By Dion O’Neale

Engaging with communities is a focus for Te Pūnaha Matatini so I very much appreciated the point of Rhian Salmon’s lightning talk at our initial research symposium. In her role as a climate scientist, Rhian has spent long periods of time in Antarctica, which makes for great science outreach material. But in her presentation to Te Pūnaha Matatini, Rhian questioned how scientific we are about the outcomes of the science outreach we do. Outreach activities require substantial amounts of time and effort from scientists, often for little professional recognition. Rhian advocated developing methods for reporting on and researching the impact of these outreach activities, then using the results to inform future communication practises.

Engaging with communities of a different kind is Jeanette McLeod, a graph theorist from the University of Canterbury. Jeanette spoke about one of the ecological complexity projects that will be running in Te Pūnaha Matatini — epidemic spread in possum networks. Coming from Australia where she fed tame possums in her backyard, Jeanette is now studying how the spread of tuberculosis through possum communities is influenced by the characteristics of individual possums.

As they collectively munch their way through 21000 tons of NZ native forest each night, possums interact with one another within their own social network. Jeanette, along with collaborators Mike Plank and Alex James, is using data about these interaction networks collected by scientists at Landcare Research who tracked the locations of a population of possums in the Orongorongo valley, near Wellington. Within the possum population, super-shedders (highly infectious individuals) and super-spreaders (individuals that encounter many others) seem to play an important role in affecting the spread of diseases like TB. Understanding the effect of the heterogeneity of of individuals in the interaction network could turn out to be important for identifying possible methods of using infectious disease to control possum numbers.

Networks of interactions were a theme in Dave Maré‘s presentation too. Dave spoke about what makes cities so cool from the point of view of an economist. No matter what you measure, cities are a particularly efficient way of making stuff. Whether you measure numbers of patents or firm revenues or scientific publications, cities produce more _per capita_ as their size increases. I was interested in how Dave is teasing out the different mechanisms that might be contributing to cities getting more efficient as they get bigger. Dave is looking at how higher frequency and diversity of interactions within cities might spur innovation as people are exposed to new combinations of ideas. These could be interactions within cities due to people changing jobs, or between cities with internationally connected workers spurring exporting of the firms they work for. I’m hoping I’ll be able to explore some of the ideas Dave spoke about by working with Dave’s colleague from Motu, Izi Sin. The idea is to build a network of employment relationships so we’ll be able to quantify some of those interactions within cities and look at how they might affect the outcomes of the firms or the individuals involved.