly out of phase, so high water on one side meets low water on the other, resulting in extremely strong currents. As a result, fewer than 70 swimmers have successfully negotiated the crossing since Barrie Devenport first accomplished the feat in 1962.

After a number of frustrating false starts throughout the summer, Emma finally got her chance to swim the Strait on April 12. Although weather conditions were ideal on the day, a strong unpredicted current held up progress for 2 hours. Under the English Channel crossing rules swimmers are prohibited from wearing a wetsuit. To prevent muscles from seizing and to keep the body warm refreshment breaks are limited to under a minute. Swimming in an arc to counter the tides and currents, Emma reached the South Island in 9.5 hours.

Whilst relieved that it’s now all over, Emma is proud of achieving the goal she set herself back in 2009. She has accomplished a feat so quintessentially Kiwi and something so few have achieved before her. Emma Aitken has successfully swum the Cook Strait.

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Supercomputer to boost SKA chances

12 April 2011

Researchers in New Zealand and Australia have been donated a high performance computing facility by IBM, boosting their chances of a successful bid for the $3 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

Victoria University researchers and counterparts at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at Curtin University in Australia will use the computing facility to process data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope, a precursor instrument for the SKA telescope.

Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences chairs the New Zealand SKA Research & Development Consortium and says the supercomputer is a massive boost for the MWA.

“New Zealand researchers and students will have the opportunity to contribute directly to the Murchison Widefield Array, the first time we’ve been involved in an official SKA ’precursor’.

This is a significant step forward in New Zealand’s engagement in both radio astronomy and the SKA project and we are grateful to IBM for their support,” says Dr Johnston-Hollitt.

The SKA will be a new generation radio telescope 50 times more powerful than current instruments. It will be built in the Southern Hemisphere, either in Africa or Australia-New Zealand where the view of the galaxy is the best, and there is little radio interference. The decision on whether the joint Australia-New Zealand bid will host the SKA is expected in 2012. 

The MWA is one of three official SKA ‘precursors’ - medium scale instruments that will be used to explore and prove important technologies for the SKA. The MWA is the only SKA precursor that operates at low radio frequencies.

The A$30m MWA radio telescope is currently under construction at the heart of the Australia-New Zealand SKA site in Western Australia, the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory.

The IBM facility will help the MWA process data in real-time, forming images of the sky that will be used to measure the signals of interest.

Dr Johnston-Hollitt sees the future of such collaborations between international researchers and industry to be fundamental to large international projects like the SKA.

“The way big research is being done is via collaboration between international teams of researchers from academia and industry and this grant epitomises this new approach. I hope this is the start of a fruitful collaboration between Victoria University, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and IBM.”

For more information, please contact Dr Melanie Johnston-Hollitt. 

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Sir Paul’s appeal to Kiwi expats

29 March 2011

New Zealander of the Year Professor Sir Paul Callaghan is asking expat Kiwi graduates to make a significant contribution to the Christchurch earthquake recovery mission by paying back their student loans.

In a letter to graduates living overseas, Sir Paul notes the massive financial aid needed to recover from the disaster, and asks the more than 85,000 New Zealanders with student loans living abroad to provide a huge financial boost to the recovery. He particularly appeals to the 35,000 Kiwis abroad who are behind in their repayments.

New Zealand graduates living abroad have a median debt of $17,900—a total debt of over $2 billion.

“That represents nearly 30% of the $7 billion that New Zealand taxpayers will have to contribute through the Government's contribution to the rebuilding… If we were to get everyone to contribute even a little, then the effect would be hugely helpful,” says the distinguished physicist, who was knighted in 2009.

Sir Paul says such repayments would not only help New Zealand recover from the disaster, they would make good financial sense to the students. Graduates who live overseas do not qualify for the Government’s zero-interest student loan policy.

“What is remarkable about all of you is that you are earning an income in foreign currency, and if you were to start repaying or to accelerate your loan repayment rate, you would not only save yourself interest, but you would be acting heroically to help save your country,” says Sir Paul in the open letter.

Unlike New Zealand residents, whose loans are repaid automatically through the taxation system, overseas New Zealanders only repay if they volunteer to do so.

“Many have given up any thought of paying, and for them, a compounding interest bill will cause a debt burden that makes it harder to return to work in their homeland, only to be called upon by IRD to service and repay that debt. Thus, New Zealand loses twice over,” says Sir Paul, whose title of New Zealander of the Year recognised his outstanding contribution to science, business and reversing New Zealand’s ‘brain drain’.

The letter appeals to an expat sense of patriotism and asks graduates to consider the value of their New Zealand education to their present employment abroad. 

“If, like so many Kiwis abroad you feel frustrated in not being able to help Christchurch enough, then I would ask you to consider what I am proposing. If only a few respond, the effect will be significant, but if most of you do, then you will make history and your contribution will be the stuff of legend.”

