SMC Heads-Up: Rare whales, ‘flu suprises and SMC internship

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Genomics in NZ Rarest whales SMC internship ‘Flu suprise Kudos to Kim Hill New from the SMC Sciblogs highlights Research highlights Policy News Sci-tech eventsIssue 206 9-15 November
In This Issue
Genomics in NZ
Rarest whales
SMC internship
‘Flu suprise
Kudos to Kim Hill
New from the SMC
Sciblogs highlights
Research highlights
Policy News
Sci-tech events
Briefing: Unraveling your genome
Your genome – the billions of bits of DNA code that make up the instructions needed to make you who you are – is not quite the mystery it once was.

The technology required to sequence your genome is now more accessible than ever. Already companies are offering sequencing services for private citizens. But what can these data tell you – or your insurance provider, the courts or a snooping neighbour – about your health?

The Science Media Centre will be holding a media briefing to outline the current state of genomics and personalised medicine in New Zealand, and explore the legal and ethical implications of current and future sequencing technologies.
Dr Tony Lough, Chief Executive of New Zealand Genomics Limited, heads New Zealand’s leading genomics infrastructure partnered with several CRIs and Universities. He will be talking about how DNA sequencing technology has advanced over the last decade, where New Zealand is at, and what the future may hold.
Assoc Prof Cristin Print, University of Auckland, is a medical scientist with a background in bioinformatics. He will be discussing what genomic data can and cannot (yet) tell us about our health.
Prof Mark Henaghan, Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Otago, is the Principal Investigator for the NZ Law Foundation funded Human Genome Research Project. He will be exploring the ethical, legal and public policy considerations of advances in genetics.
Technology writer Richard McManus will also be on hand to discuss his consumer experience in getting his own genome sequenced through private company 23andMe.

Registered journalists have received log-in instructions for the briefing. Please contact the SMC for further details.

‘World’s rarest’ whale identified in NZ
The DOC workers who examined two odd-looking whales stranded on a New Zealand beach can be forgiven for not immediately identifying them as the world’s rarest – it was the first time the species had ever been seen by human eyes.

The research detailing the discovery of the whales and how DNA analysis was used to identify the species as the never-before-seen spade-toothed beaked whale has been making headlines around the world.

Published this week in Current Biology, the New Zealand study details the scientific journey undertaken to show that that the whales were members of the rare species, only previously identified from bone fragments.

The story begins on the New Year’s Eve 2010, when a female whale and male calf were stranded and later died on Opape Beach in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.

The animals were initially misidentified as Gray’s beaked whales, the most common beaked whale to strand in New Zealand. However subsequent DNA analysis from the University of Auckland identified the whales as spade-toothed beaked whales (Mesoplodon traversii).

Until now, the only evidence for the species’ existence came from three skull and jaw fragments found in New Zealand and Chile.

“This is the first time a spade-toothed beaked whale has been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them,” lead scientist Dr Rochelle Constantine said in a University of Auckland media release.

“It’s incredible to think that, until recently, such a large animal was concealed in the South Pacific Ocean and shows how little we know about ocean biodiversity.”

As Dr Constantine and her colleagues conclude in the research article, “We can now confirm that the spade-toothed whale is extant, and for the first time we have a description of the world’s rarest and perhaps most enigmatic marine mammal.”

You can read a round up of the extensive local and international coverage on the SMC website.


“It’s incredible to think that, until recently, such a large animal was concealed in the South Pacific Ocean and shows how little we know about ocean biodiversity”

Dr Rochelle Constantine (University of Auckland) on the identification of two spade toothed beaked whales.

SMC summer internship on offer
The Science Media Centre is looking for a summer intern / volunteer to lend a hand with day-to-day operations of the centre.

The successful candidate will join a fast-paced, savvy editorial team finding unexpected angles on science stories for the media and tracking down experts who can offer an evidence-based steer on breaking news and controversial topics.

You’ll need to be:
– a confident, skilled and snappy writer
– interested in science, environment, health, tech, ag and other research-driven topics
– solidly-skilled in website content management; reliable and highly self-motivated
– available to help out in our central Wellington office for a minimum of 15 hours a week in Jan-Feb 2013.

