] How to survive it and maintain sanity — I went to a girl’s school and it was very inwards looking. The question is really how do you actually bridge what you’re interested in to that big world out there – but schools are so cut off from that. I had some really good teachers, and 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.
Why did your teacher tell you that you had to get out of there? What do you think the motivation was?
Well, it was because I was a terrible student. I think she recognized that there were bigger things for me to do in the outside world and that I would benefit more from being outside high school than inside of it.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about now, considering your life?
That I would have written documents on how to manage farms — 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.
What was it like growing up in New Zealand? When Americans think of New Zealand, they think of Lord of The Rings – is it like that everywhere?
There are no Orks around… [laughs] It’s pretty awesome because I grew up in Auckland, which despite being the biggest city, it’s also very close to nature. We could easily trek down to the beach. Auckland 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 relaxing beaches that are quite wild. On the east coast you’ve got more sediment 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. Lots of sailing, lots of outdoor stuff, lots of tramping around the South Island. There’s a lot of stuff to do with nature, which is great because it’s very easy to do and it’s a pretty laid back country, so I found it to be a great place to grow up.
Can you tell me a little more about your research?
The broader subject area is citizen science, more specifically community environmental restoration – which is environmental restoration enacted by volunteers. We’ve got a really strong network in New Zealand composed 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 that gets bigger – 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; I really try to build a foundation because there are a few reports here and there, one group reports on this species… another on another… but New Zealand is a small country and I can do research on the entire country. The first steps are to outline who they are, what they’re doing and their partnerships and the second part is really delving into the science of what they’re doing. The research is on a community level because there are other projects that are scientist-led, more like crowd-sourced science.
Tell me more about the grassroots environmental restoration being done by communities in New Zealand. Is that something that you think is culturally different in New Zealand versus the rest of the world – do people feel more of a need to preserve nature in their communities?
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 cure 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 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 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. We’ve got a unique situation here in New Zealand with so many invasive organisms affecting our indigenous birds. The talk around here is also a lot about the climate.
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.
[She makes almost a disgusted
face] I never think in those sorts of time frames. [laughs
] I don’t even think I know what I’ll be doing at the end of the year, actually. I’m trying to bring together a mini-symposium on citizen science for the next big Ecological Society meeting later in the year. That is something that has directly sprung from my involvement in the Citizen Science Conference. The bigger picture of what I’ll be doing is promoting citizen science and helping bring in some leadership and strategic direction for citizen science in New Zealand.
I’m also putting together a book on wetland restoration from an Maori, or indigenous persons’, perspective. Maori have a different approach to restoration than non-Maori do. I’ve put together a book from the European perspective, but this will be the companion piece.
What were some of your adult role models when you were younger?
I can’t remember a lot from when I was younger. I was probably like any other teenager and had my head buried in the music scene. I was interested in the kind of bad bands that were around. I’d love to say I was really indie and into good bands, but really they were just really bad.
Did you somehow feel you were different from other children?
In some ways… like when you’d go to parties as a teenager and everyone felt so socially awkward. One thing that I’ve always been good at doing is keeping myself occupied. I can always find some creative exercise to do to keep myself engaged in my environment.
Is there a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
In a broader sense it would be about what my personal capabilities are – what I can actually achieve. In middle school I didn’t really have a clear picture of what I would be in the long term. I had this idea that I’d be an artist and it was hazy after that. I didn’t have any great future visions of being a world-class artist or anything. Just that I’d get out there, be an artist, do some higher education around that and see what kind of direction that would take me. I would have never pictured myself writing a science-based thesis – that would have completely shocked me.
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?
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 what you really want. It’s not very original, but it’s still a very relevant one.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be, why would you want it and what would you do with it?
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 environment.
Monica Peters is a PhD candidate at Waikato University in New Zealand where she explores her curiosity of how people relate to and use science to understand nature. Follow her on Twitter @monica_a_peters.