When I first met New Zealand native and science/artist Monica Peters, she was attending the Citizen Science Association meeting in San Jose, California. After her presentation she boldly stated, “Watch this space!” in reference to the growing citizen science initiatives in New Zealand. It was intriguing to learn about the efforts of citizen scientists in New Zealand communities to preserve their local natural habitats. She also stated that she had come from a design background, but has found herself in this scientific world. Wanting to hear more, I scheduled an interview and we got a chance to speak about her middle school life, her research and the future of grassroots citizen science in New Zealand.
Lea: What got you interested in science? What are some memorable moments in middle school?
Monica: I made a decision when I was about 13 that I wanted to be an artist and that was what I was heading for. At that time you couldn’t be both scientist and artist – you were either the creative, artsy-fartsy type, or you were the intellectual science-y type. The way school was structured, if you chose art courses they were held at the same time as the science courses. You had to choose one, so I chose art. I managed to skip science, apart from the general stuff… what do you really do in middle school science? You break a lot of test tubes, you light stuff on fire, you write rude notes about the science teacher… You do a lot of weird experiments that don’t make any sense and they don’t relate to life. You learn about photosynthesis which is so irrelevant for your average 14 year old that it goes in one ear and out the other. Science at school for me was really not a happening thing.
You went from art to science, so what bridged the gap there – what was the connection that you found, if any?
It had a lot to do with my upbringing. We lived on a reasonably-sized property in an urban setting, but my parents were both very keen gardeners. So I was learning the Latin names of plants, and I’m teaching my daughter those names as well – she’s the only girl her age that can say Latin plant names, so she’s just as geeky as I was. I was also involved in some volunteer work for the Department of Conservation. I did some work on some offshore islands and had some really amazing experiences there. I guess, also, as an artist I also thought that there were artists who really love nature. They’ll look at a landscape and say, “Oh, just look at all that green texture.” There was no way that I wanted to be that kind of artist. I just want to be able to say I really love the texture, but these are the species that I’m looking at and this is why this is the way it is. I always had a keen interest in the structure of how the natural world is put together and also how we, as human beings, relate to the environment. I think about the kind of things we place on top of the environment in order to understand it. That led me to an interest in science, and I ended up doing volunteer work in a place called Raoul Island, which is really in the middle of nowhere. And then I did some more volunteer work in Borneo. I was looking at design practice as one side of learning more about the environment, but that was only kind of a partial tool. Over time I started incorporating more science so I’d have a better understanding of what was happening out there in the natural world and what we, as human beings, bring to that.
It’s been a bit of a zig-zag path.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?
I think they were both pretty vague. They would have preferred for me not to do the art thing as a career, but they left me to it, because in the end I was still going to do that irrespective of having their blessing or not.
What was one of your biggest worries when you were in middle school?
Why did your teacher tell you that you had to get out of there? What do you think the motivation was?
Well, it was because I was a terrible student. I think she recognized that there were bigger things for me to do in the outside world and that I would benefit more from being outside high school than inside of it.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about now, considering your life?
That I would have written documents on how to manage farms — that probably wouldn’t have been on my radar screen at that stage. That I would have ended up in the middle of nowhere working with a bunch of people in Borneo. That I would have ended up doing work on a remote Pacific island and that I would have ended up actually working mostly with scientists.
What was it like growing up in New Zealand? When Americans think of New Zealand, they think of Lord of The Rings – is it like that everywhere?
There are no Orks around… [laughs] It’s pretty awesome because I grew up in Auckland, which despite being the biggest city, it’s also very close to nature. We could easily trek down to the beach. Auckland is very special because it’s on an isthmus. On one side you have the Pacific Ocean and on the other side you have the Tasman Sea. And both sides are very close together. On the west coast you’ve got lots of forest and lots of relaxing beaches that are quite wild. On the east coast you’ve got more sediment and the beaches are white sand. But you can drive across in an hour. It makes for a very unique place to grow up and a very dynamic environment in terms of the kind of contact that you have with nature. Lots of sailing, lots of outdoor stuff, lots of tramping around the South Island. There’s a lot of stuff to do with nature, which is great because it’s very easy to do and it’s a pretty laid back country, so I found it to be a great place to grow up.
Can you tell me a little more about your research?
