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People behind the Science

Meet the researchers behind the science. Click on a name to find out more about what they're doing - and why they're excited about it.

Campbell Upperton
Tania Blackmore
Dirk Wallace
Dave Campbell
Brendan Hicks
Marisa Till
Michael Mucalo
Carolyn King
Ben Deadman
Jolene Brown
Peter Molan
Louis Schipper
Elena Minnee
Tim Anderson
Fiona Clarkson
Dave Palmer
Janet Bornman
Karsten Zegwaard

Campbell Upperton

I'm studying for a degree in Mechanical Engineering. For my work placement  over the summer of 2008/2009, I took part in researching and developing a micro-hydro scheme. The objective was to provide reliable power to a small lodge, to sustain small appliances and lighting. After this development there would be no need for a petrol generator or grid power.
The idea of this placement was to keep costs to an absolute minimum and recycle any materials on the farm wherever possible.

The theory behind the project was to store energy in the form of elevated water at a high point, then pipe it down, creating a high-pressure jet of water. This water jet was to rotate a water wheel which was directly linked to a generator. The power was then to be stored in the form of a battery cell and then distributed to the lodge. By using resoureces that were available on the farm (old underground piping was used to pipe the water; a pelton wheel that I made myself out of recycled plywood; and a motor from an old washing machine for the generator), the project was successful and the micro hydro generated  150W of constant  power - adequate for the equipment in the lodge to run on. Also, the total cost of the project was less than $3000, which is significantly less than the $80,000 quoted by grid suppliers to have lines fitted down to the lodge on the farm.

Campbell_and_microhydro

I have taken away from this placement both a knowledge and a sense of achievement. I've developed skills in the areas of fluid mechanics and general construction with limited resources. Completing a project from start to finish, and refining skils while dealing with challenging problems, have also broadened my outlook in the field of engineering.

This placement has influenced my career path as I can now see the importance and benefits of being self-sufficient. Through research I have seen what is currently in the market and I have ideas of where improvements can be made. I will continue to trial my ideas in future research through work placements and my studies at the University of Waikato.
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Teaching old cows new tricks

I completed my Masters research in animal behaviour, investigating colour vision in horses, so I've always enjoyed working with large animals (as opposed to hens and possums on offer at our Psychology behavioural lab!) Round about then DairyNZ was interested in learning more about how cows learn, as they were getting into robotic milking technology. So an opportunity arose to complete a PhD investigating learning in dairy cows, and I was interested in staying on at Waikato for this. I've been working on it for 3 years now and at the moment I'm writing up my thesis for submission .

I enjoy this area of research, because I love animals and I am in constant wonder at their often unrecognised abilities.

cow_follows_sign_through_maze
One of Tania's study animals uses a yellow symbol to choose its path through a maze.
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Dirk Wallace
Cultivation & carbon budgets

I started out at the University of Waikato in 2005 with the initial intention of gaining a BSc in materials science. However, plans change and after my first semester I decided to follow the subject I had enjoyed the most and changed my major to earth science. Three years later I graduated as a keen soil scientist and decided to challenge myself by enrolling in an MSc. For my MSc research project I am studying hte carbon budget of DairyNZ's Scott Farm. I'm also looking at the impact of cultivation on this carbon budget, and attempting to separate the carbon dioxide that comes from plant roots and the carbon dioxide that comes from the decomposition of soil organic matter.

Ever since I was introduced to soil science as an undergraduate I've been interested in it. The great thing is that it is such a physical science and my research allows me to get outside and conduct field experiments. I enjoy my research because I feel that the maintenance of soil carbon stocks and soil quality is important, and I hope that my research will improve current knowledge of dairy farm carbon budgets.
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Dave Campbell

I teach students studying Earth & Ocean Sciences, & this means that a lot of my teaching is “water and weather”. I lectures on hydrology, introductory meteorology and climate science. As a student at Otago university in the 1980’s I got hooked on “climatology”; that is, the exchanges of energy and water between soils, plants and the atmosphere. I've been working around that area of science for a couple of decades now. Not quite mainstream meteorology, nor hydrology, nor ecology, nor soil science, rather a blend of all of these disciplines.