For more information, contact Dacia Herbulock at the Science Media Centre on 04 499 5476. To apply, please send an expression of interest and CV with “SMC summer internship” in the subject line, no later than 3 Dec 2013.

More information about this opportunity can be found here.

On the science radar…
Ginger Scot head count, cameras for the blind, three fingered frogs, boozing birds and the ADDMORE.
Auckland influenza rates surprise
The number of ‘flu cases recorded this in Auckland city this season are higher than would be expected, according to the latest data from an in-depth study of influenza in New Zealand.

Southern Hemisphere Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Research and Surveillance (SHIVERS) study started last year, and aims to provide closer monitoring of influenza cases in New Zealand, allowing researchers to better tailor vaccines for the rest of the world, particularly the US – which is funding the study. Data from New Zealand infections can give the Northern hemisphere a heads-up on which strains to expect in their ‘flu season.

The closer monitoring of influenza cases has revealed a higher than expected rate of infections in Auckland and Counties Manukau hospitals, with incidence rates among the very young (one year and under) and very old (80 years and over) particularly high. The data were presented this week at special meeting in Auckland.

You can read more about the latest findings from SHIVERS online.

SHIVERS Lead researcher Dr Sue Huang said, “Influenza causes more illness each year than any other vaccine-preventable illness. This study highlights the importance of tracking the viruses which cause influenza across the population so we can better protect against them through the right vaccines, prevent their spread and care for those who do get the flu.”

Concerns were also raised regarding the low rate of vaccinations among the one to four age group with only six percent of this demographic receiving ‘flu jabs.

You can read a round of media coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

Kim Hill: Broadcasting superstar
She’s devoted significant air time to interviewing some of the country’s – and the world’s – best scientists.

Kim Hill
Now Radio New Zealand broadcaster Kim Hill has received the ultimate accolade for her unique interviewing style and her quality Saturday morning show, this week named International Radio Personality of the Year.

The award, bestowed by the Association for International Broadcasting at a ceremony in London, sees Hill selected over broadcasters from major international networks including the BBC, Germany’s Duetsche Welle and Australia’s ABC.

Kim Hill features an eclectic mix of guests on her Saturday morning show, but regularly interviews scientists. Her interviews with the late Sir Paul Callaghan, helped establish Sir Paul’s reputation as one of the country’s leading science communicator’s.

She has led numerous broadcast panel discussions on science-related issues, most recently the Royal Society Talking Heads science series held during the Transit of Venus forum in June.

The Science Media Centre congratulates Kim and her producer Mark Cubey on the prestigious win.

Kim Hill’s science focus:

The Sir Paul Callaghan series of interviews
David Suzuki on sustainability
Radio New Zealand’s 2012 Talking Heads science series
Climate scientist James Hanson

And that infamous John Pilger TV interview

Maori science in focus
Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga’s research symposium in Rotorua next week will explore ways to enhance Maori distinctiveness, including Mātauranga Māori and its contributions to science.

At the symposium Prof Michael Walker will explore how early Polynesian settlers overcame the challenges presented by a cooling climate and depleted natural resources. He emphasises that “classical” Māori economy provides an example for the rest of New Zealand and global society to follow, because it successfully adapted to an isolated environment, without recourse to outside assistance or non-renewable resources.

A second speaker, Dr Ocean Mercier will consider the interface of science and Mātauranga Māori. Her talk will illustrate ways in which Māori knowledge has expanded the boundaries of science, using case studies drawn from the research of students in Te Kawa a Māui’s ‘Māori Science’ class.

For more information on the symposium, contact Gretchen Carroll at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga.

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Post-Sandy storm: State-side New Zealander and climate scientist Prof Jim Salinger notes a new weather pattern may pose trouble for the US East Coast in the wake of Sandy.

In the news:

Rarest whale:
The world’s rarest whale, which has remained a mystery to scientists for over 100 years, has been seen for the first time.

Flu data suprises: The number of flu cases recorded in Auckland city are higher than expected, according to the latest data from an the in depth SHIVERS study of influenza in New Zealand.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Anti-Vaccine Charity, No More – Darcy Cowan reflects on his successful challenging of a dubious charity, resulting in some unexpected publicity.

