UC Science Radio transcript: Episode 3

Dr Tammy Steeves: It's like Tinder...for birds!

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Molly Magid: Welcome to UC Science Radio, where we conduct interviews with a range of scientists to learn about the big issues facing our world and what science is doing to help. I'm Molly Magid, a master’s student in the School of Biological Sciences.

Today I’m talking to Dr Tammy Steeves. She’s an Associate Professor in Biological Sciences and works to preserve the genetic diversity of some of New Zealand’s rarest taonga species. She does this research in collaboration with relevant Māori communities and with conservation recovery groups to put her science into practice.

Kia ora Tammy. Thanks for joining me on the UC Science Radio. So what do you do at the university and research do you do?
Tammy Steeves:
Kia ora Molly. Thanks very much. I do a lot of things at the university like most academics, but mainly the research that my research team and I do is focused on two main threads; one is to use genomic and non-genomic data. Basically, a lot of DNA material to address conservation management questions for critically endangered species. The other aim of what we do is to use similar types of data to inform things like conservation translocation decisions for threatened freshwater species. So generally what we're thinking about there is how, where, when and why we should actually be moving species around.

And something that I've heard you describe yourself as is a genetic matchmaker, what does that mean?
TS:
A genetic matchmaker or “Tinder for birds”, I think we've used as well. One really challenging facet of the work that we do is to pair together individuals in small conservation breeding programs, often because we don't actually know who the founding individuals were that started out that program. And so essentially what we do is use that genomic or DNA data to estimate relatedness among individual birds. We then combine that with other data to basically make pairing recommendations. We work directly with conservation practitioners, who then go on and actually act on those recommendations.

So you're pairing up individuals that would best be suited to preserve genetic diversity, is that the idea?
TS:
Yeah, definitely. So in conservation breeding programs, what we're seeking to do is to reduce inbreeding, in the short term. We don't want close relatives mating because in the long term, what we're looking to do is to minimize the loss of genetic diversity. And the reason why we care about that is because species actually need diversity in order to respond to changing environments down the track.

You mentioned that you work with some conservation groups. What is that like, translating your research into something that could be applied out in the field?
TS:
Oh, it's really, really rewarding. I think in in our research team, we have a number of mantras, but effectively all of us get a lot of joy out of “being of some use.” And so we do a lot of, you know, all bias included some really exciting research at the edge of what conservation management science looks like. But fundamentally, our work isn't really done until it's actually been translated into conservation management practice. And the way that we achieve that is in partnership. We work directly with conservation practitioners from the very, very beginning, and throughout that process to come up with decisions that that matter. And there’ve certainly been times when I've been known to say things like, “you're not doing conservation genetics, unless you're actually working directly with practitioners”. Having said that, the theory of conservation genetics is incredibly important, but the work that we do is very much on the applied end of things.

I also knew that you could develop a lot of your management practices with relevant Māori iwi and hāpu. How does that work, and how does that process happen?
TS:
Yeah, it's a really good question. Fundamentally, like all things, it's about building trusted relationships. And depending on the species that you're working with, it can look a little bit different. So for example here at the University of Canterbury, we are on Ngāi Tahu takiwā, or region, and in particular, the iwi or hāpu Ngāi Tūāhuriri. So for work that we do on species, whose distribution includes Ngāi Tūāhuriri’s takiwā, we work directly with them. For example, we have a couple of projects including a nationally critical species called kōwaro or Canterbury mudfish and also a declining species called kēwai or freshwater crayfish. Those are where we have those relationships directly with hapū or iwi or effectively mana whenua.

Having said that, for some species that are actually protected under the Conservation Act, there are species recovery groups associated with them. For example, Ngāi Tahu’s takiwā, or region, there are Ngāi Tahu representatives on those species recovery groups. And generally, those are for quite high profile species. We work on kakī or black stilt, and kākāriki karaka or orange fronted parakeet, for example. So we work directly with those representatives as we travel and in the research that we do.

Could you talk a bit more, maybe give an example of species that you work on and what sorts of strategies you’ve co-developed?
TS:
So, for example, with one particular project: The work that we do, again, is often generate genomic data, and that might be generating what we'll call a reference genome. We often say when we're looking at genomic data we're looking at sort of pieces of a puzzle, where the complete puzzle represents the whole genome. Often when we're working with those small puzzle pieces, it's great if we have a completed puzzle to refer to. That's when we generate something called a reference genome.

For example, we've made decisions in partnership with Ngāi Tūāhuriri around where we sample individuals to generate reference genomes, how we sample them, where we generate the data, how we generate the data, where the data is stored, and generally package that around the narrative in terms of what our research questions to start out with, and then also how will we then share the results of those research.

One example that we've used before is kōwaro, again a nationally critical species, quite possibly one of New Zealand's most threatened freshwater fish not protected by any sort of Conservation Act. We wanted to sample that species from a site of local significance, from a nearby area called Tūhaitara Coastal Park, but the work that we did there showed that there were actually not very many kōwaro in the region. The last thing we wanted to do was to sample an individual from that site, despite its cultural significance, given the low number of samples. What we then did is we went back to the kaitiaki from Ngāi Tūāhuriri that we work with, and we chose a different location with a much healthier population from which to sample in individual to generate the reference genome.

That's really interesting. Being able to balance different important reasons for doing certain things and making sure that you know you're doing the science responsibly, but then also thinking about all these other factors.
TS:
Yeah, absolutely. They go hand in hand.

