It’s A Bugs’ Lab – MOTAT STEM Fair

On Sunday the 7th of April, my lab and I organised to take part in the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT)’s Annual STEM Fair.

MOTAT describes their annual STEM Fair as “the perfect opportunity to introduce kids to the engage with STEM subjects and inspire young minds to get excited about industry and learning”. The fair had a huge lineup of different stalls, each showing a diverse facet of what STEM currently represents, but is also developing into. This year, the STEM Fair attracted 2038 attendees.


Our stall was called “It’s a Bugs’ Lab” and showcased a wide variety of bug themed activity. We had a selection of live native insects for the public to meet and potentially interact with. These were native stick insects, giraffe weevils, spiders, stink bugs and native/SA praying mantids. We also had boxes of pinned insects for viewing with a magnifying glass, a set up microscope where people can take a look at prepared slides, a poster where people try to find the hidden moth/stick insects/etc, and pin puzzles where kids could put together the life cycle of the huhu beetle or native praying mantis.

The main aim of our stall was to a fear-reduction focus on insects, with emphasis on the importance of ecosystem services that insects and spiders provide, and myth-busting/conservation, and hopefully improve the public perception of and appreciation for our focal groups.

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We felt that the day was a huge success, and we all had a lot of fun making people appreciate insects. Looking forward to making it even better next year!

Here is a link to the video MOTAT created of the day. See if you can spot our wondrous critters!



End of Winter 2018 Update


It has been 9 months since I’ve officially started my PhD, and things are starting to come together. I have been preparing for my provisional which will be in March 2019, and starting to test out a few ideas and methods.

In July, I went to the annual conference of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB). This was a great conference to meet new people and hear some really interesting research happening across the region. I was also able to present my research from my honours project. I was also a session moderator for one of the sessions on the last day.

The Holwell Lab Group at ASSAB 18: (from left to right) Erin Powell, Cass Mark-Chan, Chrissie Painting, Me, Melissa Griffin


On the 26th of September, I was one of four panelist for a workshop called “It’s all about making connections!” put on by the University of Auckland Faculty of Science Wellbeing Advisory Group. This was a great way to connect with other PhD students within the faculty and discuss common issues we all face throughout our degree. It’s an amazing feeling to realise that you are not alone, and that everybody else is going through the same thing. Often times, we isolate ourselves from our peers and we end up feeling like we are the only ones struggling to stay afloat. This leads to feelings of inadequacy, and that maybe we don’t belong. Talking about it all helps to combat this pervasive imposter syndrome we all face.


On the 24th of October, the School of Biological Sciences held a Showcase where first year PhD student (such as me) were required to do a 2-min presentation on their project.

Here is a clip of my presentation:

What’s more, out of 38 presentations, I was awarded first place among the presentations! It was definitely a pleasant surprise, and a proud moment for me!

For Halloween, my club BioGrad (of which I am the co-founder and secretary) put on a Halloween party for the School of Biology. This was a resounding success and was very well attended, with many people dressing up and connecting with their fellow postgrads. The theme was ‘Mad Scientists and their Crazy Experiments’. Obviously I went as a stick insect (this was a very last minute job, my next stick insect costume will be EPIC).



November is the start of the Summer fieldwork season. Last week my lab mate Cass and I went for two weeks of fieldwork, from Auckland to Wellington. We stopped off at Waharau, Pureora, Whanganui, Wellington, Tongariro and Cambridge.

Here is the fieldwork diary that I made during the trip:


I have a lot more fieldwork coming up (including a trip to Stewart Island!!!), and I’m excited to be able to travel and discover a bit more about New Zealand! I will keep you updated as I go!


PhD – April Update

I officially enrolled in my PhD on the 12th of March. My project is investigating camouflage and colour variation in New Zealand stick insects.


I have spent the past couple of months out in the field looking for populations of different species of stick insect. I’ve also done field work to help out fellow lab members find their own insect species and help collect them.


