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Young UC researchers win prestigious science prizes

Reprinted from University of Canterbury's "Chronicle" - 14/07/06

Three University of Canterbury post-graduate students, Jonathan Stanger (Physics and Astronomy), Jake Frye (Mechanical Engineering), and Gregory Francis (Chemistry) enjoyed success at this year’s MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards.

A panel of judges selected six category prizewinners from more than 100 entries from around the country. The awards were presented during a gala dinner in Auckland last week.

“How to make a Silk Purse out of a Sow’s Ear” was the title of work by Jonathan Stanger (Physics and Astronomy) who won the Future Science category prize.


Jonathan Stanger
Jonathan Stanger


Jonathan, who is in his first year of a Master’s degree at Canterbury University, says there is potential for his work, which mimics the intricate nature of spider web spinning, to develop patches that could replace skin and bone.

Spider silk has greater tensile strength than steel of the same diameter and Jonathan’s research is investigating “electrospinning” processes to produce tough, lightweight composite materials from substances such as proteins and cellulose.

Jonathan says winning the Future Science prize validates his work.

“It says that what I have been doing up until now has been worthwhile.”

Jake Frye (Mechanical Engineering), winner of the Masters Research category prize and runner-up in the Understanding Planet Earth category, is investigating the potential for wind-generated electricity to reduce energy costs at New Zealand’s Scott Base research station.


Jake Frye
Jake Frye


Currently, the research station uses nearly 400,000 litres of fossil fuels annually at a cost of about $1 million.

His project – “Sustainability on the Ice” – aims to determine the type of turbine most suitable for wind power generation on the Antarctic coast, where winds can gust at rates of up to 200 kmh.

Jake says Scott Base staff would need to use wind generated power as it was produced, matching demand to supply, to reduce the dependence on diesel generators.

“You can’t defer the load of the coffee maker at Scott Base but you could be flexible about when the laundry is done. Coordinating the laundry with available wind power is an example of providing a service based on power availability, not just supplying power for all services at all times.”

Gregory Francis (Chemistry), who is working with Christchurch’s Syft Technologies on the development of a device capable of identifying the presence and concentration of deadly chemical weapon agents (CWA), was runner-up in the Science in our Communities category.


Gregory Francis
Gregory Francis


He has used a modified version of Syft’s commercial detection instrument, the Voice 100, to try and identify samples of chemicals supplied by the Australian Department of Defence such as nerve gases and blister agents.

Of the five CWA’s tested, three were successfully and safely identified. Research into the detection of the two other agents is continuing.

Gregory says an instrument for quick detection of CWAs is needed worldwide.

“Once manufactured, CWAs are easily transported and easily deployed but they are very difficult to safely detect. A highly trained sniffer dog may detect a CWA but it will probably only do so once.

“The kind of device we are developing could be carried by first response units or used at airports, train stations, mail centres, high profile events or any other places where there is a security threat.”

The prestigious MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards, organised by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, are named after New Zealand-born Nobel Prize-winning scientist Professor Alan MacDiarmid.

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