Professor of Geology
School of Science
The best part of science is using it to improve the quality of people’s lives, according to Professor Michael Petterson. He sees challenging ideas and thinking creatively to benefit humanity as a core part of his role as a scientist – whether through education to empower people, systems, policy and organisations; in the application of science to help solve development challenges; or in practising open and honest scientific enquiry.
A defining experience came early in his career while researching in Kohistan, North Pakistan, for his PhD in Geology. He witnessed extreme poverty and great inequality first-hand, which challenged Professor Petterson to use his knowledge and education for good.
“My biggest eureka moment was the shocking realisation that so many millions in the world live with war, famine, degrading poverty and fear. We read about it and see countless images in the media, but the penny drops only when it stares you in the face and touches your soul – which it did for me in Pakistan”.
People have since been at the forefront of his decision-making. A notable contribution during his career has been the instrumental role he played in negotiating elements of a new US$50 million project with the World Bank, to help establish and implement a disaster resilience programme in the Pacific Islands region. Countries involved in the project included Samoa, Tonga, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu. The programme provided research capabilities, and resources to assist with developing the skills locally to address issues such as geohazards, climate change and disaster risk management.
“Working with Pacific people to identify what their risks were and how they would limit them, building resilience to disasters and risk mitigation, as well as maintaining key public infrastructure was crucial in order to increase opportunities for those who normally wouldn’t have the chance to do so on their own”.
Another career highlight was his wider work as Director of the Geoscience Division at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, where he was responsible for 120 staff and doubling their annual income to US$25m during his tenure. The Division undertook a range of geoscience for development projects, including the realisation of natural resource potential for sustainable development, the management of natural disasters and risk, and expanding scientific capacity amongst Pacific people.
But perhaps his most challenging career experience to date was the design and execution of a five-year programme of strengthening geological institutions in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the period that followed the Taliban exit from government. Although desperately impoverished and war-torn, the country has immense potential to generate wealth and employment from its rich natural resources base, which the programme sought to facilitate. It involved 40 external scientists working alongside 150 Afghan counterparts to rebuild the war-decimated Geological Survey and a range of Government Ministries.
The expertise Professor Petterson has acquired in change management, strategic leadership and negotiation within a number of international environments has placed him in good stead for his initial task at AUT – developing AUT’s geology major within the Bachelor of Science programme. He is carving out a new approach to geological study, combining excellent science with the human dimension to equip students not only with a good scientific grounding, but also with experience of the real world application of geoscience.
Professor Petterson’s ultimate goal is to inspire the next generation of scientists, and give them what they need to succeed and make a difference in the 21st century.