 

Dave_Campbell_in_the_field
In my time at Waikato I have researched the hydrology of NZ wetlands, alongside colleagues at Landcare Research. About 10 years ago I learnt how to measure exchanges of carbon dioxide between whole ecosystems and the atmosphere and since then I've been involved in several collaborative research projects studying the carbon budgets of ecosystems ranging from various types of wetlands to whole dairy farms. This is a topical field (excuse the pun) these days because of the concern over the amount of CO2 emitted in order to produce our food and agricultural exports.

My research inevitably involves building instrument systems capable of operating at remote sites for long periods of time unattended. They are always solar powered and communicate back to base via cellphone networks. Early on I discovered that I had a passion for Kiwi ingenuity and building instrument systems on the cheap.

I love all aspects of my teaching (well, the marking is sometimes a bit of a drag), but especially the one-on-one relationship built with graduate students, especially when working in the field together. It is a privilege to watch graduates go out into the wide world and establish their own careers, knowing that you have had a role in the final stages of their education.
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Brendan Hicks
Fish abundance measures stream health

Farming and other land uses can change stream shading and water quality (nutrients and water temperature). Fish are good indicators of stream health, as fish cannot live in polluted water. Shortfin eels, however, like warm water and don't mind a bit of sediment, so are commonly found in pasture streams. Banded kokopu and longfin eels, on the other hand, prefer cool, shaded forest streams. Our research has investigated the impact of different land uses on stream fish, and what we can do to restore stream habitats. We have also looked at fish migrations to and from the sea using micro-scale chemical analyses of their earbones, and studied fish diet in pasture and forest streams to learn more about the fishes' need for access to the sea, and how farming changes what the fish eat.

To catch fish in streams, we commonly use electrofishing, which temporarily immobilises fish, but does not harm them. This means that we can return the fish their habitat once we have finished counting them.

I find this work very enjoyable because with electrofishing we can learn a lot about the fish and their habits without killing them.

brendan & students electrofishing

Brendan Hicks (far right) electrofishing a Waikato pasture stream

with a group of 3rd-year freshwater ecology students
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  Marisa Till
 
 
My PhD involves investigating the enzymes produced by bacteria in the rumen of New Zealand cows. I got into this subject because I have always found protein science interesting, to be able to base my research on that was great, the main reasons I got into this particular project were the fantastic group of people that I would be working with and the relevance that this research has to New Zealand and agriculture because I come from a farming background.
  marisa
Why do I enjoy it? Well, science has a funny way of sucking you in. It gives you a problem, the aim is to solve it, but the fun part is the actual investigation, trying different things and comparing how well they work, or coming to a road block and having to figure out the best way to get around it. But once you start its not something you can stop before you have your answer. The best thing is when you can see the potential that your research has to impact the people around you and that is why I enjoy my project.

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  Michael Mucalo
  I'm a chemistry lecturer but part of my research has a biotechnological theme - it focuses on gaining added value from low-value or waste products generated by the agricultural sector.

My particular interest is with biomedical materials research, involving ways of gaining value from waste cattle bone (an abbatoir by-product). I developed an interest in this because I was introduced to the area of biomaterials on a post-doctoral stint in Japan. I was fascinated by biomaterials research because of its applied nature and because of its potential benefits to the public.

It is an enjoyable area of research to be in because it is necessarily a multidisciplinary one, which means projects don't just involve scientists within my own discipline of chemistry  but also from materials science, mechanical engineering, tissue engineering, and medical science. Teams of scientists from different disciplines can often come up with some very significant results - for example, at biomedical materials conferences you get scientists from many different disciplines talking about an issue, and this often enables much better understanding of the problem. And I find it fulfilling to see my research having useful practical applications - producing tangible results that benefit human health.

  michael mucalo & grad students
Michael Mucalo (centre) and research students Dougal Laird
& Ashley Easter, working on biomedical materials project.
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  Carolyn King
 
I've been studying introduced predators for over 40 years, and I have to admit that I've got a soft spot for the mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels). For me, they are gorgeous animals: they are so superbly adapted to a high risk, high reward lifestyle. And they can hunt in burrows or under snow to reach prey animals that would be inaccessible to most other predators. But - they are in the wrong place in New Zealand, and should never have been brought here.

