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ESR team take supreme award at science awards

04 December 2020


ESR’s COVID-19 team has been named the Supreme Award Winner at the Science New Zealand Awards 2020.

The awards celebrate the achievements of all New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and Callaghan Innovation. Twenty-four awards were given out across three categories: early career, lifetime achievement and team.

ESR’s COVID-19 team were chosen as the Supreme Award winner, with the judges lauding the quality, relevance and timeliness of the work of the Team as New Zealand faced its biggest public health test in more than a century.

At its peak, the team numbered well over fifty people from ESR, including epidemiologists and laboratory technicians, right through to communications specialists and bioinformaticians. They also worked constantly with colleagues in other parts of the public health system. While their expertise varied, their sole purpose has been providing the information and tools that enable New Zealand to make critical decisions on how to eliminate and control the spread of the virus.

The team’s greatest achievements include the development of the New Zealand COVID-19 dashboard, the provision of timely data and advice to the Ministry of Health from the very first case and beyond, the development of the first test in the country for COVID-19, and genome sequencing every positive New Zealand case to aid contact tracing. The work continues as systems are improved and the development of new tools are explored through research projects at the cutting-edge, including saliva studies for future ways of testing for the virus and detecting COVID-19 in wastewater.

Lead Bioinformatics Dr Joep De Ligt says the team always found a way to deliver because the alternative was not an option.

“A pandemic response in New Zealand was always going to feature ESR strongly because we have the expertise, the systems and the mandate to deliver. But something of this scale was always going to throw up challenges and opportunities to improve, to get information faster and to source it from previously unexplored areas. Genome sequencing has taken centre stage in the last few months, for which my small team is extremely proud and humbled to be featured, but we are just a few members of a large team who are just as vital to the provision of actionable data. Along with our close collaborators, we have been working weekends and nights to help keep the team of five million healthy and safe.”

ESR chief scientist Dr Brett Cowan says communities have always looked to science for the biggest challenges and 2020 has been a shining example.

“All three of our awardees should be incredibly proud to have been highlighted for exemplifying ESR’s pledge of science for communities. Science has the most promise to solve some of our most wicked problems, and 2020 has seen this highlighted in sharp relief with our science organisations coming together to meet the call. While 2020 has been dominated by the pandemic, it is just one area of science that continues to require our attention. We and others are doing so much more to benefit the environment, people and economy. These awards are a moment of pride for ESR as an organisation, each of our recipients, and every staff member who works year-round to progress science for the direct benefit of New Zealand’s communities.”

The Awards were judged by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser Professor Juliet Gerrard, Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment’s Dr Prue Williams, and Chief Executive of BusinessNZ Kirk Hope.

Science New Zealand chief executive Anthony Scott said the ESR Team reflected how the CRIs fulfil their mission to benefit New Zealand.  “ESR was immediately able to pull together a team with multiple expertise and national and international networks.  ESR people and processes are trusted by colleagues and officials in various departments, and by the public. They had to deliver data and advice under tremendous pressure and be rigorous on quality.”

ESR’s other two deserving recipients of awards were Dr Virginia Hope and Georgia Bell.

Georgia Bell (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Pū, and Ngāi Te Rangi) received the Science New Zealand Early Career Award for ESR. Georgia is passionate about enhancing the wellbeing of Māori communities and the environment through the meeting of science and mātauranga knowledge systems. With her strong leadership and her microbiology, immunology and marine science expertise Georgia has been involved in diverse research kaupapa including mahinga kai food safety, animal monitoring with the maramataka, water contamination, colorectal cancer and improving plant resistance to pests. Georgia has led successful Vision Mātauranga and Curious Minds projects.  Her work has led to the development of food safety guidelines for mahinga kai gatherers and educational water sampling resources for use in kura.  Georgia is highly motivated by the prospect of sharing her expertise through community education and outreach. Through the delivery of focused marine science wānanga, she has made a significant contribution by encouraging tamariki and rangatahi to be excited about mātauranga, and science education and careers.

Dr Virginia Hope MNZM was named ESR’s winner of the Science New Zealand Individual Lifetime Achievement Award.  Virginia is ESR’s Medical Director and has contributed significantly to achieving better public health outcomes and equity for New Zealanders throughout her career in public health. She joined ESR in 2006, bringing with her a wealth of healthcare knowledge gained as a frontline public health specialist, including serving as a Medical Officer of Health (Environmental Health) for Auckland. Virginia is also an adept leader, with governance roles chairing district health boards. ESR has been well-placed to rise to the unprecedented challenge brought about by COVID-19 thanks to Virginia’s leadership, such that ESR’s public health surveillance and science is trusted and relied-upon by the health system and Government to inform New Zealand’s lauded pandemic response. Virginia’s acumen for scientific research is highlighted by the significant body of research she has authored or contributed to. For her services to health, Dr Hope became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014.