The funding ‘lottery’: how many grants should we be applying for? Funding curiosities lead Siouxsie Wiles to crunching the numbers on her own success rate.
Infection Thoughts

Who were Stalin’s victims? – Sometimes history is skewed to fit ideologies, writes Ken Perrott, highlighting some interesting data from the communist era.
Open Parachute

Officiating our way to an ATI totally the wrong policy – Policy shouldn’t be shouldn’t be getting in the way of setting up NZ’s tech institute, argues Peter Kerr.

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Pacific hitchhiker’s kelp travels: Taking long, accidental rides on seaweeds detached from rocky coasts enables populations of marine creatures to keep in touch and exchange genes with their relatives on isolated oceanic islands according to new University of Otago research. The authors found that, despite lacking independent means of dispersal, populations of kelp-associated invertebrates, such as sea-snails, show close genetic similarities among small oceanic islands hundreds of kilometres apart, indicating regular migration.
Biology Letters

Regular exercise benefits: People who do regular physical activity, such as brisk walking, live longer than those who don’t do any leisure time exercise, even when overweight, according to new research. Analysing data from 6 combined studies, totalling 650,000 people aged 40+, researchers found that undertaking 150 minutes of brisk walking or similar exercise a week (current WHO guideline) was associated with an average of 3.4 to 4.5 years longer life expectancy than no exercise at all.
PLoS Medicine

Accounting for clouds: Climate change models are plagued by uncertainty, but a new study suggests a way to narrow the range of estimates about how much surface air temperatures will rise due to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. US-based New Zealander, Kevin Trenberth, and his colleague propose a new way of incorporating cloud cover into current models. They show that variations in mid-tropospheric relative humidity, which are relatively easy to observe, are linked to variations in clouds, and suggest these measurements can be factored in future climate models to create more accurate predictions.

Timing Tonga’s settlement: Polynesia was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans, and new techniques reveals that the first human settlers lived in a founder colony on the islands of Tonga between 2830 to 2846 years ago. To arrive at this precise figure, the researchers used a high-precision technique to estimate the age of coral files that early settlers used to sculpt and smooth wood and shell surfaces. The author states, “This degree of precision is impossible using radiocarbon and other dating techniques. It provides significant new opportunities for our understanding of the exploration and settlement of the far distant islands spread across the South Pacific.”

“Alien horned-face” dino: Scientists have named a new species of horned dinosaur (ceratopsian) from Alberta, Canada. Xenoceratops foremostensis was identified from fossils originally collected in 1958. Approximately 20 feet long and weighing more than 2 tons, the newly identified plant-eating dinosaur represents the oldest known large-bodied horned dinosaur from Canada. Xenoceratops means “alien horned-face,” referring to the strange pattern of horns on its head and the scarcity of horned dinosaur fossils from this part of the fossil record.
Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Small Advanced Economies:
Representatives from Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand are meeting this week to discuss a number of economic issues, including investment in Science & Innovation.

Science Challenges TV: This Sunday the will see the launch of a TV and web campaign to raise awareness of the government’s National Science Challenges initiative.

NZ signs on to UN climate effort, not Kyoto: The Government has decided that from 1 January 2013 New Zealand will be aligning its climate change efforts with developed and developing countries which collectively are responsible for 85% of global emissions – as part of a UN Framework Convention, not the Kyoto Protocol
Upcoming sci-tech events

Special Lecture Series: Urban Sustainability – given by Professor Chris Daniels from the University of South Australia – 13-15 November, Wellington.
o Citizen Science: bringing science into your backyard – 13 November
o Will the environment constrain population growth? Lessons from Adelaide – 14 November.
o Why cities need nature. Lessons from Adelaide – 15 November.
ATI naming event – Event at Parliament to announce the name of the Advanced Technology Institute which is to be named in memory of Sir Paul Callaghan (invite only) – 14 November, Wellington.
Enhancing Māori Distinctiveness – The Contribution and Opportunity – Research Symposium to address the Māori contribution to New Zealand – 14-15 November, Rotarua.
NZ Rocketry Challenge Competition Launch Day – 17 November, Auckland.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.

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