Past lectures

Take a look at recordings of past inaugural lectures.

Inaugural lectures 2023

Professor Gavin Lear - When small things matter: how microbes clean our polluted planet

Climate change, pollution and habitat destruction continue to degrade Earth’s ecosystems and their life-supporting services. As global distributions of plant and animal species adjust, so too does our “invisible” microbial world, leaving a trail of evidence as to both extent and causes of environmental change. In this lecture, I’ll describe my attempts to catalogue the current ecological health of Aotearoa through the analysis of microbial DNA. Along our journey, I’ll share with you my efforts to unlock the immense potential of microbial life to transform and degrade some of our world’s worst pollutants, from nuclear waste and pesticides to vast islands of marine plastic.

As a child, Gavin cared little for the small things in life! Only during his PhD in Engineering at Oxford University did he begin understanding the immense power of microorganisms to degrade and transform even the world’s most noxious pollutants. Since joining the University of Auckland in 2006, Gavin has published widely on applied and theoretical themes in microbial ecology, including the remediation of contaminated soil and water. Gavin is vice president of the New Zealand Microbiological Society.

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Inaugural lectures 2022

Professor Tilo Söehnel - Using Neutrons and Photons to study Matter(s) of the world

In this lecture, I will present how we apply large modern research facilities such as neutron sources and particle accelerators in our search for novel materials and how we use the information to learn more about crystal structures and electronic and magnetic properties. I have been working on a broad range of different types of materials during my time here at the University of Auckland and I will let you take part on how exciting playing with very big “toys” can be.

Professor Tilo Söhnel was born in Dresden, former East Germany, where he studied Chemistry at the Technical University of Dresden. He obtained his Diploma in Chemistry with specialisation in solid state chemistry and was awarded his PhD in 1998. He joined the Max-Planck Institute for Solid State Research, Stuttgart (Germany) as a post-doctoral fellow, before he received the prestigious Humboldt Foundation Feodor Lynen Fellowship. This Fellowship took him to Auckland to join Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger’s group. He returned back to the Technical University of Dresden as Senior Research Fellow in 2001 before he accepted a position as Lecturer at the University of Auckland in 2004. In 2010 and 2017 he spent two years at the RWTH Aachen University (Germany) as Guest Professor.

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Professor Craig Stevens - Frozen Oceans

A hundred and fifty years ago Jules Verne’s fictional Nautilus sailed beneath the south pole in 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. Fantastic as it was, it wasn’t so far from the truth. The oceans beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves stretch back hundreds of km from the ice front and are one of the last parts of our planet to be explored. In this talk I’ll describe some of our recent expeditions to observe ocean mechanics beneath hundreds of metres of ice and how this same ocean finds it’s way to our coastline. In the era of sophisticated numerical earth system models and remote sensing we will look at the role of going places in the ocean and seeing how they work.

Craig Stevens is an oceanographer with a joint position in the Physics Department at the University of Auckland and in the Ocean Observations group at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). His research focus is on extreme ocean environments and the implications as our climate changes. He currently leads MBIE-funded projects observing how the oceans around Antarctic and Aotearoa work. He has participated in 14 Antarctic field campaigns and nearly 50 ocean experiments. He trained at the Universities of Adelaide, Western Australia and British Columbia and held the position of President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists from 2016-2018.

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Professor Nicola Gaston - A feminist theory of quantum mechanics

Thank goodness for quantum mechanics. Without it, we would understand little of atoms, even less of how to make useful materials out of them, and I might struggle to find the words to describe the superposition of states that I exist in as a feminist and a physicist. In this lecture, I’ll talk through the risks and benefits of anthropomorphizing atoms in materials science. I’ll outline the boundary conditions that have helped me define my areas of research interest – in particular the design of nanostructured materials for solutions to sustainability challenges. And we’ll indulge in the thought experiment of putting Schrödinger himself in a box.

Professor Gaston studied at the University of Auckland and Massey University in New Zealand, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, in Dresden, Germany, before she returned to New Zealand to work at the Crown Research Institute Industrial Research Limited in 2007. She moved to an academic position at Victoria University of Wellington in 2012. Before her appointment as Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute she was Deputy Director from 2015-2018, and she has been a Principal Investigator in the Institute since 2010. She also served as the elected President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists in 2014 and 2015, and published a book, Why Science Is Sexist, with Bridget Williams Books in 2015.

