A middle finger to standardisation

Posted by Jamie Stavert @jamiestavert

I utterly loathed the final years of school. This wasn’t because of any social ineptness – I made lots of wonderful friends, many of whom I’m still close with today. Secondary school gradually dissolved my intrinsic creativity. The learning experience (or lack thereof) was frustrating and painfully mind-numbing. Learning became focused on the regurgitation of material for seemingly endless assessment. The extent of my creative experience was conjuring up evil and outlandish pranks to torment humdrum geography teachers. In stark contrast, primary school provided a perpetual banquet of creative opportunities. There was art, music and writing, and the freedom to ask absurd questions about the world. Since starting a PhD I feel as if I’ve returned to childhood – rediscovering my creative freedom in an endeavour to answer intriguing questions. But unfortunately most people don’t get this opportunity.

So why does creative and enquiry based learning suddenly disappear from the education system? Why does the learning environment suddenly change from warm and nurturing to cold, competitive and assessment focused? Is this why the intrinsic compulsion to learn, that all humans have, disappears in so many people?

Children are curious and have strong sense of wonder about the world

Children are curious and have strong sense of wonder about the world

I think Sir Ken Robinson has the answer. Sir Ken’s recent book Creative Schools (you should all read it and watch his Ted Talk!) draws some fascinating parallels between industrialisation, modern agriculture and the education system. I found this analogy particularly captivating given my learning experiences at school and my research interests around the impacts of agricultural intensification on ecosystems.

So the story goes: industrialisation facilitated the intensification of agriculture, which dramatically increased food yields, fueling growth of the human population. However, this has had massive implications for natural ecosystems, resulting in widespread biodiversity loss and decline of critical ecological functions and services (e.g. Cardinale et al., 2012). Key industrial principles are conformity and compliance. In industrial systems, processes are linear and production is driven by market demand. The ultimate objective is to produce large quantities of identical versions of the same product. Like industrialised agriculture, modern education is constructed around these industrial principles and focuses on output and yield. This is despite the fact that, like ecosystems, human intelligence is profoundly diverse and dynamic. By its very nature the industrial model rejects diversity and creative freedom.

Industrialisation has driven the expansion and intensification of agriculture

Industrialisation has driven the expansion and intensification of agriculture

Simple ecological concepts span both biological and education systems. The loss of diversity reduces productivity and resilience (e.g. Naeem & Li, 1997). Agricultural and educational industrialisation has benefited a select few people/species with particular traits, that allow them to thrive under such conditions. But this is at the expense of diversity. If we continue down this path, we lose adaptability and resilience to societal and environmental perturbations.

In a rapidly changing world, where demand on natural and human resources is increasing faster than ever, it is critical that we promote and cultivate diversity and creativity. As Sir Ken puts it “education is only really improved when we understand it is a living system too”. Perhaps the only way to combat the daunting environmental challenges caused by industrialisation is to reject the industrial model itself, at least in our education system.

IMG_0293Jamie Stavert is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is investigating how functional traits drive the biodiversity-ecosystem function relationship and response to environmental change in pollination systems. He is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Anne Gaskett, David Pattemore and Nacho Bartomeus.

Bush mad in the city

Posted by Samantha Lincoln @slin247

Over the course of this year I have been undertaking intense field work across some of Auckland Councils public parks. Urban ecology is inherently strange; emerging sweat-soaked from a long day’s work, and carrying a small colony of beetles in your hair onto a main road whilst startling local dog walkers and being serenaded by Auckland Zoo’s primates. While not as idyllic as disappearing to the mountains for a week, urban ecology is incredibly important when most of our human population is urban. Connecting with nature is undeniably important for our wellbeing.

Auckland has hundreds of public parks of all sizes, both without and without maintained walking tracks as I have discovered. They are refuges for native species in the middle of our manicured city, but how well do we really look after these spaces? During my field work my volunteers and I have found a range of debris: backyard clippings spreading weeds, Victorian inkwells, a year’s supply of newspapers courtesy of a lazy paperboy, shelters built by those with nowhere else to turn (a growing issue in Auckland) and a pile of books featuring a bunny not often seen during pest control.

Live capture of a rat during a capture-recapture study

Live capture of a rat during a capture-recapture study

As Auckland city grows, more pressure is being placed on these biodiversity refuges and how we value and care for them becomes more important as was noted last month. Will we value and nurture these green spaces, or will they fail under the pressure? Will we continue to use them as personal rubbish dumps, or will we take interest in the other species that use these spaces? I will be a science advocate – we can all lend our voices. To me nothing beats the feeling of following a fantail nest from first cheeps to first awkward flight, as I make my daily visit to the rat trap at the tree’s base.

Sam Ln webSam Lincoln is an MSc student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of  Auckland. She is trying to disentangle interactions between domestic cats and rats in urban environments. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, John Innes and Al Glen.

Anna went to Ant Course

Not a bad place to be conducting field work (Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona)

Not a bad place to be conducting field work (Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona)

This August, whilst those back in Auckland endured the worst of winter, I popped over to Portal, Arizona, to participate in the one and only Ant Course. The 10 day course, run by Dr Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences, is a workshop designed for those researching various aspects of ant biology. Run at the Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains, the area boasts the richest ant fauna in North America. Although Ant Course focuses on the evolution, classification and identification of ant genera, a broad range of ant biology was taught, meaning I came back home with a new myrmecologist skill-set.

Digging for honeypot ants

Digging for honeypot ants

One of the first tasks we were given was to dissect an ant, which is, well, about just as difficult as dissecting an ant sounds. Fortunately microscope work was broken up with collecting trips in the field which also demonstrated various sampling methods as well as a seminar series covering topics from systematics to ant behaviour and invasive ant research. As such, we covered many different aspects of ant research and were introduced to some amazing people conducting exciting research in the ant world. Some of the attending students even worked together under the guidance of Dr Adrian Smith to create videos on various research areas of ant biology, which you can view here.

