My Life Scientific
Helen Pilcher talks to Dr Andrew Digby about career changes and the charismatic
Have you always been interested in science? Always. My mum was a laboratory chemist at a brewer’s in Norwich. She encouraged me and my brothers to take an interest in science when we were kids. I loved going to local nature reserves and watching the sky at night. I also recorded the weather every day for seven years: rainfall, temperature, wind speed, that sort of thing. If we went on holiday, I’d get the neighbours to do it so there weren’t any gaps in my data.
How did your scientific career begin?
My PhD in astronomy led to a post-doc with NASA. We built an instrument that looks for planets in distant solar systems and deployed it on a US Air Force spy telescope, on a mountain in Hawaii. During the day, they’d use the telescope to snoop on satellites. It was all very secret. Then at night, when I went to use it, I had to be escorted everywhere because I’m not a US citizen. It was a bit crazy, but we did find some candidate planets.
How did you come to work in conservation?
I live and work in New Zealand now. When I first arrived, I got a job doing weather forecast modelling, but also did some voluntary work counting kiwi on the side. That led to a second PhD, studying the bioacoustics of kiwi calls, but I never dreamed I’d end up working with .
What is a ?
are these weird, green, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrots that are unlike any other bird. They are found only in New Zealand and have nearly 30 million years of unique evolutionary history. They’re also incredibly charismatic, but they’ve been decimated by invasive species so there are only around 150 alive. I’m now the scientific advisor for the national Recovery Program. What’s that like?
It’s like the premier league of conservation. Without our help, the species would undoubtedly go extinct. We manage the birds on predator-free islands and do everything we can to help them breed. This month sees a milestone as we finish sequencing the full genetic codes of all living and a handful of dead ones too. It’s the first time this has ever been done for all members of a species.
Why is it so important to sequence the genomes of all of the ?
It gives us a whole level of information that we’ve never had before. We can use this information to shed light on the birds’ family tree and problems such as infertility and disease. It’s going to be an amazing resource, available to anyone that wants to use it. But the
is only half of my job.
What’s the other half?
I look after another endangered New Zealand bird called the . It looks like a bit like a non-endangered bird called the pukeko, and is often mistaken for it. Its main problem, however, is that it lacks |the ’s charisma. It’s in desperate need of some positive PR. Can you give it a mention, please?
Consider it done.
is a scientist for the Kakapo and takahe recovery programmes at the New Zealand Department of Conservation
How did a former astronomer come to care for the world’s weirdest parrot? This month, Helen Pilcher talks to Dr Andrew Digby about career changes and the charismatic kākāpō