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Source: University of Waikato

Yanika Te Paea Reiter wanted to be a marine biologist even before she knew the word for it.

Born in Wellington and raised in Tauranga, Yanika developed a deep connection to the water from an early age.

“I always knew I’d be some sort of aquatic scientist but when dad bought me my first microscope at 9, that was it!”

This week (8 December), Yanika graduated with a Master of Science (Research) in Biological Sciences from the University of Waikato. Her proud parents, brother, and partner were among the support crew who attended her ceremony in Hamilton. Yanika says the day was “simply amazing”.

“I graduated alongside friends who I’d studied with from bachelors right through to masters. That’s one of the bonuses about choosing a smaller university, it’s a real community where you make lifelong friends.”

Yanika’s multicultural genes – half-Austrian, part Fijian-Indian, Māori (Ngāi Tūhoe), English and Scottish – likely factor into why she’s such a natural people person but it could also explain her innate desire to tackle big-world problems.

“Protecting the environment, and what makes New Zealand New Zealand, has always resonated with me. I wanted to contribute my years of study to a bigger picture. So after completing my undergraduate degree, I turned up at the Coastal Marine Field Station in Tauranga and found Dr Kaeden Leonard, the local biosecurity expert, and Professor Chris Battershill, Chair in Coastal Science. Kaeden took me on as his first student and we began my exciting Master’s project in 2018.”

Novel research in the Bay of Plenty

As part of her research, Yanika sought to discover the invasive potential of non-indigenous ascidians, more commonly known as sea squirts, in the Tauranga harbour. She spent a year growing sea squirts in tanks to compare and compete native species with non-indigenous species. Yanika even came up with a novel process of rearing them – more of a pastoral care approach.

“Ascidians often die in tanks.” she says. “I grew their food myself (microalgae cultures) and used raw seawater so they had two forms of food source. Using a large three-tier flowing tank meant I could better mimic the natural movement of water in the sea. It took a year to find the right light, temperature and oxygen levels they required but it worked. I managed to have some sea squirts survive for two months or more.”

Experimental results revealed that non-indigenous species largely determine the dynamics of native sessile communities and were highly adaptable and tolerant of environmental change and epibiosis (the act of settling on the surfaces of others).

“I found that non-indigenous species are more prevalent as settlers as larvae in Tauranga harbour waters than native sea squirts,” says Yanika.

“This means they are highly invasive and can alter the biodiversity of our native hard bottom communities.”

Yanika’s research is important both locally and nationally, but the invasive sea squirt problem is a global one that’s increasing due to oceanic travel and trade. It’s more than the pest ‘guests’ aesthetically displeasing looks that should be of concern to New Zealanders.

“In this country, aside from fouling boat hulls, ropes, wharves and jetties, unmanaged populations of invasive sea squirts impact our aquaculture farms and smother native communities of marine life,“ says Yanika.

“The more invasive species we have here, the more impacts to our native food chains which then puts our recreational, cultural and commercial fishing practices at risk.”

While her thesis may be done and dusted, Yanika hasn’t left University just yet. She’s working at the Coastal Marine Field Station as part of an MBIE funded ‘Smart Idea’ programme, examining marine invasion mitigation options – essentially, growing and studying more invasive marine species.

“I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate,” she enthuses. “Getting paid to do a job I love is something third-year Yanika could only dream about!”

Championing biosecurity in Aotearoa

And, as if knocking off her Masters and securing a job weren’t enough, Yanika’s passion for biosecurity saw her acknowledged as a finalist in the AssureQuality Emerging Leader Award category of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) New Zealand Biosecurity Awards 2020.

With her sights firmly set on making a difference in the field of biosecurity sciences, Yanika wants to encourage others to make a contribution where they can too.

“To anyone who is passionate about New Zealand’s native ecology, whether it be terrestrial or marine, please consider getting involved in biosecurity sciences. The protection of our Taonga species is paramount. You can make such a difference: ‘Ko Tātou – This Is Us’. Caring for and protecting Aotearoa takes a village.”

A strong advocate of networking, Yanika joined the Tauranga Moana Biosecurity Capital in Mount Maunganui and regularly attends their events and workshops. She also takes every opportunity to share her knowledge with others to increase their awareness of marine science, whether it be through guest lecturing, school and community outreach programmes and events, both through the University and initiatives such as STEMFest and new STEM HQ Discovery Centre.

Yanika shares some sage words of advice for students starting out or already on their study journey.

“If you want to go far in your field, branch out and connect with people and volunteer your time to others. Putting in the effort to build your networks to create mutually beneficial relationships is key to making the career ladder climb an easier and faster one,” she says.

“He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”