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ESR scientists honoured at 2021 Science New Zealand National Awards

15 December 2021

ESR’s excellence in virology, human genomics and forensics has been recognised at the annual Science New Zealand National Awards, which were held virtually today. The awards recognise the outstanding achievements of the scientists working at the seven Crown Research Institutes, including ESR.

The Environmental Virology Laboratory, who oversee the wastewater testing programme to identify COVID-19 in New Zealand communities were awarded Team of the Year, with Senior Bioinformatician Dr Miles Benton securing the Early Career Researcher of the Year. Dr Stephen (Steve) Cordiner was recognised with the Individual Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to forensic science.

Chief Executive, Peter Lennox said that the recognition was a timely tribute to the critical role the science sector had played in 2021 in NZ and the people who had made it happen.

“Despite it being an enormously challenging year, the exceptional expertise, commitment and insights of ESR’s team continues to amaze me. We should be justifiably proud of the contribution our people have had to the health and wellbeing of communities throughout Aotearoa and beyond. I am delighted for the winners of the three categories and enormously appreciative of their efforts this year.”

Team of the Year - Enteric, Environmental and Food Virology Team

Led by Dr Joanne Hewitt, ESR’s ‘wastewater testing team’ has been recognised as providing a crucial line of defence in NZ’s COVID-19 response.

Building on over 20 years' experience studying viruses such as poliovirus and norovirus in wastewater, in August 2020 the team undertook research to detect COVID-19 in wastewater with an eight-week sampling pilot at sites throughout New Zealand. One year later the programme expanded to cover 26 sites before being ramped up with testing of up to 335 samples undertaken each week from 173 locations throughout NZ. The team’s experience was crucial to the rapid development and remarkable sensitivity of the testing.

The small team of nine scientists and technicians have pulled out all the stops, working around the clock to source and analyse wastewater samples in response to the delta outbreak. Testing has delivered tangible outcomes including prompting additional clinical testing following the detection of COVID-19 in Warkworth, while also demonstrating that there were not cases elsewhere. At the same time the team continues to work on other viruses including norovirus, rotaviruses, and hepatitis A. The team also find time to publish high quality, and highly cited research with 10 journal publications so far since 2020.

Early Career Researcher – Dr Miles Benton

Seven years post PhD, with a H-index of 19 and recognised nationally and internationally, Miles has practised his research at the highest levels in University (NZ, Australia) and NZ’s CRI environment.\

He is passionate about community science – whether harnessing the power of the international science community or empowering science and research ‘for the people’.

His research, inspired by the premature birth of his son, has focussed on Oxford Nanopore Technology; specifically, the game changing insights this sequencing technology can reveal, and the ground-breaking pairing with portable compute (Nvidia) to place the capability affordably into the hands of those who need it most. For instance, faster clinical diagnoses and improving the health and well-being of communities and their environment. Part of the Genomics Aotearoa Bioinformatics Leadership Team, Miles is always keen to ‘give back’ to emerging scientists instructing and facilitating Data Carpentries workshops and mentoring on ESR’s data science accelerator programme.

Early Career Researcher – Dr Miles Benton

Seven years post PhD, with a H-index of 19 and recognised nationally and internationally, Miles has practised his research at the highest levels in University (NZ, Australia) and NZ’s CRI environment.\

He is passionate about community science – whether harnessing the power of the international science community or empowering science and research ‘for the people’.

His research, inspired by the premature birth of his son, has focussed on Oxford Nanopore Technology; specifically, the game changing insights this sequencing technology can reveal, and the ground-breaking pairing with portable compute (Nvidia) to place the capability affordably into the hands of those who need it most. For instance, faster clinical diagnoses and improving the health and well-being of communities and their environment. Part of the Genomics Aotearoa Bioinformatics Leadership Team, Miles is always keen to ‘give back’ to emerging scientists instructing and facilitating Data Carpentries workshops and mentoring on ESR’s data science accelerator programme.

Individual Lifetime Achievement - Dr Stephen Cordiner

Throughout his career, Dr Stephen Cordiner harnessed forensic science to achieve impact for communities around Aotearoa. Steve’s career spanned the crossroads as forensic science transitioned into the highly technical discipline we recognise today.

As part of the vanguard, Steve was instrumental in this shift, making an outstanding contribution to implementing techniques especially in DNA analysis. He has helped make sure justice in Aotearoa is underpinned by robust, impartial science that ensures more equitable outcomes.

Aside from examining countless crime scenes, Steve played a major role in communicating the value and validity of forensic science in precedent-setting early trials, such that forensic evidence is widely accepted today. Steve’s lifetime achievement extends well beyond science with many New Zealanders positively impacted because of his work, including the whānau of victims he helped give justice and closure to.