Meet Tara McAllister, a freshwater ecologist passionate about protecting water for future generations!

What is your scientific background?

I am a freshwater ecologist, I completed my BSc in marine biology at the Victoria University of Wellington and am now doing my Ph.D. at the University of Canterbury.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I just had an inherent curiosity, a love and deep connection to water and all the things living in it. So it’s no surprise that I ended up pursuing a career which allowed me to spend a lot of time in the water. I told my poppa when I was 7 years old that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I didn’t quite end up as a marine biologist but close enough.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I study a toxic cyanobacterium(a type of algae) called Phormidium which blooms in many rivers both in New Zealand and worldwide. The toxins it produces are responsible for over 100 dog deaths in the last 10 years in New Zealand. I am attempting to understand why Phormidium blooms and how changes in the environment will influence its growth.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

Not necessarily an achievement but heading overseas has been a major highlight of my research. Last year I went to America (my first time overseas) to present my research. I came across the work of a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley working in the same area as me and emailed him before I left. I ended up helping him with some field work after the conference and got to see his beautiful study system, which was amazing. I will be heading to Europe in a couple of months for another conference.

Tara (right) after finishing the setup for an experiment in the rain/ Tara McAllister

I have had many failures throughout my Ph.D., but I don’t let these stop me. I have restarted experiments many times. I once ran an experiment in some streamside mesocosm channels and pretty much everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. The pumps stopped working and my rivers went dry, a fish got stuck in one of the pipes and my rivers went dry again and they flooded ruining my experiment. After restarting the experiment (which required scrubbing 324 rocks clean) about 5 times the experiment worked and the blood, sweat and tears were all worth it in the end. I like to think of it as character building.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day in summer for me is spending long days in rivers on the Canterbury plains trying to learn more about Phormidium. Eating and ice cream and going for a swim is also a must. A typical day in winter is a bit different. I am usually writing, crunching numbers or doing lab work. It’s not quite as fun as being outside but an important part of what I do.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

My supervisors, my friends and my whānau (family) have all motivated me or are my motivation. I am also intrinsically motivated to keep going so that I one day can be a role model and pave the way for other young Māori women.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

My supervisors have been pivotal in my Ph.D. journey. When I get stuck they are there to help me. They are both very supportive and I feel extremely lucky to have them as supervisors. I could not have asked for better supervisors. They are amazing.

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?

It would honestly be my current topic Phormidium. This is such a big problem plaguing our rivers and I am determined to advance our current understanding so that we can eventually figure out how to deal with it.

Do you come from an academic family?

My mom is a deputy principal and my dad is an instrument technician, whatever that means. My mom got her teaching degree later in life after having three kids and my dad is the most hard working man you will ever meet. They are both a huge inspiration for me. Even though my parents aren’t necessarily academics, the values that they have instilled in me and their support have allowed me to excel in my career.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

My other passion is te reo Māori and I am looking for ways in the future to combine my two passions. Science and te reo Māori. I am currently completing my diploma in te reo Māori through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. I love learning te reo because it is a window which allows me to explore my Māoritanga. It is important for me as an emerging Māori scientist to be able to walk in both te ao Māori (the Māori world) and te ao Pākehā (the Pākehā world).

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

Yes, it is and I am still searching for balance. I am very lucky that have a very supportive partner who grounds me and reminds me to step back and look at the big picture every now and then.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

We need more women in academic positions to pave the way for others. In my university, there are very few female role models. But that in itself is difficult because having a family and being a scientist working in academia is often seen as impossible. We need to bring down the barriers to make science a more accommodating place for females with families.

Tara (left) teaching a high school student how to collect bugs/ Tara McAllister

It’s not only women that we need to encourage into STEM subjects, we need to support diversity in STEM by mentoring indigenous students. I have been involved in many outreach programs aiming to encourage young Māori students to pursue a career in science and students often tell me that they don’t think they are smart enough to do science. We need to show future scientists that science is not scary and you don’t have to be super smart to be a great scientist.


Tara can be contacted at, or through twitter!