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Barbara Anderson

Barbara is a high country farmer's daughter, conservation ecologist, Rutherford Discovery Fellow and Ahi Pepe MothNet co-ordinator.

Barbara AndersonWhat do you do on an average work day?  He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?

I don’t really have an average day at work. At the moment I have two big projects that I’m working on: my Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, and Ahi Pepe MothNet.

Rutherford Discovery Fellowships are mid-career five-year research program run through the Royal Society Te Apārangi. Mine is called “Safe Havens and Battlegrounds”. I am investigating how thermal refugia (the 'safe havens' - small areas with cooler microclimates such as gullies or south-facing slopes) and interactions between species (the 'battlegrounds') might affect how our ecosystems respond to climate change. Then ultimately, how we might adjust what conservation to prioritise to reduce some of the landscape-scale effects of climate change.

I have had a few breaks so I am just at the start the fourth year of the Fellowship. So far, it has been a mix of alpine fieldwork, computer modelling, data analysis, some manuscript writing and grant writing to get more funding, and a few amazing working group meetings with collaborators and conferences. And a lot more of filling in expense claims, time sheets, budgets and internal reporting and admin meetings than I would have thought!

Ahi Pepe MothNet is a citizen science project that aims to engage teachers, students and whānau with moths, and with nature and science through moths. We’ve run two week-long wānanga (workshops) - one at Orokonui ecosanctuary in Dunedin) and one at Bushy Park in Whanganui. We’ve also produced a series of eight regional Beginners’ Guides to Moths, a set of classroom activities, step-by-step instructions and set up ecological experiments based on moths.

All our Ahi Pepe MothNet resources are in Te Reo Māori and English, including some of the videos we made with the Science Learning Hub, so my Te Reo Māori is slowly improving. I really love working with the tamariki, and the project partners I’ve met through Ahi Pepe are amazing. The best thing about science is when you get to work with amazing passionate people. The sort of people who just make things happen.

Barb and Ahi Pepe student checking a moth trapWhat did you study at school? And after high school?  I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?

At School I took outdoor pursuits, maths, biology, chemistry, history, woodwork, and technical drawing. One of my teachers said I should take economics instead of woodwork, as 'girls don’t do woodwork'!

After high school I spent a year in Italy as an exchange student for linguistics (learning Italian by osmosis, and my exchange sister Francesca’s ultimate patience). After the first six months, my Italian was deemed fluent enough to attend the high school for art where almost no one spoke English.

Returning to New Zealand I spent a year working as a farmhand on the family farm; waitressing in the evenings and doing a first year statistics paper. I began University taking as many subjects as I could fit in - organic and inorganic chemistry, ecology, cell biology, whole organism biology, physical geography, botany, and anthropology. I wanted to be an ethanobotanist, recreating the ecology and landscapes of pre-Anthropocene peoples.

Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?

I haven’t thought about it in a while, but I guess I’ve circled right back to where I began. I spent eight years in the UK as a postdoc researching the effects of observed human-induced climate change on ecological systems, how this interacts with biodiversity needs and prioritising land space for ecosystem services.

Since returning to Aotearoa I’ve transitioned from a heavy user of citizen-collected scientific data to working at the other end of citizen science with the Ahi Pepe MothNet project, with a focus on weaving Pūtaiao (science), Taiao (environment), Toi (arts) and Te Reo Māori together through engagement with moths.

Academically my most recent paper investigates the possible implications of changing plant distributions due to human-induced climate change on impact on iwi prestige and gifting practices.

Barbara doing field research

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?  He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro?

What would I share? That’s a tricky one. For various reasons the last year has been pretty tough. Sexism in science affects people differently at different stages of their career and in different ways. One thing that really surprised me was that because sexism is societal women are just as sexist as men, but I think it hurts more. So seek out people who lift you up - that's important.

Te āwheto kai paeka - the caterpillar eats the leaves - is a whakataukī that can be taken to mean 'try all the leaves and find out what you like best'.

Even if you don’t carry on in science as a career, take some STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering, maths] as they are so useful in so many ways in everyday life.

What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?

This is another tricky question!

I feel like getting my PhD scholarship, graduating, getting the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, successful grant applications, manuscripts finally being accepted, my Distinguished Service Award, and promotions should be the answer. But my real career highlights have largely been joint achievements. The Ahi Pepe camp in Whanganui. The Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti senior class presenting the Ahi Pepe MothNet project at an international conference in Toronto; and before that at the Crazy Ambitious conference at Te Papa. The Puka Whakamārama o te Pepe Nui moths guides being published and sent out.

Likewise, the papers I’m most proud of are not my most cited or the ones in journals with the highest Impact Factor (a common but flawed metric). I’m more proud of some of the Methods in Ecology and Evolution papers I’ve been the Associate Editor for, as I am of some that I’m co-author on. Having my Hen Harrier paper being cited in a government policy decision to re-establish hen harriers in the South of the UK (later overturned, but hey still a highlight).

Seeing my students being gainfully employed in jobs they love is a big highlight for me too.

Barb eating with chopsticks

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?   He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?

Engaging in STEM subjects is so important for understanding everyday life. It’s not just about being scientists or engineers.

We’d have better policy decisions if our politicians had a better understanding of science and the environment. For example we’ve had consensus on the causes, and major implications of climate change for decades but we are still failing to act.

Understanding basic statistics, maths and technology and the scientific method puts you in a better position to interpret everything, from current events through to personal finances and medical decisions.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?

It's important to have the diversity of our community represented in STEM. Scientists are often portrayed as lone genius types working in a cold and calculated manner, but the truth is science requires a lot of creativity and imagination. Which questions get asked, tested and eventually answered depends on the group of people asking them. Each scientist brings their own set of passions and experiences to science. Scientists are first and foremost people, and we all have individual biases. Different backgrounds make science better.

Barbara with Tiahuia and Kahu, her Ahi Pepe teammates

Barbara is a high country farmer's daughter, Quantitative Conservation Ecologist, Rutherford Discovery Fellow and Ahi Pepe MothNet co-ordinator. She is also a Curious Minds Ambassador.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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