Speech at the opening of the Kathleen Curtis Atrium

Earlier this month I was invited to speak briefly about the future of science and of women’s participation in it at the opening of the Kathleen Curtis Atrium in the Science Building at the University of Auckland. It was a really lovely event commemorating the scientific contributions of Dr Curtis and, by proxy, of the other women in science that we never hear about. At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I wanted to post the text of the speech here in its (near) entirety as a reminder of the challenges that I set for myself.

My sala bao face (as my mum would say) post-event.

My name is Leilani Walker and I recently graduated from this University with my PhD in evolutionary biology. [This is the first reference on this blog to the fact that I actually finished my thesis well done me] I feel immensely privileged to speak on the future of science and on the part that women have to play in it. This dedication is a concrete, physical reminder that women have always had a place here, even if it is rarely acknowledged. But not only that, like a climbing spike planted in the side of a mountain, it is not only a sign of how far those before us have come, it is also a support to those who go on to face the challenges of the future.

And to look to that future, those challenges will be significant. To mention only a few things: while the environmental impacts of human activities increasingly make themselves known, we are reckoning with the consequences of our colonial history and of new disruptive technologies. The relationship between experts’ advice, politics and society re shifting, facilitated by new media while, at all times, the reality of climate change hangs over us, introducing a time sensitivity to all that we do.

The prospect makes it hard getting out of bed in the morning sometimes.

But what does this mean for us as scientists? What does this mean for us as women? To be honest, in spite of the challenges I just raised, I still find the first question easier to answer than the second. And that’s because I wasn’t especially interested in being a woman for a longtime.

A bit of context, my mother is a political scientist and a Thai-Chinese migrant to this country, bringing with her the more socially conservative views of her own upbringing. Meanwhile, my father is a Māori scientist who used to tell me stories about the animals living in rock pools and ocean and sky and I think it was inevitable that I would want to become a scientist.

But while he had the benefit of raising me on his home turf with his norms of behaviour validated by my peers, in my eyes my mother was a hysterical matriarch who wouldn’t let me play the rain or pet the neighbour’s cat or walk barefoot and who had these strange ideas because yes by the age of eight I had internalised not only sexism but xenophobia against my own mother.

As a consequence, within my head as a child, womanhood and science became diametrical opposites and it wasn’t until the end of high school, thanks to a few fantastic English literature teachers, that I started to see that objective, statistically-determined and, in my mind then, masculine, truth is indeed an important part of the picture. But it is only a part. And it was only then that I began the work of weeding the misogyny from within me and I began to recognise my mother’s experience and world view as valid. Just as valid as my scientist father’s.

I only recently realised how profoundly that experience has influenced me and so it felt important to bring it up before I share with you how I intend to approach the future as a scientist and as a woman.

Science is an immensely powerful tool by which to understand the world but that is only if I ask the right questions because the shape of the question I ask in my science pre-determines the shape of the answer. To make sure I ask the right questions, I must ask them with others whether it is iwi, the public, other scientists and those from the liberal arts.

We (royal we) must not be covetous. The publish or perish paradigm creates a zero-sum game but we cannot let that stop us from collaborating and sharing because there simply is not time for that.

And as a woman in science, I cannot stop listening to the experiences of other women, trans women, women of colour, women with disabilities, women of different sexualities. I have to listen and I must believe the truth of their experiences and not let institutions pit my needs against those of others because there simply is not time for that.

I must understand my own needs. The hands of so many women have paved the way before me but it would be naive to think that the work is done. I will still be asked to organise lab events and take minutes and to be honest it’ll be fifty-fifty whether I capitulate or push back each time because sometimes I just won’t have the energy. To this end, I must recognise my strengths and play to them. I am deeply deeply conflict averse and prone to fatalism but I how to create spaces in which others feel comfortable and take pleasure from doing so.

And above all else, I will seek opportunities to celebrate the achievements of other women as we do today because, while it is our science that will show us the way through the challenges, it will be manaakitanga for ourselves and each other that gets us out of bed each day.