So what is the most fun or exciting thing about your work? Any part of the work.
TS:
Well I absolutely love working with the team of early career researchers that I work with. And I absolutely love working with our partners, whether they're hapū or iwi or the department of conservation staff or others who work in that space. I'm an inherently collaborative person and I really (you know, again we have lots of mottos in the group) “it takes teamwork, to make the dream work”. The sum of all of our parts is always greater than what we could achieve on our own. We have a lot of fun in the group, but the standards are also very high. And that's fantastic, because when you're doing excellent work with a group of excellent people and you're generating science that has genuine impact, it's fantastic. I feel really privileged.

On that note, I know that you are involved in an initiative or is it a group, called ‘Kindness in Science ’ and that sort of pushes for this idea of community and kindness to achieve better outcomes in science. So could you talk a bit about that: how it was created and what its mission is?
TS:
Sure, yeah. So kindness in science started with a conversation, like they always do. And it was myself and my former PhD student Stephanie Galla and former postdoc here at University of Canterbury named Catherine Febria. And generally what we were talking about, with me as a mid-career academic and a PhD student and a postdoc student who are both early career researchers, was sort of just reflecting on it on a lot of the unkindness in the science system and generally asking “there must be a better way, is there a better way?”

And what spurred that initial conversation was actually a short editorial in Nature, where a woman spoke about the micro-aggressions that she experienced in her workplace and the response to that was just downright horrifying with people minimizing her experience, and generally just being downright nasty and bringing with them a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a scientist, and how we can create and do better science. And so what we realized quite quickly is that we'd sort of settled in the perfect storm.  There were a number of people around the world, but also here in New Zealand thinking about ways to make the science system more kind. To really focus on the system in itself or the institutional structure, because it's not really about just about being nice to each other, that's absolutely not what kindness is or being kind is. It’s actually very hard to be kind, because it's about pushing for what is right and just. I often talk about it in terms of making space at the science table and that what we're looking to do is to make science and inclusive and diverse and accessible and equitable place.

The personal story for me goes with that my now eight year old daughter had made me a science table with my husband. It was a nice flat lab bench looking science table. Then as we progressed in Kindness in Science. I said, you know, we just need to smash the table all together and build a brand new table that has dips and bumps and reflects the diversity that we want to see at this particular table. But of course, when your eight-year-old makes you a table, you're not going to physically smash it. So, what she and my husband did was built me a new table. So in my office I now have two science tables, one which reminds me of where we started and the other which reminds me, where I hope we're headed.

It seems like these efforts are maybe started out as being focused more on postgrads and later career scientists, but how do you bring inclusion early on into the science classroom at universities or even with the younger students to make sure that people feel like they belong in science. Do you have any insight on that?
TS:
That's a very big question. But it's a very good one because if I reflect a little bit about what I've learned. I'm no expert on this at all, but it’s certainly some of the things that I've learned and heard as, as we've moved forward in this space is. So, for example, within a New Zealand context, you may hear academics lament: “Oh, I've got this PhD scholarship or this post doc that's available for Māori students were all the Māori students, why aren't they here?” Or even, even as undergraduates and where those students might be. And some of the things that I've learned along the way is that if we actually want to target representation by the time we hit the tertiary sector, we really need to be targeting communities, much, much earlier, as early as primary in terms of introducing science and what it is and the fact that a scientist doesn't look like any one thing and breaking down those stereotypes. And providing clear and sustained and meaningful pathways into science, and that includes supporting communities to see themselves in science as well.

So you'll often see targeted programs that might be targeted at year 10 students or targeted at younger students, and I think all of these initiatives, I see them as being “yes, and,” initiatives. There's no magic bullet to creating a safe and inclusive and diverse space. But there's one way not to do it, is to just stand around and wonder where the hell everybody is, because there's a damn good reason why they're not here or a whole series of reasons that start really on when we think about inequity in society.

So it's really a really big ask, but what I think we look to do is not to get overwhelmed by all of those things. I often talk about using your privilege for good and we all have spheres of influence. For all members of the Kindness in Science collective whether we're PhD students are master’s students or high level managers at universities or within human resources or professors, I encourage people to contemplate their spheres of influence and use their privilege for good within that sphere. Because even spending 10 minutes with that one person in that one interaction could be life changing or it could be that in your sphere of influence, actually, you need to apply sustained pressure to the people who create and sustain change in an institutional setting, for example. That's what's necessary to actually change the science system.

So yeah, that's a very big question. And I hope I've just touched a little bit on it.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah it is a big question. And it's going to take time because I think as many people have encountered the science system. Unfortunately, oftentimes to be competitive, when funding is limited and people are applying for it. There's sort of a drive to be more separate and sort of individualistic about how you go about things and hopefully that's changing. I think I've experienced that it is, but it's going to take a while to sort of break down those preconceived notions and they go all the way through different sectors of science education. So it just seems like a really valuable collective.
TS:
Thank you. Yeah, we've got lots of work to do that for sure.

For sure. So my last question is: if you could say in a sentence or a couple of sentences. Why the work that you do in your group does is so important.
TS:
Oh my goodness. You're asking me for my elevator pitch I think. Generally I think what I would say is that the work that we do, is we're starting the way that we intend to finish. We seek to do research excellence in a space that is particular to the New Zealand context where we honor the Treaty of Waitangi and we are at all times, seek to be excellent treaty partners. And to do that in a space where we're actually doing research that has impact, and we're not talking about impact factor. We're talking about research that actually impacts decision making.

That's excellent. Thanks for talking with me, Tammy!
TS:
It was my pleasure. Thank you!

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