The University of Waikato 50th Anniversary

Researchers make their mark

It almost reads like a classic Kiwi camping holiday. "For nearly a month we camped in the open without a tent, carried no radio and were able to travel freely, relying on our own food dumps and abandoned dumps left by earlier New Zealand and American parties." But those words, written by Michael Selby, recount his first visit to Antarctica as part of the University of Waikato's first mission to the frozen continent in 1969.

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First mission to Antarctica: Peter Kamp and Michael Selby on McCraw Glacier, with Mt Selby in the background in Antarctica in 1978.

"Later expeditions became more restricted as safety measures were introduced involving daily radio schedules, regular checks on locations, equipment and activities," he wrote. Selby had joined the University's inaugural Dean of the School of Science, Alex Wilson – an Antarctic veteran – on the expedition along with Chris Hendy from Wellington's Victoria University.

Wilson, a Berkeley graduate, had made three trips to Antarctica before heading to the newly established university in Hamilton and wasted no time in returning to the ice. In 1978 he was awarded the Polar Medal after making seven trips and publishing 35 research papers on Antarctica.

Those early visits to the ice began one of the University's longest standing research projects. Research remains the cornerstone of any university and the University of Waikato is one of New Zealand's major research organisation.

Research continues in the Antarctic

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Terrestrial biological research: Professor Craig Cary in an Antarctic ice cave.

Researchers from Waikato have led terrestrial biological research in Antarctica ever since that first expedition and continue to do so, with Professor Craig Cary and Dr Charles Lee recently securing NZ Antarctica Research Institute funding for a pilot study to develop effective ways to measure early signs of climate change in Antarctica by developing tools to chart changes in the continent's ecosystems.

That first trip by Selby – now an Emeritus Professor – was the first by a geomorphologist to Antarctica. Over the next ten years he continued to work in Antarctica and the 2200m Mount Selby in the Britannia Ranges is named after him. Selby was able to carry out initial work on the geomorphology – the study of landforms and the processes which shape them - of Antarctica's dry valleys while Wilson and Hendy studied the ice-covered lakes in the valleys and the salts found in soils there.

Following that initial visit, the University established the Antarctic Research Unit, which was given the role of maintaining continuity of research. The unit has sponsored an expedition every year since. More recently, the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research has been based at the University, in partnership with Antarctic New Zealand, Gateway Antarctica and the Royal Society of New Zealand. It aims to provide the science underpinning the conservation, protection, and management of terrestrial ecosystems in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

The longest standing Antarctic research project is in the area of geochemistry, which aims to understand the processes of chemical weathering of the rocks and soils in the dry valleys, to understand the composition, history and chemical processes occurring in the lakes and to use geochemical methods to develop a history of fluctuations of the polar ice sheet.

A 1978 expedition to the Darwin Glacier area attracted international attention when the party involved found a swarm of meteorite fragments while about the same time biological research began in the dry valleys, with studies carried out on algae found on rocks and in lakes. Later research subjects including eye development of Antarctic fishes and a prototype greenhouse was built in the Taylor Valley which, along with providing a more comfortable working environment, allowed fresh tomatoes and peas to be grown.

Among the wide range of research programmes University of Waikato staff have been involved in are studying and preserving the Antarctic huts from the historic Scott expedition, investigating the geothermal hotspots on Mt Erebus and in other locations, the microbiology of the ponds on the McMurdo ice shelf, the continuation of a long-term project with Landcare Research to gather wind and soil climatic data and studies on bacteria which is able to thrive in hostile environments, as these are considered important for bio-technology development.

And while Waikato researchers have made their mark in Antarctica, they have also made their name there, with several landmarks named after the University and its researchers, including Lake Wilson, Lake Hendy and Mount Selby, McCraw glacier, named after Emeritus Professor John McCraw – founding chair of the Department of Earth Sciences – and Waikato Valley.

By the mid-1970s, Antarctic research was well underway and that period also marks the genesis of two other important contributors to the University of Waikato research profile.

