Jake Vander Zanden is a Fulbright US Scholar from University of Wisconsin-Madison who arrived in New Zealand in February 2016 to research lake water quality at the University of Waikato. He is studying the phenomenon of ‘dead zones’ in lakes, where pollution reduces oxygen making it impossible for parts of lakes to support life. The damage may be irreparable.
While in New Zealand on his Fulbright, Jake is living in the coastal small town of Raglan with his wife and two children. In his spare time, he is learning to surf. While he is only two months into his exchange, so far Jake says it has been “exciting, fun and a great adventure”. His early research has sparked ideas he plans to explore for years to come.
I’m looking at the phenomenon of lake ‘dead zones’. Lakes that in the past had a lot of oxygen in the bottom waters can lose that oxygen due to nutrient pollution – often from human activity – then they become an environment that can’t support life. You lose a lot of the value that would come from a lake, such as fisheries, when you have dead zones.
It seems like once you create dead zones they are difficult to turn back. Even if you remove nutrients and improve conditions, the healthy ecosystem never returns. That’s really worrisome because it is so difficult to fix the problem. Another consideration is that when you create a dead zone, the plant nutrient phosphorus is released from the lake sediments, which further contributes to the pollution problem.
I have found that people in New Zealand are very interested in water quality, but mostly in a very general sense. There is a lot of recognition that there are severe water quality challenges. People seem concerned about the large expansion of dairy farming in the last ten to twenty years and what that has meant for water quality, in terms of both ground water and surface waters. It’s interesting to compare the different perspectives about that from the US and New Zealand. The decisions farmers make on the land is often the driver of water quality.
I’ve known my host here at the University of Waikato professionally for a while. He’s one of the world’s most well-known lake scientists. He has a very specific research area for which he is renowned, and I was interested in learning some of those skills.
I bumped into him at a conference and he said, “Hey, you must be coming up for a sabbatical. You should come work with me in New Zealand.” I said “Ok,” – that’s basically it. He said I might want to consider applying for a Fulbright. I had heard the awards were really competitive but I applied, got in and here I am!
It has been great. People here have been interactive, a number of people have dropped by to say ‘hi’, and my host has introduced me to many people as well. One thing I wish I had done was to give a research seminar early on, to introduce myself to people.
One great thing about being on sabbatical is finding time to focus. Back home in my normal life I rarely get time to close my door, focus and think for several hours straight. It has been amazing to have some quiet time. Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from your daily routine because it allows you to evaluate where you are and focus on learning new things.
Of course, my day-to-day life back home doesn’t go away while I’m here, as I have a lab and graduate students. I spend about one day per week phoning in and dealing with a multitude of things, often budgets, back home that unfortunately don’t go away. There is a 17 hour time difference, but it works out. It is good for my lab back home to learn to function without me.
I have met with Kandyce Anderson, another US Fulbrighter here, for coffee to talk and share our experiences but she’s the only other American I’ve interacted with here. There are a lot of people who are international here at the University of Waikato. In our research group there are people from a wide range of countries (Japan, Canada, Germany) so I’m just another person from somewhere else. The academic environment is quite international.
A great part of this experience is the whole of life in another country, and learning about the way things work. I think it’s been really exciting for my children too. My wife and I have travelled to different countries, but for our kids this is a really crazy adventure to go somewhere so far away that’s so different. I hope it’s been a life-altering experience for them. We’ve gone whale watching and I think it was striking for them, but the day-to-day experience of living here will probably be the most powerful experience.
Learning about Māori culture through the Fulbright orientation was fantastic, we got a basic understanding that helped us a lot. On our orientation, all the US Fulbright grantees stayed overnight at Waiwhetu Marae in Wellington. The iwi we met at that Marae invited us to a regatta of waka (canoes) in Ngaruawahia – it was a great day. We got a chance to be more connected to Māori culture and even got to paddle the canoes, it was a great experience. My son is learning a haka at school, he’s excited about that.
Getting out and exploring has been enjoyable. I have been surfing down at the beach at Raglan. We’ve travelled to Lake Taupo, Northland, and the South Island – it has been nice to see the country. For me, studying environmental systems, you have to get out and see the landscape. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity just to be here.
The life, culture and day-to-day existence of a researcher here are not that different from back home. Some details are different but in the big picture, we’re all the same. I am struck by how we’re all dealing with the same types of issues.
I miss friends and certain social aspects of my life back home, but when I feel homesick I just remind myself that this a short-term experience – it’s only five months. There are things I like to do back home that I’m replacing with surfing – I also like to fish back home but here I’ve been fishing in Raglan. It has been an easy, delightful, fun transition. Of course, I’m here with my family so we have each other. My kids have had a few moments of being homesick – to a six year old, five months is a really long time. I remind them we’ll be back soon, they’re going to see their friends again, and we should take advantage of this wonderful opportunity we have.
My hope is that it helps me to build a new research area working on water quality issues, and evaluating how nutrient pollution, climate, and invasive species all work together to influence water quality.
When I look back at my Fulbright proposal, it was remarkably ambitious. I take the long view and view these as ideas I will be working on for the next ten years. During an academic career, you come up with ideas and work on them for a long time. Seldom in academia has anyone ever worked on something for just five months. Things ferment and build on each other – I’ve been working on some different ideas and themes for 20 years including what I was working on in my dissertation, having now brought new things in to it. 20 years from now, I’ll hopefully still be working on this.
So much of learning is about connections among people. Really, it’s when you go to a new place that you can meaningfully interact with other people, and from that comes learning and new experiences. So far it has been incredibly exciting, fun and a great adventure. I don’t really know what is going to come out of it, but I’m excited to see what happens. I do have a sense that it’s planting the seeds for interactions and unexpected things that will probably emerge over the next decade. Hopefully there will be connections and interactions that amplify beyond just this five month visit. I’m very grateful to the Fulbright programme!