Honeypot ants

Honeypot ants

Cowboys by sunset at the local rodeo

Cowboys by sunset at the local rodeo



Although the work at Ant Course was hardly tiresome (I do wish every day was Ant Course), we had time to relax in the pool and were even fortunate enough one night to visit a local rodeo and meet up with some real-life cowboys. And ants aside, the area is host to a diverse range of animals (native mammals!, snakes and other neat reptiles, birds the size of moths, bats all over the place), which I took great delight in spotting. Perhaps my favourite activity was turning over rocks at night looking for vinegaroons.

I’m back in Auckland now and waiting for the weather to buck up a bit, so I can putwhat I learnt to practise with my upcoming field season!

Oh, and I’m now signing off as Anna the Antbassador. Cheerio!

Anna Probert is a PhD student in the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is using ants as a model to assess the risk posed by exotic invertebrates to native ecosystems. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs, and Darren Ward.

Ode to R

Posted by Jessica Devitt

No face

R, many a poem I have written

About our tumultuous relationship-swaying from completely smitten, to recoiling, as though I had been bitten,

Your powers of statistical analysis have had me speechless and in awe, but then you misunderstand me and now I am angry and raw,

One day we click, the next I have lost my wick thinking you are a complete…well you get the picture.

The above poem is a more measured example of my current love/hate relationship with the statistical software programme called R.

R began its development in the early 1990’s right here at the University of Auckland.  This programme is incredibly powerful, with the ability to compute huge datasets, administer an astonishing range of analyses and it is free!  The community surrounding R continue to develop new packages that you can easily install for basically any type of data analysis, manipulation and mining that you could imagine.  And this is fantastic!

Desk flip

However, with a heavy head I have to now insert the ominous ‘BUT”.  For a layperson like myself, with mediocre statistical understanding it can be a daunting undertaking to feed in your painstakingly gathered data, ascertain what statistical analysis to do and then make that happen in R.  Further, the all-important, “do you want graphs with that?” is a whole other story.

R is run using programming language, specifically text-based ‘S’ language, thus you need to write exactly what you want it to do in the language that it ‘understands’, and like learning any new language, this is a relatively slow process, especially when some of the language terms seem counter-intuitive.

This is not a story of failure however, this is a story of redemption, as I had never used the program before and now I can.  For someone that was not ‘bright enough’ to sit School Certificate maths (now NCEA Level 1), who cried at my math tutor’s house once a week and vehemently declared that “I will never be good at maths”!  I can now run a range of tests, understand (mostly) the output and have a fair idea of what to do when the dreaded red error writing is returned.  I have achieved this through the help of my peers, excellent sites such as Stackoverflow, Statmethods and a range of journal articles, books and just good old Google.

Happy computer

The moral of the story here is: don’t be scared off by R, it is worth the initial, and at times reoccurring frustration, and if I can do it anyone can.

Helpful Information

Rlogo R Software: https://www.r-project.org/

UNi logoUniversity of Auckland: https://www.stat.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/our-research/software-development/sw-the-r-project.html


Logan, Murray.  Biostatistical design and analysis using R: a practical guide. John Wiley & Sons, 2011

 De Vries, A., & Meys, J. (2012). R for dummies. John Wiley & Sons.

Jessica jessDevitt is a MSc student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the potential host-range of the hadda beetle in Auckland to assess how it might impact on native ecology. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley

From North to South

Posted by Carolina Lara

I arrived in Auckland on the 25th of October 2014 on a beautiful, sunny spring day carrying 53 kg luggage, after a total travel time of 30 hours.  My first real experience of the kiwi culture was seeing someone barefoot at the airport, “that is weird” – I thought, but eventually found out it is something quite common. What it is also common is rain. It rains a lot. A LOT. You cannot of course trust the weather forecast and you do need to have a raincoat with you and an umbrella, just in case (this I would say has been the best  advice I received before coming here). The duration of the PhD programme is three years, but I was advised to consider it to be four years which will make it the longest period being away from home, despite the fact this is not my first time living abroad. But it always feels like the first time.

I am part of the cohort of approximate 30,000 Mexican students doing a postgraduate programme abroad, the United States being the preferred destination, followed by Spain and other European countries. Of those, it has been estimated that 5-7% of students never return to live in Mexico. The number of international students coming to New Zealand has increased in the past few years, for example, PhD student numbers have increased from 1,665 in 2008 to 3,838 in 2014.  The main sources of NZ international students are China and India, with South Korea occupying the third place.

Discovering New Zealand

Discovering New Zealand

So far my experience living in NZ has been quite good. I will not lie, being away from my family, friends and dogs might be something I could never get used to. And although I have made good friends here, the dogs… It is not all bad here though! I am lucky enough to be part of an amazing lab group and research team and of course and I have learnt many new things and done other things for the first time. From funding applications that would take me a week to get ready – including hundreds of corrections from my supervisor, presenting my research in front of a big audience (and not being able to understand one of the questions because of the language barrier), be immersed in the urban ecology field along with all the new bird and plant species that I am still learning and getting to know, dealing with Mexican and Kiwi bureaucracy (at the same time) and last but not least, acknowledging that everything takes quite a bit time to be resolved in New Zealand, but usually with a satisfactory outcome.

Getting to know New Zealand birds

Getting to know New Zealand birds

This has been a great year out of three still to go and my first field season is waiting for me! That and the many adventures and experiences yet to come.

Carolina2Carolina Lara M. is a PhD Candidate within the Centre for Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on seed dispersal networks within fragmented landscapes. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jason Tylianakis, Karine David, and Anna Santure.