White Mirror is a series that considers the positive human impact with the help of machines. In the fifth episode, you follow the life of Monica Gerth – the scientist who’s on a mission to educate and eradicate kauri dieback across Aotearoa with the help of VR. Read how her years of struggle to land a secure job finally led her to a night course in Biology, kickstarting her deep love of science. And how moving to New Zealand has given her the knowledge, connections and mana to protect our most ancient tree.
Leave behind all of your expectations and preconceived ideas.
If while you’re reading this, you begin to judge the words or feelings that arise, try to suspend them… if only for a minute. You’re about to glimpse an alternate reality; one that’s available to you right now. Welcome to White Mirror.
Part One: Molecular Science, Mātauranga Māori, and Virtual Reality
In Māori mythology, Tāne Mahuta brought light and life into the world by separating his parents, Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother). He lay back against Papatūānuku and used the great strength in his legs to push Ranginui out of the tight embrace.
Today Tāne Mahuta stands 51.2 metres tall from earth to sky in the Waipoua forest in Northland. At his base, he measures 13.8 metres in circumference, and he is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,500 years old. He is the oldest and largest kauri tree in the world.
But in 2018, it was feared he would fall victim to an oomycete (microbial pathogen) almost 100% fatal to kauri – Phytophthora agathidicida, commonly called “kauri dieback”. The pathogen creates ‘weeping sores’, root rot and a yellowing of the leaves, among other symptoms, which eventually kill the tree.
Thankfully, Tāne Mahuta is safe… for now. But until there is a known cure for the disease, kauri are all at risk.
Enter Dr Monica Gerth, a Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Victoria University of Wellington and project leader of Te Kura o te Kauri (The School of The Kauri). Collaborating with members of iwi, Monica’s research team are working toward finding a solution to kauri dieback.
Alongside the research, they’re also using sensory and virtual reality (VR) experiences to teach children about the science and mātauranga (understanding) of healthy forests. In 2019, Te Kura o te Kauri reached students from more than 20 schools (and extended the modules to their whānau and wider communities).
Part Two: (An Un) Textbook Journey
Monica had an unconventional path to her eventual passion for science, kauri and mātauranga Māori. Born into a military family in the United States, university study wasn’t on her radar at all. Instead of taking regular classes in her senior year of high school, she opted for vocational training, spending her days at a dentist’s office learning how to be a dental assistant. The pay was terrible. She struggled to pay her rent and almost had her car repossessed. She hung in there a year post-high school, before deciding to leave and pursue other opportunities.
The next few years were hard. Monica found work at a UPS call centre, bouncing from role to role (and “practically getting paid to be yelled at by people whose packages were lost”) until the call centre closed. She thought she wanted to find a job in IT, but her lack of formal training hindered her chances.
“I ended up doing a lot of temp work – mostly short-term secretarial contracts. Some were interesting. Others were soul-crushing. I remember one where my job was to stuff envelopes. Full-time. I remember thinking – is this it? Is this the best I can do with my life? For a while it seemed like I couldn’t get anyone to give me a chance.”
Until, one of her temp jobs at an IT company turned into a permanent job opportunity. And from there, Monica began picking up community college classes that fit around her work schedule. It was a biology class that caught her attention, spurring her to study full-time and complete a Bachelor of Science.
Fast forward 10 years, Monica had a PhD and together with her husband, Dr Wayne Patrick (whom she met during her postgraduate), moved to New Zealand. After a few more twists and turns, the pair both landed in Wellington to work at Victoria University and now Monica heads up her own research lab.
Monica recalls first hearing about kauri dieback on the radio in around 2009. She knew she wanted to contribute, but her skill set didn’t seem relevant at the time. When she started her lab in 2012, her focus was on bacterial chemotaxis. Essentially how bacteria navigate – how they sense the environment and decide where to go. It turned out that Phytophthora (the pathogen which causes kauri dieback) has a stage in its life cycle where it produces spores (zoospores) that are chemotactic – meaning they can sense the environment and move towards favourable conditions.
