Scholarship to aid urban forests research

Grace Mitchell (centre) was presented with the Dr Stella Frances Scholarship by Waikato Regional Chair Russ Rimmington and Councillor Kathy White.

The latest recipient of the $6000 Dr Stella Frances Scholarship says her thesis is a particularly challenging, exciting and novel project that will add to the story of underground life within the human ecosystem, namely urban cities.

Grace Mitchell, a 22-year-old University of Waikato Master’s of Science (Research) student majoring in ecology and biodiversity, is investigating mesofauna (small soil organisms such as mites and springtails) and micro-organisms in the restored forests of eight New Zealand cities – Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Dunedin, Christchurch and Invercargill.

She will be familiar to News readers. Grace was a merit award winner in the 2017 Waipā Youth Awards when the Te Kowhai born student attended St Peter’s school.

Environmental Performance Committee Chair and Waikato regional councillor Kathy White said the work Grace was doing on urban forests was invaluable.

“She’s a writer and leader in her community who is inspiring others, and we love to reward and celebrate those successes.”

Grace’s studies are part of a larger research project called PCaN: People, Cities & Nature, which has other postgraduate students contributing their work in the same restored forests on birdlife, lizards, plantings, predators, larger insects, nematodes (roundworm), Māori values and community connections.

“The results created between our complementing thesis projects will create a holistic picture of biodiversity and human value in the restored forests which exist in our major cities,” said Grace, who received her scholarship at last week’s council meeting.

“Forest restoration is a new field in science, and the concept of urban forests is also extremely novel. The content of this project is unlike any other research in the world today.”

The forest patches being studied vary with regards to time since restoration work started. Grace said the data she is gathering should provide interesting insights into how the different soil organisms rebuild and colonise the soil under the increasing influence of human disturbance and urban sprawl.

“Every city and every site is unique, so figuring out the patterns that equate to a functionally diverse soil is a complicated process but a really exciting one too.”

The Dr Stella Frances Scholarship, jointly sponsored by the regional council and the Department of Conservation, was started in 2005 in memory of the well-known and highly respected environmentalist, regional councillor and conservator for DOC who died in August 2003.

The $6000 grant is awarded to help with the expenses of masters-level research and study in the fields of natural and physical sciences, human perspectives on the environment, environment management practice or economics and technologies.

“I believe it is so important to encourage our young women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, whether that be in science or post-graduate study in general,” said Grace.

“My course of study will generate several scientific publications that can help me achieve my dream career of working as a science writer and illustrator.

“Dr Stella sounds like a person that I would have seen as a genuine inspiration and role model. She had a fantastic ability to connect with tangata whenua, local communities and government departments alike, and I think these partnerships and the sharing of information is vital for success in environmental stewardship.”

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