12 Nov 2015

Teen wins $50,000 for scientific invention

1:44 pm on 12 November 2015

The future of New Zealand research was a focal point at this year's Prime Minister's Science Prizes, with young scientists and their mentors recognised for their work.

Science Teacher Prize winner Tania Lineham (left) and Future Scientist Prize winner, secondary school student Georgia Lala (right).

Science Teacher Prize winner Tania Lineham (left) and Future Scientist Prize winner, secondary school student Georgia Lala (right). Photo: RNZ/ Tom Furley

Grant money of $1 million was awarded at a ceremony in Te Papa yesterday, alongside some of the country's top science honors.

Georgia Lala began her Wednesday morning stressing about her end of year chemistry exam.

Hours later the 18-year-old was shaking hands with Prime Minister John Key and receiving a $50,000 cheque.

Ms Lala was recognised yesterday for developing an aquaponics system, using fishtanks to help grow edible plants in the home, and helping families rely less on commercially-grown crops.

"The food that is produced through it has a really low carbon footprint, so you don't have to use any soil. There's no fertilizers, no pesticides as you go.

"It's basically a healthy way of living."

Ms Lala has patented the Root Aquaponics system, and hopes to turn it into a small business.

She has applied to a Biomedical Sciences course at university next year with the hopes of going on to study medicine, and the grant will help make that happen.

"It just means a really good future for me, and it's inspired me to keep up with my science."

One person striving to mould young minds like hers is teacher Tania Lineham, head of the science department at James Hargest College in Invercagill.

She was awarded the Science Teacher Prize for her drive to teach real-world science skills to students of all abilities.

"I think it's really important that science is accessible to everybody, it should not be an elitist subject."

Under her leadership, her faculty has introduced courses to help those applying for trade apprenticeships.

"It's about growing scientific literacy, so the students can tell the difference between fact and opinion.

"When they're making decisions based on information they're seeing out in the real world, that hopefully they're making informed decisions."

While not all of her students will go on to become scientists, a few may find themselves working with some of the best, such as distinguished professor Ian Reid.

This week, the Royal Society awarded him the Rutherford Medal and the Liley Medal for his work in bone density treatments and yesterday the Prime Minister's Science Prize, alongside Associate Professors Mark Bolland and Andrew Grey, for their recent study debunking common treatments for osteoporosis.

The honour also came with a $500,000 grant, which will not only go towards pushing their research forward, but to also recruit more young scientists to the field.

"One of the things that we would particularly like to do is draw in some new young blood into the team," said Professor Reid.

"To take on some more PhD students and some more research fellows and get young people enthused in the prospects of muscular-skeletal research."

Mr Key, who presented the awards, said funding for science was strong in New Zealand and had increased to $1.5 billion.

"The challenge for us is to continue to put in more resources and then have that matched by the private sector."

Mr Key said there was still some way to go.

"On the sort of OECD graphs, we're still on the low end of combined private sector-public sector contribution."

Young scientists, like Georgia Lala, are examples of the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that will drive the industry forward, he said.