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Don’t Quit, Says Zonta Science Award Winner

Press Release – Zonta Club of Wellington

Dr Helen Woolner, winner of the 16 th Biennial Zonta Science Award 2020. Photograph courtesy of Victoria University of Wellington. In these uncertain times of Covid-19 when Scientists are being valued more than ever, the Zonta Club of Wellington, is …


Dr Helen Woolner, winner of the 16 th Biennial Zonta Science Award 2020. Photograph courtesy of Victoria University of Wellington.

In these uncertain times of Covid-19 when Scientists are being valued more than ever, the Zonta Club of Wellington, is very pleased to announce and congratulate Dr Helen Woolner, a Chemical Scientist who is the winner of this year’s Biennial Zonta Science Award.

Helen is excited about winning this Award which recognises she is an exceptional emerging scientist.

“It will enable me to travel overseas to visit the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. There I will collaborate with Professor Deniz Tasdemir, the Head of the Marine Natural Products Research Unit”, she says.

Upon completing her PhD, Helen was awarded a three-year New Zealand Health Research Council Pacific Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in 2018, which she is undertaking in the Chemical Genetics laboratory at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research aims to improve our understanding of a traditional Samoan anti-inflammatory medicinal plant. Helen is investigating the plant’s potential in the treatment of human diseases, such as obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s and tuberculosis. She is also investigating the science behind other traditional medicines including those of the Cook Islands, Samoa and New Zealand.

Helen’s educational journey has been unique says her supervisor Dr Rob Keyzers, “She completed her high-school studies after becoming a mother to two children in her teenage years”.

Helen, from Porirua, is a proud, New Zealand born, Cook Island Maori. She says “I am passionate about the success of Pasifika students in Science. As a student, I was a mentor for Te Ropu Awhina which involved mentoring undergraduate Pasifika students at Victoria University of Wellington in subjects that I was familiar with, mostly chemistry. This role also involved outreach projects, where we would go to low socioeconomic areas in Wellington and give primary, intermediate and high-school students a day of ‘hands-on’ science. They were exposed to the fun behind science and hopefully inspired to take science as a subject”.

Dr Woolner left mainstream school at Porirua College with no formal qualifications. During the pregnancy of her first child she enrolled at Huarahi Tamariki (HHT) the School for Teenage Parents where she was stimulated by her enthusiastic and inspirational teachers and realised she wanted to pursue science as a career.

“My journey has certainly been challenging and I attribute my achievements to the support and advice offered by so many people, to whom I am immensely grateful” says Dr Woolner, “reference to Edgar Albert Guest’s motivational poem ‘Don’t Quit’ when the chips were down was well exercised!” says Helen.

Dr Jan Pearson, Convenor for the Award says, “The Zonta Science Award recognises not only the person’s excellence in science but also their communication skills and community involvement. The ability to promote science and be a role model for other young women are winning attributes in which Helen has excelled.”

As well as receiving a commemorative pounamu medal designed by Upper Hutt jeweller Neke Moa, Helen receives financial support which will enable her to travel to Europe to visit pharmaceuticals and natural product laboratories and explore collaborative research possibilities.

Congratulations Dr Helen Woolner from Gold Award Sponsor Istar Limited; Inaugural and Continuing Sponsor John Ilott Charitable Trust; Schools Sponsor KPMG and Enduring Sponsor The Zonta Club of Wellington.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions the Award Ceremony will be held in Wellington in 2021.

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