On the 11th of April, the whole lab group went down to Whanganui to attend the annual conference of the New Zealand Entomological Society. There I presented my first ever conference talk (hopefully not the last!) about my honours project. I got some really good feedback, and it was a great opportunity to meet and discuss various topics and ideas with other entomologists.

The next couple of months will be focused on planning and trying out different protocols, and working on colour analysis and histology.

Here’s one of the beautiful beaches we went to while doing fieldwork in the north of New Zealand!


And Cape Reinga!


Poster Competition Experience

It’s October and my Honours thesis is due in just a little over a month. I know it’s cliché to say that this year has flown by, but it truly has!

This year, I was able to create my first ever scientific poster based off the research I have been doing for my Honours project. I was very excited about this prospect! I entered my poster into the Postgraduate Science Poster Competition. We had to create a poster to showcase our exciting research. In all, my poster took me about 8 hours to create in Powerpoint. After a discussion with a friend on how to make my poster stand out, we agreed that it would be very cool if we could *show* people what my stick insects actually look like! Photos are great, but seeing them in real life is just so much cooler (and is probably one of the only reasons people come to visit me in the lab haha)! We came up with the idea of sticking insects that were incased in resin on the poster. Could we do that? Are we even ALLOWED to do that? And would the poster hold? Well, we thoroughly checked the rules and emailed a few people, which all came to the consensus that as long that it wasn’t moving, I should be fine! I used stick insects from my project which had already died, and pinned them in the position I wanted them to be in, to set and dry. We also used eggs which had already hatched and some kānuka foliage to make it look realistic!

Resin cast of an adult male and female, as well as first instar nymph of Clitarchus hookeri.
Clitarchus hookeri eggs and kānuka leaves encased in resin.

I tend to lean towards quite non-traditional posters. Like a little kid, I prefer mine with bright colours, lots of photos and as less words as possible. I think it’s quite an art to strike a balance between having enough scientific content, but also making it easy to understand to a vast number of people (not just your lab group!). My way of dealing with that was to show the drafts to both non-science people and scientific people, and see how well they understood the poster in order to *try* and strike that delicate balance. After many revisions and a few choice words directed at Powerpoint, my poster looked like this:

My poster based off my Honours research project “What are the advantages of mating once, many times or not at all? Facultative parthenogenesis in the common New Zealand stick insect”

Attached below is also the pdf version, which is actually readable! ↓

Poster – Final Version

The night of prizegiving came, to which I went along to because there was also catering and wine, and well that’s definitely an advantage of uni that every student should indulge in. There was 65 entries in total this year. And well… I am happy to report that I won first place!

First place award for my poster, red wine faithfully in hand!

Now, one of the provisions of this competition is that the top 20 posters also get entered into the Exposure Poster Competition. In their own words, Exposure is “an opportunity for postgraduate students to showcase their work to an audience, gain public recognition, receive feedback and network with employers”. It is a student-led research exhibition in collaboration with the school of graduate studies (SGS) at the University of Auckland. There are three categories to choose from: poster display, oral presentation and variety showcase.

And… I won first place, again! Honestly, I was shocked at that one. My dad certainly was haha!

My first place prize and the Exposure programme. Sadly, I didnt get an actual certificate for this competition! Maybe I can make one up?

This experience has been amazing! Hopefully I can keep it up with my next posters haha!

I was blown away by the research other students are doing across the University. These posters competition are a great way to both showcase your research and meet other people within your field, but also see what other researchers within your faculty and across the university are up to!


Also, here’s another little tid-bit. A month after the first competition, I had to create a poster as an assignment for my entomology post-grad class. I just found it funny, that after winning a faculty wide competition (and soon after a Uni wide one), I now had to make a poster for one of my classes! At least I had some prior practice and in fairness, it did take me less time to make that one! Here it is:

Insect Biogeography Poster

And OF COURSE it’s about stick insects!