2019: A Year in Review

Although we are already a few weeks into 2020, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the year that was 2019.

2019 was a tumultuous year to say the least. I began the second year of my PhD in March, and from then on, it was non-stop. Let’s recap!

January:  I started the year in beautiful Tahiti, spending a few weeks in the sun with my friend Heiana and her family. It was an incredible holiday, and the sights and sounds took me right back to my childhood in New Caledonia. Once I was back to New Zealand and especially uni, it was straight back to work with my field season going full-steam. I was out there collecting stick insects, taking photos and analysing those, trying to wrap my head around the computer program I was going to use. Two days after landing from Tahiti, I also filmed a test shoot with Gibson Production for the potential tv show/web series we were planning together! It was very exciting!

Heiana and I in Tahiti!
Heiana and I in Tahiti!

February: During this month, I continued with field work, testing and working out methods I wanted to use in my future planned experiments. On the 7th-9th, I attended the 68th Entomological Society of New Zealand Conference in Hanmer Springs. This is a great conference, where you get to meet the majority of entomologists in New Zealand and see first hand what their research is all about. I gave a talk on my planned research for my PhD, which was well received and led to a lot of discussion (which is always good!). I also won 21st Anniversary Award, granting me $1000 to help me towards in-field colour analysis of stick insects research! I am very grateful to the society for this award. On the 25th, I participated in the Faculty of Science Postgrad Welcome Orientation as a mentor, and helped lead activities that would help new postgrads better integrate into the school.

Award winners at the 68th Entomological Society of New Zealand Conference. I am on the far left!

March: This month marked the beginning of Semester 1, when the University becomes a bustling hub once again. As usual, the first two weeks of Semester are filled with bright -eyed new students trying to find their way around campus, as well as incredibly long lines any time you want to go and get food. This first semester I was a teaching assistant for two papers: BIO108 (Biodiversity: Patterns of Life) and BIO109 (Ecology and Evolution: The continuum of life). These papers were brand new, merging subjects from previous papers, as well as introducing new topics. I thoroughly enjoyed both, especially the field trips with the students! March also marked the beginning of my second year as a PhD student (oh, how time runs away…). Another exciting moment was when I was informed by Gibson Production that we had secured funding for our project! “Bug Hunter” would be a collaboration between New Zealand and Canada. It would be a short children’s tv show about insects. On the 2nd, I also attended a Wikipedia Workshop at Auckland Museum led by Mike Dickison. Mike has long been an advocate of the use of Wikipedia as an outreach tool, especially for entomology. That day, I started writing the wikipedia page for the Lemon Tree Borer beetle (which I finished a few days later). From that, I also submitted a Did You Know fact which links to the main article. This was featured on the front page of Wikipedia a month later!

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The fact taken from the page on Oemona hirta I wrote on Wikipedia, featured on its ‘Did you know…’ feature of the front page.

April: In April, things continued much as they did during the previous month. I carried on with my teaching assistant duties and the field work/experiments for my PhD. I was also helping some of my fellow lab mates with their field work. On Sunday the 7th, I helped organise for my lab group to take part in Motat’s STEM Fair day. We had a booth showcasing some of our amazing New Zealand insects to visiting kids and their parents. It was a huge success, and we had a great day!

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Members of the Holwell Lab Group helping out at the Motat STEM Fair.

May: This month was pretty calm and uneventful compared to the rest of the year. Notable events were joining the gym, helping put together a Science Postgrad event aimed at fostering social connections among our cohort. I was also trying to get everything booked and ready for my trip to the UK! That meant finding someone to take care of my stick insects while I was gone (thank you Erin and Claudio!). I also attended three really good seminars, one by Hugh Kearns on “Presenting your Research with Confidence”, another on “Sustainability, Science & Society: flourishing people, thriving ecosystems” presented by speakers from the Faculty of Science who talked about their current research and thinking on the topic and a guest speaker from an organisation that is applying an innovative solution. The last one was by Anthropologist Agustin Fuentes on “Animals, plants, buildings, pots, war and peace: how the last ~15-20 millennia shaped humanity, and why it matters.”

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Holding a handful of giraffe weevils from a field work night down in Waitomo, helping Erin!

