The 2021 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize winner is Dr Jemma Geoghegan from the University of Otago, an evolutionary biologist with a strong research focus on emerging infectious disease.

Jemma has a strong research interest, extensive expertise and global collaborative networks in the field of evolutionary virology. Her research has focused on a number of areas across the field of virology. These areas include: determining the fundamental patterns and processes of viral evolution, ecology and emergence; using metagenomics to reveal the diversity, structure and evolution of the virosphere; and examining case-specific evolution of major viral infections affecting humans and animals.

Jemma has made some significant findings through her research for which she has won several awards. She was the first to identify that biological features of viruses could predict human-to-human transmissibility. Furthermore, she has shown that while many viruses seem to co-diverge with their hosts, overall ‘host jumping’ plays a much greater role in shaping virus evolution than previously thought and her research aims to better understand why and how viruses jump to new hosts in the first place, and to expand the knowledge of viruses that exist in nature.

Jemma has applied a suite of new phylodynamic approaches that combine genomic and epidemiological data to uncover important insights into the spread of infectious disease within populations – these data have helped inform the Ministry of Health in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Jemma helped to establish genome sequencing of COVID 19 cases in New Zealand through collaboration with ESR. As a result of this programme, genomic sequencing continues to be used as a key tool for understanding and limiting the spread of COVID-19, meaning that viral genomics has been critical to New Zealand’s successful public health response. Jemma’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic has also received global recognition throughout the scientific community.

In her seven years of post-PhD research experience, she has published 48 peer-reviewed articles in high-ranking, international journals and she is often invited to speak about her work at national and international conferences. In 2021 alone she was an invited plenary speaker at several international conferences, and she has communicated her work to the wider public through national and international TV, film, radio, print media and podcasts, generating well over 1,000 media stories. She has also spoken on numerous discussion panels.

The selection panel were particularly impressed with Jemma’s research, application, and interview.

Read media release about Jemma’s win.




Dr Jemma Geoghegan with Hon Dr Megan Woods and Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall