Colonisation, tangly plants, enzymes, sleep, and language

4 November 2016

Dr Tahu Kukutai

Associate Professor Tahu Kukutai has been awarded Marsden funding to study the effects of colonisation on generations of Māori.

A University of Waikato researcher has been awarded $735,000 over three years to study how colonisation affected generations of Māori. Associate Professor Tahu Kukutai is one of five University of Waikato academics to receive grants in the latest round of Marsden funding from the Royal Society.

Dr Kukutai will lead a study to model the impacts of land alienation and settlement on population size, structure and survivorship and explore the strategies that tūpuna (ancestors) used to resist and adapt to colonisation. Dr Kukutai says it’s the first attempt at full population reconstruction in Aotearoa New Zealand, addressing previous failures to engage indigenous peoples, epistemologies, and narratives in indigenous population histories.

In total, the University of Waikato received more than $3 million in the 2016 Marsden funding round.

Professor Vic Arcus was awarded $830,000 to continue his research into enzymes, the “extraordinary catalysts that enable life”. He and his colleagues have developed a theoretical framework called Macromolecular Rate Theory (MMRT) to explain the behaviour of enzymes at different temperatures. The next phase of his research will extend the theory and test its power to explain fundamental aspects of enzyme catalysis. Enzyme design remains one of the grand challenges of modern molecular biology, he says.

Dr Chris Lusk is studying the small-leaved, tangled "divaricating" plants which have proved to be single most controversial feature of New Zealand’s flora. He has been awarded $830,000 over three years to work on resolving this conundrum, which is vital for understanding these plants’ status in contemporary New Zealand ecosystems, and for predicting the likely impact of browsing mammals and climate change on their future abundance and distribution. Dr Lusk says rather than being a local anomaly, New Zealand’s divaricating plants may point the way to a better global theory of plant defences against herbivores.

Linguist, Dr Andreea Calude has been awarded a $300,000 Fast-Start grant to lead a study on Māori loan words and the evolution of language. She’ll work with Dr Hemi Whaanga from the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies and statistician Dr Steven Miller to study the mechanisms for how Māori loan words, such as aroha, hui and reo spread into New Zealand English. To do this she’ll examine spoken everyday conversations and take into consideration linguistic factors (such as word meanings) and sociolinguistic factors of the speakers involved (their gender, ethnicity and age), and priming factors (whether or not the loanwords occur in the same interaction).

Psychologist Dr Sabine Seehagen also received a $300,000 Fast-Start grant, to extend her investigation into the impact of sleep on memory in infants and to investigate whether sleep makes effective processing of emotional stimuli and experiences easier for infants aged from six months to 18 months. Dr Seehagen says that although both memory and sleep undergo dramatic changes during infancy, little is known about their relationship during this important period of development. She’ll work with colleagues in Australia and Germany.

Associate Professor Rangi Matamua from the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous studies is co-investigator on a Victoria University project called Ngā Takahuringā ō te ao ‒ The effect of climate change on traditional Māori calendars.