Every year, Te Papa partners with Victoria University in their Summer Research Scholarships initiative. These scholarships offer students the opportunity to work side-by-side with internationally recognised researchers. Students learn what actual research is all about, and gain valuable experience in their chosen study area. Victoria University and Te Papa share the costs of the students’ stipends, thus allowing more people to take part.
From November 2018 to the end of February 2019, Te Papa’s Science department hosted six summer scholars: Elliot Keall and Justin Liu became part of the Botany team; Douglas Rands worked with the Ornithology group; and Katrin O’Donnell, Any Gault, and Holly Jackson all joined the Invertebrates team. Each of them focused on a very different project and now they’ve finished, they share their experiences.
Inside our summer science projects
Elliot worked with botanist Heidi Meudt on analysis of DNA sequence data for New Zealand hebes and their Northern Hemisphere relatives. The data comes from an ongoing collaboration with colleagues in Germany.
Elliot sharpened her coding and analytical skills, learned how to use multiple analysis programmes and pipelines, and made use of the computing power at VUW’s School of Biological Sciences to compile, align, and analyse sequences from several genes of multiple hebe species.
Justin Liu also worked with Heidi Meudt, in a project that combined digitisation and field work. He was responsible for ensuring that 2,230 images of all specimens of forget-me-nots, plantains, and mountain foxgloves from our herbarium are now publicly available on Collections Online.
Justin also spent several weeks in the field on the South Island, often in isolated mountainous areas, helping assemble new research collections, particularly of forget-me-nots. His internship gave him hands-on experience in all aspects of handling specimens from collecting through to cataloguing, imaging, processing, and filing.
Douglas worked with seabird ecologist Susan Waugh on a project involving the endangered Westland Petrel, Procellaria westlandica. Te Papa has worked on various aspects of these birds’ biology for nearly 50 years.
Douglas studied a dataset of field records that started in 2011. He developed maps and conducted density and occupancy analyses to look at changes in the species’ breeding distribution in response to a major perturbation in their colonies in 2014: the damage caused by cyclone Ita. This project will actually serve as preliminary work towards an MSc for Douglas, and enabled him to develop his sampling plans and experimental design for upcoming fieldwork on the species.
Katrin worked on a science communication research project led by malacologist Rodrigo Salvador, investigating public engagement with invertebrate science. After the team had questioned scientists worldwide about how they make people interested in invertebrate animals, Katrin surveyed the public, gauging people’s knowledge and attitudes towards invertebrates, as well as their engagement with science communication.
Amy worked with entomologist Julia Kasper in project studying the distribution of the introduced mosquito Culex quinquefasciatus in New Zealand over the last decade. This species is a potential disease vector and is now one of the most common mosquitos in the country.
Amy explored surveillance data, morphometric changes in larvae, and the DNA of different populations of this mosquito to discover their pathways and if they hybridise with native Culex pervigilans, because this might have implications for their disease-transmitting capacity.
Holly worked with crustacean experts Rick Webber (from Te Papa) and Graham Bird (from VUW) on a project involving the tiny crustacean Parakonarus kopure. This species belongs to a group of shrimp-like animals known as tanaids, a NZ endemic, living in the intertidal zones from Northland to Wellington.
Holly studied and measured all the different life stages of these animals, from larvae to adults, and employed statistical analysis to assess the differences in the northern, eastern and southern populations of this species.
The students’ work at Te Papa are all shaping up towards a series of scientific publications.
Hearing the students out
We were interested in how the students viewed their stay at Te Papa, so we asked them about their experiences here: what they learned, what they found valuable, and what they think will help them in the future. Equally important, we asked them for open feedback on what they didn’t like, what can be improved and how we can do better overall in the future.
Our summer scholars seem to have had a good time and to like both sides of Te Papa’s ‘behind the scenes’: the actual science going on and the science communication part now happening as the new Te Taiao | Nature exhibition is being finalised.
The students enjoyed working side-by-side with our researchers and learning from them – and not only about their topics, but about science and academia in general. They also had the chance to participate on weekly scientific discussions with our researchers involving various topics in Biology.
However, our students had one major complain: the lack of funding for ‘blue skies’ research hampers what our scientists can do and achieve.
They urged the government and private sector to provide more funding for science. New Zealand has the potential to become a leading name in natural sciences, we just need to nurture it – it’s their future they are talking about, after all.
Getting ready for the next scholars
We are very glad our summer scholars had a great time at Te Papa and learned a lot of skills that will help them out in the future. And speaking of future, we will soon start to think of new projects to offer to the next team of students – and that could be you!
If you’re a student at VUW and would like to work on a science project with Te Papa’s scientists, keep an eye out for the next call, which will happen in the second half of this year.