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SIT Students Selected To Present At National Freshwater Conference

Two Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) Bachelor of Environmental Management year-3 students, Brennan Mair and Xinxin Zhang, were selected to present at the “Weathering the Storm” conference in Invercargill last week, highlighting quality research which is taking place locally at undergraduate level, in SIT’s Bachelor of Environmental Management programme.

“Weathering the Storm” was a joint collaboration between several freshwater science groups in New Zealand: The NZ Hydrological Society, New Zealand Rivers Group and Freshwater Science Society.

Held at Ascot Park Hotel, 1st - 4th December, the conference brought together New Zealand’s foremost freshwater experts for some face-to-face networking, including those from academic institutes, councils, ministries, crown research institutes, and iwi.

The 3-day conference and 1-day field trip, provided the the opportunity for presentations from all over New Zealand, brought by researchers, consultants, advisors, regulators and students, on a broad range of topics within hydrology, rivers and freshwater.

Dr Christine Liang, Programme Manager for the School of Environmental Management said usually students who attend these national conferences are PhD and Master’s students, so it really indicates the high calibre of research in the SIT Bachelor of Environmental Management programme for the two students to be accepted for presentations at “Weathering the Storm”.

“They did such a great job presenting at the conference, to an audience of professionals and academics!” Dr Liang said.

Mr Mair, supervised by Dr Tapuwa Marapara, was accepted for a poster presentation on a water sampling device he designed and built for use in freshwater locations where extracting the water sample is complex.

Designed to be attached to a drone, the device takes away the need for people to enter the water to retrieve a water sample. This has numerous benefits said Mr Mair. He saw what happened when people went into water to gather samples – they often waded out into muddy water, contaminating the sample they collected, and furthermore it can be a dangerous task he said. The water sources can be deep, and are often difficult to access.

“With a drone you can obtain the samples safely, without contaminating the sample, and it easily provides accessibility into inaccessible places around lakes and ponds” he said.

The feedback at the conference was encouraging for Mr Mair, saying a lot of people were highly interested in the water sampling device. He met one man from a large university in Virginia (Virginia Tech), USA who builds devices like this himself, and said there was a real need for people like Mr Mair in the industry, he was quite excited about the potential the invention had, and the ways it could be utilised.

“He had a big team and big resources, whereas I built mine on a shoestring budget”.

Mr Mair said he appreciated the support he received from Environment Southland, who helped him with some of the costs in building the device.

Industry recognition at this early stage of the device’s development was a plus in attending the conference said Mr Mair. The positive feedback he received reinforced he was on the right track.

“It made me even more certain I could build my own business. I want to refine the device a bit more then put it into use”.

He said using a drone also had other applications such as mapping river banks and coastal erosion, taking pictures, and measuring biomass for farmers. Putting to good use his technical ability and skills he brought from his previous career of 25 years in the electronics industry, Mr Mair challenged himself to see if he could do things he’d never done before.

“The water sampling device runs a little computer and the parts were 3D-printed. I had to do programming coding in python, and build the hardware from scratch. I’ve never written python code before, I built the device to push myself and use it as a stepping stone”.

“The highlight of attending the conference was seeing what other people in the field were doing and getting a real feel for the whole industry and the people active in it. I talked with really knowledgeable people, they were quite inspiring. It was exciting to be involved and I found the whole experience very interesting and informative”, said Mr Mair.

International student Xinxin Zhang was accepted for an oral presentation on Concentration and categorisation of microplastics from inner-city waterways in Invercargill, and was supervised by Dr Liang.

Ms Zhang said she was really nervous about presenting at the conference, and as an international student, she felt her English could be a barrier to communicating, especially speaking to professionals and academics. But she was warmly received and picked up positive feedback.

“To hear from others that I did well was really heart warming and I hope it inspires other international students at SIT to study what they are passionate about and not be afraid to put themselves out there”.

The conference provided an opportunity for Ms Zhang to disseminate her research widely, and she said this was the high point for her, sharing the results and discussion of the research with experts in the freshwater field.

“My research report has also been picked up by WasteNet Southland and they are about to share it on the Love Southland website and on their social media”.

“I think it is important for people to be aware that microplastics are all around us, like in our local waterways and could end up inside of our food and inside of us! I am so happy that people are interested, and that my research is making a difference and helping Southland’s environment”, she said.

In addition to the presentation, Ms Zhang also worked as a student assistant at the conference for four days. During this period, she had the opportunity to network with people in related fields, who shared their professional knowledge, and she knows this will benefit her future career.

“I hope that other students get to experience this, and I’m so thankful for SIT sponsoring myself and Brennan to attend, it was such a great opportunity. Everyone's encouragement and the supportive atmosphere has increased my confidence. Overall it was a really great experience”.

Ms Zhang said after attending the conference, she’s more interested in the field of freshwater environments and hopes to continue with freshwater research, particularly on microplastics.

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