Observations from a first-time visitor to GNS Science - 20/07/2012
Skye Wishart is the inaugural IRL Innovation Journalism Intern. She visited GNS Science in June 2012 for half a day while based at the Science Media Centre in Wellington. She is currently studying journalism in Auckland and will spend time at The Business Herald in September 2012 covering the commercialisation and science rounds. Skye wrote this commentary after her brief visit.
To set the scene of the tour, I couldn’t help but think that the staff at GNS Science must draw at least some of their creative inspiration from their surroundings.
Situated at the old National Film Unit Studios at Avalon in Lower Hutt, the GNS Science campus is utterly unique among CRIs. It’s a mashup of modern GNS Science office and lab spaces – a surprisingly large building complex that accommodates about 250 staff. The soundstage, a hangar-like space where TV series and ads were once filmed, is now a cavernous storehouse and indoor basketball court, while fossils are kept in the old costume storage wing. Fantastic plush old cinemas behind unassuming doors are used to give client presentations and science seminars. There’s even a pool, where staff were having an icy midwinter dip the week after my visit - luckily I couldn’t make that one.
But the work itself: projects galore.
The seismology wing was vast - particularly interesting were teams studying tsunami wave propagation using their access to thousands of computer models of waves travelling across the Pacific Ocean. Another group of scientists had recently finished a New Zealand Aid-funded project to increase tsunami resilience in Samoa.
Down the hall, others were tinkering with the soon-to-be-finalised GeoNet Rapid service that provides almost instant information on earthquakes around New Zealand.
Other projects came at me from all sides as we walked the halls - ocean landgrabs, 3D geological mapping of Christchurch (in fact, urban areas over the whole country), and the state of Auckland’s air quality. The graphics team was preparing material for their outreach programmes that highlight GNS Science’s work in the field for school kids, with the aim of inspiring a future generation of young scientists.
We found Zoe Juniper, who told me about her Petroleum Basin Explorer web portal: an online resource providing information on New Zealand’s sedimentary basins and petroleum systems. The accessibility of this information goes a long way towards opening up New Zealand to prospectors of oil and gas. The complex layers of detail cover things you’d want to know if you were prospecting: from wells to seismicity to geochemical analysis. A big advantage of the database online is that kiwi companies can share this data with their clients overseas -”sitting at their desk in Houston” - without having to get it sent over on hard drives in a clunky and expensive manner as before. The site is also pretty useful for paleontology, ocean mapping, and looking at our tectonic history.
At the Gracefield campus down the road, we were met by the down-to-earth Dr John Futter, who described himself as GNS Science’s senior R&D electronics engineer. He scraped the mud off his boots and proceeded to show me the advanced materials lab, a workspace hissing and whirring with innovative machines that map elements, shoot gaseous beams of argon and use isotopes to date objects. Interns from overseas universities poured steaming liquids into an advanced triple beam accelerator machine that seemed to be made up of impossibly complex parts. There was an atomic force microscope that can read the surface of materials atom-by-atom, and other contraptions that create one of GNS Science’s crowning jewels; that is, nanomaterials of enhanced strength, electrical conductivity and optical properties. There seemed pretty exciting opportunities for commercialisation of many of these projects.
Needless to say, in both the public and private research sectors these scientists are building massive opportunity. Far from the story of Avalon studios, GNS Science’s future looks exciting.