health & science

PM’s new, protein-wrangling science advisor

Juliet Gerrard has pursued smarter milk proteins and self-repairing clothes in her research as well as chairing the prestigious grant-giving body, the Marsden Fund. Her appointment as PM's chief science advisor was greeted with delight.

Auckland University professor and protein-wrangler Juliet Gerrard – who’s worked with Fonterra on improving its dairy products and is best known for having headed the prestigious grant-giving body, the Marsden Fund – is New Zealand’s new Prime Minister’s chief science advisor.

Her appointment was greeted with delight on Twitter and in public comments by other top scientists, with colleagues praising her mana and reputation for bringing people and knowledge together.

Her past work spans chemistry, biology, health, food science, and farm science but, really, she says, she’s a proteins scientist – a professional protein re-arranger. “We look at proteins and how they fit together and what we can do with that, so we take them out of the cell and organise them in different ways … stick them together in different shapes. It might be useful in food, or materials or nano-devices.”

Other reactions to her appointment praised the fact that she’s a woman.

The Association for Women in the Sciences tweeted: “We're super excited to see Professor Juliet Gerrard has been appointed the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor! With a female CSA and a female Minister for Science, New Zealand is leading the way for high-profile women in science.”

Gerrard says she hopes people will focus mostly on her scientific record, but she knew her gender would get attention, which is why she highlighted it in her first public remarks. “Hopefully it does make a difference for people when they see women in senior positions.”

As well as now having women in the jobs of chief science advisor and Minister for Science, the appointment was announced at Auckland University by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who’s about to go on maternity leave.

Gerrard is the second chief science advisor to be appointed from Auckland University, and, like her predecessor, paediatrician Sir Peter Gluckman, she’ll remain based in Auckland with substantial time in Wellington.

The demands of the science advisor’s job grew rapidly after Sir John Key created the role nine years ago, and have increased more since Ardern’s Government began requesting more frequent formal reports, so Sir Peter had called for his replacement to be full-time and based in Wellington. However, he was clearly pleased with Gerrard’s appointment, describing the decision as excellent, although he and others noted it may surprise some people.

Among those thrilled with the announcement were her friend and colleague, physicist Shaun Hendy, who heads Te Pūnaha Matatini (“excellent choice!” he tweeted) and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles (“Wow! This is amazing news!” was her tweet). Hendy later commented that the recent change in government might give Gerrard's role more oomph. “At least in terms of policy advice Sir Peter Gluckman has proved much more effective under the current government than the last (e.g. his hard hitting report on meth contamination), so there is an excellent opportunity for Professor Gerrard to build on this … she has the skills, background, and ability to make a real difference in this role.”

Gerrard, who’s English, trained at Oxford University and moved to New Zealand in 1993 to be a researcher at Crop and Food Research, the Crown-owned food science entity that is now Mt Albert-based Plant and Food Research. She later moved south and spent many years as a biochemistry lecturer at University of Canterbury before joining Auckland University in 2014.

She’s on Plant and Food’s research board and has chaired the Royal Society’s prestigious Marsden Fund Council – the body that hands out most of the New Zealand Government’s big grants for so-called blue sky, or cutting-edge research to researchers at universities and elsewhere. The grants, worth $80-odd million annually, are so highly contested that only a tiny proportion of the consuming applications succeed, leading to regular calls for funding to be boosted.

Gerrard has a created a commercial spin-off of her research, a company called Hi-Aspect Ltd based on protein technology.

Some of her work with plant and other food proteins – which she’s described as like trying to build “molecular Lego” – was at one point funded by the US military, in the hope that it would one day lead to “smart” army uniforms that could repair their own rips or gas masks that could alert their wearers that they’d been in contact with dangerous chemicals. The same kind of basic research also has possible uses for designing better food and medicines.

Gerrard previously did some research for Fonterra looking at re-arranging dairy proteins, though the details remain a commercial secret. (Though she regrets to say that she can’t take credit for the delicious high-protein yoghurt currently appearing on supermarket shelves).

A key part of the science advisor's role is translating science and evidence from many different areas and breaking it down for policy-makers, who are usually not scientists.

That might be something Gerrard is already used to, given the highly technical nature of her research.

Newsroom spoke briefly to Gerrard (who doesn’t take over from Sir Peter for a few weeks yet and so doesn't yet want to give detailed interviews on her role) and poked fun at the incomprehensibility of her most recent published paper, which appears in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. Its abstract, which is supposedly the part where the findings are summarised, includes in this sentence: “The obligate dimer, S75E Prx3, retained catalytic activity towards hydrogen peroxide, albeit significantly lower than the wildtype and S78C proteins, suggesting an evolutionary advantage of having higher order self-assemblies.”

Gerrard, promisingly, was instantly ready with an English translation: “What we were talking about was a protein that’s shaped like a donut. It’s a tiny, tiny donut and the student, Amy, who did the work, wanted to know why it had evolved to be a donut shape. So she chopped it into bits to see if it still worked. And the answer was, it works a lot better when it’s a donut shape.”

Phew. Celebratory donuts all round, then.

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