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Sciences - Massey University

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Sciences research

Massey University research in sciences is collaborative and multidisciplinary. We work across our areas of expertise to make world-leading discoveries.

Explore research in sciences

Find out more about people, programmes, and projects in our key research areas.


Massey University has many science-related PhD scholarships and jobs available at any one time. Review our areas of specialisation above to find prospective supervisors in your area of interest.

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Research projects

Some research projects from our broad range of research expertise in sciences at Massey.

Finding the Achilles’ heel of breast cancer

Partner: University of Minnesota

APOBEC3 proteins provide a key part of our defence against viral pathogens. They act by attacking single-stranded viral DNA (ssDNA) and destroy their genetic information by mutating the cytidines to uridines. For this defence to work, it is essential to distinguish between pathogen DNA and our own genetic information. How A3 proteins recognize specific ssDNA and specific pathogens, but neither double-stranded DNA nor RNA, remains unknown. The study aims to identify this recognition strategy and help develop a compound to mitigate this issue. The work is being done in collaboration with University of Minnesota.

Contact Vyacheslav Filichev

He Tātai Whenua: A Te Ao Māori landscape classification

This project, col-led by Jonathan Procter and Hone Morris, has received nearly $3 million in funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund. It will create new ways of translating Māori environmental expertise so it can be added to existing geographic information systems.

Contact Hone Morris

Algae engineering

Polyphosphate (poly-P) is found in all organisms and is involved in functions such as energy and phosphorus (P) storage and stress response in bacteria.

In eukaryotic algae, poly-P synthesis has been reported in both P-rich (e.g. wastewater ponds) and P-depleted (e.g. natural ecosystems) environments, but we do not fully understand how (the molecular basis) and why (evolutionally and ecologically) algae expend cellular energy to synthesize poly-P.

Professor Benoit Guieysse is working to identify the genes responsible for poly-P synthesis in algae, to better understand how phosphorus supply affects algal growth, which may in turn provide new engineering fundamentals in environmental engineering and algal biotechnology.

Contact Benoit Guieysse

Bacteriophages – the most numerous entity on the planet

Phages target specific bacterial strains in nature and as a primary parasite of bacteria they are responsible both for bacterial mortality and for transferring genes between bacterial strains. A team led by Heather Hendrickson are investigating, characterising and sequencing these entities in order to learn more about the role they play in the microbial world and their diversity. The group currently study Pseudomonas phages, Lactococcus phages, Paenibacillus phages and Mycobacterium phages.

Find out more

Kiwi whakapapa

Funded by: Vision Mātauranga Partner: Ngāti Kuta/Te Patuteha hapu

A project to examine the whakapapa of Northland brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) is hoping to develop robust metapopulation management for the species.

The project, led by Ngāti Kuta / Patukeha in partnership with Massey University’s Dr Isabel Castro, arose out of concerns from local whanau, hapu, iwi and DoC that some brown kiwi populations on the islands within the Bay of Islands may be inbred. Kiwi are not naturally present on the island and were placed there as a form of protection from extinction through predation and habitat loss. However inbreeding will cause a loss of genetic diversity that may also lead to extinction.

The project will investigate the extent of the problem, contributing to a management plan for the species’ ongoing survival.

Contact Isabel Castro

Creating a better picture of human diversity

Professor Murray Cox received a $925,000 Marsden Grant in 2017 to look at creating a more representative picture of human diversity, with immediate downstream relevance to the history and health of Pacific peoples.

The research will focus on small traditional villages in eastern Indonesia to analyse and quantify how much DNA diversity has functional effects. This will provide evolutionary insight into the genome dynamics of traditional human populations within the kinds of small community networks where most human evolution historically occurred.

Contact Murray Cox

Simulating the birth of the Universe

Professor Joachim Brand is working with a team from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne to build a quantum simulator of the early Universe with ultra-cold atoms.

The idea will potentially give a much clearer idea of the different scenarios involved in the birth of the Universe for the first time.

