MOTAT FUN recently talked to Dr Helen Blackie, a leading environmental scientist who uses high tech to fight invasive predators (think ferrets, weasels, possums, rats and, yes, even cute hedgehogs) that are a threat to Aotearoa’s native species. The big goal is a Predator Free NZ by the year 2050.
Dr Blackie’s work in high tech conservation has helped save thousands of native birds, plants and reptiles — but first, we wanted to ask how she got started in science.
MOTAT: What inspired you to become a scientist?
DR HELEN BLACKIE: I had a very influential grandfather who was very much focused on the environment. He lived rurally and always had pet magpies, pet hawks, or a family of owls on his farm. He drove my fascination with the natural environment from a very young age.
And then I did my bachelor’s degree majoring in marine ecology but then later, kind of by accident, I ended up working on researching brushtail possums, our number one pest, and that was also when my obsession with technology started — technology that can be used to solve ecological problems.
So at that stage, this is going back almost 20 years now, we decided to try putting GPS collars on possums to figure out if we could look at their movement patterns. At that stage, people were only putting GPS collars on elephants and massive animals. I remember approaching a company and they said “Look, that’s never gonna happen, you’re never gonna have any technology that’s small enough to track an animal that small.” So we built these little GPS collars and attached them to possums. And they worked and we figured out all their movement behaviour and stuff.
MOTAT: When did you want to start working to help protect native birds and animals?
HB: It was probably when I was doing research trials in the Dart River Valley down out of Glenorchy. When working in the bush outside at night, you could actually hear pests moving around and eating the vegetation. You go out during the day and you don’t see or hear them so you’re kind of oblivious. But if you’re out working there at night, you’re thinking “This is appalling. How can any bird have a single chance to have a successful nest in this kind of environment?”
After going to work for the Department of Conservation for a few years and then a scholarship, I was offered a job at Lincoln University running some research programs. And that’s when the technology stuff really kicked into overdrive. I got successful in running a few government-funded research projects. Focusing on what new technologies and tools can we use to detect pests, control pests?
And since then, probably 90% of my work is now in research and development, linking new technologies to conservation, particularly biodiversity.
MOTAT: What’s it been like being a woman scientist in your field, here in New Zealand?
HB: I would say that the ecology field is becoming more gender-balanced. And the way I was treated 20 years ago, being a woman in the field, is much different than now. But the big disclaimer there is the work that I do in the tech space with engineers is still heavily male-biased. The ecology and life sciences side is catching up but the engineering and technology side still has a long way to go. It’s interesting bridging the two disciplines.
A lot of my employees and my team are now female which I would not have had 20 years ago. But when I meet with my tech team, it’s all males apart from me.
MOTAT: Did you have any women role models along the way?
HB: Well, my biggest one was my mom. My mom actually is a judge. She was the first female partner in her law firm back in the days that, when you had kids, you weren’t expected to go back to work. So she was a firm believer in pushing the boundaries. And that a woman could do anything if they persevered and put their minds to it. And she has been a great role model for working whilst having children. Which is very hard, especially in science, because science moves so fast. And nowadays it’s even faster. If you take your head out of the space, it’s quite hard to get back in it again, because everything’s moved on in a year from where it was. So yeah, she’s been a great support for that.
FIVE RANDOM QUESTIONS
MOTAT: Do you have any pets?
HB: Oh, don’t get me started. Yeah, I have two dogs, a parrot, and one horse at the moment. My daughter’s here saying, “And a kid!” but I wouldn’t put her in that category.
MOTAT: Do you ever have any weird stoat or predator dreams?
HB: Yes I do, and I swear that I’ve had things in real life as well. Sometimes I feel like possums are trying to get their comeuppance because there was once a possum that would jump on the roof of my car every night and scratch it, and defecate (poop) on it. And then a few months after that, I had a rat that lived in the bonnet of my car and chewed through a whole lot of wiring. So that was real life but it felt quite apt.
MOTAT: One can imagine how they see you.
HB: Exactly, I’m evil. I walked into the lab once and picked up a mouse and it died immediately. My colleague was like, you’ve literally scared it to death. But, yes, I’ve spent many years working on possums in the field almost every day. And so you do end up dreaming about them.
MOTAT: Ever feel guilty about the predators?
HB: That’s a tricky one. I see both sides — I feel sorry for the predators, it’s not their fault, they were brought here. It’s our fault. But I’ve also seen this absolute environmental precipice we’re heading down, and the damage that they’re doing.
From an ethical perspective, I’m very driven by trying to deal with the predators humanely. And it’s our responsibility to do it as fast and as best as we can.
MOTAT: What’s your favourite bird?
HB: Oh, probably the Kaka. They’ve got so much personality and are such characters, super smart, and they’re really agile fliers.
MOTAT: So sad there are no Moa.
HB: Oh, I know, and no Huia. When I was a kid, I wanted my life’s plan to rediscover the Moa. For about 10 years I thought, if I went to a remote part of New Zealand, Moa might still be there. I was driven by some other examples like the Takahe was rediscovered in New Zealand after we thought it was extinct. I thought maybe if I went down to live in Fiordland, eventually I’d find a Moa.
MOTAT: Well, if there’s any Moa DNA around…supposedly they’re going to be bringing back woolly mammoths. So who knows?
HB: That’s a whole ethical thing, because we can’t even look after what’s here. Maybe we need to do that before bringing back extinct species.
MOTAT: Spoiler alert: Jurassic Park did not end well.
HB: No, none of those movies ends well.
MOTAT: Let’s hope for a better ending for our native animals. Can Aotearoa New Zealand really become predator-free?
HB: Yeah, I strongly think we can. If we have people on board, and communities on board, the odds are hugely in our favour.
Because at the end of the day, we can have all the amazing technology in the world but unless we’ve got people willing to go out there and use it, and set it up, and communities to get involved…it won’t work. I think it’s doable, so long as we have support from the public.
So? Get involved.
- Get Involved: Kids and Schools
- Start Backyard Trapping
- Know your invasive predators
- “Generation E: How technological innovations are changing the face of ecology”
- Women in STEM