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Eye on Ecology

Tuesday 27 October 2020 11:09am

Christoph Matthaei image
Associate Professor Christoph Matthaei on the Tropical Ecology field course on a canopy walkway above the rainforest in Kuala Belalong National Park in Brunei, Borneo, in January this year.

Recently the Ecology Fund received a very generous gift of $150,000 from Emeritus Professor Sir Alan Mark and Lady Pat Mark QSO, who have both dedicated their lives to environmental conservation. The Otago Bulletin Board caught up with the current Director of the Ecology Programme, Associate Professor Christoph Matthaei, for an insight into a field that Sir Alan Mark refers to as “absolutely fundamental” to encourage in today’s world.

What has been your journey to Director of the Ecology Programme?

I grew up in small town in Germany and was one of those kids who always brought home animals. Instead of joining the army, as a conscientious objector I worked with handicapped children for 15 months, but I was always keen to become an ecologist. After completing my undergraduate degree in biology and a MSc in freshwater ecology, I realised if I wanted to make a difference to freshwater resource management and conservation in Germany, I needed to complete a PhD. My research on the role of flood disturbances in stream ecosystems was really enjoyable, and I eventually came to Otago for a post-doc and then worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Munich.

It was during my second visit to Otago University while on a research sabbatical that I met my future wife, Caroline. Back in Germany I was ready to apply for a professor position and so I did something no academic should ever do – I accepted a research fellow position here! Fortunately, it all worked out and ten years later I was offered a permanent lecturer role in the Zoology Department.

What is the Ecology Programme in a nutshell?

Plants and animals interact with each other and the wider environment, and ecology is all about how these ecosystems work and connect. To be convincing as an ecologist it’s important to understand lots of different points of view or the ‘languages’ different subjects and interest groups speak in, so a big part of the programme’s philosophy is training students to think in a broad holistic way. Ecology is a cross-departmental programme so has teaching from disciplines across all Divisions, and currently just over 400 students are enrolled in the programme’s undergraduate and fourth-year papers.

What have been your career highlights to date?

I’m proud of the NZ River Story Award in 2017 our research group received using our invented ExStream System. ExStream is an outdoor stream channel setup that can test the effects of multiple stressors related to agricultural intensification or climate change. The research started here in 2007 and the ExStream system is now also used in Germany, Ireland, China and Japan. Its ability to closely simulate processes happening in a real stream environment while allowing tight experimental control and providing excellent statistical power means this research is world-leading. The innovative system is helping to address challenges that freshwater ecosystems are facing from the growing use of pesticides and fertilisers to produce more food for the growing world’s population.

What plans do you have for your research and the Programme coming up?

I am keen to do my bit to help make the world a better place, and the nice thing is this outlook is shared by most of the students who take Ecology. I’m really pleased our research on fine sediment pollution in freshwaters over the last 15 years has led to increased awareness and recognition within the New Zealand Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and the National Objectives Framework. For the next five to ten years, my goal is to achieve similar awareness and recognition for our pesticide-related research.

We are also working on finalising a new paper on the ecology of species introductions and invasions that will be offered in the second semester of 2021. This is a really topical issue for New Zealand and a paper on this subject is not available anywhere else in the country so it will make a fantastic addition to the papers already offered in Ecology.

What does the recent significant donation made by Sir Alan Mark and Lady Pat Mark mean for the Programme?

It’s a real honour, especially when you consider who Sir Alan is and the role he has played in New Zealand’s conservation. The Marks’ generous donation to the Ecology Fund will enable us to make a positive difference to many generations of future Ecology students, especially financially disadvantaged ones. We can do this by supporting conference attendance to present their research and interact with other scientists and students, attending workshops to enhance their skills, and covering research-related field or laboratory work costs which go beyond the normal support by the university. To some extent the Ecology Fund has played this role for decades since the 1960’s when the Fund was set up, but the support given to each student who won an award had to be fairly small. The Marks’ amazing gift will change this, which is fantastic.

As told to: Guy Frederick, Communications Adviser (Sciences)