Women and Girls in Science: Big, bold and beautiful

Department of Conservation —  11/02/2022

Today marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To celebrate, we are showcasing the fantastic work of wahine toa who contribute significantly to the mauri/well-being of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana. The Park celebrates its 20th birthday on 27 February this year.

Over the next four days, we will bring you stories of women and girls whose passion for the life-giving force of the sea has led them to a vocation in science and the opportunity to work in New Zealand’s only national park of the sea.

A biodiversity hotspot, the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park encompasses 1.2m hectares including 6 marine reserves and more than 45 predator-free islands, can boast the title of seabird capital of the world, is a nursery for multiple species of sharks, and is home to 25 species of whale and dolphin.

Motuihe, pest-free island in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park.
📷: Kate Foxall

Today we focus on women who are involved with the celebrities of the sea – our big, beautiful marine mammals. Here’s what we asked them.

Why did you choose marine environment science?

Dr Krista Hupman, PhD in Zoology, works at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

KH: As a child I saw a documentary called The Last Whale about whaling and it broke my heart to see these majestic animals treated in such a horrible way. So naturally, at the age of 4, I asked Santa for a hydrophone and whale identification book so I could start my research career and help these animals.

Dr Krista Hupman.

Laura Torre-Williams, MSc in Conservation Biology, currently works at The Tour Collective in Australia, and is a visiting scholar at Griffith University.

LTW: I have been fascinated with the ocean all my life. Large whales have held my interest forever as they are so intelligent and sentient. They have their own culture and share social bonds that we are still trying to understand.

Laura Torre-Williams, taking a selfie with a whale.
📷: Laura Torre-Williams

Levi Murdoch-Tighe has a BASc in Marine Sciences and is currently studying towards a Masters in Marine Science at the Auckland University of Technology. She volunteers her time in the Hauraki Gulf for the Ministry of Primary Industries.

LMT: The Hauraki Gulf has changed quite significantly since I was a child. I remember spending most of my summers snorkelling and swimming in the crystal-clear water of local beaches. I never saw plastic washed up onto the shorelines like I do today. We also had no trouble catching fish, it was like they were flying into the boat! Sadly, it’s not like that now, which is why I am a big advocate for conservation in the Hauraki Gulf.

Levi Murdoch-Tighe.
📷: Levi

What is the best thing about your job/ the work you do?

Assoc Prof Karen Stockin, PhD – Marine Mammal Biologist, is based at Massey University and is also employed by the International Whaling Commission as their Strandings Coordinator and a member of their Strandings Expert Panel.

KS: No two days are the same, dealing with the unknown and unpredictable, knowing new scientific finds are just around the corner…where do I stop…it’s a great job and every day I count my blessings.

Assoc Prof Karen Stockin (left) performing a necropsy on a dusky dolphin with Odette Howarth (right).
📷:Rick Noack

Cat Lea, BSc (Hons) in Zoology and MSc in Marine Environmental Management, works for Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari as their Marine Research and Conservation Officer.

CL: I really enjoy that my role has an environmental/research focus which is incorporated into tourism, and knowing that collectively as a team, we are doing this to achieve fantastic things every day. By helping facilitate research, we are gaining a greater understanding of how the environment and the wildlife out there works.

Cat Lea.
📷: Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari

LTW: I get to be out at sea with these amazing creatures and watch them care for their clumsy babies in such a gentle way. I also get to help people learn why our oceans are so important! LMT: My work helps to ensure the sustainability of local and national fisheries for future generations so that they get to enjoy the marine environment as I did growing up. 

What is your proudest moment/ greatest achievement?

Katharina J. Peters, PhD in Ecology, works at Massey University for the Coastal Marine Research Group.

KJP: I like that my research topics can change with each new project as this keeps it exciting and I learn new things every day.

Katharina J. Peters.
📷: Massey University

KH: For the last four years I have been working on the ecology of leopard seals in New Zealand waters. It began when I was challenged when a 3.1 m female leopard seal arrived in Auckland and was told by many that she should either be removed or shot because she “doesn’t belong here”. As a scientist, these words did not resonate with me. This prompted me, with a dedicated team of volunteers, to find out how many leopard seals are visiting our shores and how long they stay here for. On the basis of this research, DOC re-classified leopard seals from ‘Vagrant’ to ‘Resident’ species of New Zealand in 2019. Working with dedicated volunteers and citizen scientists around New Zealand to change this species threat status is my proudest moment.

Owha the Auckland resident Leopard Seal.
📷: Giverny Forbes

KS: It has been a pleasure to start important change at both the national and international level for the welfare and survivorship of stranded marine mammals. I am also proud to have played my part in demonstrating the real extent of ships on Bryde’s whales back in the early 2000’s, pushing for appropriate recognition to the extent of common dolphin bycatch, and highlighting marine pollution including microplastics in NZ. Above all, I am most proud of my students – current and former – who make a collective difference far greater than I could ever achieve as an individual.

Bryde’s Whale.
📷: Krista Hupman

What would you say to girls and young women about working in marine science/ marine environment?

KS: GO FOR IT!!! Our ocean dictates our climate and health and we are destroying it all on a daily basis.  We need scientists, conservationists, policy makers, managers, advocates to step forward, pick up the gauntlet and run with it – time is precious and we need more great minds and ASAP.

KH: Follow your passion despite the hurdles you will face.  With a lot of hard work and determination, you can make a difference. When you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.

CL: I would say exactly what my grandad told me when I was in the midst of my degree. He too was fascinated with the marine environment. Whilst most people around me were becoming doctors and lawyers he told me, “Don’t give up – there is still so much that we don’t know about the ocean”. Now whenever I have a tough day or if I’m feeling unmotivated (because let’s be honest, we all have those days), those words give me that boost.

KJP: Volunteer with organisations or other researchers to gain practical experience. If you want to do research, publish as early as you can.

LMT: Take action and keep fighting to protect our marine ecosystems for the future!  Women often approach problem-solving in a different way from men, so it is important that we have more females interested and involved in this field as we bring unique things to the table.

Cape Rodney-Okakari Point (also known as Goat Island) One of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park’s marine reserves.
📷: Saltwater Eco

Tomorrow, we look at women and girls in science whose work contributes to mauri/well-being of the Gulf islands and the seabird species that connect these terrestrial systems to the sea.

One response to Women and Girls in Science: Big, bold and beautiful

    Karen Palmer 11/02/2020 at 2:28 pm

    When I was a BSc student at VUW in the late 1950s, I worked during two University holidays for the Marine Department, Wellington, looking at tarakihi stomach contents from and for the fishing fleets of the East Coast. Was a fascinating study.
    When I asked for a trip on the boat to see the area and catch of the fish, I was refused as “the men had no toilets on the boats and no separate cabins for a female!!”
    How times have changed.
    My daughter has a marine PhD and mine is about urban wetlands. She was on boats and I did not need to.