June: In June, I presented a talk about colour analysis of my stick insects at the Joint Graduate School in Biodiversity & Biosecurity Seminar Day. This was well received, and gave me practice for my upcoming talk at the Anti-Predator Colouration Symposium I was about to attend in Cornwall. On the 19th, I finally set off for the UK. I spent 3 days in London, getting over my jet-lag (also caught a cold off someone on the plane, so spent a day in bed hacking my lungs off!) and exploring. My lab mate Cass (who I was attending the conference with) and her husband Andrew met up with me 2 days later. They had just been travelling through the UK, and Andrew was now off to Switzerland to work with his collaborators. Cass and I were going down to Penryn, Cornwall for two weeks to discuss methodology with Prof Martin Stevens and Jolyon Troscianko, and attend the Anti-Predator Colouration Symposium. We spent the last week of June exploring Penryn and the nearby towns of Falmouth, Penzance, Truro and many others.

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Looking over the ramparts on St Michael’s Mount in Marazion, Cornwall! Breathtaking photography by Cass.

July: From the 4th to the 7th was the Anti-Predator Colouration Symposium. I presented a talk on “Hiding in Plain Sight: Camouflage and colour in New Zealand stick insects”. I got a bit of feedback, and it was really nice to discuss research with other members of my field. The aim of the symposium was to bring together researchers at all career stages interested in defensive coloration in nature. It involved a mixture of short (five minute) talks followed by discussions. There was also four workshops exploring key issues and unresolved questions in the subject area. I live tweeted most of the symposium! Cass left for New Zealand straight after the symposium while I stayed in Cornwall for an extra week. That is because, incredibly, three species of New Zealand stick insects were accidentally introduced in the early 1900’s and have naturalised in the UK. Two of those Acanthoxyla species can be found in Cornwall and Devon. I thought that this was serendipitous, and I needed to make the most of it! I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to photograph some of the naturalised NZ stick insects on their chosen substrate, both for my personal interest and to be able to compare them to the New Zealand ones in term of colouration. A few months before I left for the UK, I got in contact with Malcolm Lee. He has for the past few decades collected and analysed all UK reports of these stick-insects from those lucky people who find one in their garden. As such, he had very good knowledge of where I could find my little critters (especially as they are quite slow dispersers and I only had a few days). After a few weeks of emailing back and forth, we set up an itinerary where Malcolm would be kindly taking me around to visit a few spots and known locations. I thoroughly enjoyed being shown around and finding the stickies, it was great (thank you so much Malcolm!). Here is detailed report he wrote up about our stick insect hunt! From Cornwall, I went back to London for one more week to visit and be a tourist. My cousin from France (who I hadn’t seen in five years) joined me for a couple of days. It was really nice to catch up! I also visited the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, caught up with a couple of friends who were travelling through Europe, and went to the Natural History Museum. Part of my trip to the Natural History Museum was to check out their phasmid collection. So many amazing specimens from around the world, with some collected over 200 years ago! They also have the holotypes (the specimen that was originally used to describe and name the species) of some of our New Zealand stick insects! I got back to Auckland on the 22nd, which was also the start of Semester Two. That semester I was TA for BIO 207 (Adaptive Form and Function), and a marker for BIO 100 (Antarctica: The Frozen Continent). 

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Presenting at the Anti-Predator Colouration Symposium.
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Taking a look at the phasmid collection in the Natural History Museum!

August: After the whirlwind that was July, I thought this month would be more chilled. How wrong was I! On the 5th, my family and I officially became citizens of New Zealand after having lived here for over 10 years. We were (and still are!) incredibly proud and thrilled to be officially part of this country that we now call home. From the 17th to the 27th, I headed to Toronto, Canada to begin filming the first half of our very exciting project, ‘Bug Hunter’! This was an incredible opportunity, and I met people, saw places and made memories that I will cherish forever. I am very thankful to the team I had there who helped me with every step, especially as a complete novice to this industry. While I was there, I met fellow entomologist and co-star Gil Wizen, who is such a kind and wonderful soul. On a side note, travelling through the US (I had a lay-over in San Francisco) is a bloody nightmare. If you can avoid it, do it.

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Officially becoming citizens of Aotearoa!
Shooting Bug Hunter in Canada. The photos are by Gil Wizen!
Gil wrangling a tailless whip scorpion at Guelph Bug day!