Further proof that I definitely finished my PhD. 

How well do we know our NZ insect fauna? Survey results

If you don’t feel like reading everything I have put my major findings in bold type and there is a set of conclusions and resources at the bottom of the post

So on Wednesday I gave a talk about a cool project I’ve been working on to produce a set of playing cards featuring 52 native insects. Emma and I have been chipping away at it for a little more than a year and recently confirmed the start of manufacture with Legends Playing Card Co. We also have a facebook page which you can like and stuff (hint hint).

To make small talk as an entomologist is a lot of fielding odd looks and deciding how specific to be for the benefit of all involved (“I’m a behavioural ecologist” vs “I watch praying mantises eat each other or, best case scenario, have sex”). There are also inevitable forks in the conversation at which point you have to decide whether you want to be the “well actually” person or let some well-meaning error pass. I’m not criticising. We don’t know what we don’t know and it is rarely important for people to remember the difference between grasshoppers and praying mantids unless you’re a male mantis.

Anyway, when I started up the playing card project with the aim to introduce a few more of our insects to folks, I was working entirely off anecdotal evidence that people mostly don’t know much about insects. This felt insufficient when presenting to a range of zoologists and ecologists as I did last Wednesday at our departmental meeting. Maybe I just feel uncomfortable presenting anything which doesn’t have graphs. With nary a thought of human participant ethics in research I opened up a Google Form with three questions.

  1. Name up to 10 NZ birds (Scientific names not required)
  2. Name up to 10 NZ insects (Scientific names not required)
  3. What is your background in zoology?

The first two were long form answers and the third was multiple choice with the options “none”, “studied biology in high school”, “studied zoology (generic) at a tertiary level”, “I have trained in or studied entomology” and “it’s a personal interest”. The aim was to set up a short quiz which would give me some handle of how knowledgeable people are about insects with the bird question providing (what I hoped would be) a clear comparison with a well-represented class of animals. The background question I hoped would give some indication about where folks were getting their information from.

I shared this survey on Facebook and Twitter where it received maybe 10 shares/retweets total. I received a total of 137 responses with a fairly good spread of backgrounds:


It was a short and informal survey which answers a few simple questions and gives me a whole bunch of reckons. But before we get to the findings let’s talk about:

Methods: The problem with jargon

Going native

The wording I used in the survey was “NZ insects” and “NZ birds” and I was deliberately vague as I explained when people asked, “Do you mean native species?” The word “native” means something quite specific to ecologists which certainly overlaps with how most think of the term but not entirely. I didn’t want to knowingly asking different questions to different people nor did I want to make the question seem more complicated or run the risk of people not knowing what “endemic” meant. So I left it as “NZ” and let everyone answer the same vague question as they liked. Consequently, I accepted any insect (provided that it was indeed an insect) which has possibly been seen in New Zealand. Yes I was that broad.

Types, species and orders

Similarly, I didn’t specify that I wanted bird or insect “species”, “genera” or “types” because, again, those words mean either different things or nothing at all depending on who you ask. The result was that the birds and insects were described with vastly different degrees of specificity which, I think, reflects our general understanding of each group.  Pretty much every bird offered was specific at least to genus (for example, we have multiple species of Kiwi or Apteryx to give it its scientific name). By contrast, most insects listed encompassed a very large number of species. For instance, did you know that there are actually more than 70 species of “wētā” in New Zealand?1 A lot of answers were even broader than that (e.g. “beetles” or “ant”). While I counted all of these as correct individual entries, it does make direct comparison between the birds and insects a bit tricky2.



