by Kate Hannah
“Without those conversations, we couldn’t have done this research.” Amidst the sparkle and reflection of a Langham ballroom bedecked for a research honours dinner that celebrated International Year of Light, Professor Edwin Mitchell, reflecting on receiving the Beaven Award Medal from the Health Research Council. Recognised for a career dedicated to discovering the causes of sudden infant death syndrome, and to developing public health interventions to prevent infant death, he spoke quietly of the gift he and his colleagues are given by grieving families – the gift of their story, their medical history, their family’s grief and trauma. “Their contribution enabled us to save babies’ lives.”
Last night featured many a reference to the contribution of communities, the partnership that exists between science and the society it serves. Associate Professor Ruth Fitzgerald, winner of the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal for her work in the field of medical anthropology was cited for the immense importance she places on the relationship between researcher and subject, on the balance between investigation and privacy, the critical tipping point of needing to know versus the need to tell one’s own story.
We at the Te Pūnaha Matatini table were delighted to share with the celebrations of this year’s medallists, particularly the outstanding selection of investigator Dr Michelle Dickinson as the 2015 Callaghan Medal recipient. There may have been a standing ovation from table 19 as Michelle went up to receive her award! Michelle too, spoke of the connection between the work she does with children, families, and communities, and her research, thanking her head of department for appreciating the value of public engagement and science communication.
There was a sense of contentment too, at the prevalence of awards for people who are deeply concerned with the impact of their research within communities, the need for partnership, collective approaches, and teamwork. Professor Margaret Mutu, awarded the Pou Aronui Medal for her contributions to indigenous scholarship in New Zealand, thanked the University of Auckland for its support of her, even when she’s enacting her role as critic and conscience – a acknowledgement of the importance of our own, scientific or research community.
It was a time for our community to celebrate some changes too – why? As Justin Trudeau might say, “because it’s 2015.” Of the fifteen people celebrated last night – eleven Royal Society of New Zealand medallists, two Health Research Council medallists, two Gold Crest Award winners – five were women. Professor Margaret Hyland, who was awarded the Pickering Medal for her work to reduce fluoride emissions from the aluminium industry, was the first woman to ever win that particular medal. There was a sense of more women present too, in the people asked to present awards, and the citation videos and the celebration of twenty five years of the HRC. Also new – Professor Michael Walker welcomed us in te reo Māori, and his mihimihi was followed by Society President Professor Richard Bedford also speaking at length in Te Reo.
A night, then, of light, and a collection of important words: team, collaboration, community, sharing, support. Society Chief Executive Dr Andrew Cleland alluded to the need for the Royal Society to remain relevant, to reflect the values of the scientific community, and where necessary to take leadership in modelling those values. It felt, last night, like a beginning.