Zonta Club of Wellington Hosts Science Award

In these uncertain times, when scientists are hard at work more than ever, the Zonta Club of Wellington is very pleased to announce that Dr. Helen Woolmer, a Chemical Scientist is the winner of this year’s Biennial Zonta Science Award. 

Woolmer is excited about winning this Award which recognizes her as an exceptional emerging scientist. In her own words, she says “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”. 

Upon completing her Ph.D., 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 Zealander, born in 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 like 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 projects. They were exposed to the fun behind science and hopefully inspired to take science classes as the continue their education”. 

Dr. Woolmer 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 realized 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. Woolmer, “referencing Edgar Albert Guest’s motivational poem ‘Don’t Quit’ when the chips were down was well exercised!” says Helen. 

Dr. Jan Pearson, the convener for the Award says, “The Award recognizes 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 jeweler Neke Moa, Helen received financial support which will enable her to travel to Europe to visit pharmaceuticals and natural product laboratories to explore collaborative research possibilities.