Master of Science (Research) student
She has always been fascinated with animal intelligence, says Samantha Patterson who came to AUT as an international student from the US to enrol in a Master of Science (Research) in Marine Science.
“Octopus are generally known to be intelligent, but their physiology is different from any other intelligent life. My research focuses on an octopus species found in the Hauraki Gulf, Octopus tetricus. This species had been previously recorded living in a group environment, which is unusual for octopus. Not much is known about this species yet and what behavior is known is intriguing.
“I first met Associate Professor Kat Bolstad – the head of the AUT Lab for Cephalopod Ecology and Systematics (ALCES) – at the Cephalopod International Advisory Council conference in Florida. I told her of my affinity for octopus and my SCUBA diving skills, which reminded her of this species, O. tetricus. She told me of the opportunity to study this (possibly) group living octopus species using SCUBA diving methods; I was instantly hooked.”
Samantha’s goal was to find areas these octopus inhabit using SCUBA diving, describe their ecology, record group-living behavior using several cameras and camouflaged housings, and map out these group living areas. However, the unpredictability of the weather forced her and her supervisors into a different course of action.
“When sampling for my research started, Graham Hinchliffe – AUT's own mapping and drone imagery expert – joined the project as secondary supervisor. Graham's involvement enabled us to focus on new methods and technologies that can be used to observe octopus in the wild. By partnering underwater footage with unique drone imagery techniques, we will not only be able to provide an insight into O. tetricus’ ecology but also offer a new but inexpensive way to collect marine data.”
Deciding to come to AUT for postgraduate study was easy, says Samantha who expects to graduate with her Master of Science (Research) at the end of 2021.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the sea and the life within it. When I was looking for a location to complete my master’s degree, I wanted a place near the ocean with an academic supervisor who could support me in my academic journey. When I found Associate Professor Kat Bolstad and ALCES I did some investigating into AUT. After I saw a picture of the AUT science boat in action, everything just seemed to align.”
While she has enjoyed being at a new university and in a different country, studying far from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has had its challenges.
“Starting postgraduate study during COVID-19 while being alone in a new country was certainly an obstacle. When New Zealand went into a lockdown, we had to resort to remote learning. I hit a crossroads – living alone, only having human interaction once a week when I ventured out of my apartment to get necessities. For two months, it was me facing a behemoth of writing scientific papers and tackling code. It wasn't easy, but with support from my professors and peers, I was able to find enough strength to get through it.”
An inspiring university environment
There have been many moments of inspiration throughout her studies so far, says Samantha who plans to continue her studies and research with a PhD.
“I’ve learned so much by coming here and have been able to break into new disciplines that I would never have before. The entire journey has either been encountering an obstacle driving me to work harder or providing unique experiences inspiring me to go further in this field. And I would not have had it any other way.
“For example, taking a course on advanced biological oceanography with Dr Kay Vopel was an eye-opener to the expectations of postgraduate study. Taking two required coding/statistics courses simultaneously showed me how much I need to learn. And every moment working with ALCES, whether it was a trip to Wellington or assisting in a giant squid dissection, always showed me the fantastic options awaiting me at the end of the tunnel.”
Samantha says she would highly recommend AUT’s marine science programmes.
“The flexibility with the first-year of courses in the Master of Science (Research) is wonderful for anyone jumping into the deep waters of postgraduate study. The experience you get by completing a thesis on any level is also well worth the work. Not to mention that the academic staff at AUT’s Applied Ecology Department have been the most supportive and engaging staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”