My Life Sci­en­tific

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents -

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

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