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Ahunuku Scholar Tessa Thomson

Ahunuku Scholar Tessa Thomson. "Every child is curious about the world and that's what science is!"  Photo credit: Katy Kelly.

Ahunuku Scholar Tessa Thomson. "Every child is curious about the world and that's what science is!" Photo credit: Katy Kelly.

Tessa Thomson (Ngāti Tukorehe) has a passion for the environment and te ao Māori. She has an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Māori Resource Management and this year she embarks on her Master’s in Marine Biology with Victoria University of Wellington. She has recently completed the Ahunuku Māori Summer Scholarship Programme at GNS Science where she has been based in the Palaeontology team.

We talked to Tessa about the experiences that influenced her to become a scientist, her experience of being wāhine Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand’s science sector and being welcomed and supported during her scholarship with GNS.

Did you always want to be a scientist? What lead you to seek out a career in this field?

I wanted to be a vet, but I sucked at physics and I didn’t enjoy it. My physics teacher was one of those people who was super intelligent but shouldn’t be a teacher.  He couldn’t communicate his intelligence to the class, and I just couldn’t relate to him. So, I decided to drop physics.

But I had this one biology teacher who was great. One time I didn’t hand in a biology assignment – I was always really busy at school – doing everything! Anyway, I cried in class, my teacher took me outside, and said, ’It’s all good, but you can't keep doing this’. She gave me the time to go home and finish up. She was just cool because she understood me... I mean imagine if I had dropped out of biology! I wouldn't have been able to do my degree!

In my last year of high school, I went on a biology trip to Mexico with my class from Paraparaumu College. The teachers that took us pushed super hard for that opportunity to be available. We did conservation work for a week in the jungle and then spent one week by the ocean, diving for four days. That experience inspired me about marine biology and is a big reason that I enrolled in it at Victoria University.

What kind of career did you see for yourself, signing up for a science degree?

I planned to do my degree and then do the one-year of high school teaching [training]. But after my work experience, and then I was kind of like, ’Oh, no, like I could actually do this research thing’. It was quite confronting to look around and realise that I was often the only young, Māori woman in the building. Like, I really wanted a Māori wahine supervisor, and there were none available to me. And I thought, I don't want Māori coming into science to have that same issue – I can change that!

Now I’ve just finished my undergraduate degree and I’m starting my Masters [in Marine Biology]. I just received another scholarship through Victoria and the Moana Project. I get to do a project with my iwi about whatever it is they want to know about our moana, which is amazing.

What have you been doing at GNS Science this summer?

I’ve been working in the palaeontology team, on a project about what palaeontology means to New Zealand.

It’s been really interesting. I’ve been interviewing palaeontologists about what they see as the value of their work. And also, asking questions about the significance of paleontology to Māori – finding out what people think, and where they think that research is kind of going. I'm not from an Earth Science background – I did Marine Biology and Māori Resource Management in my degree. So, I had no idea about Geology and Palaeontology before my time at GNS.

But GNS was a super supportive environment. I think you could come into this scholarship from any science background really. Everyone was really patient explaining new concepts. Getting to work in a different field is great because it broadens your capabilities and provides a more holistic approach to other stuff.

One of my highlights was getting to be involved in GNS’ contribution to Noho Taiao o Te Rarawa 2021 at Taiao Marae in Pawarenga. A group from GNS, including a few of us summer interns, led activities for the rangatahi, teaching them about science in their local area. It was great fun, and really awesome that GNS sees that kind of work as a valuable thing.

What are your thoughts on being Māori in science?

It was great to work [at GNS] with people who you can tell really want Māori in science. It’s important to have those people who really see the value of a Māori perspective in science. We need more of that. And because Vision Mātauranga needs to be in funding proposals, a lot of people actually have that deeper understanding of why it's important to include Māori perspective.

But, in general, you still don't see a lot of Māori scientists. Like, I don't think there were any Māori science teachers at my school… and not many at university!

I think science is often sold as a thing that you have to be really brainy to do. But it's actually kind of quite a natural thing to do. If you have a passion for the environment, you can be a scientist.

Curiosity about the world is innate in Māori culture, and is kind of innate in everyone, like every child is curious about the world. And that’s what science is! It just isn’t communicated. You've got kids sitting in the science class and they're not seeing anyone from their background having success in science and they’re thinking they’re not smart enough to do science. So, we’ve got to break that perception.