The show must go on

In a time of COVID-19, many on-campus events in 2020 had to be postponed or held online as we exercised physical distancing requirements under the various Levels set by the Government. But adapt we did.

Sustainability-related events

THE EVENTS WE normally took for granted being able to enjoy in large gatherings became live-streamed webinars or recorded Zooms and through this we retained the sense of togetherness that events bring, listening and sharing knowledge and ideas. There were upsides to this remote way of gathering too, such as being able to tune in to an event from our homes, sending through questions via chat and having a recording to view later.

A number of recent events took place from August to September, highlighting the importance of sustainability, learning about our natural world and how we can best respond to the challenging global situations we are facing.

Perspectives on eco-anxiety

The Sustainability Network hosted a seminar in September on eco-anxiety. The constant stream of news on the threats of climate change can sometimes seem overwhelming, resulting in anxiety about the future of our planet.

Speakers from the University of Auckland and AUT shared their research and discussed how to respond to eco-anxiety. These presentations included Facing the apocalypse: Emotions and climate change from Professor Niki Harré School of Psychology, University of Auckland; Eco-anxiety in the therapeutic space: A clinician’s perspective presented by Dr Jackie Feather Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, AUT; and Nurturing hope in young people: From climate change worriers to ecowarriors by Dr Sally Birdsall Faculty of Education, University of Auckland. Nikhil Gosai and Jarren Iuvale from De La Salle College, participants in Auckland Council’s Young Leaders Programme, also each shared a personal perspective.

Speaking on the psychology of emotions, Niki said certain kinds of emotions propel us to certain actions. Research by the USA based professor, Barbara Fredrickson, suggests negative emotions produce ‘action tendencies’ that drive us to want to solve a problem quickly.

“What’s really tricky about big issues like climate change is we can’t actually do that, and so we might go into denial which is trying to get rid of the emotion itself,” said Niki, noting how the media can perpetuate feelings of fear, anger and anxiety. She explained we shouldmapproach global issues like climate change withmmotivational hope – that people all around themworld are working towards solving this problemmand we can play our part too.

Jackie spoke on how our relationship to the natural world is not only a socio-political or economic issue but linked to our psychological and physical wellbeing. She said eco-anxiety essentially means “we are scared of what is happening to the environment and we probably all share that at some level” but that it is not yet known how much people are affected by this. She said we need to remember to take care of our own wellbeing too, whether that means spending time in nature or practicing mindfulness. “We can’t save the world alone,” she said, reminding us to do what we can to be part of collective action.

“…what we need are
strategies that are
going to nurture
constructive hope
to motivate youth to
make change.”

Dr Sally Birdsall

Sally’s presentation centred on hope and how to help young people manage negative emotions and move from ‘climate change worriers’ to ‘eco-warriors’. She explained that there’s a connection between hope and taking action to reducing our impact on the environment. Referring to constructive hope, Sally said this is “when people with a high level of hope, feel more optimistic …that they can achieve their goal. “When we’re considering teaching and learning programmes in the formal education sector…what we need are strategies that are going to nurture constructive hope to motivate youth to make change.”

River Futures in Aotearoa

The School of Environment Research Committee held its annual research forum in September, River Futures in Aotearoa. River health is a longstanding issue of significant societal concern in New Zealand and the staff and students in the School of Environment provide a broad range of transdisciplinary perspectives related to ‘River Futures in Aotearoa’.

“There is incredible generative potential in directly aligning steps towards healthier river futures through collective embracing of Te ao Māori, working with rivers as living, indivisible entities. This embraces recent moves towards ‘the rights of the river’ – building upon this internationally significant legislation,” says the School’s Professor Gary Brierley, referring to the Whanganui River becoming the first river in the world to have the same legal rights as humans.

Five key speakers from various organisations presented provocative, constructive and positive perspectives on this topic:

  • Gerrard Albert: Chair of Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui, the post-settlement governance body for Whanganui Iwi for the purpose of the Whanganui River Settlement
  • Anne Salmond: Professor of Māori Studies, The University of Auckland
  • Colleen Brent: Healthy Waterways Team, Auckland Council
  • Trish Kirkland-Smith: Head of Environmental Partnerships, Fonterra
  • Mike Joy: Senior Research Fellow, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

Speaking about the research and action project Te Awaroa, Voice of the River, which aims to have 1000 rivers in a state of ora (health) by 2050, Anne said, “We’re hoping that this relational outcome-focused kind of research might be able to transcend modernist divisions between theory and practice, people and the environment, culture and nature and to revitalize overlooked genealogies, including those in western science that link the arts, the humanities, technology and the natural and social sciences.”

Colleen from Auckland Council noted the importance on sharing our knowledge about streams and catchments and to visit your local stream with a wholistic view and to be actively involved. “Advocate for your water course – go out, join a community group, join streamside plantings…and I know if we’re all working in this together we can get good healthy waterways across the Auckland region and across Aotearoa."

More events in Science

With ten schools and departments, the Faculty of Science hosts a wide range of annual events open to the public, including:

Ihaka Lecture Series

The Department of Statistics launched this annual lecture series in 2017, and named it after Associate Professor Ross Ihaka in honour of his contributions to the field. In the 2020 series, three experts discussed the challenges and rewards of applying data science to societal issues. Officially sponsored by The New Zealand Statistical Association.

Gibbons Memorial Lecture Series

The School of Computer Science began this annual lecture series in 2008, to present Computer Science research to the wider public and named it in memory of Associate Professor Peter Gibbons. The 2020 series explored the fears and excitement of AI today and in the future, and the impacts it could have both on and in our society.

Inaugural lectures

Held throughout the year, our newly appointed professors share their current research and teaching with the University community and wider public.

Science shines in Three Minute Thesis Competition

Postgraduate students from the Faculty of Science excelled at the University’s 2020 Three Minute Thesis Final in August. In the competition, masters research students and doctoral candidates from across the University take up the challenge of presenting their research in under three minutes.

The School of Environment’s Angus Dowell won Masters Runner-Up, for his talk on his research into constructing a regenerative economy. Biological Science’s James Hucklesby won Doctoral Runner-Up presenting his work around brain barriers and stroke and Morgane Merien won Doctoral Winner for her talk on the ecology and diversity of camouflage in New Zealand stick insects.

“Last night’s final was incredible: a lot of fun and very high in energy – and nerves! The calibre of all the finalists was exceptionally high, and I was shocked to win! I loved hearing about all the amazing research everyone is working on, and in such diverse areas,” Morgane said.

Morgane went on to represent the University at the U21 3MT® online competition and the Asia-Pacific Final Competition at the University of Queensland (held virtually in 2020). The Three Minute Thesis competitions (3MT®) originated from the University of Queensland to help doctoral candidates communicate their research to a general audience and now takes place in over 900 universities around the world.

Watch the full recordings of River Futures in Aotearoa and our 3 Minute Thesis presenters:


This article appears in the December 2020 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni. View more articles from inSCight.

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