The broader subject area is citizen science, more specifically community environmental restoration – which is environmental restoration enacted by volunteers. We’ve got a really strong network in New Zealand composed of groups who have come together to restore aspects of their environment, which otherwise wouldn’t be done. What they’re also doing is getting more sophisticated as the groups end up being around longer and longer. They are starting to do more and more monitoring. It’s community-based environmental monitoring that gets bigger – and what they’re doing needs to be more descriptive than just saying “citizen science” – it’s grassroots citizen science. My PhD research is very much around what these groups are doing; I really try to build a foundation because there are a few reports here and there, one group reports on this species… another on another… but New Zealand is a small country and I can do research on the entire country. The first steps are to outline who they are, what they’re doing and their partnerships and the second part is really delving into the science of what they’re doing. The research is on a community level because there are other projects that are scientist-led, more like crowd-sourced science.
Tell me more about the grassroots environmental restoration being done by communities in New Zealand. Is that something that you think is culturally different in New Zealand versus the rest of the world – do people feel more of a need to preserve nature in their communities?
I think there are a couple of things going on here. Most of the volunteers are of a particular age group that is headed towards retirement age. It’s very much the generation that started a lot of volunteer organizations like Meals on Wheels, a lot of those social cure organizations, so they have a volunteer ethic that is just part of who they are, it’s part of their generation. The other part of it is a growing awareness of environmental degradation. These volunteers get together at their local wetland or stream – nobody else is going to do it for them. The government organizations do not have the time or resources and they may not have prioritized the area for ecological value. But, if you live next door to the area it has other values. I think people are very connected to place and want to make a difference. We’ve got a unique situation here in New Zealand with so many invasive organisms affecting our indigenous birds. The talk around here is also a lot about the climate.
So you’re finishing your PhD in August, where do you see yourself in five or ten years with the projects that you’re working on.[She makes almost a disgusted face] I never think in those sorts of time frames. [laughs] I don’t even think I know what I’ll be doing at the end of the year, actually. I’m trying to bring together a mini-symposium on citizen science for the next big Ecological Society meeting later in the year. That is something that has directly sprung from my involvement in the Citizen Science Conference. The bigger picture of what I’ll be doing is promoting citizen science and helping bring in some leadership and strategic direction for citizen science in New Zealand.
I’m also putting together a book on wetland restoration from an Maori, or indigenous persons’, perspective. Maori have a different approach to restoration than non-Maori do. I’ve put together a book from the European perspective, but this will be the companion piece.
What were some of your adult role models when you were younger?
I can’t remember a lot from when I was younger. I was probably like any other teenager and had my head buried in the music scene. I was interested in the kind of bad bands that were around. I’d love to say I was really indie and into good bands, but really they were just really bad.
Did you somehow feel you were different from other children?
In some ways… like when you’d go to parties as a teenager and everyone felt so socially awkward. One thing that I’ve always been good at doing is keeping myself occupied. I can always find some creative exercise to do to keep myself engaged in my environment.
Is there a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
In a broader sense it would be about what my personal capabilities are – what I can actually achieve. In middle school I didn’t really have a clear picture of what I would be in the long term. I had this idea that I’d be an artist and it was hazy after that. I didn’t have any great future visions of being a world-class artist or anything. Just that I’d get out there, be an artist, do some higher education around that and see what kind of direction that would take me. I would have never pictured myself writing a science-based thesis – that would have completely shocked me.
If you could give your middle school self or a middle school student some advice, what would you tell them, or tell your past self?
Just to keep a really, really broad mind and not to limit yourself by what you think your limitations are. I guess I’m doing that with my daughter, that’s part of our education to her: you can be what you really want. It’s not very original, but it’s still a very relevant one.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be, why would you want it and what would you do with it?
I think my superpower would be to have an enhanced level of understanding about the natural world. There’s all those kooky stories about people being able to hear the animals and the animals talking to them. Occasionally you go into a natural environment and you feel an incredible sense of order. It’s hard to describe, and I’ve only experienced it a few times. To have greater insight into what that all means; how it actually connects to our environments — maybe a form of ecological environment.
Monica Peters is a PhD candidate at Waikato University in New Zealand where she explores her curiosity of how people relate to and use science to understand nature. Follow her on Twitter @monica_a_peters.