So. What did the survey show:

  1. Everyone knows what a bird is.
  2. In general, we can name ten “NZ birds” but struggle to name ten “NZ insects”. Even with the almost meaninglessly broad definition I took of “NZ insect”, on average participants could name 9.17 birds compared to 5.71 insects (t92 = 9.733, p < 2.2e-16). This test was conducted by subtracting the number of insects from the number of birds each participant offered.
  3. In fact, while everyone can list ten birds, only those who studied or trained in entomology specifically could name ten insects (Fig 1.). Yes indeed if you compare the difference between insect and birds offered by participants of different backgrounds, only entomologists could fill out both lists consistently. The big surprise here is that even university students/graduates who studied zoology of some variety fared, on average, not much better than those with only a high school level of biology or no background in biology at all (F128,4 = 8.8331, p < 0.0001). Test was conducted on the difference between the number of birds and insects offered.
  4. There are a range of native birds which readily spring to mind. With insects it’s wētā all over (Fig. 2 – click to enlarge). I took counts of the first animals listed (in the case of insects it was often the only animal listed). I ranked the animals based on how often they appeared first in people’s lists. A little surprising but 47% of entries began with Tūī which I put down almost entirely to the time of year and the fact that more of us have probably seen live Tūī. Kea and kiwi fared similarly although they fell far behind at 16 and 14% respectively. Far less surprising was that wētā came up first in 75% of entries with the next most common insects, giraffe weevil and huhu beetle only first 8% and 5% of the time respectively. What we can conclude about this and the results in general is a little more complicated but I have a couple reckons.



Fig. 1: Number of birds (white) and insects (grey) listed depending on background in biology

Fig. 2: Birds (left) and insects (right) most frequently listed first. [By the way I hate working with pie charts].


So, nearly everyone knows ten native birds regardless of background. By contrast only those who actively study insects are likely to know ten native insects. This was mostly surprising as even a university degree in biology didn’t improve answers much. To me this suggests that promotion of our avian fauna is a) much more pervasive and b) a lot more varied in that a lot of species get a look in (supported by the greater distribution in first place positions in people’s lists).

In addition, I have a few reckons based on the responses:

  1. People tried to list native insects and birds without explicit prompting. When people ran short of obvious candidates, they pushed their own definition of “NZ” or the definition of the animal. A few ran short of birds and went for “sparrow” and “starling” which I still accepted for the same reason I accepted german wasp. When people ran short of insects which happened a lot more often, they either started listing exotic species or orders of insects e.g. beetle. Or, they started listing clearly native terrestrial invertebrates such as the katipo or the Peripatus velvet worm. One potential shortfall here is that I accepted loose definitions of NZ but I was pretty firm on definition of “insect”.
  2. Māori names are really helpful for two reasons
    1. One of the easiest ways to tell if something is probably native is “does it have a Māori name?” This is the most tentative of my conclusions and perhaps it’s better to call it a hypothesis. The top four insects listed first were the wētā, the giraffe weevil, the huhu beetle and the puriri moth. The giraffe weevil sticks out a little but I’m tempted to say that it received so many entries because a large number of my lab group (past and present) have worked with them and couldn’t help but find them charming. Meanwhile the bird answers were a cavalcade of ks. Whether it’s that a) the Māori names are easier to remember or b) Māori names are just a shorthand for “definitely native” or c):
    2. Māori names of fauna are frequently used for naming places. I had a couple discussions with people and we reckon that if I had included a “List 10 NZ plants”, plants would have done better than at insects but worse compared to birds. I think the reason for this is that names such as “rata” and “kahikitea” are really prevalent in our day-to-day so that even if you couldn’t identify a totara tree, you might know someone who lives on the street. Similar for birds.

Other examples include names of hospital wards and parking levels

Just to prove my point


I don’t think it’s too much to say that we on average have greater familiarity with the diversity of our avian fauna compared to our insect fauna even if we haven’t directly interacted with all the birds we might know. I can’t pinpoint the reasons for this from these results alone but I would assume that it comes from promotion of bird species outside of academic institutions whereas information about insects is generally acquired through deliberate study.

This is not to say that we have to promote insects on equal footing as birds (there’s no scientific test for that). But I think there must be consequences of this relative lack of appreciation which feeds into how we value different forms of conservation at the ecosystem and species levels.

Emma and I hope that we can help to close this gap in our knowledge just a little bit with the insect cards and if you’re interested in other resources on our native insect fauna I highly recommend tuning into RadioNZ’s Critter of the Week and checking out some of the links below.