September: In 2015, together with 162 other countries, New Zealand committed to achieve 17 new sustainable development goals set by the United Nations by 2030. These goals aim to address the current ongoing and future issues plaguing our society. On the 2nd of September 2019, a summit was held in Auckland to bring together people from all sectors (industry, government, non-profit, research and academic) to develop and commit to positive action and accountability on the critical SDGs within their broader spheres of influence. I was one of the lucky few attendees being sponsored by my university, as the summit was held there. The Summit aimed to engage central and local government agencies, businesses, community groups, Māori, Pasifika, non-governmental organisations, health providers, researchers, educators and youth in working together to accelerate action towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. It was an  extremely interesting and touching day. It definitely reinforced some previous thoughts I had on the topic, but also opened my eyes to new challenges and solutions to tackle them. From the 9th to the 13th, Cass and I headed to Sydney for a week long workshop on the new version of the QCPA toolbox held at Macquarie University. This workshop allowed us to further ask questions and troubleshoot some problems we were having with the toolbox. I also started being involved in an outreach program called “Buzz in the Garden” led by Curious Minds, SouthSci and Auckland Council Libraries. The project involved staff from three south Auckland libraries (Ōtāhuhu, Māngere Bridge and Māngere East) building community gardens in collaboration with local community groups, businesses and schools to increase the diversity and abundance of beneficial insects. They also hoped to generate a range of benefits for their urban environment, such as increasing greenery, reducing pollution and feeding the community. Me and three other entomologists volunteered to help provide expert advice and resources. On the last weekend of the month, my family and I took a quick trip to Sydney to celebrate my mum’s birthday and attend a concert at the Sydney Opera House of one of her favourite band. I got us front row seats to Apocalyptica! Among other things, this was also to celebrate our citizenships, my dad’s promotion and was our first family holiday together in over 10 years!

Helen Clark giving a keynote address at the Sustainable Development Goals Summit.
Holding a Titan stick insect in Macquarie University during our visit for the workshop!

October: This month was definitely a bit calmer than the previous ones. It was nice to be able to catch my breath a bit! I was busy with keeping up with my research and my teaching assistant duties. I also did outreach at a Bucklands Beach Primary School, talking to kids about insects and answering many, many, many questions. It was really fun and I loved it! Kids always have such good and interesting questions, and they’re not yet tethered by convention like so many adults are. I also organised with my BioGrad Club, a Halloween Party for the school. We held it on the Friday (which ended up being the 1st of November, but it was a much better day). It was a really fun party, everyone went really hard with the costumes, which is always great to see. We had lollies, drinks, vegetarian pizzas, good music and a fun quiz to get everyone socialising.

At Bucklands Beach Primary School, talking to kids about insects!
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At the SBS Halloween Party, with the BioGrad Committee who helped put the party together!

November: I started this month by ticking off a big bucket list item. My lab group and I completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing! It was an amazing hike, even if I definitely felt all of the 19 kms in each and everyone of my muscles. I also moved desk to be closer to the window and therefore have a better chance of seeing the sun and dreaming about being outside. I went back to Bucklands Beach Primary School to do another day of insect fun, since it went so well the previous time. On the 20th, the School of Biology held it’s annual SBS showcase. As a second year PhD, I didn’t have to present anything and only attended to see what my fellow postgrads were up to. As a first year PhD the previous year, I had to do a 2 minute presentation on my research. I got first place for my efforts, so that was nice! But it was also nice to not have to stress about presenting anything this year. This month also marked the beginning of field work for my lab, including me. I joined Cass in a few excursions to do some light trapping to catch her ever evasive moths!

On the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with the Blue Lake in the background.

December: Finally the last month of the decade! The first week of December was spent preparing for the next segment of filming for my show ‘Bug Hunter’. This included rounding up props (most of them mine haha) and collecting insects that were going to be featured in each episode. The week after that was spent shooting! Incredibly fun, but also very tiring! But so worth it. I got to meet young entomologist Olly Hills who also co-stared with me on some of the episodes. He is an expert on New Zealand cicadas and wrote a book on them! Our lab mate Erin also handed in her PhD thesis. Yay! But she also moved back to America on the 16th, which was quite sad. But this world is small, and we will surely cross paths again. She is onto a post-doc at the University of Florida, which is very exciting! The rest of December was spent resting , spending time with family and enjoying the holiday break.

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Olly Hills and I during the shooting of Bug Hunter!

As I look back on the past year, I have come to realise that outreach and science communication is quite important to me. I really enjoy it and get a huge sense of fulfilment out of it. I also hope that the people I get to meet and talk to through these events, come away from them with a deeper appreciation of insects and critters in general.

It’s always a weird feeling, looking back on the past year. I came to the end of 2019 feeling like I hadn’t actually done much, but in reality I was very busy and had a brilliant year! Onwards and upwards!

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!