One of New Zealand's best-known scientists is calling on Massey University not to cull the only biology programme of its kind in the country – and one critically relevant to the unfolding Covid-19 crisis.
Dr Heather Hendrickson – a top molecular biologist known for regularly communicating science in the media – said Massey's recently-launched, Albany-based major in integrative biology, along with her own job, could be gone if a radical restructure goes ahead.
"This is the only integrative biology major in New Zealand and it emphasises the importance of interdisciplinary skills and thinking in biology in order to solve real problems," she said.
"Microbiology, maths, ecology, evolution and genetics make up some of the core courses in this new major."
Hendrickson said the programme also included a discovery course, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes Science Education Alliance, that enabled undergraduate students to discover and sequence what are called bacteriophages, which are proving vital in efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.
These tiny protein particles drift around in the environment until they run into their bacterial target, and then inject their DNA, which takes over the cell to make many copies of the bacteriophage.
Some of these bacteriophages were part of a collection that last year helped save the life of a teenager who had a deadly and seemingly untreatable infection.
"In addition, the students in this course often go on to feel like real scientists and are more likely to stay in the sciences."
One student from the course had also gone on to do a masters project combining bacteriophage science with biodegradable nano-beads to kill mycobacterium strains.
Another part of the integrative biology major will include her colleagues, professors Thomas Pfeiffer and Mick Roberts, teaching students about mathematical modelling and how it could be used to understand events like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hendrickson said another spin off project that has come out of the programme was her project looking at using bacteriophages to combat bacterial pathogen American Foulbrood, the single largest disease that affects honey bees here.
Hundreds of cases of it have been reported over recent years – including one North Island commercial beekeeper who lost 200 colonies.
"It took us a year to get permission to grow these bugs and moving or closing the lab will seriously hamper this important project for the honey bee industry," she said.
"This all draws out the connections between doing research-led teaching and how it influences students, their futures and how research is done.
"By dismantling the integrative biology major we are taking away the opportunities to be part of this global research community and the project ownership that comes with making a difference that you can see."
Massey has proposed a dramatic shake-up – part of a drive to save about $18.1m a year, and the roll-out of a new online-based course - which would see science degrees, including the integrative biology major, no longer offered from its Albany campus.
Science degrees majoring in chemistry, earth science, ecology, environmental science, maths, microbiology, molecular genetics and biochemistry, statistics and zoology would be centralised from Palmerston North, while majors in integrative biology – along with physics, plant science, and marine biology - would be abandoned completely.
Albany scientists fear about 50 staff jobs could go, with implications for hundreds of Auckland-based students, and last week presented National MPs with a 10,000-signature petition to stop the plans.
In a letter to the College of Sciences' pro-vice chancellor Professor Ray Geor, Hendrickson argued that the "unique teaching" taking place at Albany was too valuable to New Zealand to be cut short.
"The kind of teaching that we do here, and the benefits for students are core to the research-led teaching that we do," she said.
"When the lines blur between faculty teaching and faculty research we have the opportunity to train new scientists."
Massey has told the Herald that it wouldn't be commenting on potential outcomes while its consultation process was under way and no decisions had been made.
All students would be supported to complete their qualification and if any changes occur, they would start at beginning of next year at the earliest.