Bubbles in the bubble for ocean-loving PhD graduate

14 May 2020

Dr Helen Cadwallader graduated with a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University's Tauranga campus.

Newly graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Biological Sciences from the University of Waikato in Tauranga, Dr Helen Cadwallader has missed a few things during Covid-19 lockdown. Her formal graduation ceremony, being able to work, welcoming her parents from the UK. Most of all, she’s missed the ocean.

“I was very lucky, my doctoral research involved quite a bit of boating and handling large stingrays so it was very exciting at times! I got to explore areas of Tauranga Harbour that I didn’t know existed,” says Helen. “But I’ve not been in the water at all over lockdown, just walking on the edges. I can't wait to get back out there!”

In less than a month’s time, Helen would have been collecting her parents from the airport. Maggie and Peter had planned to fly over from the UK to see her graduate with her PhD on 12 June. Unfortunately, Covid-19 put the collective Class of 2020’s best-laid graduation plans to rest.

Instead, when she received confirmation of her graduation via email, Helen and her partner had a low-key celebration at home in Ōmokoroa with a glass of bubbles. Sadly, Gryff, the Welsh Springer Spaniel, wasn’t a fan of the stand-in mortarboard and tore it to shreds. Determined to attend a proper graduation at a later date, Helen just hopes that travel restrictions have lifted in time for her parents to make it.

Gryff, the Welsh Springer Spaniel, was not a fan of Helen's graduation cap.

“It’s been a little emotional and anticlimactic as it was such a long journey to get here,” she admits.

It took 4½ years to complete her PhD, but the international student’s journey to Tauranga and Waikato University was set in motion many years ago.

Despite growing up in Welshpool, a small town in Wales many miles from the sea, Helen says the ocean is in her blood. Both Helen’s grandfathers spent a lot of time on the ocean and childhood holidays were spent at the beach snorkeling and discovering rock pools, so it was no surprise that she chose to study marine biology at university.

Helen graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biology from the University of Bristol, where her honours research concentrated on the behavioural reactions of freshwater fish to anthropogenic underwater noise. Three years later, she graduated with a Master of Science in Marine Biology (Distinction) from Bangor University, where she studied cleaner fish and their interactions with thresher sharks in the Philippines.

In between those degrees, Helen visited New Zealand to do some volunteering – assisting with some PhD research, first on Dolphins and then on Tui. She relished her time here and, after completing her masters, she knew she wanted to specialise in sharks or rays. When the opportunity came up to do her own PhD studying rays in New Zealand, Helen jumped at the chance.

“Rays have really interesting biology that, in general, we know so little about compared to other fish that are easier to study. I like a challenge. Large highly mobile animals in an environment like the ocean that you can’t easily see what they're doing, was too tempting of a challenge!”

Helen and her Coastal Marine colleagues, Dave and Rex, tagging a short-tail stingray in Tauranga Harbour.

Helen’s doctoral research focused on stingrays that spend time in the Tauranga Harbour, and aimed to discover their spatial and feeding ecology and the potential impacts that urbanisation of the area may be having on them.  It’s research that will help to conserve areas that are valuable for these important animals.

“Rays are 'ecosystem engineers’ - the sediment that they turn over digging for their food helps to maintain the health of our harbours. Plus, they’re the staple food source of the Orca population. Without rays we wouldn’t have Orca coming in so close to shore for people to see.”

Helen cites working with the Coastal Marine Field Station team, where she was based, as a highlight of her time at Waikato.

“I’ve made friends for life,” she says. “I’ve also been fortunate to attend annual trips to the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society conferences, enabling me to interact with the top marine scientists in New Zealand and learn about some great research, alongside gaining the experience of presenting my own research in a professional setting.”

Helen completed her studies at the end of February but, with post-study work visa processing stopped for a month, finding a job has been impossible. She’s kept herself busy writing up her thesis chapters for publication and walking Gryff the dog – a lot.

Now she’s just looking forward to getting back to the ocean, and back to what she does best.

“I’d like to continue working in marine ecology and New Zealand is a great place for that with the opportunity to make a real difference in the field.”

Helen would like to acknowledge her University of Waikato supervisors Professor Chris Battershill and Dr Phil Ross, and her external advisor Dr Malcolm Francis from NIWA. Her thesis, The ecology of ray species in an urbanised estuary: seasonality, habitat use and pollutant exposure in Tauranga Harbour” is available in the Research Commons.

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