Engineer details her PhD inspiration

By Alexandra Newlove

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Recent PhD graduate Ngaire Hart says the apparent demise of our native bees - there is a colony in the rock behind her - could have major consequences. Photo / John Stone
Recent PhD graduate Ngaire Hart says the apparent demise of our native bees - there is a colony in the rock behind her - could have major consequences. Photo / John Stone

The second Maori woman to earn a engineering PhD says a book about contributions women have made to mathematics throughout history saved her giving up on her studies.

Whangarei's Ngaire Hart graduated on Friday from AUT University, after completing a thesis looking at the under-researched New Zealand native bee.

Ms Hart, 48, has dyslexia and said she struggled with maths particularly against her mainly-male classmates who could "do it in their head". The book Women in Mathematics helped her draw inspiration from the likes of female Greek philosopher Hypatia, who helped develop the scientific method.

"We don't often hear these stories," the former Whangarei Girls' High School student said.

"Women have always been pivotal in the development of knowledge, but it's not something we teach our kids."

Next came the realisation that engineering was not necessarily about maths, it was just problem solving - "women do engineering all the time without even knowing it", she said.

"I was always going to be an engineer. I'd always wanted to fix stuff, make stuff, and redesign stuff. I cut up my mum's wedding dress when I was five so I could redesign it, and took her transistor radio to bits."

When asked what type of engineer she is, Ms Hart said "a good one", and that her specialty could be described as systems engineering. Her doctoral research saw her use special image-processing software which monitored the habitats of New Zealand's native bees - the unglamorous but essential cousin of the introduced honeybee. Unlike their exotic counterparts, native bees, which were usually black or dark grey, do not produce honey or have stings. They were about half the size of a honey bee and live in small family units in individual holes as part of a colony.

Ms Hart's interest in the bees was sparked when, during her undergraduate studies, a biologist asked her to design a tracking device for the insects - which proved impossible given there was virtually no information on any of the 27 native species, seven of which live in Whangarei and are looked at in Ms Hart's research.

Ms Hart found the number of these active nests reduced about 60 per cent over her seven-year research period, where she studied sites atop Mt Parihaka, on Memorial Dr and at Mt Tiger.

Ms Hart said there were a number of possible reasons why the bees were struggling - though technically this was outside the scope of her research. The impact of the bees' demise could be huge given they were keystone pollinators, she said.

"That's for an ecologist to answer ... But we've got an awful lot of honey bee hives coming into Northland. They eat the same food, so you have to wonder if there's competition."

- Northern Advocate

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