“This was my ‘aha’ moment – I wondered if Phytophthora was using chemotaxis to locate kauri trees in the environment. Trying to answer this question was how I got started working on kauri dieback. It snowballed from there – realising how little we know/how many more questions needed to be answered.”
After that, she went to a hui in 2015 organised by the Kauri Dieback Programme in Omapere, before she started any research on kauri dieback. Many of her closest collaborators now are people she met at that hui.
“One of the kaumatua (elders) who attended said something along the lines of ‘we [scientists and Mātauranga Māori knowledge holders] need to work collaboratively – maybe then we’ll find a cure’. That idea really stayed with me and helped guide my direction.”
Part Three: The Promised Land
One study by Monica’s research team found that a molecular compound from kānuka could be critical to saving kauri. But since then, her team have actually found other compounds from different plants that are even more effective against Phytophthora.
It’s worth noting that the significance of their research isn’t just the particular molecule or plants. The even bigger problem they are trying to solve is how to control the Phytophthora – especially in the field.
Even if they find a molecule (or combination of molecules) that is effective, how might that work in a practical sense? Kauri dieback is present over a huge geographical area – much of it across rugged terrain. How would they apply a treatment? What impact might it have on the environment? How often would it have to be applied? This is why they are looking into potentially longer-term strategies, such as co-planting – in addition to treatments.
“Best case scenario – we contribute a new treatment that is derived from NZ native plants for root rot/dieback diseases caused by Phytophthora. Something safe, something effective. Something that works not only against Phytophthora agathidicida, but also against lots of the other Phytophthora species that cause billions of dollars of crop damage each year.”
Monica believes that one of the main things their research has demonstrated is that working collaboratively across different knowledge systems works. In her best case scenario, this research could become a flagship example of the mutual benefits of combining indigenous knowledge with molecular sciences.
Part Four: Coding it to Life
So how do you ensure kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of kauri forests continues for generations to come? How do you help people understand the microbial world when by definition it’s a world you can’t see? You build an engaging learning experience that draws kids, whanau and their wider communities in and sparks their interest in protecting the environment.
Through a combination of different modules using science, technology and the power of storytelling, Te Kura o te Kauri gave communities access to research-grade equipment, virtual reality and world-class expertise.
By far the most impactful of these was the VR learning experience, capturing people of all ages and from all different backgrounds.
“The VR module took the participants from above a kauri canopy (macro-scale) to down into the soil belowground (micro-scale). It was an amazing way to give people a chance to see the different microbes (good and bad) that live in the soil.”
More than 1,000 people experienced Te Kura o te Kura, and the tour spanned several months, with the team being on the road throughout October and November 2019.
At times, Monica feels that the project can be overwhelming – understandable for someone who’s leading a research team and a community education programme on top of lecturing and supervising student projects.
But there are moments that make it all worth it, she says.
“I tend to be a worrier, always questioning if I’m doing the right thing. There was a day when I was co-presenting our research at a Wanganga (forum) in a field at Waipoua forest. I was standing there bare foot, looking out at the trees. I was surrounded by my friends and collaborators and I had this feeling that in that moment, that we were on the right path.”
For the woman who struggled to land a job for much of her early 20s, Monica’s certainly found her mana here in this important work.
Te Kura o te Kauri is currently looking for funding opportunities to continue touring around more schools and communities.
Monica would like to thank all of her collaborators, with a special thanks to Ian Mitchell and Chris Pairama: their willingness to share their mātauranga Māori and indigenous taonga flora has underpinned this research. She would also like to thank her lab group, the entire “molecules and microbes” team, and the Te Kura o Te Kauri team.
The VR was developed by Dr Wayne Patrick (Monica’s husband and Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Victoria University of Wellington). Contributors included Jeff Jones (VR designer, Wrestler) Jimi Wilson (Sound Engineer, VUW), Matt Plummer (Digital Research Consultant, VUW), and Te Amohaere Ngata-Arengamate (one of Monica’s students). It is free to download on the Oculus website.
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