Big eyes, big ideas

Surfer, diver, fish conversation eavesdropper, science communicator, raranga practiser: We sat down with Marine Science alumna Lucy van Oosterom to find out what she’s been up to since she graduated.

Lucy van Oosterom films an aggregation of short-tailed stingrays in Northern Arch, Poor Knights Marine Reserve.
Lucy van Oosterom films an aggregation of short-tailed stingrays in Northern Arch, Poor Knights Marine Reserve.

Growing up in the Bay of Islands, Lucy van Oosterom had a lot of in-the-sea experiences from a young age, and, after an especially memorable dolphin encounter at Seaworld, she knew she wanted to become a marine biologist. A keen surfer and diver, Lucy studied Marine Science at the University of Auckland, and her masters research on the acoustic behaviour of big eyes, a species of New Zealand fish, was published in Scientific Reports, an open-access journal from Nature Research. Since graduating, Lucy has worked as a technician for the School of Biological Sciences and recently, she has been working on a project for New Zealand Geographic using 360 virtual reality filming.

Lucy, fish vocalisation is a very unusual topic! Why did you choose to work with the species big eyes, and what did you learn about their acoustic behaviour?

My supervisor, Craig Radford, had already done some work with big eyes, and we wanted to explore how they use sound under water. It’s basically their main sense. Big eyes are nocturnal, so they come out at night to feed, and they live in caves under little outcrops during the day. When they’re out at night they’re too far away to see each other clearly in the dark, but they still remain in these loose groups and they all go back to the same cave.

We think they’re using the sound to stay together as a group, to know where they are and stay in contact, just like us saying “Hey, I’m over here!” It must be for safety, because the sound they make is really loud – predators would obviously be able to detect it as well, so it has to have some big advantage.

Can you tell us a bit more about the NZ-VR project that you’re working on? It sounds really exciting.

We’re using 360 virtual reality (VR) filming to tell stories about our environment. We have 20 targeted sites that we want to film around New Zealand. So far we’ve done the Hauraki Gulf, Poor Knights and Leigh Marine Reserve, and we’ve been up to Parengarenga Harbour, the Three Kings Islands, and Niue.

We’re using this technology to get people to engage more with the environment. A lot of people will see a photo or a traditional video and think it’s really beautiful, but they won’t really relate to it. Virtual reality has been dubbed ‘the empathy machine’ because when people watch a video with a headset on they really engage with it – it’s super immersive. We’re working with the Sir Peter Blake Trust, who are taking the videos to schools. Around 20,000 students from Auckland all the way north will watch the videos and learn about the related environmental issues.

One of the key things [as a scientist] is being able to articulate your work in a way that is exciting and accessible, and make it fun.

Lucy van Oosterom Faculty of Science alumna

What kind of impact do you hope NZ-VR will have?

The Hauraki Gulf is a hot topic at the moment. There’s Sea Change – Tai Timu Tai Pari and the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, and the Gulf is in trouble in lots of ways, with environmental degradation and damage. The Gulf’s mauri is being affected, and our goal is to get more people to really care about these issues. I hope that the project stimulates more conversation so that changes happen at a higher level – politicians and environmental groups need to see and feel the accumulation of lots of people caring about these issues.

You’re clearly a passionate science communicator. Why is it important for scientists to be able to communicate about their work?

A lot of scientists struggle to communicate their work, not necessarily in a simplified way, but in a way that their very specific topic becomes relatable to a wider audience. One of the key things is being able to articulate it in a way that is exciting and accessible, and make it fun. Otherwise most people just won’t come across the science. The visual media is ideal for this, because you can easily tell the story for different age groups and different interests.

When you took the job at New Zealand Geographic, did you have these visual media skills?

No, I had to pick them up on the fly! They needed someone who was able to do both the fieldwork (the diving and the filming) and work well with the team, as well as the in-the-office work, stitching together videos and editing them, which was all really new to me. I’d never done video editing before so I had to learn a whole lot by trial and error.

That sounds like quite the challenge! Would you say challenge is something that drives you?

Yes, definitely. I’m really competitive, particularly with myself. I get a bit bored if I’m not mentally or physically challenged, or if I don’t have goals to work towards. I also need a lot of variety. I think that’s why I love what I’m doing because every day can be quite different.

You’ve achieved a huge amount already: publishing ground-breaking research, producing and telling important New Zealand conservation stories. Where do you see your career heading?

I’ve been so lucky to be in this amazing job, going out and filming these incredible things, and then coming back and doing science communication: it’s basically my dream job!

I still would really like to do my PhD because I love being involved with research. I loved doing my masters; I got to do a lot of diving and I worked with an incredible field team. I also really enjoyed the write-up stage of my masters. People usually find that stressful, but having work that was publishable was a real stand-out moment for me. But I’m still not sure whether to pursue a career in academia.

Tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn by Googling you!

When I’m not in the water I love to do raranga, which is Māori flax weaving. Raranga is meditative. I learnt alongside a lot of Māori culture and practice, so you feel like you’re creating something that has a lot of respect behind it. I’ve made lots of baskets and bags; I like to make things that people are going to use and cherish.

Learn more about the NZ-VR project


This article appears in the December 2018 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni.

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