Category Archives: Science & Engineering

The speaker at my Rotary club meeting last week had a remarkable story to tell, one in which I had an intense personal interest. Paul McNabb of the Cawthron Institute spoke about the discovery of New Zealand’s most poisonous animal, an inconspicuous little sea slug.

sea slug

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I’ve just been listening to a child psychologist on national radio talking about optimists and pessimists. It reminded me of a management problem I faced at Cawthron Institute where I took rather a risk in order to communicate successfully.

The problem involved a young Ph.D. student from Japan. He had just discovered that his supervisor back in Japan had done something dishonourable, something which he felt would be to the disadvantage of his New Zealand hosts. He became deeply depressed, stuck in a dilemma which he eventually confided to another Japanese researcher working at Cawthron at the time: Dr Kawamura.  Kawamura-san then spoke with the student’s Cawthron supervisor, who felt he was out of his depth and brought the problem to me.  They were both extremely concerned with the student’s state of mind, even mentioning the ‘s’ word.

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One day in the early 90s I got a telephone call from one of our clients in Christchurch. His Japanese wife had been working as an interpreter for a gentleman currently living in Christchurch who had expressed a great interest in visiting an organisation carrying out environmental research.  He wondered whether the Cawthron Institute would be a good choice. I explained that we had a lot of contact with Japanese researchers at that time and he would be very welcome. The Japanese gentleman duly arrived, along with his interpreter.

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I spent an afternoon last week with Deirdre Mackay, who’s been commissioned to write the history of  the Cawthron Institute.  Lot’s of stuff is coming back to me, so get ready for a string of Cawthron stories.

It’s successful turnaround in the early 90s owes a lot to many different people. One of them celebrated his 70th birthday a few years back, an occasion we thought important enough to celebrate with an appropriate gift. We chose to give the commission to Darryl Robertson, another painting on ceramic:

Again, the back story is fascinating. Read on if you are interested.

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In March I read of the passing of Sir Ian Axford, a scientist who spent much of his working life outside New Zealand but nevertheless made a huge contribution to this country. I met him briefly when we invited him to present the annual “Cawthron Lecture” in 1996. It was the 75th anniversary of the official opening of Cawthron Institute.

To grab your attention, I’ve included a photograph of the present we gave Sir Ian that night. You may well think that’s a bit crass, but the story that goes with it is well worth telling. Here it is:

(c) Darryl Robertson

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This week there was a small item on page 3 of our local newspaper announcing that the four major players in New Zealand’s mussel industry have joined forces to create a new company, Spatco. The four companies involved are Wakatu Incorporation, Sealord (both Nelson-based), Sanford and Pacifica Seafoods.  Spatco aims to take baby mussels grown in the laboratory (“spat”) and grow them up to the size where they can survive on their own in the marine environment. The objectives are two-fold: to ensure a consistent, reliable supply of mussel juveniles and to take advantage of the ambitious selective breeding programme which has been going on at Cawthron Institute for the past five or six years.

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I’ve just returned from a brief visit to Christchurch, to the Pain Management Unit at Burwood Hospital where I receive treatment every few months.  This time, one of the regular patients was missing.  Let’s call her Anne.  She and I used to chat, stuck next to each for 3 hours or so.  We have quite a lot in common and were interested in each other’s progress.   Our conversations were a highlight for me and I’ll miss them. Anne rang me last week to warn me of her no-show, with an explanation.  After several painful years on the waiting list she had at last been fitted with a spinal chord stimulator.  The operation had taken place just a few days earlier.  What’s a spinal chord stimulator?  See my earlier post.  (If  you don’t want to follow those links: it’s an electronic device a bit like a pacemaker which stops pain signals…

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Two of the many highlights from my time at Cawthron Institute were the successes of a couple of young women scientists in the prestigious UNESCO-L’Oreal “Young Women in Science” programme.

Encouraged by her mentor, Dr Lesley Rhodes, Dr Alison Haywood was the first of these in 2001.  Much to everyone’s surprise and delight, she was one of only 10 women worldwide to be awarded the $US 10,000 international fellowship (and the first ever from the southern hemisphere!)  Alison was a research scientist in the Biosecurity Group, where she completed a Ph.D. programme from Auckland University in molecular systematics (supervised by Prof Pat Bergquist). Her project was to rapidly identify, using molecular probes, toxic algae which can cause serious food poisoning.

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We heard on the news last night that the confrontation between Japanese whaling boats and protesters had resulted in a collision and the possible loss of the ‘Ady Gil’ This very unusual boat was in Nelson half a year ago, when she was known as ‘Earthrace’.

Earthrace in Nelson April 09

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The other day we had news of a couple of whale strandings. The first of these occurred up north and, with the help of a huge team of volunteers, it was possible to save about two thirds of the pod. The second though occurred over on Farewell Spit in Golden Bay, a very remote location. The whole pod died, more than 100 Pilot Whales. There’s something about Farewell Spit that makes it a real death trap for whales, strandings are quite common. But is there something more sinister going on?

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