How do you make Kiwis care about something as weird as sperm from a tiny native bird?

If that's not a tough-enough ask, how do you make it a cause worth giving money to?

Leave it to Dr Helen Taylor.

The young University of Otago researcher has risen to become of New Zealand's most articulate science communicators – something last week recognised with a top honour named for the late and celebrated Kiwi physicist Sir Paul Callaghan.

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Taylor's focus lies halfway between the conservation of our cherished birdlife and the often dry and complicated world of genetics.

She's out to understand how inbreeding in wild populations hurts biological fitness – or how dodgy sperm can drive threatened species closer to extinction.

You might think of the problem as a bottleneck: a population that's been decimated by attacks from rats, cats, stoats, possums and habitat destruction suffers the knock-on effects of mating between relatives.

As a conservation geneticist, Taylor tries to understand where genetics-based approaches might help these populations recover.

"People often focus on the genetics bit and assume that it's boring or complicated, or they don't see the connection to conservation," she said.

"In reality, the genetics of threatened species has an important part to play in their survival."

This was especially true in New Zealand, where shrunken gene pools were hampering the revival of many critically-endangered species, notably kakapo and little spotted kiwi.

"I'm really keen to show people that there are actually some pretty simple concepts in genetics that are easy to grasp and could be really helpful in managing New Zealand's precious taonga species."

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One of her recent research projects investigated whether inbreeding caused infertility in birds, something that had already been shown in mammal, insects and plants.

The Marsden Fund-supported study took her to remote islands and predator-free sanctuaries to check sperm quality of South Island robins and hihi, or stitchbirds.

With her came what she dubbed her "mobile sperm lab", comprised of a tent and a microscope mounted with a camera that fed into a laptop running sperm-tracking software.

Stranger still, she kept the sperm warm with a Tupperware box with a reptile heatpad inside – along with a specially designed in-bra sperm tube holder she wore to keep samples snug against her skin.

"I'm really keen to show people that there are actually some pretty simple concepts in genetics that are easy to grasp and could be really helpful in managing New Zealand's precious taonga species." Photo / Andrew Digby

The quality of the sperm could be judged by how they swam, along with their length and make-up.

Over one breeding season, she collected sperm samples from 128 male hihi, and was also able to film the sperm to help calculate how fast they swim.

As a testament to her science communication skills, Taylor managed to widen the project into what became The Great Hihi Sperm Race, doubling as an awareness and fundraising campaign.

The idea was ingenious – people could take their pick of a bird from one of four sites and back it with a $10 bet.

Those who correctly guessed the speediest sperm went in the draw for a prize pack, while all of the proceeds from entries went toward sustaining and building new hihi populations.

"The great hihi sperm race was one of those ideas where, when we were talking about it at first, we wondered whether it might be a bit too weird to work," she said.

"The idea itself came up as a result of a casual chat during field work on Tiritiri Matangi Island about betting on which of the birds I'd collected sperm from would have the fastest swimmers.

"But, as we talked, we realised it could go much bigger than that, although we weren't totally sure it would work.

"But the more people I explained the idea to and saw getting excited about it, the more confident I felt that it would be just weird enough to capture people's attention, but not so weird as to put them off."

Figuring out the mechanics of it and a website, and then promoting the contest over a month-long campaign involved a lot of effort.

"But it was amazing to see how well it worked - and not just in New Zealand," she said.

"In the end, we received bets from 17 different countries and raised over $11,000 for hihi conservation."


Two years earlier, she'd proven her flair for science communication when she boiled her research down into a 180-second video that won her a contest.

But the more people I explained the idea to and saw getting excited about it, the more confident I felt that it would be just weird enough to capture people's attention, but not so weird as to put them off.

She's also brought her science to schools, through in the University of Otago's mobile Lab in a Box project, and to the wider public through talks and media interviews – her work has featured in the Herald, RNZ's Our Changing World, BBC online, Wildlife Australia and TV3's The Project.

In awarding her the Callaghan Medal last week, Royal Society Te Aparangi's medal selection committee described her as "an exceptionally talented science communicator" who was making on a real impact on conservation.

Taylor said a six-year stint in public relations, pushing products ranging from pasta sauce to kids' toys, gave her a solid grounding in how to tell a good story.

"It also gave me a decent understanding of how the media works, which is really valuable when you're trying to communicate to a wide audience," she said.

"I used to worry that I'd wasted six years by working outside of science, but I've come to see that my time in PR gave me a bunch of skills I might not have gained otherwise.

"I'd like to see more training for at least some of those skills built into the science curriculum from undergraduate level so that more scientists feel confident communicating their work to a diverse range of audiences."

She counted herself lucky to work alongside some other well-known figures in New Zealand research – notably her mentor Dr Christine Jasoni, anthropologist Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, and geneticist Professor Neil Gemmell, whose light-hearted hunt for the mythical Loch Ness Monster this year made him one of New Zealand's most-interviewed scientists.

"That's super important because engaging in science communication requires me to shift other research-focused work around a little and manage my time a little differently and I couldn't do that if the department was not supportive."

She wanted to carry on sharing her science with Kiwis, and turning some of the attention to species like hihi that didn't attract the same publicity or funding as better-known birds like kiwi or kakapo.

"There are a couple of common misconceptions about New Zealand wildlife that I'd like to address," she said.

"I've also got ideas for teaching people more about conservation genetics - and also showcasing all the amazing field work that researchers in New Zealand are conducting."