Sir Paul, who is battling cancer, hopes to spread word of his plea via social networking sites, and draws inspiration from recent student-led movements in New Zealand and abroad that show how collective action can provide hugely positive outcomes.

“We need only look at Egypt, or the volunteer student army in Christchurch, to see that young people can achieve remarkable results when motivated by a sense of making history en masse, assisted by the peer influence expressed through social networking.”

Named the HEKE (Heroic Educated Kiwi Expatriates) project, a website has been set up, as well as a Facebook Page.

In Te Reo, heke means “to reduce”.

“By reducing their student debts these heroes and heroines help New Zealand rebuild Christchurch. They also remove a barrier which prevents them returning to live and work in their homeland. We, their families, must welcome that.”

For more information please contact Professor Sir Paul Callaghan.

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Podcast - Nicola Gaston talks chemistry with Bryan Crump

10 March 2011

Nicola Gaston teaches some chemistry courses in our School and is a researcher at the MacDiarmid Institute, while based at Industrial Research. She talks about the periodic table, the International Year of Chemistry and Marie Curie, with Bryan Crump as part of his Nights Programme on Radio New Zealand National.

Listen to the first interview (MP3, 8.4 MB) and look out for her next three interviews on Thursday evenings at 7.10 pm.

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Local celebrations for the International Year of Chemistry

15 February 2011

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Chemistry Variety Show - Friday 11 February

1400 senior science students from high schools all over the Wellington region attended a chemistry variety show at the Michael Fowler Centre on Friday morning. The special event was part of celebrations for the International Year of Chemistry in 2011.

The event featured a fashion parade and speakers Professor Richard Blaikie, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Dr Kerstin Lucas and Dr John Watt from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Nobel Prize-winner, Sir Anthony Leggett.  

Dr Suzanne Boniface, who organised the event said she welcomed the opportunity to put 'a real live Nobel Prize-winner in front of our local high school students and show them some of the exciting developments in chemistry.

"I'd like to thank all those who contributed to this event – it was quite a feat for students, organisers and the Michael Fowler Centre team. Our administration staff and postgraduate students who came to usher and talk to students were a great help," she said.

One Wellington College student said he had particularly enjoyed John Watt's talk. "It was engaging, interesting and relevant. He kept it real world and not theoretical, he said.

"I hadn't heard about nanoparticles before. It's really cool how with an electron microscope you can see the structure of something so small, right down to the individual atoms."

John is a former Young Scientist of the Year and presented TVNZ 7's 'Ever Wondered' series last year. 

A student from Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt said she thought it was great to see local chemists inspiring fashion and working together. 


Launch of the IYC - Wednesday 9 February

The 2011 International Year of Chemistry was officially launched by Dr Di McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand on Wednesday evening.

The launch event featured a fashion show of designs by final year Massey University fashion students and a talk by Sir Richard Friend, Director of the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

The fashion show was the result of a collaboration between the fashion students and chemists at Victoria University and showcased merino wool coloured by gold nanoparticles.

The designer of the winning collection, Greer Osborne from New Plymouth, will travel to the UK and visit and work with a number of leading fashion designers. The visits have been organised by the British Society of Interior Design and Wools of New Zealand (UK).

Sir Richard spoke about the creative tension between science and technology and his own discoveries with conducting polymers. He noted how technology was essential for scientific advancement, as most discoveries involve experimentation and therefore require suitable equipment. He also told of the engineering required to commercialise his team's inventions and highlighted the discoveries of Ernest Lord Rutherford who was a previous director of the Cavendish Laboratory.

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New Zealander of the Year - Paul Callaghan

3 February 2011

Victoria University is immensely proud of Professor Sir Paul Callaghan who was awarded the New Zealander of the Year honour last night. The award recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the well being of the nation.

Paul Callaghan, New Zealander of the Year

Paul Callaghan and his wife Miang at the awards ceremony.

Professor Callaghan received the award for his commitment in connecting science, technology and business for the positive economic development of New Zealand.

"We have come a long way in this country when in two successive years, scientists are singled out as 'New Zealander of the Year'. I'm honoured to follow Ray Avery, and I welcome the chance this gives me to further promote the value of science to our country," he said.

Professor Pat Walsh, Vice-Chancellor of Victoria, says that Professor Callaghan’s award is richly deserved.

"He is one of the nation’s most distinguished scientists and a world-leader in his field, but more than that, he has contributed so much to public debate and discussion of science and the potential it has to transform New Zealand."

Sir Paul is a world leading scientist in the fields of nanotechnology and nuclear magnetic resonance. His mantelpiece features an array of honours for his endeavours, including a Knighthood for services to science and New Zealand's highest scientific honour, the Rutherford Medal.

Despite battling an aggressive cancer, Sir Paul is still as committed as ever to his passion for science and his vision for New Zealand to become "the most beautiful, stimulating and exciting place to live and work in the world."