Simulating the birth of the Universe

Crop germplasm activities

In recent years Massey University has applied funding to support the broad development of plant germplasm collections (living plant collections) which can contribute to Māori interests in horticulture. These collections are mostly being established at Massey but with some satellite activity in the regions and Pacific countries. The primary crops where germplasm is being managed are: Taewa or Māori potatoes, Kumara, kaanga or Indian corn, Taro (NZ and Pacific), kamokamo (a naturalised cucurbit) and kokihi (NZ spinach).

Contact Nick Roskruge

Molecules in extreme environments

In the atmospheres of certain stellar objects such as rotating white dwarfs and neutron stars, extreme magnetic fields exist that cannot be generated on Earth. Knowledge about chemistry and physics under such conditions is indispensable for understanding astronomical observations. Dr Elke Pahl and Prof Peter Schwerdtfeger as well as post-doctoral fellow and PhD students of the Centre of Theoretical Chemistry and Physics joined European scientists at the Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in 2017/18 to work towards understanding how the chemistry we know on Earth changes under extreme conditions. Exciting new research ideas resulted - one example is a new highly collaborative research project on the study of melting processes in high magnetic fields.

Find out more

Monitoring stream sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations on hill country farms

Partner: Beef+Lamb New Zealand

This ongoing project is monitoring nutrient and sediment concentrations in a hill country stream at Massey's Tuapaka Farm and identifying climatic and management practices which increase losses. This study has been monitoring nutrient and sediment concentrations in selected streams and a seepage wetland since April 2013.

Around 60% of land area in the Manawatu catchment is used for sheep and beef grazing and most of this is in hill country. The project aims to improve our understanding of nutrient loss in these systems to inform future decision-making in the region.

Contact Lucy Burkitt

    Student research

    Anton's PhD was an extension of a holiday work experience project using fuzzy logic controllers to control little autonomous robot cars. The work involved training them automatically with a genetic algorithm.

    Anton Gerdelan
    Doctor of Philosophy (Information sciences)

    David's PhD studied the spatial ecology of sharks and human attitudes towards shark conservation at the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

    David Acuna Marrero
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Dr Hannah Wells looked at the arrangements and features of collagen within a range of tissues and natural materials for her PhD. Arrangement of collagen fibrils can vary depending on the tissue, so different arrangements result in varying strength and properties. Hannah worked to isolate processes in order to define which features correspond with certain material properties.

    Hannah Wells
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Dr Karen McCullough’s PhD research investigated how an infection can spread through different contact networks. The outputs of this research included mathematical expressions for final size probabilities [the probability of the total number of individuals in a given network ever becoming infected]. These probabilities were dependent upon how many contacts the initial infectious individual had and also the rate of transmission. The work articulated mathematical expressions for the final size probabilities for the first time.

    Karen McCullough
    Doctor of Philosophy

    For her PhD Dr Marleen Baling investigated factors that can affect camouflage colouration in the New Zealand native shore skink, Oligosoma smithi. She found that degree of camouflage colouration was influenced by microhabitat and predator search image, and that colouration for social signalling did not affect camouflage within a population. This is the first quantitative research on colouration in New Zealand reptiles.

    Marleen Baling
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Dr Maxence Plouviez worked to determine the first microalgal N2O pathway and calculated preliminary emission factors to predict N2O emissions during microalgal cultivation as his PhD project. His work has proposed mitigation strategies, careful monitoring of nitrous oxide emissions during microalgal production, and better accounting for this process in any impact assessments.

    Max Plouvier
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Nurudeen's research worked to provide different regularisation techniques for models that use dissimilarity (distance) matrices. Different regularisation procedures have been proposed in literature but there has been almost no work on the regularisation models that use distance matrices as the basis of model methods. The aim of Nurudeen's research was to characterise the primary trend of variation of the objects on all descriptors, on a lower dimensional space, whose axes are known to be of particular interest.

