Professor Jim Cole - Research & Innovation - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Distinguished Professor Mike Steel
Distinguished Professor Mike Steel

Research excellence recognised

A UC academic who is using mathematics to help biologists discover more about the evolution of life and a leading international sustainability and tourism researcher have each been awarded University of Canterbury Research Medals for 2014.

The medals were awarded to Distinguished Professor Mike Steel (Mathematics and Statistics) and Professor C. Michael Hall (Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship).

The Research Medal is awarded annually by the University Council 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.

Steel, who was awarded his medal for leading work in phylogenetics and in autocatalytic networks, says he was surprised but delighted to be awarded the medal.

“The last three years have gone so well, which has been a big plus for me. Having such good students and colleagues and good projects that turn to gold is great.”

Steel’s main research focus is phylogenetics, which uses mathematics to come up with better ways of reconstructing evolutionary relationships between species based on genetic data.

“It is something I have been involved in for quite some time and, of course, an area that has grown enormously because of the explosion of genomic technology.”

Steel’s research on autocatalytic networks, a key step in the “origin of life”, is based on looking at how life might have begun from a mathematical point of view.

“There is an unanswered question as to how life started. Various people have an opinion on how it started. It is an area where there are lots of opinions and theory but not a lot of data.

“But it is, curiously, an area where mathematics can play a useful role and handle the possible scenarios on how life might have started. We have a systematic way of taking any reaction system and very quickly identifying the substructures that would be feasible for early life. I find this a lot of fun.

“Mathematics is really essential since it gives a way of systematically exploring the huge space of possible evolutionary scenarios. Since evolution is a random process, probability models also play an important role.”

Steel says a highlight of the past year was delivering free public talks called “Darwin’s regret”, which refers to Charles Darwin’s wish that he had learned more about maths. The talks, organised through the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution where Steel has been deputy director for the past six years and is a founding member, discussed ideas from maths and statistics that have become central to the study and visualising of evolution.

Steel was recently named as one of four principal investigators to be awarded a $695,000 grant for a three-year research project, called “Terraces, Large Trees and Trait Evolution”, from the United States-based National Science Foundation. The project is a collaboration between leading systematic biologist Professor Mike Sanderson from the University of Arizona in the United States, his colleagues and Steel. The team will look at patchy taxon coverage and why these methods are giving biologists misleading results when building evolutionary trees from modern data.

Steel is Director of the Biomathematics Research Centre hosted within UC’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. One of his next projects is a book for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, called Mathematical Phylogeny, and will be based on a series of invited lectures Steel gave in the United States on the mathematics of inferring and analysing evolutionary trees.

Hall, Professor of Marketing at UC, received his Research Medal for his ground-breaking work in spatially integrated tourism management, environmental change and planning.

He is highly regarded and admired by key figures in his area of study.

“The significance of his research is attested by the fact that he is the most frequently cited tourism scholar in the world,” says Deputy Vice- Chancellor (Research) Professor Steve Weaver.

“At the end of 2014, he had been cited more than 25,000 times. He has published 35 authored and 35 edited books and completed more than 180 refereed journal articles and 320 book chapters.

“He has made a significant impact on the thinking around tourism policy, regional development, event marketing and management, food and wine tourism, biosecurity and issues surrounding environmental change.”

Hall says his research examines the environmental, economic and political aspects of temporary human movement.

“This is something called tourism — but it is actually much wider than how people usually conceive of tourism as going for a holiday. It covers all aspects of the voluntary temporary mobility of people.

“This focuses on issues such as sustainable cities and sustainable mobility, public transport, walkability, wine and local foods, biosecurity, climate change, entrepreneurship, innovation, rebound effect, as well as prospects of behavioural change given the design of economic, educational and technical systems.”

Hall has an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Oulu, Finland, and in the arts from Umea University, Sweden. In 2009, he was the recipient of leading international publisher Elsevier ScienceDirect’s For Great Thinking Award for the arts, humanities and social sciences, which was judged from researchers throughout the world. He also holds senior visiting positions at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, Linneaus University, Sweden, and the University of Mauritius.

However, Hall says the most important aspect of his work is not the awards but having his research read and applied.

“Having work cited by organisations such as the OECD, UNEP and the IPCC is reward in itself. Importantly, sometimes in order to make a difference you have to be different,” he says.

Hall is currently working on a number of projects, including research into local food markets and how they affect local and regional development, low carbon tourism, sustainable cities, and holiday homes and their impact on the housing market and the environment.