My current research projects are looking at ways to control predator numbers on farmland and in native bush.
  kim and ferret
  For example, our work on rats in fragments of native bush in the Waikato. We'll trap them and see how quicly they return, and what the benefits are of doing this. This is just part of a much larger project that involves counting bird nests, and looking at changes in vegetation and in the numbers and types of invertebrates in the bush patches.

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  Ben Deadman
I started at Waikato University studying for a a BSc with a double major in Chemistry and Physics. This involved me taking Chemistry, Physics and Maths papers in first and second year. I dropped Physics at the end of second year to focus on my Chemistry in third year, and completed my BSc - with a major in Chemistry - in 2006. About mid-way through second-year I started working on the Manuka Honey project, supervised by Professor Merilyn Manley-Harris, as a paid research assistant in my holidays and spare time. This employment continued throughout the rest of my degree and actually led into my MSc project.
 
My MSc research was also in Chemistry, and now I've just handed in my thesis. I took Chemistry honours papers last year and am doing research this year. My research project is concerned with Manuka Honey, looking at the flavonoids (polyphenolic compounds common in plants) that the honey contains. This is of interest because flavonoids come from plants and can potentially be used to identify the floral origins of honey (which significantly affects the price the honey can be sold for). The lab I work in also offers an analytical service to external companies, and I do some of this work. We use high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to measure things like the chemical makeup of fertilisers.


ben-deadman
What excites me about science and my research? I chose science over other subjects because you are always learning something new in science. The basis of research is learning and discovery of new knowledge, which can be added to the pool of what we know already. It is the constant learning involved in scientific research that keeps me interested in what I do.
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  Jolene Brown
 

Studying ways to control clover root weevil.
 
 
After completing my Bachelors and Masters degrees I wanted to choose a PhD topic that allowed me to use analytical chemistry in a practical setting. Having grown up on a farm near Raglan, I was really excited when I was approached about the possibility of working with AgResearch investigating the Clover Root Weevil (Sitona lepidus).

This weevil was first identifed in New Zealand by AgResearch entomologists, in 1996. Its larvae eat white clover roots, causing significant damge and reducing the plants' nitrogen-fixing ability, growth rate, and survival. Not good for pasture! The parasitoid wasp Microtonus aethiopoides was released in New Zealand as a biological control agent for the weevil early in 2006. Each female wasp lays a single egg inside an adult weevil, making the female weevil infertile. This is important as a female weevil can lay hundreds of eggs in her lifetime.

  jolene & bugs in a jar
 
How
 does this biocontrol work? Female weevils that have been parasitised by the wasp start absorbing their reproductive organs as soon as the wasp's egg is laid, and females containing overwintering wasp larvae gain fat in much the same way as males. One hypothesis is that this happens because the wasp larva alters the weevil's hormone system so that the female weevil gains fat. This results in the parasitised females living longer, and also provides resources for the wasp larvae to continue their growth in the spring.

I'm studying the types of lipids found in the weevils' fat and blood, and also in specialised cells that come from the wasp egg membranes. I hope to find out how these lipids change with the age and physiological state of both weevil and wasp. This will help us to understand both the dietary needs of the wasp larvae and the role of juvenile hormones and those specialised wasp cells in controlling fat deposits in the wevils. My study will contribute to our understanding of how the wasps ensure that their larvae have enough food for growth without killing their hosts straight away.

New Zealand has been remarkably successful in using biological control to reduce pesticide use. My study will expand current biological and ecological research, enhanding New Zealand's international standing in this area. However, the part I like best about my project is the fact that I can contribute to an area that not only affects New Zealand as a whole but also directly affects my family.

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  Peter Molan
  Agriculture needs beekeepers. Bees are needed not just for pollination of horticultural crops but also for pollination of clover. If clover is not pollinated it will die out in pasture, and since then there will be no nitrogen fixation, nitrogen fertilisers will have to be used. This not only adds cost to pastoral farming, it increases run-off of nitrogen into rivers and lakes. The varroa mite has killed off wild colonies of bees so beekeepers' hives are essential for pollination to occur.