    Nurudeen Adegoke
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Rebecca's PhD research focused on how species evolve to best fit their environment. She used leaf hair density, which is an important characteristic in protecting against insect damage in the model plant Arabidopsis, to understand what kinds of genes and genetic variants contribute to differences we observe within a species for a given characteristic. The research found that variation in leaf hair density is driven by variation in multiple genes, but key regulators of cell fate—those that specify characteristics of the epidermis of the plant, such as leaf and root hair development and leaf and seed pigmentation—play an especially important role.

    Rebecca Bloomer
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Methane is a by-product of feed digestion that contributes about one-third of New Zealand's anthropogenic greenhouse gases. There is a rather large bacterium found to be abundant in the rumen of naturally low-methane emitting sheep called Quinella. This PhD project worked to understand why large populations of Quinella are associated with the rumens of sheep producing less methane. Results showed that it produced little or no hydrogen, a major precursor for methane, explaining why greater abundances of these bacteria leads to lower methane emissions

    Sandeep Kumar
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Sarah's PhD research focused on spatial ecology and conservation of cetaceans. The project focused on common dolphin (Delphinus sp.), Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni) and bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) in the Hauraki Gulf, with the overarching goal of providing scientific information for conservation and management.

    Sarah Dwyer
    Doctor of Philosophy

    Despite them being a national icon, very little is known about tui life histories. Sarah's research showed that tui have one of the highest rates of extra-pair paternity (multiple mating by females that creates broods of mixed paternity) currently known. Paternity success was positively related to male body size, creating selection pressures which have led to the evolution of one of the highest levels of sexual size dimorphism in birds (male tui are 50% heavier than females). Males who had larger throat feather plumes also gained more extra-pair paternity.

    Sarah Wells
    Doctor of Philosophy

      Awards and recognition

      Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger and Dr Elke Pahl were awarded $910,000 from the Royal Society's of New Zealand's Marsden Fund to explore and extend the periodic table of elements towards the super-heavy region.

      Marsden funding for heavy element research
      Royal Society Te Apārangi

      Professor Murray Cox has been awarded the Te Rangi Hīroa Medal by the Royal Society Te Apārangi for his work decoding how past societies lived through their genetic data. The Medal recognises excellence in the social sciences and was established in memory of Sir Peter Buck.

      Te Rangi Hīroa Medal
      Royal Society Te Apārangi

      Internationally renowned mathematician, Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, and his former PhD student Timothy Marshall, have received the Kalman Prize for their work solving a problem formulated by Carl Ludwig Siegel in 1942. It asks to determine the minimal co-volume lattices of hyperbolic 3-space.

      Kalman Prize for 74-year-old-problem
      Kalman Prize

      Professor Mick Roberts was awarded $415,000 from the Royal Society's Marsden Fund for the research project 'Biodiversity and the ecology of emerging infectious diseases '.­

      Marsden funding for ecology of infectious diseases research
      Royal Society Te Apārangi

      Professor Benoit Guieysse was awarded $920,000 from the Royal Society's Marsden Fund for the project 'The greedy algae that are great for our environment: why do they pay an energy penalty to gorge phosphate?'

      Marsden funding for environmental engineering research
      Royal Society Te Apārangi

      Professor Doug Armstrong was awarded $870,000 from the Royal Society's Marsden Fund for the project 'Is individual variation relevant to population dynamics?'

      Marsden funding for population dynamics research
      Royal Society Te Apārangi

      Professor Joachim Brand was awarded $870,000 from the Royal Society's Marsden Fund for the research project 'Playing dice with Fermi: Full configuration interaction quantum Monte Carlo for fermionic superfluids'.

      Marsden funding for superfluids research
      Royal Society Te Apārangi

      Professor Hans Guesgen was made a senior member of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. He is one of only nine members worldwide to be given the honour.

      Senior member of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence
      Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence

      Dr Karen Stockin has been appointed the role of strandings coordinator within the recently-created Strandings Initiative at the International Whaling Commission.

      Appointment to International Whaling Commission
      International Whaling Commission


        College of Sciences

        Massey University's interdisciplinary approach to research means that schools and institutes from a number of colleges contribute to sciences research. However the majority of sciences-related research is conducted by people within the College of Sciences.

        About the College of Sciences

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