In recent years, he has been at the forefront of connecting science and business. His 2009 book 'Wool to Weta' challenges traditional economic thinking and advocates for the potential of science and technology entrepreneurship to diversify our economic success. He puts forward his vision of a future New Zealand where the use of science, technology and intellectual property can provide economic prosperity for the entire country and free New Zealand from simply being a producer of biological commodities.

Watch an interview on TVNZ Breakfast.

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Women Share a Chemical Moment in Time

19 January 2011

Twelve chemists from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences took part in a Women’s Networking Breakfast in Wellington yesterday, beginning the celebrations for the International Year of Chemistry in 2011.

The breakfast was the first of a worldwide series of women's networking meetings. Participants in Wellington concluded by Skyping chemists breakfasting in Hobart and Sydney, and attending a morning tea in Palmerston North, beginning a virtual  handshake travelling to women chemists around the world.

The handshake was returned to Wellington 24 hours later by staff and students from Windward Community College in Hawai'i. Women in about 40 countries took part.

In addition to networking, the meetings celebrated the pivotal role of Marie Curie in chemistry, and focussed on the current landscape for women chemists.

2011 was chosen as the International Year of Chemistry as it marks the 100th anniversary of Madame Marie Curie winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Curie had previously shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for their study of radiation. She went on to develop methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues, isolating it in sufficient quantities to allow its characterisation and its properties, including therapeutic properties, to be studied.

Dr Joanne Harvey, secretary of the Wellington Branch of the NZIC organised the event. 

Ashna Khan a Victoria PhD student commented, "it was really nice to get together with other people in chemistry. I'm looking forward to going to some of the talks scheduled for the year and being part of the celebrations. "

Around 30 women took part in the Wellington breakfast which included chemists from the paint and patent industries, teaching, Crown Research Institutes, Science Media Centre, New Zealand Future's Trust and Royal Society staff, as well as PhD students and staff from Victoria University.

For more information and upcoming events, see the New Zealand International Year of Chemistry website. 


Kerstin Lucas with gold-bonded merino wool her team has developed.

Dr Kerstin Lucas with the gold-bonded merino wool. Her scarf is also made from the wool. Image Maarten Holl/Dominion Post.

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Putting a wow factor into New Zealand wool

19 January 2011

Research by two Victoria University PhD graduates has advanced cutting edge technology that combines wool with gold and silver to create a new range of multi functional textiles.

Dr Fern Kelly and Dr Kerstin Lucas have completed parallel research projects that have pioneered a way of embedding tiny nanoparticles of gold and silver in New Zealand wool, resulting in colourful textiles that have functional and aesthetic benefits. Dr Kelly has worked with silver and Dr Lucas with gold.

When the precious metals are reduced to the nanoscale (a nanoparticle is one billionth of a metre in diameter) they scatter light in different colours with silver appearing as yellow, peach, pink and purple and gold producing a range of brilliant hues.

That means textiles in many colours can be created without using traditional—and mostly synthetic—dyes, adding to the sustainability of the innovation.

Repeated testing by Drs Kelly and Lucas has shown that the gold and silver are bound to the wool with an ultra strong bond making the textiles totally colourfast and ensuring they do not fade in light or with repeated washing.

In addition, the textile products incorporating silver nanoparticles have strong anti-microbial properties meaning they resist bacteria and pests, like moth larvae, that live in carpets. They also reduce the build-up of static electricity.

Dr Kelly says there is exciting potential to use the silver wools in a range of commercial applications.

"We’re looking at the benefits of including the fibre in carpets and also in upholstery on aeroplanes and public transport—places where textiles get a lot of use but it isn’t practical to clean them all the time."

Other possibilities include bandages and clothing such as socks and sportswear, where the anti-microbial properties would reduce odour.

The initial target market for the golden wools is high end fashion accessories, fabrics and floor coverings. While it is around 100 times more expensive than wool coloured with organic dyes, there is interest for niche applications such as scarves, exclusive apparel and luxury carpet for residences, hotels or super yachts.

Dr Lucas says capacity is being scaled up and two 10 kilogram batches of golden wool are currently being produced. Another initiative has seen students from Massey University take part in a competition to design women’s fashion garments that feature the golden wool.

"It’s been fantastic getting creative minds on to exploring the possibilities," says Dr Lucas.

Professor Jim Johnston from Victoria’s School of Physical and Chemical Sciences supervised both Fern and Kerstin’s research and is leading commercialisation of what he calls ‘world first’ technology.

"It’s had enormous market acceptance from the start. ‘Wow’ is what people from across the wool industry say what they see what we are doing to add significant value to the New Zealand wool clip."

The inventors—Professor Johnston, Dr Kelly, Dr Lucas and Dr Aaron Small—are partnering with Wools of New Zealand to develop the technology and are working with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise in London and Milan to gain entry into the high fashion knitted apparel market.

Both Dr Kelly and Dr Lucas, who graduated from Victoria in December last year will continue to be involved in developing and commercialising their research.

The team has been working with final-year fashion students from Massey University on designs using the gold merino and these will be displayed in a free fashion show open to the general public.