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Professor Mike Taylor - Love and other relationships: animals and the microbes they live with

Animals (including humans) function as “hosts” to a diverse array of bacteria and other microorganisms. These host-microbe associations span the gamut of potential ecological interactions, from tightly linked mutualistic symbioses – in which all partners may benefit – through to microbes as nutritional parasites or agents of disease. Understanding these interactions is an active research area within the field of microbial ecology, with implications for human health, agriculture, biotechnology and threatened species conservation. In this lecture I’ll describe some of my research experiences in this area, with examples from host animals including the humble sea sponge, the iconic kākāpō and that most enigmatic of all species, Homo sapiens. 

Mike was a latecomer to microbiology, with initial training in zoology. His first foray into microbiology only took place during his PhD, and since then he has been a card-carrying microbial ecologist. Since joining the University of Auckland in 2007, Mike’s research has focused on animal[1]microbe interactions. On top of his research and teaching activities, he is heavily involved in the development of microbial ecology in New Zealand and beyond. He has recently been President of the NZ Microbiological Society, Board Member of the International Society for Microbial Ecology and is Co-Convenor of the NZ Microbial Ecology Consortium.

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Inaugural lectures 2021

Professor Jan Lindsay - Insights into volcanic risk from Auckland to the Antilles, Andes and Arabia

An academic career is built on collaborations - with mentors, students, fellow researchers and teachers, funders and research stakeholders. In her presentation Professor Lindsay will take you on a journey around the world to some amazing volcanoes that she has had the pleasure to research, and also acknowledge those who she has had the privilege of working with during her career. A consistent focus of her research has been on improving societal resilience to volcanic hazards – in the early years by better understanding magmatic and volcanic processes, and in more recent years by developing and testing techniques for effective communication between scientists and stakeholders, including through volcanic hazard maps. Insights from Professor Lindsay’s research and her experiences highlight the value of collaborative, user-centered approaches to natural hazard risk research, and importance of good science communication, especially during a crisis.

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Professor David Barker - Molecule making – opportunity taking: a journey in synthetic chemistry

The synthesis and study of molecules is at the heart of chemical research. One of the most challenging aspects is the development of methods to synthesise molecules for the first time.

In this talk Professor Barker will describe how taking up the challenge to prepare a wide variety of different molecules has led to range of opportunities in his career. From designing methods to make bioactive natural products, to synthesising potential treatments for triple-negative breast cancer, to forming a spin-out company to prepare biosensing devices and developing novel water treatment technologies, taking opportunities has led to a diverse range of research achievements throughout his career to date.

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Professor Michael Witbrock - The Future of Thinking 

Humans are quite good at thinking, relative to other animals, plants, and rocks. But we are, perhaps, sometimes not as good at it as we might be. Fortunately, perhaps, our ability to think has given us the means to upgrade our ability to think, both at an individual and at a civilisational level. The development of language, accounting, the scientific method, and human rights, among many others, can all be viewed as software upgrades for individual, group, and civilisational thinking. None of these upgrades have come without both costs and benefits. This view of our history makes the accelerating rise of computational and recently Artificial Intelligence technologies seem almost inevitable.

In this talk, we’ll survey some of the upgrades that most directly predicted the path towards broadly capable AI, look at indicators that such AI is fairly imminent, including work we’re doing here in NZ. Finally, we’ll touch on the enormous opportunities and risks of this AI-based upgrade for individuals, organisations, societies and human civilisation.

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Professor James Russell - A scientific Swiss army knife for conservation

Biodiversity loss and climate change are paramount global existential threats. A conservation scientist must wield a scientific Swiss army knife to successfully undertake research in these topics that informs policy. Drawing on my own contributions to conservation from a career spanning twenty years, I will provide examples of some of the tools from the natural and social sciences I have found in my scientific Swiss army knife. From islands of the tropics to the subantarctic, along the way will be entertaining stories where a real Swiss army knife has also helped save the day.

