As a curious toddler Fenna Beets always knew she wanted to explore the science world.
"Pursuing a science-based career was always a given for me. At five years of age it was the role of a 'dinosaur scientist' that had my attention, followed by the captivating occupation of 'volcano scientist.' "
Tomorrow, Beets finally fulfils that long-held goal as she graduates from the University of Waikato in Tauranga with a Master of Science in Research. Not as a palaeontologist or a volcanologist but a marine scientist/spongiologist.
"The 'what kind of scientist' I wanted to be wasn't set in stone until age 17, when I went snorkelling for the first time at the Great Barrier Reef.
"When I put my head in the water with my mask on and saw this explosion of colour and fish, I was absolutely hooked. I needed to know more. It was then I truly found what I was passionate about."
After an initial year studying at the University of Canterbury, Beets relocated to Tauranga and studied towards a Diploma in Marine Studies at the former Bay of Plenty Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology). The pathway programme between the polytechnic and university meant she transitioned into completing a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science.
After an 18-month break Beets returned to complete a Master of Science in Research in Biological Science, based at the Coastal Marine Field Station at Sulphur Point, under the guidance of Professor Chris Battershill, chair in Coastal Science.
As part of her research, Beets investigated the effects of climate change and environmental pressures on marine sponges - specifically Tethya burtoni, a small, hardy sponge and one of about 50 species of sponge found in Tauranga Harbour.
Beets said she had always had a soft spot for the underdog, "the little guys, the forgotten and the minority".
"It's been truly eye-opening, learning just how important and understudied marine sponges are. Sponges are pretty much the dinosaurs of the ocean, so I am staying somewhat true to the aspirations of my 5-year-old self."
At 800 million years old, sea sponges are the oldest living multi-cellular organisms on the planet. Like mini biochemical factories, they have developed sophisticated chemistry.
Beets' research focused on how climate change stressors, specifically sea surface temperature rise and increasing sedimentation (as a result of increased frequency and severity of storm events) affected the metabolism and survival of T. burtoni, a native widespread sponge.
"Sponges in New Zealand are quite understudied despite having a high level of endemism. This research indicates that in the absence of adaptation, even the hardiest of sponges may seriously struggle under future climate change scenarios.
"The loss of sponge populations ... could have a significant effect on coastal trophic dynamics. Examples such as this feed into a bigger picture - one that indicates future climate scenarios don't bode well for the future of the oceans."
Beets works for the Ministry for Primary Industries.
At the university's graduation ceremony, Beets has been given the distinguished role of student speaker.
"I could have easily pursued other areas of study and landed up in an easy job that pays really well, but we spend so much of our life working – it's really important to me that I feel satisfied in my work and that I enjoy it.
"Marine science isn't the easy road, but for me, it's definitely the right one."