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Mahuru Wilcox

Mahuru (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Ranginui) does research to support Māori communities doing environmental management and monitoring. She lives in Whāingaroa (Raglan) with her husband, dog and ginger cat.

Mahuru WilcoxWhat do you do on an average work day?

It really depends on which projects I’m working on! Being a researcher at Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research, I have a lot of different projects on the go. All of which are based on supporting Māori in the environment.

Currently, most of my work is office based, but this is going to change in the next couple of months. I have a whole lot of hui and wānanga coming up, all over the country, so that will get me out and connecting with our people and the environment. I do what I do because I love being outside, so I’m trying to bring more of that into my 2018! 

What did you study at school? And after high school?

At school my favourite subjects were painting and art history. I hated maths, science and English! 

I loved expressing and learning through a visual medium, and I found traditional ‘academic subjects’ too restrictive and I didn’t see how they were ever going to be relevant to my life. That all changed when I got a good science teacher in my last year of high school, and she was a biology teacher. I really connected with what she taught, and biology sparked my interest.

I had no idea what I was going to do at University, but I knew I wanted to go. And I wanted to go to Otago with my friends. So, I sat down with a prospectus and highlighted all the papers that interested me. I ended up starting with a double degree. A BSc in Zoology, and a BA in Physical Anthropology with some Māori papers in there too. I ended up dropping the BA and doing a double major in Zoology and Ecology, as well as continuing my Māori papers throughout my degree. I also did an exchange to the University of Toronto in Canada, in my last year which was amazing. I definitely recommend going on an exchange if you can!

And finally, after 4 years working as an ecological consultant, I decided to go to the University of Waikato and do my MSc. During my working years, I had noticed a huge gap when it came to working with Māori in the environmental management and monitoring space. My MSc looked at how mātauranga Māori and science work together to assess health of wetlands.

Mahuru working

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

My study, particularly my Masters project, is directly linked to what I do now.

My current work is focused on supporting iwi, hapū, whānau and kaitiaki to manage and monitor their taonga tuku iho, in the environment, in a way that is meaningful for them.

It’s important to remember that science is a tool. So how does this tool support the aspirations, goals and knowledge of Māori? And if science is not appropriate for a particular situation, then we look at developing new tools based on mātauranga ā iwi/hapū/whānau.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

I think the most important thing is to choose something you are passionate about.

When I was choosing which degree I wanted to do, I had no idea what kind of jobs I would get from doing a zoology degree. But I knew that I loved the environment, so anything to do with that would keep me happy.

When I started my MSc, I had no idea what jobs were out there that would support mātauranga Māori in the environment space. But I had job offers coming in before I even finished my degree! So don’t be afraid. Your passion and your unique talents are what sets you aside from others, and is what will keep you going when things seem to be hard.

Passion is so important!

What are some of your career highlights so far?

For me, success is when I see the next generation connecting to our taiao [natural world], and getting excited about learning about the whenua, repo, or awa. Not how many journal articles I publish (although as I researcher I need to do that too!), but teaching and supporting Māori communities.

I love sharing my knowledge and, most importantly, I love learning from the people I meet. Kaitiaki know their lands, wetlands and rivers better than anyone, and I always learn so much.

Also the team I work with are a real career highlight for me! As a Māori woman in science, I feel supported by my team and by other Māori researchers in this field. It’s really important to have a good support network.

Mahuru in front of wetlands

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

Science, technology, engineering and maths are all tools we can use to develop solutions to our current environmental issues. Our land, waters and oceans - and all the plants and animals that live in them - are being hugely impacted by people, and how we treat our natural world.

Somewhere along the way people decided that “natural resources” were something to take, and to use up. But they are not “resources”. The environment and all those that live in it, are our tūpuna, and our atua. As Māori, our world view and tikanga helped keep things in balance. But our current situation has tipped the balance and we have a huge job to try and get that balance back.

STEM is important, but it is not the only way.  And I know that Māori have huge contributions to solving these big issues, and must be part of developing these new solutions and technologies.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

We have a bit of a joke in our team that its wāhine Māori who are out on the ground and quietly get the work done. And in my experience, the women I work with are very collaborative and really thrive off bringing new ideas and skills to the table.

Science has historically been very male dominated, so I encourage women who are passionate about these topics to get into science and redress the balance - particularly Māori women!

Mahuru with her dog

Mahuru is a researcher in the Manaaki Taiao team at Manaaki Whenua- Landcare Research, a Crown Research Institute. She does research to support Māori communities engaged in environmental management and monitoring. She is based in the Hamilton office, and lives in Whāingaroa (Raglan) with her husband, dog and ginger cat.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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