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Professor Duncan McGillivray - Wandering on the edge: making sense of (bio)material interfaces 

Interfaces – the boundaries only a few molecules thick that divide materials from their surroundings – are simultaneously critically important for the properties of the materials and highly challenging to study. Biologically-relevant and disordered interfaces just add to the challenge of understanding what is happening in these few nanometers. Ironically, some of the best tools for these tiny length scales, neutrons and X-rays, are produced at some of the largest research facilities scattered around the world. This talk will discuss my serendipitous wanderings among these facilities to understand the common features of explosives, functional foods, red wine and cell membranes, and also contemplate some of the other boundaries that academics can wander along.

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Professor Andrew Luxton-Reilly - Teaching Scholarship in a Changing World

As computing devices have become ubiquitous, an understanding of computing is increasingly being viewed as a fundamental component of modern curriculum. This change in the perceived value of computing has coincided with rapid changes in the computing discipline, and rapid changes in education practices due to computing technology. Teaching in this dynamic environment is challenging. A scholarly approach to teaching and learning helps make sense of the complexity of education in a changing discipline using changing pedagogies. In this talk I discuss my own journey through computing education and reflect on teaching scholarship in a changing world.

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Inaugural lectures 2020

Professor David Noone - The connected cycles of water on earth and integrative Climate Science

The natural sciences that allow us to understand the environment are at the heart of developing strategies to adapt to, survive, and thrive as climate changes. Water is at the heart of many of the most complex problems in climate sciences: understanding the behavior of clouds in a warmer world, how land ecosystems mediate evolving rainfall patterns, and when weather patterns trigger decline of the polar ice sheets. The behavior of these macrophysical problems can be interrogated by knowing the details of the microscopic properties of water: small variations in the abundance of naturally occurring heavy oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in water. Utilizing the stable isotope chemistry requires integrating many scientific disciplines and linking disparate areas of theoretical, observational and modeling techniques.

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Professor Ian Lambie - From the Bush to the Beehive: Wrangling youth offenders and politicians

When you think of clinical psychology, what comes to mind? A small room, two chairs, a white board and a whole lot of talking. How would that work for young people who have offended?Instead, let’s follow the evidence base and build an active therapy programme over many weeks that includes a 10-day intensive wilderness therapy programme with a team of clinical psychologists like Ian Lambie...

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Professor JC Gaillard - What’s a professor? Reclaiming a place for teaching in professorship

Dictionary definitions hint that professors are first and foremost teachers. However, we, academics, often take teaching for granted or a required ‘sideline’ to pursue a passion in research. This inaugural lecture will offer a plea for recentering teaching in our academic careers and in professorship in particular. As a case of example, it will focus on how to foster student’s participation in learning as a rewarding experience for not only teaching but also research and service to our disciplines and broader society.

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Professor Karen Waldie - Genes, brains and neurodiversity: A lifespan perspective

This talk is divided into segments that pertain to particular stages of Karen’s research life. While taking us through the early years of functional magnetic resonance imaging, molecular genetics, and National longitudinal studies, she attempts to answer some of the big questions in the area of developmental cognitive neuroscience. Are dyslexia and ADHD real? How do children with dyslexia turn out years later? Do behavioural problems persist? Is there a migraine personality? How do genes and environments interact? What is neuroplasticity? Does learning a second language change the brain?

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Inaugural lectures 2017

Professor Virginia Braun - Telling tales of gendered bodies: A personal and political reflection on critical scholarship in Trumped-up times

My work examines the nature of gendered bodies and gendered body practices – from body hair to genital cosmetic surgery – often related to sex, sexuality and health. I am interested in how meaning comes to be, through the intersections of personal, professional and popular discourse, and in the ways meanings and practices are constrained and enabled. I consider myself a producer of stories about the things I study, rather than a revealer of the truth about them.

Critical scholarship is vital for interrogating common-sense, for unsettling taken-for-granted truths and normative assumptions. But what does it mean to be a critical scholar, in the contemporary socio-political context? What are our roles and obligations as scholars now? Reflexively weaving together personal and scholarly perspectives, I will argue that the personal and the political can never be incised from the work we do, and that critical scholarship is vital in Trumped-Up times.

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