Thanks very much to everyone who took part in the survey – it’s been illuminating!


Critter of the week – Each week Jesse Mulligan talks to DoC’s Nicola Toki about an underappreciated native species which are frequently invertebrates. Fridays @1:30 on RadioNZ National. Here’s an example.

NatureWatch – a site where people post photos of animals they’ve seen around the country. A lot of scientists lurk on that site ready to help identify the animals people find! A good way to find out where people tend to find certain types of insects.

Landcare research – Landcare research is a Crown Research Institute which deals a great deal with our terrestrial invertebrate fauna and they offer a few guides (start with “What is this bug”) to identifying species as well as fact sheets on a handful of our species.


1 Unless you listed multiple types of wētā or said “all the wētā species”, I just counted “wētā” as one.

2 You might argue that this definition “punishes” people who tried to list only native/endemic species and that, had they known that I was accepting generic insect answers, they could have listed 10 insect orders. This is probably fair and asking the question in that way was a gamble that people would read “NZ insect” and do their best to list natives (for why I think that this is exactly what happened, see my “reckons”). If I were to do this survey in a more formalised way I would certainly be more specific.

Five months in five photos


I’m so bad at updates that even this mass update is late. 


In early December I tagged along on a trip to Northland in a hunt for Cambridgea reinga and what felt like every stick insect on the Cape. I managed to nab my study specimens and not drink myself into oblivion to cope with the company. (Disclaimer: This is a joke). It was a week of spirited scouring of the forest floor to which the only downsides were the dregs of information slipping in through dodgy reception that my grandpa wasn’t well. He had already been sick but the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan while I was away. It occurs to me now that I never got a straight answer about exactly what his diagnosis was.

I arrived home just in time to head out for a dress rehearsal. The choir I’m in (they come up later so it’s worth introducing them) were performing Benjamin Britten’s St Nicholas the next day.

The next morning, Anthony and I went to visit Grandpa at the hospital after breakfast. That is, Anthony proposed to me after breakfast and then we went to break the news to Grandpa. From there, I went on to the concert and the next morning I got on a plane to Wellington to work at a Royal Society workshop.


The main Chathams Island is not what I expected. I was there for a week with Anna where we bundled up spiders in gladwrap to measure them. They were out in force so we didn’t have any trouble getting the numbers that I wanted but, wow, there is something desolate about that place. It’s not that it’s barren per say so much as that it’s got the feeling of a room recently abandoned with country side that’s a wild carpet of gorse striped with pockmarked roads. We drove to all four corners of the island on roads which just ended without any sort of declaration and we watched The Silence of the Lambs on VCR at the DOC hut.


So to get the humble brag out of the way, the choir went on a trip to New York to perform Paul Mealor’s Stabat mater and Jubilate Deo at Carnegie hall in a choir amassed by DCINY under the direction of Dr James Jordan. When we weren’t rehearsing we were swanning about Times square and the Metropolitan opera. When asked “how was New York” it’s easier to talk in specifics because when I’ve tried to describe the emotional journey I went on, people start looking at me like I’m touched in the head. Because to anyone else, it’s all “music’s all about making a connection, man. It moooooves you.” So suffice to say, I happy cried and cried cried >5 times during rehearsals and performance.


Right. So this is how my first week of March went. Anthony and I had decided to get married on the 6th so that Grandpa might make it. Sunday 28th we had lunch with my Thai family to celebrate the engagement (may I say that Anthony and I had had our respective hens and stag nights the previous night and were “worse for wear”). We’d received a phone call from Nana to say that Grandpa wasn’t well and we popped in on our way home. Anthony and I didn’t leave until later that night. Somehow every child and grandchild who lived in Auckland managed to pop in that day. Grandpa died overnight.

I don’t’ know how other people respond to death of a loved one but I think for us our minds scrambled to find the patterns which would explain what we were feeling.