With the low commodity prices for honey, beekeeping is not profitable unless types of honey are produced that sell for premium prices. Our research  in the Waikato Honey Research Unit has established that manuka honey has exceptional antibacterial activity and has led to it being used in hospitals in many countries to treat infected wounds, with spectacular results. This has made manuka honey a very valuable product, and this is keeping beekeepers in business.
  peter & manuka
  We are now carrying out research on some of the other properties of honey which are useful medically, such as its powerful anti-inflammatory activity, its ability to stimulate the immune response leading to accelerated growth of new cells to repair injuries, and its ability to rapidly clear pus off wounds. All of these aspects of our research are relevant to agriculture directly, as they can be used for treating livestock as well as people. But they are also indirectly important as they have the potential to make honey more valuable and thus ensure more beekeepers stay in business.

It's exciting work to be involved in - not only are we saving the agricultural economy and the environment, we're saving lives as well!

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  Louis Schipper
 
When I got into science, I started off as a microbiologist and discovered the fascinating world of soil, where microorganisms are actively cycling nutrients and carbon. I'm very interested in conducting research into the role that soil microbes play in protecting the environment. I've focused on developing practical ways to remove excess nitrogen from groundwater and effluents before they get into waterways, using denitrification beds and walls. I'm also examining long-term changes in soil organic matter in New Zealand agricultural systems. This is because soil organic matter is important for maintaining soil quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  louis schipper (up the ladder) in the field
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  Elena Minnee
  elena in the paddock
 

I studied plant physiology and ecology at Waikato, and graduated with my BSc in 2001. Now I'm studying for my MSc, and working as a senior research technician with DairyNZ (formerly Dexcel), mostly on projects within the Forage & Farm Systems team.  DairyNZ is very supportive of career enhancement and has given me opportunities to travel and to speak at conferences, write scientific articles, and study. I also manage their Field Laboratory.

For my thesis project I'm looking at comparing the yield potential and forage quality of two different pasture species in a dairy farm situation. I find it exciting to look at defining the production potential of certain forages under ideal conditions. It's also exciting to work on developing practical tools for farmers to apply  and enhance their businesses. It's a great time to be working in dairy research, as there are many opportunities for study, especially with the challenges of climate change but also with the substantial support of our clients - dairy farmers - for research.

Day-to-day work is always interesting as no two are the same: I work on several projects at any one time. The topics vary: from cropping, to the environment, to dairy cow health, even to measuring how much grass you have on your farm using satellite technology.

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  Tim Anderson
 

I'm currently studying for my PhD, investigating how low-cost solar collectors can be integrated into buildings. By doing this we will be able to generate hot water and/or electricity from a building's roof or walls.

  mike & tim with panelling
Tim Anderson (to the right) & Mike Duke, with some of their solar panelling.

  During school I always enjoyed making things - Lego when I was young and electronics when I was a bit older - so engineering was a fairly natural progression. My foray into solar energy, however, happened more by accident than by choice. After graduating from my Bachelor of Engineering I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to do my Master of Engineering, which is a research degree.  The scholarship was awarded for research on a topic oriented towards renewable/solar energy. Fortunately I rather enjoyed this area, and so have now decided to do a PhD in this field.

Most people would say that to be an engineer you need to be good at maths, physics, & chemistry. However, I see engineering not only as science but as something of an art, whcih requires a degree of creative thinking. In particular, my field is not like a lot of engineering (dictated purely by theory); it is quite experimental and hands-on and this is what I enjoy.

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  Fiona Clarkson
  I'm in the first year of my MSc at the University of Waikato, in the field of ecology and molecular ecology. Last year I was involved in a project investigating the genetic variation of  "eco-sourced" plants for a local environmental restoration project.

Lake Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park is the focus of a project that's restoring a variety of native ecosystems in an urban environment: a 60ha block of pasture surrounding a 3ha peat lake. When the project's finished, the Park will include ecosystems from wetlands to lowland forests, the rarest and most degraded ecosystems in the Waikato district. Restoration plantings of the block use "eco-sourced" plant species - plants sourced from populations that have adapted to the distinct geography and climate of the Waikato region. These plants will have a genetic makeup that is well-adapted to our region, aiding their survival and fitness. My job involves collecting native species from the range of natural populations found in the Waikato, and extracting their DNA so that it can be tested for genetic diversity. Levels of genetic diversity from these natural populations will be compared to the "eco-sourced" plants at Waiwhakareke to ensure that they are truly "eco-sourced"  i.e. that they share the range of genetic diversity found in the natural populations.

