The annual AIMES Awards were presented at the North Harbour Club’s gala dinner held at the Bruce Mason Centre on Saturday November 9th. Twenty-three year old former Long Bay College student and microbiologist Courtney Davies won the AIMES Innovation Award, sponsored by Massey University, and then went on to also pick up the AIMES Supreme Award. Courtney received the award and cash grants of $30,000.
Courtney Davies is passionate about bacteriophages...and rightly so. The young microbiologist graduated this year with a Master of Natural Science degree from Massey University, earning Distinction for her thesis on isolating the protein that enables bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria), and bioengineering them into an antimicrobial tool. In other words, finding an additional barrier of defence to effectively help people such as healthcare workers who put themselves at risk to help others.
“I’m personally really interested in bacteriophages because unlike antibiotics, bacteria don’t develop resistance to them as easily, meaning we are able to treat infections quickly, efficiently and environmentally friendly with little residue,” Courtney explains. “This is the type of research I am passionate about, when biological innovation is able to save lives, especially as we enter into a time where it is expected that by 2050, antibiotic-resistant infections will take more lives than cancer.”
It’s been four years since Courtney isolated a novel bacteriophage virus from soil that had never been discovered before. Since winning the AIMES Emerging Talent Award in 2017, she has worked with Fonterra producing ground-breaking research into isolating viruses from unpasteurised milk, and is currently collaborating with the Massey University Marine Ecology department on a marine genetics project using environmental DNA barcoding to detect the presence of the rare toheroa mollusc along New Zealand beaches.
“With just a handful of sand, we are able to detect the presence of this rare mollusc, almost driven to extinction throughout the 1950s due to over-harvesting and the establishments of canneries along the coastline,” she says. “eDNA is becoming a popular tool for species identification and conservation, so it is especially important to utilise this science within New Zealand.”
Courtney – a gifted hockey player – has been involved in the Metagenomics Day outreach programmes across North Shore secondary schools and served for three years as a laboratory demonstrator for undergraduate cell biology, plant biology and biochemistry papers. Other accolades include the Massey University Albany Vice Chancellor's Natural Sciences Excellence Award and the Massey University Vice Chancellor’s High Achiever Academic Scholarship; her work for the university at Fieldays in 2016, 2017 and 2018 fitted her passion for agriculture, having established her own breeding stud of purebred Ayrshire dairy cattle in 2011.
With communication top of mind, Courtney won the 2017 Massey University and Inter-University National Masters 3-Minute Thesis competition and is a member of Toastmasters International. Her passion for educating youth has culminated in a fulltime environmental educator position for Blake NZ, reaching more than 25,000 students and community members to foster the relationship between marine landscapes and terrestrial ecosystems using virtual reality across Auckland, Northland and the Waikato.
Last year, Courtney was appointed as the New Zealand Royal Agricultural Society Rural Ambassador and has travelled more than 11,000km in the name of agriculture, supporting the next generation. She has been elected onto the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) executive committee – the youngest person ever – and is involved with many agricultural organisations, science and education organisations.
She’s also been on the move. Last year, Courtney was one of just 15 students globally to attend a Red Sea Summer Programme in Saudi Arabia, and in November was the New Zealand delegate to the Bayer Youth Ag Summit held in Brazil to find solutions towards feeding a hungry planet over the next few years. “Being recognised as someone who can help make that change is rewarding,” she says.
“I presented one of my ideas on how to feed our hungry planet by using virtual reality technology to educate the wider communities around us about the benefit of agriculture and how food makes its way to the supermarket. By showing people the grass-roots of agriculture, I hope this inspired them to get involved and to see that agriculture is more than just milking a cow… it involves science, technology, business, accounting and so much more.”
Beyond the classroom, Courtney says her aspirations revolve around speaking and presenting her research around the world – something she will use her AIMES funding for.
“It was an incredible honour and surprise to be acknowledged with the 2019 AIMES Supreme Award,” said Courtney in mid-November. “I remember when I first applied for the AIMES Awards several years ago, I was in awe of the supreme winners. These were people who epitomised excellence throughout all aspects of their specialty, both in the community and on the international stage. In all honesty, the supreme award was not something I thought was attainable due to the high calibre of those who have gone before me and as a result, to not only be awarded the 2019 AIMES Innovation Award, but the supreme award, was truly humbling and affirmed that scientific innovation is something highly valued in our community. I had arrived back from the Youth Ag Summit in Brazil just a few hours prior and with a 15-minute layover in Chile’s largest airport, I didn’t think I would make it back in time. Without a doubt this has been the pinnacle of my academic career and I am excited to use this platform to inspire more young people from our region into science, education and leadership through the many opportunities this fantastic area has to offer.”
“I am currently working for Blake NZ as a Virtual Reality Environmental Educator and will continue to work in this position, taking on additional tasks around logistics and project management of the environmental leadership programmes within our non-profit in 2020,” explained Courtney when quizzed on what the next year will hold for her. “I currently sit on two executive boards, focussing on youth involvement in science and the agricultural industry in New Zealand where I have the chance to be involved in decisions that directly impact these groups. I am looking forward to using these platforms to create more opportunities for the people around me, giving back to the communities who have provided me with experience and skills along the way. I will be starting 2020 with the Agricultural Shows Australia Next Generation Conference in Queensland, using some of the AIMES Awards funds to help me over there. I am also looking at completing an MBA at Massey University, to equip me with the knowledge to better give back to those around me through leadership and governance and am looking forward to exploring more local initiatives to participate in.”
“I have some clear goals for my career. I am still so passionate about giving back to our community and the people within it. I am looking forward to a future career involved in agriculture, science and leadership. Eventually I am looking forward to completing in a PhD project combining science and business. I would like to remain involved in research while still being part of the boardroom decisions to ensure that scientific innovation and communication is accurately transferred into society. However, like many other young people, I still have no idea of exactly what I want to do over the next few years. The one thing I do know is that I want to ensure my actions are focussed around our North Harbour shores before acting globally.”
A full summary of all 27 young people who received awards and grants in the 2019 North Harbour Club AIMES Awards is included in this issue. For more information visit: www.northharbourclub.co.nz