Rewarding research excellence
A scientist who has made important and widely respected contributions to plant ecology, and a researcher who has had an outstanding impact on Māori research and education, have each been awarded University of Canterbury Research Medals for 2013.
The medals were awarded to Professor Dave Kelly (Biological Sciences) and Professor Angus Macfarlane (Office of the Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Māori, and School of Teacher Education).
The Research Medal is awarded annually by the University for excellence in research or in recognition of research of outstanding merit produced over a limited time frame. It is the University’s highest recognition of an outstanding contribution to research.
Kelly, who received his medal for his world leading research in plant ecology and plant-animal interactions, says he was surprised, delighted and honoured to be awarded the Research Medal.
“You’re never quite sure where the research will lead so it is a bit surprising and very humbling to be given this award. I really was gobsmacked to be told that I got it because there are so many world-class researchers at UC.”
Kelly’s research is primarily about interactions between plants and animals. More specifically, his two best-known areas of research are on mast seeding (plants which have occasional huge seed crops) and bird-plant mutualisms (pollination and seed dispersal by birds).
One of his long-term research projects on mast seeding started in 1986 when a postdoctoral researcher from the United States was visiting New Zealand for two years to study flowering in snow tussocks. After the researcher found some puzzling initial results, Kelly decided that he should carry on the study for a few more years.
“That study is still going on 27 years later and we’re still learning new things.”
It is now one of the best-documented studies worldwide of mast seeding and predator satiation (where the plant reduces losses to seed predators by being unpredictable in how many seeds are produced).
Even though every discovery is exciting, Kelly says that a project on bird-plant mutualisms published in Science in 2011, after 10 years study, has been one of the highlights of his career so far. The paper looked at a bird-pollinated North Island native shrub. Pollination was failing on the North Island mainland where native bird densities had declined, but pollination was still working perfectly well on adjacent island bird reserves. This proved that birds are essential for long-term plant survival. He credits having a supportive department of fully committed and clever people, and some very stimulating collaborations outside UC, for the success of the project.
Kelly, who was also awarded the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Hutton Medal in 2013, has so far had more than 130 refereed publications as well as more than 3,300 citations, and his publications are in many of the top journals, including two articles in Nature and one in Science. He has had papers published on a wide range of topics, including the origins of the unusual “divaricate” shrub growth form in New Zealand, the impact of herbivores on plants, ecophysiology, bird ecology and insect behaviour and taxonomy.
He has also been the primary or co-supervisor for 78 research students, with many of them going on to positions in universities in New Zealand and overseas, research organisations and the Department of Conservation.
“I think I have the best job in the world. Research is a voyage of discovery with surprises around every corner,” says Kelly.
Macfarlane, Professor of Māori Research at UC, received his medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Māori research and education.
Macfarlane says he was very humbled to receive the award and that it honours the importance of Māori and indigenous research and researchers.
“There is a saying ‘he toa takitini’. This refers to success being shared rather than an individual thing — and that’s how I feel about the Research Medal.”
Macfarlane, who is one of only two Professors of Māori Research in New Zealand who hold that specific portfolio, provides research leadership and strategic direction across the University in his pan-university role. He helps strengthen and expand kaupapa Māori research methods and initiatives for all staff, and provides mentoring and support for Māori academics in all disciplines.
Macfarlane’s research is grounded in cultural psychology and he describes it as an intriguing field as it attempts to discover the relationship between culture and psychology, and how it affects and shapes behaviour and motivation. His research began in the 1980s when he was head teacher of a secondary school for students with profound behavioural difficulties. He wanted to understand more about the process involved in supporting young people’s chances for better opportunities.
“Research offers an opportunity to expand in different directions while simultaneously retaining proximity to one’s primary discipline.”
Macfarlane has been involved in many research projects over the years, including one being undertaken by New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga. He is principal investigator on a tribally based project which promotes the theme of “enhancing Māori distinctness” and explores the key success indicators for high-achieving rangatahi (young people).
In 2010, Macfarlane received the prestigious Te Tohu Pae Tawhiti Award from the New Zealand Association for Research and Education, a national citation that recognises researchers who have made a significant contribution to Māori education over an extensive period of time. That same year, he was part of a group that received the Research Team Award for outstanding research carried out by a team in UC’s College of Education.
He is involved in collaborative work with universities around the world, including Macquarie University in Australia, Colorado State University in the United States, the University of Sydney in Australia, Oulu University in Finland and Waterloo University in Canada.
Macfarlane is the author of five books and more than 70 chapters, academic journal publications and professional reports. He has been invited to present more than 70 keynote addresses since 2009.
He says the launch of his third book, Discipline, Democracy and Diversity, has been a highlight.
“I loved writing that book. It was right in line with my passion and it built on my own research and the seminal work of colleagues locally, nationally and internationally.”
Macfarlane enjoys the variety that academic work presents, and working with people and for people.
“I am enthusiastic about learning from those with whom I work. It gives me the opportunity to encounter new ideas and use those ideas in thinking and reasoning that go toward making a contribution to Māori and academia.”