Things I concluded:

  • He died on the 29th of February,
  • The 29th is the day before his birthday
  • The 29th of February only occurs on a leap year
  • Eve’s [the cat] back.
  • Eve was named such because their first cat was “Adam”.
  • Evening

The remaining days are everything you would expect as we tried to take the cracked sky into ourselves. One and a half days mourning at my nana’s house, three days tangi at Orakei marae. Three days after he died, I turned 26 and three days after that, I got married.

Blackroom Leilani &amp; Anthony Sneak Peak-1

Again, it’s hard not to rationalise but, hell, if he’d died a day later, we would’ve had to call the whole thing off. If he’d survived to the weekend, he wouldn’t have been able to come and Nana probably would have stayed at home with him. Because he died, every family member who couldn’t come to the wedding was suddenly in town for the tangi and might as well stay on. Hell, we hadn’t even considered inviting our family from York because it’s York, y’know? The wedding numbers swelled.

In spite of everything (or perhaps because of everything), I don’t think we could have been happier on that day.


Natural history museums; Use ’em or lose ’em

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels and one of my favourite concepts is the Unseen university library. For those unfamiliar with those books, the library operates on the aphorism that “Knowledge is power”. Ergo:

l space

which is all to say that large quantities of books (magical and mundane) warp time and space around themselves, opening a portal to L-space. The “L” stands for “library” and it links all libraries everywhere and every when across the multiverse. The result is that virtually any bookshop could become infinite.

Did I mention that the librarian is an orangutan?

To slide obliquely onto my actual topic, there have been a couple papers published recently about the relationship between ecologists, taxonomists, natural history museums and open access. The first postulates that the primary datum of the ecologist is usually thought to be the measurement or count of a species. In other words, some number. But, in reality, a measurement has been made long before that, at a much more basic level: that ecologist has designated that organism as a particular species.

Now, the term “species” is to biology as the term “language” to linguistics: our every-day use of the term obfuscates the sheer number of often-incompatible definitions. Deciding when two animals are two different species and when they are the same comes down to probabilities a lot more often than you may think and, when philosophies change, it’s not unheard of for one scientist to completely overhaul a taxonomy (the classification of different species). I am no taxonomist but I did visit some sheet-web spider collections in the South Island over the last month and when looking at some of the older specimens (old as in <1900s), there was the odd species label which arched the eyebrow.

But in every other respect, these visits were fantastic

The point is that every time an ecologist looks at a plant and decides “Oh that’s an X”, that is an interpretation. So the authors argue that, in addition to open access to numeric datasets, it is imperative that ecologists make any physical samples available. Natural history museums seem like a sensible place to store these.

The second paper supports this notion but acknowledges that natural history museums often lack the resources to take these ecological collections. And by resources I mean a) curators, b) space and, c) capital which kinda determines the previous two. Given this, the authors argue that a cultural shift needs to take place within ecology. Not only do ecologists need to start storing their samples in collections but they also need to be more supportive of natural history museums, whatever form that support takes.

Because support is needed. I’ve been a member of the Entomological society of New Zealand for three years and, in that time, members have been called upon twice to make submissions in defence of members facing the employment axe (or at least the employment shave). In both cases, these other members were taxonomists and curators of significant insect collections who had fallen within that immense shadow which hangs over natural history research nowadays.

(The shadow’s called “Perceived irrelevance” and apparently I wrote a bit about it in a previous life (read: pre-PhD)).

Discworld Unseen University stamp

So to bring things back to my laboured Terry Pratchett introduction [“It’s our party we can do what we want”], it would be fantastic if we could have collections which were are infinite in size, fully integrated across space-time (hello, internet) and curated by a single highly skilled orangutan paid in bananas. But we can’t so instead we have to lend support to taxonomists and natural history collections when opportunities arise and make use of collections and experts when appropriate. If an ecological sample is too large to store, subsample representatives of key taxonomic units, deposit that and remember to acknowledge which institution is holding that sample.

Take home message: Give a taxonomist a hug and drop a sneaky fiver in their pocket.

(Take home message 2: Don’t)

(Take home message 3: I mentioned visiting museums to measure spiders which makes this count as a PhD update)