Kiri Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāi Tūteauru, Ngāti Ira, Te Whakatāne) is a kairangahau (Māori researcher or scientist) specialising in ocean microbes. She supports iwi in managing natural resources, from educating kids to developing environmental monitoring tools.
What do you do on an average work day?
Today I’m writing a report on working with a kura (school). On this report I am organising the data from our surveys and then I’ll analyse it. What I'm trying to gauge from the results are whether we had any impact in the work we did with the kura and if we did, what kind of impact we've had.
Have we been able to change how these particular high school kids think about science and the environment? And have we encouraged them to connect to Te Taiao (the environment)? These are my main goals.
I’m also struggling with the responses to one of the questions, which was ‘have you met scientists?’. After doing a field trip with these kids 20% of them still hadn’t met a scientist although I was introduced as a marine scientist at the beginning of our field trip. So the question shouting at me at the moment is ‘what do they think a scientist looks like?' I’m not sure yet how I should process this, it brings up all sorts of responses in me at the moment so I’ll just let that percolate as I work through the data.
My real passion is connecting with people and sharing my love of the environment and the really cool things you can find out there, if you know where to look. So I usually spend a lot of my time talking and meeting people all around New Zealand to think up new ways to explore potential opportunities for research and new ideas to connect Te Tangata (people) to Te Taiao (environment).
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I studied until I was in 6th form (Years 11-12). I didn’t do science at school as I just didn’t get it. I knew nothing about chemistry, biology or physics - but we didn’t have subjects like that in my day; it was just science.
I was good at maths and technical drawing so my mother guided me into Architectural draughting. From draughting I went on to do a Bachelor of Architecture which was five years in those days. I then worked for a few years and was always passionate about environmental architecture.
I was introduced to a night degree at Te Whare Wānanga Awanuiārangi with my Dad's best friend and I loved it. The first introduction I had was to collect and mount 20 bugs: a fly, a cockroach, a wētā, some butterflies... whatever I could find. Then we had to label them in Māori, English and Latin. Taxonomy they called it. I was hooked! We then went on to do native plants and shells. It was very cool, and I still have them in glass picture frames hanging on my walls.
Once I got my degree I was enticed into doing a Masters. I did a couple of summer scholarships when I was doing my degree. One was on the Rena oil spill and it’s effects on kaimoana, so I followed that research line into my Masters of Biology.
My Masters was on microbial communities and how the impact on the microscopic scale (only seen under a microscope) can affect the macro scale (things seen with the naked eye). I also discussed how mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and mauri (the ‘living essence’ of all things) fit into the monitoring and research that we were doing. I did DNA and genetic sequencing as well as the biology component. I also took up chemistry and had to do a lot of background learning for that. So I was really pushed outside of my comfort zone - but because I really enjoyed it, I really thrived.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Not right when I left school, as I was in the construction industry but it was relevant for what I did then. Then when I changed my career later in life, what I studied was relevant for this time and what I’m doing now.
As my path has been a wavy one it’s meant I have a very diverse skill set, which is not the norm but it has been to my advantage, as I think more laterally than focal when I look at a challenge.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Go with what you love to do! If you love it, then it’s not a job but a life full of joy.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Changing how people see the environment and interact with it is the most rewarding highlight of my career. For my Unlocking Curious Minds project with Te Whare Kura O Maniapoto, we did a water quality field trip where we were setting hīnaki (eel traps), observing invertebrate communities such as insects and looking at various water quality measures. The kids had a ball and it meant a lot that they saw the environment from another perspective.
I am also developing a mobile app and monitoring tool for assessing a mahinga kai (food gathering place). This tool is used by kaitiaki (environment guardians) who check the state of a mahinga kai through answering a series of questions, to get an overall score. The score reflects a state from good to bad, and the monitoring side of the app can log any observational and environmental quality data such as GPS co-ordinates, times, dates, users and so on - so this is very exciting. My colleagues and I will be trialling it with Ngāti Tahi and Ngati Whaoa in the field in the next couple of months.
I also really love seeing new places as part of my work. Diving at White Island for 3 days, to collect samples for my master’s thesis, was just spectacular. Then there was my trip to Invercargill to meet an iwi down there for a project, which was just breath-taking. Other beautiful places I have seen are Maungapōhatu and Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewera. There are so many amazing places around New Zealand that I can’t list them all!
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
I think it’s important purely because the contribution you have to make is important. It may be small or insignificant to you, but without it there isn’t a complete picture - not until all our little pieces are assembled. No-one has all the pieces; we all hold our own piece. So it’s important for you to contribute your piece too.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Women need to set the examples they wish their children and grandchildren to follow.
Be daring, be risk takers and live with a real sense of purpose - whatever or however you define that to be for yourself. For me, it is being my true authentic self, God-given and perfectly made as I am - faults and all! There is nothing more powerful than that when you want to create change in this world.
So it’s important for more women to be working in STEM, in order to drive the change for a better world, for future generations.
Kiri Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāi Tūteauru, Ngāti Ira, Te Whakatāne) is Kairangahau at Landcare Research. In her research she specialised in marine microbial biology. She supports iwi in building capacity and capability in managing their natural resources - doing anything from educating kids to developing tools for assessing and monitoring the state of the environment for kaitiaki (guardians).
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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