First in women's studies

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Sociology of women: Inaugural Director of the Centre for Women's Studies Professor Jane Ritchie.

In 1974, sociology graduate student Rosemary Seymour offered a course on the sociology of women. The same year, the University's all-male Psychology Department – under Professor James Ritchie - offered a course on the psychology of women. It was the beginning of what was to become a huge growth in women's studies, although it took 14 years before a full major in women's studies was available in 1988.

Following that initial offering by Seymour, she was appointed to a lectureship in 1975. She went on to found the New Zealand Women Studies Association in 1978 and organised its first conference. At the same time, she continued to work on her doctorate - New Zealand's first in the field of women's studies – which she completed in 1982.

In 1983 a Diploma in Women's Studies was offered and in 1986 a Centre for Women's Studies was established with Dr Jane Ritchie as director. The official opening of the Centre coincided with the conferral of honorary doctorates on two pioneering women, Phyllis Guthardt and Dorothy Stafford.

Guthardt was the University's first ecumenical chaplain in 1970 and the first woman ordained as a minister in the New Zealand Methodist church. Stafford was a member of the senior management team at Waikato Technical Institute, chaired the women's advisory committee of the Vocational Training Council, a member of the National Advisory Committee on the Employment of women and a member of the National Advisory Committee on Women and Education.

At their 1986 conferment, Vice-Chancellor Wilf Malcolm declared the University's support for women's studies and noted the importance of a space where values could be affirmed and contested. "The inclusion of those who had been marginalised enriched the whole university," he said.

By 1989 a chair of women's studies was appointed but the following year, a national magazine hit out at the programme, in an article entitled: 'Waikato Wimin: Capturing the Campus'. It charged the University with wasting taxpayer money by offering courses in areas such as 'feminist geography' and a women's ritual course and by appointing radical feminists who pushed their own extreme views. The department was staunchly defended but the insinuation was that Waikato University was extreme, politically correct and biased.

However, Seymour's contribution to Women's Studies cannot be underestimated. A somewhat eccentric figure, Seymour gathered an extensive collection of resource material about women, eventually filling her office, storerooms, most of her home, her beach house at Opoutere and even her car. Following her death in 1984, her son provided funding for the material to be collated and catalogued. It now forms the Rosemary Seymour Archive, which is housed in the university library and available to students.

The computing era begins

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The computing era begin: A new computer arrives at the University in 1976.

Running parallel to Women's Studies was the development of Computer Sciences at the University.

Daryl Smith headed the Department of Computing and the Computer Centre and later became head of computing. In 1974, the two original computing staff were joined by two further colleagues - S. Petraska from Wellington, and Mark Apperley, a researcher and computing engineer from Imperial College, University of London. Professor Apperley is still on staff at the University.

The initial years of computer science were marked by a distinct lack of resources. In 1976 a deal was done whereby Waikato Computer Science would buy a PDP 1170 computer for $548,000, with no ability to pay the bill. At 11am the Computer Science Department brought the PDP, and at 11.01am it was sold for the same amount to a merchant bank. At 11.02am it was then signed back to the University on a rent-to-buy contract.

The PDP 1170 was described as a marvel. It had a superior timesharing mechanism, making it ideal for a large user-based environment like the University. It made the Computer Science Department at Waikato more attractive as not only was it the first educational institution in New Zealand to have such an advanced machine, it was amongst the first timesharing system in New Zealand. By 1977, 14 Computer Science papers were being offered.

Research and administration became increasingly reliant on computers and in the 1980s Computer science continued to grow as PDP computers were replaced by the ever increasing VAX computer systems. 1989 provided one of the brightest points for computers at Waikato when junior systems programmer John Houlker worked with NASA and made the country's first connection to the internet, a 9.6kbits undersea cable link to Hawaii.

The University continues to be a pioneer in computer sciences, in 2013 hosting the country's first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and opening New Zealand's first Cyber Security lab. With the cyber-security market one of the fastest growing in the world, the University of Waikato is again preparing students for their future and providing research to change the world.

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