By Jean Balchin 04/04/2018

Last week, the results of the Science Media Centre Video Competition was judged. It was an incredible competition, open to previous participants of the SMC’s science video workshops. There were eight entries, and the judges were incredibly impressed with the creativity and quality of the entries. I was fortunate enough to watch all eight entries and chat to a number of the participants. This week and next, we’ll be running a series of articles on the various projects. Today we’re looking at Dr Helen Taylor’s project on Hihi conservation, and a very intriguing fundraising and awareness campaign. 

How did you become interested in the hihi?

I’ve been aware of hihi ever since I moved to NZ seven years ago to pursue a PhD working with little spotted kiwi. My research focuses on what happens when populations get very small and specifically how this can lead to an increase in inbreeding (mating between relatives). There had already been some interesting work conducted on inbreeding and hatching success in hihi on Tiritiri Matangi Island by Patricia Brekke at ZSL in London. Unfortunately, having experience drastic population declines and then having new populations founded with relatively small numbers of birds, hihi are an ideal species for studying inbreeding. When the chance came to include them in my Marsden-funded work on inbreeding and male fertility, I jumped at the opportunity to work with them. They’re such great little birds with so much character, and a super interesting, intense mating system, but most people are not very familiar with them.

Can you give me a brief overview of your project?

So, in general, I work on the effects of inbreeding in small, threatened populations. My current project looks specifically at how inbreeding might negatively affect male fertility in birds. We already know from many previous studies that inbreeding seems to have a particularly strong effect on male fertility, but most of that work comes from mammals, insects, and plants. No-one has really looked at whether the same is true in birds. We know that many New Zealand native birds have high rates of hatching failure relative to birds in other countries, but we don’t know whether that’s due to poor male fertility, developmental problems, or a combination of the two. I work with various populations of hihi and South Island robins. I visit the locations where these species live with a specially designed mobile sperm lab. This means I can collect semen samples from male birds and analyse the swimming speed of sperm right there and then in the field before the sperm die. I then take the rest of the semen sample back to the lab in Otago to measure the sperm and check for abnormalities (extra heads, missing tails etc…). Together, these measures give us an overall picture of sperm quality for each male. At the same time, I take a blood sample from each male that we can extract DNA from to assess genetic diversity and inbreeding.

A hihi in the hand is worth two in the bush
Have you seen this bird? Probably not – the hihi is pretty hard to find (Image credit: Helen Taylor)

What are your future plans for research?

My Marsden grant runs until the start of 2020. I still have some field work to complete for this project – especially with the South Island robins – and so a lot of my time later this year will focus on that. I’m also interested in which different types of genetic markers we can use for conservation research and which we should use, so will be using some of my data to examine that questions too. Finally, I am keen to see an improvement in the way genetic data is integrated into conservation management and strategy, so I’ll be doing some work on that as well.

What did you enjoy about creating this video?

Recording and cutting together video is a totally new thing for me. I was lucky enough to attend a SMCNZ video training workshop recently. Actually, I begged Peter and Dacia to run one of those workshops down in Dunedin and then ended up helping them organise the logistics for running the day! What that course showed me was that putting together a video doesn’t have to be a massive effort – there’s software on your phone and computer that makes it really straightforward to produce some pretty professional looking clips. I actually find the process of putting the video together and overlaying clips and sounds etc… in the software pretty therapeutic as it’s very different from anything else I do in my day to day job. I’m very fortunate in that I’m not especially camera shy and I love science storytelling – video is a brilliant medium for that.

Why do you think science communication is important?

Much of my research funding comes from the taxpayer and I believe I have a duty to explain to people where their money is going and why continued science funding is crucial. I also think it’s important for people to see that scientists include an extremely wide variety of people rather than just crazy-haired dudes in lab coats who can’t or won’t explain their very complicated science to other people. I care about what I do, and I want other people to care about it too. I also want people to understand that most science is not as complicated as people think- if you explain it the right way, the concepts are usually quite simple. Finally, as my masters supervisor once told me, if you’re not talking about your science, you’re not really doing science. I think that’s very true.

What is your favourite means of science communication?

I really enjoy being able to interact with people when talking about science – I love giving presentations to community groups where there’s a big old question/discussion session at the end – that’s brilliant. I’m almost always surprised by a couple of questions that I’d not thought of before, which helps you think about your work in a slightly different way. I also really like doing radio – especially with really clued up interviewers who ask insightful questions – NZ still has some great science journos, which is no mean feat in today’s media landscape. And I love doing things like Lab in a Box where you get to go out and talk to kids or when kids stumble across my mobile sperm lab somewhere like Tiritiri Matangi and we have a good chat about what I’m doing so they can see that not all science happens in a lab – that’s great!

You can watch the video below. This video is one minute longer than the competition one, which allowed us to put in some extra info about the campaign, but it is very much based on the original competition video.

Next month, the Science Media Centre will take its popular science video making workshops to Auckland and Hamilton, offering more researchers the chance to get science video savvy.  

These video workshops (produced in collaboration with Baz Caitcheon) focus on giving scientists the tools and skills to communicate their research in short videos aimed at an online audience. You’ll learn how to capture footage that can then be used on platforms like Youtube and Vimeo and news websites like Stuff and Herald Online.

WHERE: Auckland, AUT (Wednesday, May 2nd, 8.30am – 12.30pm)
Hamilton, (date TBC)

You can learn more about these workshops and apply for them here.