Science students learn on the job

Three students are working at Plant and Food Research in Palmerston North this summer. Plant science student Jade ...
Fairfax NZ

Three students are working at Plant and Food Research in Palmerston North this summer. Plant science student Jade Gribben, testing how repellent soil is to water.

A trio of university students at Plant and Food Research in Palmerston North say they are happy to be learning about science in the real world.

They are spending their summer working in laboratories and rubbing shoulders with scientists, and say it's a fantastic opportunity.

Jade Gribben, Josh Firmin and Nayer Ngametua are part of a group of 28 summer students across the country that Plant and Food Research is sponsoring.

Josh Firmin is working with liquid nitrogen he is using to freeze native berries.
Fairfax NZ

Josh Firmin is working with liquid nitrogen he is using to freeze native berries.

Each year, the government-owned company invites university students to spend their summer working on a research project, allowing them to experience what it's like to work at the cutting edge of science.

Plant and Food Research's Dr Bruce Campbell says there is a global need for more young people in the food sector, and science and industry must play their part in developing the work force.

The Ministry for Primary Industries estimates that the New Zealand horticultural, arable and seafood industry work force will need to increase by 14,000 by 2025, and that 23,000 workers with post-school qualifications will be required. Science and engineering skills will be in growing demand.

Biotechnology student Nayer Ngametua is researching the possible immune support from red berries, such as currants and ...
Fairfax NZ

Biotechnology student Nayer Ngametua is researching the possible immune support from red berries, such as currants and blueberries. She prepares some samples for analysis.

Firmin is from Whanganui originally, but has been in Dunedin at the University of Otago. He has studied biochemistry and medicine.

Gribben is from Motueka and is studying plant science at Lincoln University and Ngametua is from Cambridge and did a biotechnology major at the University of Waikato.

They say people at Plant and Food Research have gone out of their way to help them.

They were flown to a marae near Auckland to take part in a management workshop.

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As well as personality profiling, the students say there were talks about where science and Plant and Food Research are heading.

"I still have a year to go in my degree. For an undergraduate to get this opportunity to work with these people is great," Gribben says.

They are spending their summer on research projects, working with teams, and could go back to take up further study.

Ngametua and Firmin say they may do honours, but Ngametua would like a technician's job if she can find one.

Gribben is working with a soil production team to find out how repellent to water different soils are. It could help with agriculture and change the way people farm in the future. Tracks could be more water-repellent and increased runoff could help some plants to grow.

Firmin is in a team checking native berries - karaka, tawa and kawakawa berries.

"There hasn't been much work on these in the past. We're checking toxins to see if they can be detoxified and made edible. There could be health benefits and the berries could be marketed, which would be great for New Zealand."

Ngametua is in a group looking for health benefits of blueberries and currants.

"We are looking to see if they can help support immunity. The end product might be that people are less susceptible to colds - they could boost immunity."

"There are lots of people like me here," Firmin says.

"I used to be the nerd doing the cryptic crosswords by myself, but here, I start reading out a clue and before I have finished, a guy has got the answer."

The students work with people like them - and they like that.

"It is great to use what you have learnt and see others with similar skills use them too," Gribben says.

Firmin says it is good to see the crossover from university study into the real world.

"You get to meet people, and you can see what jobs there are and where you can go."

"It's great to have a job and get stimulation from other people. When you are studying you have to self-motivate. This is really nice and you network," Ngametua says.

And it works both ways.

The scientists working with the students get new ideas, and they like the young people's energy.

"People who are about to retire also like to see who is coming through - so they see the next generation," Firmin says.

"They really value us and put a lot of effort into us. They also ask us what a future employer needs to do to attract the right people," Ngametua says.

Gribben is breaking new ground. She says she is the first person in her family to do a science degree - some have been to university, but have done arts degrees.

Campbell says as a key research provider to New Zealand's food industries, Plant and Food Research has a significant role to play in supporting students as they journey through their science education. It is not uncommon for science students to reach the end of their degrees and be unsure of the next step.

"It is up to us and industry to ensure students understand the opportunities available to them, and to offer practical experiences that encourage students to enter the science work force with the expertise needed for the future."

Supervisors design projects that can be conducted over the three-month summer period that not only give undergraduate students a taste of what it's like to work at the cutting edge of science, but also provide them with some of the leadership skills needed to enter the work force.

Campbell says the programme has expanded in recent years to develop skills at the interface between science and commercial customers, such as intellectual property management, marketing and communications.

"It is always encouraging to see the enthusiasm of the students and, as much as they learn from us, we also learn from them. They provide a new perspective to support or challenge our thinking and processes. Their presence also adds an element of entertainment over the summer period."

 - Manawatu Standard

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