NZ PM science prizes to founders of stroke risk app and forecasting elasticity in materials

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

A research team which has developed digital tools to assist people to lower their risk of stroke has been awarded the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Te Pūiaki Putaiao Matua a Te Pirimia Science Prize for 2022.

Professor Valery Feigin FRSNZ and co-investigators Professor Rita Krishnamurthi, Dr Alexander Merkin and Balakrishnan Nair from the National Institute for Stroke and Applied Neurosciences at the Auckland University of Technology, have spent more than 40 years uncovering the epidemiology of stroke and associated conditions.

The team’s research was the first to show 30-year trends in ethnic disparities in stroke incidence and outcomes. The results have filled existing gaps in epidemiological data, most notably for incidence, prevalence, mortality outcomes and risk factors.

“This data is the backbone for policymakers and makes it possible to plan evidence-based healthcare,” Feigin says.

One of the keys to the team’s work in stroke prevention has been the idea of “relative risk.”  So, instead of focusing on the absolute risk of a person having a stroke within 10 years, the focus is on how much the risk of a stroke is increased compared to a person of the same age and profile with no elevated risk factors.

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To help people understand their stroke risk, the team has developed a free mobile app called “Stroke Riskometer”. The app also provides information about how to control risk factors.

“This is motivating for people as they immediately want to know what they can do to reduce their risk,” Feigin says.

Following approaches by clinicians interested in a tool to assist them during consultations, Feigin and his team have also developed a desktop software package.

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes have been awarded annually since 2009 as a way of raising the profile of science among New Zealanders, in Aotearoa and internationally.

The award comes with a NZ$500k (AUD$466,133 ) prize.

Also recognised for his research into mathematically modelling the behaviour of twisted elastic bands was student Benjamin Smith, who won the Prime Minister’s Te Puiaki Kaipūtaiao Ānamata Future Scientist Prize.

Benjy smith, seated with his elbows on a table holding twisted rubber bands, is one of the science prize winners.
Benjamin Smith. Credit: Supplied.

Smith says the models he is working with are from the field of “finite strain theory,” which has existed for a little more than 100 years. However, in that time there’s only been some progress towards developing a generalised model.

“The current models we have only work for specific shapes of materials and in some cases only specific kinds of materials such as rubber or perhaps metals. The end result would be being able to predict the stresses that occur for any shape of material and therefore being able to predict the shapes that materials will adopt under a particular stress.”

This area of research can be applied to many structural engineering situations, such as bungee jumping and construction cranes.

The other winners of Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were:

  • Te Puiaki Kaipūtaiao Maea, Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize – Dr Jonathan Tonkin for his work developing new ways to forecast how biodiversity might respond to environmental threats so that it can be protected.
  • Te Puiaki Whakapā Pūtaiao Science Communication Prize – Associate Professor Dianne Sika-Paotonu.
  • Te Puiaki Kaiwhakaako Pūtaiao Science Teacher Prize – Doug Walker, physics teacher.

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