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Nicola Toki

Nicola is the Threatened Species Ambassador for the Department of Conservation.

Nicola with wētāpunga (giant wētā)What do you do on an average work day?

I’m not sure there’s ever an average day for my role!

An average week usually includes two to three days of travelling somewhere to speak to communities, agencies or conservation organisations on what’s special about out New Zealand’s incredible native wildlife, why it’s in trouble and what we need to do to turn things around.

I might also travel for meetings with my team (I’m on the senior leadership team for the Biodiversity Group in DOC), or to work with media on a story about a threatened species somewhere.

On any given day there may be a tuatara in my laundry or a stoat in my freezer (both of these things happened).

What did you study at school? And after high school?

At school I became very passionate about anything to do with the natural world. I was that kid who brought home tadpoles and cockabullies in my lunchbox, collected shells and animal skeletons and had pet caterpillars and praying mantises. I particularly loved marine biology, and at high school I was really lucky to be involved in an acceleration programme which allowed me to study marine science on Friday lunchtimes when I was in third and fourth form. I spent hours recording marine flora and fauna I found at the beach, and was allowed to attend the Year 13 marine biology camp to Kaikōura when I was 14. (This stuff came in very handy when I started my Zoology degree and realised I’d already learned all the phyla classification and didn’t need to study that for exams!

I decided to study at Otago University because I thought that the Zoology Department looked really interesting. I also liked the look of the University buildings and wanted to move away from home! At University I had to find 12 extra points in my first year of my Bachelor of Science degree, so I took first year law - because my parents pointed out I was really good at arguing! - and to my surprise, I got accepted into Law School.

For the next four years, I studied toward a double degree in both Law and Science, but after getting into Honours for my Science degree, it got too hard to sprint between freshwater field trips and pleas in mitigation - and it’s hard to represent at a debate at law school when you still have wet gumboots! So I had to put a stop to my legal studies towards the end.

For my Honours dissertation in Zoology, I studied moult in Adelie penguin chicks on the Antarctic Peninsula, as a part of the Chilean Antarctic Institute field team for the summer. I spent that summer in a one-room hut with three blokes; two Chileans and a Brit on Ardley Island, a Special Scientific Area Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. It was an epic adventure, including that in all the rush to design my study and get my field kit together, I hadn’t thought to learn Spanish (and hugely accented Chilean Spanish at that!). I relied heavily on my high-school French, a good ear for languages and plenty of charades to get around South America and to live as part of the Chilean Antarctic Institute Research team on the ice.

Nicola in Antarctica

I also gained a Post-Graduate Diploma in Natural History Filmmaking and Communication, which was a partnership between Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) and Otago University. I was trying to decide whether to continue with my Zoology studies and study toward a PhD, until I realised what I really wanted was to find ways to encourage people to care about the natural world.

I was a student in the first year that they ran the course, and I gained a lot from the experience and the expertise of the writers and directors from NHNZ who I’d ‘grown up with’ spending my childhood watching shows like Wild Track and the Wild South documentary series. It was watching those shows that I got to know the tale of the black robin, the kākāpō, the takahē and the myriad wonderful wildlife belonging to New Zealand.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

When I told people at University I was studying Zoology and Law, they often raised their eyebrows, and many told me I’d never get a job with a combination like that. I’ve spent the last fifteen years advocating for our natural world, and I use both of those disciplines (honed by my post-grad diploma) every single day.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Although it’s been said so many times it has probably lost impact, I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is to follow your passion. To be successful and to keep up the resilience required in the science world to push for your knowledge to get cut-through, you have to really love it, care for it and fight hard for it.

That being said, I would also say hold onto your empathy, your kindness and the inner strengths that come with being a woman. It’s taken me a while to realise you don’t have to act like a bloke in the science world to be successful - there is value in a woman’s science perspective and how we tell our story.

Now that I’m a mum, I’d like to add that your career is super-important, but so is your family, whatever shape that may take. It’s bloody hard to juggle that, so finding the time to breathe and give time to yourself and those you love is something that you sometimes need to make a priority.

Nicola on Hauturu o Toi (Little Barrier Island

What are some of your career highlights so far?

Just about every day of my job brings some new career highlight, so I’ll just mention a few. About ten years ago, I was privileged enough to be part of a partnership between DOC and TVNZ on a programme called Meet the Locals, which saw me research, write and present over 200 four minute episodes of conservation stories for the newly created digital channels for TVNZ at the time.

I basically spent three years travelling the length and breadth of New Zealand, telling the stories of our wildlife, wild places and the people who love to protect them. That was the best 'overseas experience' I could have wished for, right inside my own country. I got to visit places like Hauturu o Toi/Little Barrier Island, see kākāpō in the flesh (or feathers) on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, and to join the team in their effort to cut down wilding pines from the top of the Remarkables in Wakatipu.

In 2004 I travelled to New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands as a government representative and got to experience the amazing array of wildlife found down there.

In 2010 I got to take HRH Prince William for a walk on Kāpiti Island – there were just the two of us on the walk and we chatted about nature the whole way up and down the track.

Nicola with Prince William

Since late 2015, Jesse Mulligan and I have chatted every Friday on Radio New Zealand (RNZ) for a slot called Critter of the Week. We’re three years in and still going strong on the lesser-known and loved species of New Zealand. RNZ are so supportive of Critter, they commissioned Critter of the Week T-shirts! Jesse and I love yapping about nature.

In 2016, I filmed a series for UK Discovery called NZ: Evolution Islands, which focused on the science behind protecting New Zealand’s threatened species. This show was broadcast all over the world, and was a fantastic opportunity to showcase our scientific conservation expertise to the rest of the globe. My favourite part of that filming was helping our scientists catch short-tailed bats in the middle of the night, to put transmitters on them. I had a short-tailed bat run up my arm and perch on my head, much to everyone elses’ surprise! I may be the only person who’s ever had a short-tailed bat on my head.

In 2017 I met Jane Goodall, a childhood hero, and a dedicated advocate for conservation around the world.

Much more recently, in March this year, I participated in an historic takahē release into Kahurangi National Park, in association with Air New Zealand and our other key partners, including Ngāi Tahu and Fulton Hogan. This was the first release of takahē to a new mainland site, since their rediscovery in 1948 in the Murchison Mountains. We chartered a plane and over the course of a very long day, we transferred 18 takahē from Burwood Bush takahē reserve to Queenstown, to Nelson to the Gouland Downs in Kahurangi National Park.

Since that release, we have transferred more birds, and trampers are regularly hearing and seeing takahē on the Heaphy track. The reason we decided to release these birds is that we (DOC) have got so good at making takahē, we’ve increased their population by 10% every year, so we can try new things like that Kahurangi release site. I’m pleased to report that so far so good - with all birds accounted for and settling into their new homes!

Nicola with Jesse Mulligan, who is holding a tuatara

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

In this modern post-truth world, where people are disengaged from the facts, it’s so important for us to bring evidence to the equation in a way that people can understand and engage with, so that they can feel equipped to make good decisions, based on science.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

Because women are natural problem solvers (watch any mother of toddlers for an example!). New Zealand women are naturally curious, dedicated and determined to get to the truth of the matter. Science is a perfect opportunity for women to show truth in a post-truth world.

Nicola with Jane Goodall

Nicola Toki is the Threatened Species Ambassador for the Department of Conservation.

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

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