Monaco mud flat inspires scientist

Tom Matheson has come a long way since his time spent picking through the mud flats of Monaco.

He is now living on the opposite side of the world to his hometown of Nelson, but credits much of his success to his time there.

The former Nayland College student has just been awarded a sought-after fellowship to help with his research at Leicester University, in England.

Although his research is now based on locusts, he has fond memories of his time spent studying mud snails for the Nelson Schools' Science Fair, almost 30 years ago.

He said the project mostly involved "getting very muddy in the estuary at Monaco, although there was a bit of laborious late night number crunching".

The work paid off and Dr Matheson and his fellow students won three prizes, and were also featured in the Nelson Evening Mail.

His time at Nayland College played a big role in developing his interest in science. Sue Scott and David Eccleston took him for biology during his time at the school.

"I remember them both as enthusiastic teachers who challenged their pupils to think for themselves. This is probably the most important thing to learn," he said.

After completing his PhD in zoology at Canterbury University, these skills helped Dr Matheson gain a post-doctoral research position at Cambridge University.

He went on to teach and research at Leicester University, where he based his research around how nerve cell connections allow animals – specifically locusts – to control their limb movements. Findings could then be applied to other animals to learn more about how their brains worked.

This was no simple task, but his natural curiosity about how things work made the job feel more like that of a hobby.

"There's so much variety in biology, and it is all around us all of the time, sometimes you just have to look a bit closer than others."

The fellowship, worth around 100,000 (NZ$200,000), was awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It will allow Dr Matheson to concentrate on this research, by relieving him of his teaching and administrative responsibilities. .

"I just about fell off my seat when I got this one, and am still getting used to the idea that I don't have to worry about anything other than research for the next two years."

Over Christmas he plans to travel to Nelson to take his eight-month-old son to the site of his first experiment.

He hopes to "introduce him to the delights of squidging his toes in the Monaco mud and poking at the mud snails".