When a young University of Auckland graduate steps on to the stage to accept her bachelor of science degree next week, a proud grandmother will be watching from the audience.

It won't be much out of the ordinary, save for the fact the grandmother will be Dame Catherine Tizard, whose own graduation from the same university, and with a similar degree, took more than 20 years to happen.

Long before she became Mayor of Auckland, and later Governor-General, Dame Catherine enrolled at the then Auckland University College to study for a bachelor of arts degree, majoring in zoology.

But her career in the sciences took a hiatus when she married future Deputy Prime Minister Bob Tizard and raised four children.


She was eventually able to return to zoology studies at the university, first in a part-time position and later as a faculty member, overseeing a laboratory and 52 students.

And finally, Dame Catherine graduated with her degree.

While her children opted against careers in the sciences, her curiosity about the natural world did rub off on her granddaughter.

"She has been a pretty big influence and has always been interested in what's out there," Jacqui Tizard said.

There were holidays in Coromandel, where Jacqui learned how to dive and where her grandmother taught her how to shuck oysters.

It all stayed with her, inspiring her to pursue a career as a biologist.

"I was tickled pink when she decided to major in biology - I thought that was great," Dame Catherine said.

"But I've stayed out of her hair, mainly because the sort of biology that is taught now is much more cell-oriented than body oriented.


"I mean, we used to dissect whole animals, and things like that."

Jacqui laughs when thinking how her grandmother asks "if you cut anything up these days".

Her studies are based around genetic approaches which, using DNA sequencing, are increasingly revealing new information about New Zealand's abundance of endemic species.

The masters degree she's now part-way through focuses on the Chatham Island taiko, one of the rarest seabirds in the world, with a population estimated at fewer than 150.

Dame Catherine, who was keenly awaiting Jacqui's graduation ceremony on Wednesday next week, felt it was more important than ever that researchers like her granddaughter better understood New Zealand's wealth of flora and fauna.

"If more people understood the natural biology we have, I think New Zealand would be a better place."