A Humboldt experience

26 January 2018

Ben and German ambassador for web

PhD student Ben Stewart (right) with German Ambassador Gerhard Thiedemann

What does a poor university student do when he needs a suit in a hurry? He calls his mum, that’s what. And even though Mum's in Australia, she comes to the rescue.

That’s what happened to University of Waikato PhD student Ben Stewart who recently found himself invited to dinner at the German ambassador’s house in Wellington. Ben is part of the University of Waikato’s Intercoast programme, an interdisciplinary science exchange that runs between Waikato University and Bremen University in Germany.

He was invited to be a part of a meeting for the Humboldt Foundation, an organisation that promotes excellence among scientists and scholars. The foundation was inspired by and named after influential German nature researcher and explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. It was founded by the German government and is funded by it and other German and international partners.

Ben was one of about 90 Humboldt fellows from Australia and New Zealand who met in Wellington late last year, hosted by the Royal Society of New Zealand. “The topic was ‘Our changing world in the South Pacific’. Participants came from a diverse range of backgrounds and fields of research, and the talks covered everything from literature to pure mathematics, anthropology to molecular science, psychology and environmental sciences,” he says.

Ben’s doctoral research focuses on Tauranga harbour. He is quantifying the amount of groundwater and dissolved chemicals (nutrients and carbon) being exchanged between the land and ocean. “I use a combination of methods, including natural radionuclide tracers (radium) to estimate groundwater seepage at a regional scale and to ‘age’ coastal water masses. I also apply hydrodynamic modelling using Delft3d to better understand the physical processes occurring in coastal environments.”

It was one of his PhD supervisors, Associate Professor Karin Bryan, who suggested Ben apply and attend the three-day Humboldt meet in Wellington. “It was a valuable experience and there was a real emphasis on the importance of good scientific communication across different disciplines,” he says.

But back to the suit. “It was a bit of a surprise to be invited to the ambassador’s house, and I knew I’d need to sharpen up. Luckily Mum dug-out an old suit and sent it express post from Australia. I think the last time I wore it was my sister’s wedding about four years ago. My speech cards were still in the pocket!”

Ben, who came to Waikato from Australia to do his PhD, plans to complete his doctoral study this year and then he’d like to continue working in coastal hydrology and oceanography. “I enjoy having a practical hands-on approach to my work, so would like to do something that includes this. My dream is to explore different coastlines and do research using a small boat and 4wd. I’d like to work with local communities and let them be a part of the scientific process.

“With the many environmental problems that face our future, involving communities in the process of science has got to be a part of the solution I think. At present science and understanding the process of science is very disconnected.”