Tara McAllister

'I love my research because I get to spend a lot of time outside in rivers...'

  • Tara McAllister

(Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki)

Studying towards a PhD in Water Resource Management

With a love for everything in and around the ocean since childhood, it is no surprise that Tara went on to study Marine Biology and Ecology at university when she had the chance. Her passion eventually lead to her current PhD studies in Ecology at UC, with a goal to contribute meaningful research to the field.

‘Canterbury is such a great place to study freshwater management and the University has some very active researchers in the field,’ Tara says. ‘I love studying at UC and particularly working in the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, because we are like one big family and I have really amazing supervisors who are very supportive, and are moulding me into a great scientist.’

Going from Marine Biology to Freshwater Ecology is quite a change, but after tutoring for some courses and going on field trips, Tara knew that this was the area she wanted to specialise in.

‘One in particular really solidified that I wanted to work in the freshwater space, it was a 400-level Freshwater Ecology course through the Biology department where we went to look at all the bugs and fish in the streams. It was super interesting particularly for me as I didn’t know much about freshwater organisms,’ she says.

Tara’s research investigates the presence of the algae Phormidium in New Zealand rivers, due to its toxic nature causing issues for our waterways and wildlife. Her latest experiments have involved creating ‘fake’ rivers, controlling water speed and measuring nutrients to determine how the algae responds and why it might be thriving.

‘I like solving problems and the toxic algae I study is a massive problem plaguing our rivers in Canterbury, New Zealand and worldwide. My research is also really cool because research on Phormidium is in its infancy so not many people are working on it.

‘I love my research because I get to spend a lot of time outside in rivers, thinking about why things are the way they are. I feel like I am at home in the rivers I work in and I feel a deep connection to them.’

When she isn’t conducting freshwater research, Tara still spends her free time in the water swimming, and has previously worked as a swim teacher. Her other passion in life is learning te reo Māori, which she is currently practicing within night classes at Te Whare Wānanga o Aotearoa.

‘I think we need more Māori scientists, which was another reason I continued to postgraduate study,’ she says. ‘I love learning te reo because it is a window which allows me to explore my Māoritanga. It is important for me as an emerging Māori scientist to be able to walk in both te ao Māori (the Māori world) and te ao Pākehā (the Pākehā world).’

Receiving a Ngāi Tahu Research Centre Doctoral Scholarship provided huge support in realising her studies alongside her cultural heritage, and she feels ‘extremely lucky’ for the award.

Tara has also had other unique opportunities through UC, including projects around New Zealand and a trip overseas. She hopes these experiences will lead to a fulfilling career in academia.

‘I have enjoyed the collaborations and relationships that I have been able to develop as part of my work,’ she says. ‘One of my supervisors is based at Cawthron in Nelson, so I have been able to spend a bit of time there and I also have been working with scientists from NIWA to run some awesome experiments in fake rivers.

‘This year I attended a conference in America where I presented my work and met some really awesome scientists. As part of this trip I also spent some time at University of California Berkeley working with some researchers there who are studying the same algae as me. I am planning on returning to Berkeley after I hand in my PhD to work there for a summer.’

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