Dr Priscilla Wehi

Dr Priscilla Wehi

Conservation Biologist at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Co-Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Excellence for Complex Systems - Dunedin

Dunedin, New Zealand

Rutherford Discovery Fellowship

Dr Priscilla Wehi

Scientist Dr Priscilla Wehi studied for her PhD at the University of Waikato’s School of Māori and Pacific Development because it was the faculty that best met her needs, not just as a scientist but as a mother with three young children.

And while she now lives and works in Dunedin, Priscilla has retained her links with what’s now called Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao - Faculty of Māori and Indigenous studies. She’s teamed up with Professor Tom Roa and Dr Hēmi Whaanga from Waikato to research ecological knowledge embedded in whakataukī, and Indigenous perspectives on the protection of the living world.

The relationship between Western science and matāuranga (Māori knowledge) is often the key focus area of Priscilla’s research as she investigates a variety of issues.

She is conservation biologist at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, and incoming co-director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Excellence for Complex Systems.

“I’m particularly interested in the human dimensions of conservation, including cultural relationships with the living world, and traditional ecological knowledge,” she says. “I investigate human-nature relationships, taking in past, present and future environmental behaviours and responsibilities, introduced species that challenge native ecosystems and insect ecology and behaviour.”

Priscilla’s background in biological science began with science degrees at Canterbury and Lincoln universities before choosing Waikato for her doctorate. With her own experience of whānau communities in Waikato-Tainui and in Tūhoe, she became more deeply immersed in thinking about the relationship between conservation biology and matāuranga. Add in her Scottish clan heritage and she has a rich perspective from which to undertake research.

“My PhD study at Waikato set me up well for the interdisciplinary work that I do. That involves leading diverse teams with a range of perspectives who come together to tackle thorny problems. Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao embraced me, my whānau and my reality and practiced inclusivity. There was immense support for exploring different research questions among the staff. They had breadth and insight into Māori issues, were supportive, and had huge hearts.”

Priscilla’s own research skills and the value of her research were acknowledged when she was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2014, which lasts for five years. The fellowships are awarded to early- and mid-career researchers whose work is deemed to have significant value and also recognise recipients’ potential to become research leaders in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In turn, Priscilla makes a point of supporting early-career researchers. “I think it’s important to think about and develop new pathways for scientific leadership and to mentor emerging researchers of all ages and backgrounds as they embark on their careers,” she says.

As incoming co-director for Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence she will lead a mixed group of researchers working with industry players, government representatives and iwi to develop new approaches to transform complex data about New Zealand’s environment, economy and society into knowledge, tools and insight for making better decisions.

She is pleased that New Zealanders are slowly accepting that there is more than one way to approach conservation and environmental issues. “It used to be that my research that embraced Western science and matāuranga placed me as an outlier, but now times are changing and people are becoming much more accepting of complementary ways of finding solutions to environmental and ecological issues. I think it augurs well for the future.”

Dr Priscilla Wehi