Before They Were Scientists

Trout fishing, Rotorua 1980. Or pest control?
Lea Shell’s job is to track down scientists from around the world and interview them for Your Wild Life. The following is an excerpt, judiciously edited to tidy up the linguistic quirks that occurred via Skype… or just my blasted New Zillind aksint…!

Lea writes: When I first met New Zealand native and scientist/artist Monica Peters, she was attending the Citizen Science Association meeting in San Jose, California (February 17-19, 2015). After her presentation she boldly stated, “Watch this space!” in reference to the growing citizen science initiatives in New Zealand. It was intriguing to learn about the efforts of citizen scientists in New Zealand communities to preserve their local natural habitats. She also stated that she had come from a fine arts background, but has found herself in the scientific world. Wanting to hear more, I scheduled an interview and we got a chance to speak about her middle school life, her research and the future of grassroots citizen science in New Zealand.

Lea: What got you interested in science? What were some memorable moments in middle school?

Monica: I made a decision when I was about 13 that I wanted to be an artist and that was what I was heading for. At that time you couldn’t be both scientist and artist – you were either the creative, artsy-fartsy type, or you were the intellectual science-y type. The way school was structured, if you chose art courses they were held at the same time as the science courses. You had to choose one, so I chose art. …science at school for me was really not a happening thing.

Lea: You went from art to science, so what bridged the gap there…?

Monica:…There are artists who really love nature. They’ll look at a landscape and say, “Oh, just look at all that green texture.” There was no way that I wanted to be that kind of artist. I just want to be able to say I really love that texture, but these are the species that I’m looking at and this is why this is the way it is. I’ve always had a keen interest in the structure of how the natural world is put together and also how we, as human beings, relate to the environment… Over time I started incorporating more science so I’d have a better understanding of what was happening out there in the natural world…

Lea: What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?

Monica: I think they were both pretty vague. They would have preferred for me not to do the art thing as a career, but they left me to it, because in the end I was still going to do that irrespective of having their blessing or not.

Lea: What was one of your biggest worries when you were in middle school?
Monica: [Laughs] How to survive it and maintain sanity — I went to a girl’s school and it was very inwards looking. …some of the best advice I got came from one of my teachers. She sat me down and said, [at this point her voice lowers and she takes on a completely serious personality] “Listen, kid. You’ve gotta get out of this place.” So, I thought – well, cool! I’m outta here! I left high school a year early and went straight to university and took it from there, really.

Lea: What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about now, considering your life?
Monica: That I would have written documents on how to manage farm effluent — that probably wouldn’t have been on my radar screen at that stage. That I would have ended up in the middle of nowhere working with a bunch of people in Borneo. That I would have ended up doing work on a remote Pacific island and that I would have ended up actually working mostly with scientists.

Lea: What was it like growing up in New Zealand?

Monica: I grew up in Auckland, which despite being the biggest city…. is very special because it’s on an isthmus. On one side you have the Pacific Ocean and on the other side you have the Tasman Sea. And both sides are very close together. On the west coast you’ve got lots of forest and lots of black sand beaches that are quite wild. On the east coast you’ve got more settlement and the beaches are white sand. But you can drive across in an hour. It makes for a very unique place to grow up and a very dynamic environment in terms of the kind of contact that you have with nature… I found it a great place to grow up in.

Lea: Can you tell me a little more about your research?
Monica: The broader subject area is citizen science, more specifically community environmental restoration – which is environmental restoration carried out by volunteers. We’ve got a really strong network of groups who have come together to restore aspects of their environment, which otherwise wouldn’t be done. What they’re also doing is getting more sophisticated as the groups end up being around longer and longer. They are starting to do more and more monitoring. It’s community-based environmental monitoring – and what they’re doing needs to be more descriptive than just saying “citizen science” – it’s grassroots citizen science. My PhD research is very much around what these groups are doing.

Lea: Tell me more about the grassroots environmental restoration… Is that something that you think is culturally different in New Zealand versus the rest of the world…?
Monica: I think there are a couple of things going on here. Most of the volunteers are of a particular age group that is headed towards retirement age. It’s very much the generation that started a lot of volunteer organizations like Meals on Wheels, a lot of those social care organizations, so they have a volunteer ethic that is just part of who they are, it’s part of their generation. The other part of it is a growing awareness of environmental degradation. These volunteers that get together at their local wetland or stream – nobody else is going to do it for them. The government organizations do not have the time or resources and they may not have prioritized the area for its ecological value. But, if you live next door to the area it has other values. I think people are very connected to place and want to make a difference.

Lea: So you’re finishing your PhD in August, where do you see yourself in five or ten years with the projects that you’re working on.

Monica: [She makes almost a disgusted face] I never think in those sorts of time frames! [laughs]…

Lea: If you could give your middle school self or a middle school student some advice, what would you tell them, or tell your past self?

Monica: Just to keep a really, really broad mind and not to limit yourself by what you think your limitations are. I guess I’m doing that with my daughter, that’s part of our education to her: you can be whatever you really want. It’s not very original, but it’s still very relevant.

Lea: If you could have a superpower, what would it be…?

Monica: I think my superpower would be to have an enhanced level of understanding about the natural world. There’s all those kooky stories about people being able to hear the animals and the animals talking to them. Occasionally you go into a natural environment and you feel an incredible sense of order. It’s hard to describe, and I’ve only experienced it a few times. To have greater insight into what that all means; how it actually connects to our environments — maybe a form of ecological enlightenment!

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