Makoura College pupil Aislin Maugatai, 17. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

After a summer holiday working with liquid metal, water-resistant materials, and microscopic crystal particles, Aislin Maugatai is more determined than ever to pursue a career in science.

The Masterton 17-year-old was one of a select group of young people attending DiscoveryCamp – Te Hohu Huraina, a week-long interactive science programme targeted at senior secondary pupils of Maori and Pasifika heritage.

Aislin, in her final year at Makoura College, last month travelled to Dunedin for the camp, hosted by the University of Otago and fully-funded by the McDiarmid Institute: a national network of scientists dedicated to exploring innovation in chemistry and physics.

At DiscoveryCamp, Aislin and her fellow young scientists got to participate in complex experiments at the university’s high-tech laboratories, creating everything from reactive catalysts to magnetic liquid compounds from scratch, and received guidance and mentorship from some of the McDiarmid Institute’s leading researchers.

Historically, on account of social and academic prejudices in school environments, Maori and Pasifika have long been underrepresented in the STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and manufacturing).

DiscoveryCamp is one of many initiatives to fuel a passion for the sciences in young Maori and Pasifika, and introduce them to various opportunities in the STEMM sector.

Aislin, of Ngati Porou and Samoan descent, said she was keen to expand her science skills beyond her college classroom – and left DiscoveryCamp feeling excited about the possibilities open to her once she leaves school.

“DiscoveryCamp opened my eyes to what studying at a place like Otago and working in science and research fields would be like,” Aislin said.

According to mum Joanne Waitoa, Aislin has had an interest in “how the world works” from a young age, and was “particularly fascinated by bugs” as a child.

After starting at Makoura, Joanne said Aislin’s confidence and abilities flourished – her interests expanding beyond insects to include zoology, chemistry and marine biology.

“Science is pretty much my best subject,” Aislin said.

“I really enjoy doing experiments and studying animals – and watching David Attenborough films in class.”

Encouraged by her teachers, she applied for DiscoveryCamp, and her enthusiasm for her favourite subject made her a clear contender.

In the end, Aislin chose to attend the camp based at the Otago campus (a second programme ran at Massey University in Palmerston North), which had a focus on nanochemistry: the study of the microscopic particles (“nano” representing “one billionth” in the metric system) present in chemical reactions.

The pupils were able to witness this phenomenon up close, taking part in a variety of experiments.

These ranged from working with observing the role of nanoparticles in chemicals changing colour and in light reflection, to creating hydrophobic sprays to prevent water absorption, and working with fluid metals with magnetic properties.

“Nanochemistry is interesting as, to the normal human eye, it just looks like we’re doing regular chemistry – but everything’s working on a very small scale,” Aislin said.

Joanne, who is on the Board of Trustees at Makoura, said all-expenses-paid experiences like DiscoveryCamp were particularly valuable for pupils from lower decile colleges, “since they don’t often get the same opportunities as better resourced schools”.

She was also thankful for DiscoveryCamp for making Maori and Pasifika pupils, like Aislin, feel accepted and welcome in university environments – which can be predominantly Eurocentric.

“I know personally how isolating university can be without support. I love the idea that Aislin already has a network of people she can reach out to.”

Aislin says she isn’t yet sure what to study at university – but is interested in a career in environmental science.

And she’s off to a good start: she is one of Makoura’s environmental leaders and was a member of the winning team for the school’s Make A Difference Day, where pupils worked on a range of sustainable and environmentally-friendly projects.

“It would be fantastic if she put her passion for science into a career in kaitiakitanga,” Joanne said.