I became interested in both ecology and molecular ecology because I love the idea of a job in which I can study and explore New Zealand's unique native ecosystems. My job involves a mix of field and lab work, which means work never gets boring! Field work is great not only because it is physical work, but because it involves visiting natural ecosystems like forests: places which are rare in urban environments. Lab work, on the other hand, is a highly social environment which is both challenging and rewarding.

  Community planting day at Waiwhareke
A community planting day at Waiwhareke Natural Heritage Park, Hamilton.
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  Dave Palmer
  I did my MSc research on pine plantations on the Mamaku Plateau, looking at whether repeated cropping of pines reduced the amount of phosphorus available in the soil, and at how well the plants were growing. This is because nutrient availability can have a huge effect on plant productivity. After that I went on to do a PhD, which was initially funded by FoRST as a 'Bright Future' scholarship, and funded by Scion (Rotorua). I've nearly finished that work and have been appointed to a job at Scion, starting in July 2008.

  dave palmer in the computer lab
 
My PhD research has seen me develop a national spatial surfaces dataset, for use in predicting how well radiata pines will grow in different areas. As well as the nature of the soil in any given area, I've had to include topography, solar radiation and soil water balance, so it's pretty complex stuff. My work will be useful in other modelling disciplines, including geomorphological, pedological, hydrological and ecological modelling.

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  Janet Bornman
  I lead the International Global Climate Change Institute at the University of Waikato. As a whole the Institute focuses on research and training on issues to do with global environmental change, including the impact of climate on built and natural heritage, biodivesity, and the threat of pest invasion.

  janet bornman
 
In my own research, I'm particularly interested in events that interact with each other - for example,  the various factors that influence both thinning of the ozone layer and greenhouse warming of the Earth. One of these factors is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The thinner the ozone layer, the more UV radiation reaches Earth. By itself this has harmful effects on living things, but these can be made worse by other climate change factors such as higher temperatures, widespread droughts, and pest organisms. In other words, high temperatures and higher UV levels together have more of an impact than if only one of them was increasing. It's a complex scenario, but teasing out how it all works is very satisfying.

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Karsten Zegwaard
"Pugging" is the name given to the damage that cows do to pasture through trampling on it. It's a particular problem on wet pastures and costs farmers (and the economy) money. Avoiding pugging isn't simple, and usually also costs money e.g. in building stand-off pads. I was involved in a project where we developed a model that lets farmers calculate the expected loss of income through pugging and compare that to the cost of pugging avoidance.

cows-and-pasture-damage-from-pugging
Cows and pasture damage from pugging.

We ran a treading experiment on a 'heavy soil' (Te Kowhai Silt Loam) which is known to be susceptible to pugging damage. The experiment used the same treading conditions in all trials, but varied the duration of treading (0, 3, 9, or 24 hours) and soil moisture content. From the results we were able to develop statistical models that predict how much pasture will be lost to production, using a few quick measures of the amount of pasture damage. Another model uses only planned grazing management, so it estimates losses before the damage happens, allowing for more informed decision-making.

karsten-in-the-lab

I got into this area as a result of doing my BSc(Tech) work placement at AgResearch, where I discovered that I enjoyed doing research. So I carried on and did my MSc and PhD. For my Masters degree we determined that pugging was damaging the soil, but we weren't able to put a monetary value on it, & this is important because farm management decisions are usually made on a financial cost basis. So my PhD research went the next step, by not only determining the loss of pasture productivity (and hence of milk production), but also by predicting what this cost might be in the long term. I did the research with AgResearch (who had the lab facilities and expert knowledge) and Dexcel (who had the pasture expertise and the research farms).

I really enjoyed this work - I grew up on a Te Kowhai soil, liked the farm environment - and I liked knowing that my work would make a difference to farmers.
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