A word from the Dean


This edition has a theme: diversity in science. As an umbrella for an inquisitive set of disciplines, science is naturally diverse. From a subject perspective alone, it is incredibly broad. Our own Faculty of Science encompasses 10 schools and departments covering an even larger number of disciplines, ranging from the mathematical and computational sciences through the physical sciences, life sciences, and aspects of the social and health sciences. 

Because of this diversity, and the natural tendency for people to work with people in their own discipline, we are spending effort to break down barriers between our discipline silos. 

In teaching, we have just revamped the Bachelor of Science to reemphasise the strength that its breadth embodies – a feature that many of our alumni feel has given them a competitive advantage in their subsequent careers. 

Other examples are the creation, some years ago, of the Institute of Marine Science, which is explicitly multi-disciplinary in nature, the philanthropically funded George Mason Centre for the Natural Environment, which sponsors multi-disciplinary approaches to major environmental issues, such as water pollution and microplastics (see page eight), and Te Ao Mārama, a centre to explore fundamental questions transcending discipline boundaries such as, what is the origin of life? Is our universe part of a much larger multiverse? What types of planets circle other stars?

More recently the faculty has sponsored eight multi-disciplinary research themes to answer five major University-wide challenges. The aim here is not to abandon fundamental discipline-based research, but to scaffold from that to draw on the diversity of our research strengths in order to answer larger questions.

Professor John Hosking, Dean of Science
Professor John Hosking, Dean of Science

Many approaches to scientific challenges

Another way in which our science is diverse is the differing methods and measures we use to undertake it. While all disciplines subscribe to the scientific method, that is expressed in quite different ways, including deep theoretical studies, strongly laboratory or field-based activities, model and simulation-based approaches, social science methodologies, through to the sorts of design, proof of concept, and evaluation approaches seen in computer science, computational statistics and advanced manufacturing approaches emerging from physics and chemical sciences. 

A further variant is the incorporation of Mātauranga Māori viewpoints into our science, exemplified by the pioneering work of Emeritus Professor Michael Walker and his research on intertidal organisms, and more recent work by Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigators Dr Dan Hikuroa and Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng, and Dr Tara McAllister (see page six). This diversity contributes enormously to our understanding of the world we live in.

Harnessing that methodological and disciplinary diversity can be incredibly powerful. An example can be found in another of our CoREs, the Maurice Wilkins Centre (MWC) for Molecular Biodiscovery. Scientists in the MWC connect biological understanding of diseases through to medicinal chemistry, uncovering drug candidates that may cure those diseases, passing those drug candidates on to medical researchers, who test them in clinical trials. A spin-out company, SapVax, founded by MWC investigators Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, Professor Rod Dunbar and Dr Geoff Williams, is commercialising a breakthrough immunotherapy technique that provides a ‘personalised medicine’ approach to treating cancer.

Another way of harnessing methodological diversity is to adopt techniques developed in one area of science for use in other areas. Te Pūnaha Matatini, for example, takes mathematical and statistical modelling techniques, typically used in understanding complex physical problems, and applies them to areas such as economics, healthcare, social welfare and ecology.

Increasingly, when we do science, our work is being complemented by machine learning and artificial intelligence tools and I can see the day coming when we collaborate with a diversity of artificial intelligence assistants who will magnify  our ability to answer scientific questions more quickly. Some aspects of this are explored on pages 16 and 17.

The Kathleen Curtis Atrium: symbolic of the glass ceiling broken by our early alumnae.
The Kathleen Curtis Atrium: symbolic of the glass ceiling broken by our early alumnae.

A diverse community brings fresh insights

A more obvious exhibition of diversity in science is in those undertaking it. Gone are the days when scientists were bearded men in white coats, despite that still being a popular image. Our faculty’s student population is now more balanced and is seeing significant growth in Māori and Pacific student enrolment and achievement, as well as a wider spread of ages, as people ‘upskill’ careers.

Women are still under-represented at senior academic levels, but that is rapidly changing, with the faculty Professoriate increasing from eight percent to near 30 percent women over the last 10 years. There is clearly some way to go, but we did take pride in recognising some of our early alumnae, and the glass ceilings they broke through, by temporarily renaming the faculty and its schools and departments in their honour as part of the 125th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand.  We have also permanently renamed the plaza atrium of our Science Centre to honour Kathleen Curtis, one of our early biology alumnae (see page 11). 

Celebrating our successes

Finally, our diversity can be seen in the myriad ways in which our Science academics have had impact, including:

The late Dr Bill Ballantine, who successfully lobbied for the first ‘no-take’ marine sanctuary at Leigh

Emeritus Professor Philippa Black, who helped us understand the geology of Northland and  New Caledonia

Professor Margie Wetherell, who helped develop discourse analysis

Associate Professor Ross Ihaka and Dr Robert Gentleman, who invented the R statistical programming language

Associate Professor Renate Meyer, who  developed statistical techniques used by those  who first observed gravitational waves

Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble,  who earlier this year, became the first New Zealand resident woman to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society

Professor Rod Dunbar, who grows skin for therapeutic use

Dr Annette Henderson, who helps us understand how children think and learn (see page 18)

Professor Juliet Gerrard, who, in her new role as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, is directly influencing the way scientific evidence is perceived by Government (see page four). 

So I do hope you enjoy this issue. Science is in good heart at the University of Auckland and recognises that in our diversity, we have strength.

Dean of Science, University of Auckland


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

View more articles from inSCight