Erika Szymanski : Connoisseur



Erika is driven by discovering connections and knowledge that can contribute to seeing the world a little differently. And most days, wine is in the mix somewhere. In fact it was right there from the start.
When Erika was growing up in the States, her trusted (not to mention important) job at energetic age of 4 was chief destemer and crusher for the family’s small volume of grapes. But it wasn’t until she was about 11, while reading a French book called The Taste of Wine, that the wine spark was really ignited.
In perfect consolidation of her childhood and academic backgrounds (Erika holds two masters degrees, in microbiology and writing), she is now halfway through her PhD focused on improving techniques for communication between the wine industry and related science. “A lot of research is aimed at trying to improve the process or benefit the industry, but the way we communicate right now is handing the science to winemakers and just expecting them to do something with it. This ignores the possibility of the two sides sharing information for the benefit of more robust science and better wine”.
Erika’s expertise and gift for writing has recently earned her first prize in the Born Digital Wine Awards Investigative Article of the year category. The piece was written in response to poorly informed media about an archaeological discovery of ancient grape seeds; she wanted to set the record straight and help readers understand the more realistic scientific implications, but in a humorous way.
“I think the thing that fascinates me most about wine, is when you start looking you will always find more. The more you know about something the more spaces you have in your head for seeing things, and the more you see of something the more joy you can find in it. And so for me talking about wine science is all about finding more joy”

Steven Smith: Shake, rattle & roll


Sleeping on my living room floor in the nights following the Christchurch 2011 earthquake (the collapsed chimney making the bedrooms out of bounds ), I vividly recall listening to the booming and grinding of geology below. I absorbed every minute of it in equal measures of fear and awe. It is those very deep earthquake processes that both fascinate Steve, and keep him in his day job as a Geology Department Lecturer.

So when the opportunity came for Steve to move to tectonically active NZ from the more geologically ‘genteel’ United Kingdom, it would have been rude for him to say no.   Now much of his field research is associated with an ancient fault system that spans a large part of the country and which caused uplift of the characteristic red rocks of the Dun Mountain Ophiolite Belt. Prior to arriving here, he was already familiar with the Ophiolite Belt as it’s famous in geology textbooks round the world.  So Steve is understandably chuffed to be contributing to knowledge of how the Belt was uplifted more than 50km to the surface from the mantle.

Rocks carry their own story including a heap of information on their cumulative history.  Through studying the preserved microstructures in rocks resulting from tectonic grinding processes, much can be revealed about the controls that make rock creep slowly or move quickly. An Italian state-of-the-art earthquake simulator called SHIVA (which incidentally Steve was involved in developing) is also used for laboratory testing.  Weighing in at a robust four tonnes, SHIVA simulates the extreme deformation conditions typical of earthquakes such as high pressure and velocity, and includes the movement and even melting of rocks.

A childhood love of the mountains and glaciers initially led Steve on his geology journey. And now when he is out in the mountains, his greater understanding of the underlying processes allows a different perspective on the dynamism of nature that surrounds us.

Christian Ohneiser: X marks the spot (in the middle of nowhere).


Imagine a block of ice spanning the distance from Bluff to Taupo. Now imagine that block of ice moving several metres per day. Not exactly breaking speed records I know, but for such a huge chunk of ice that’s pretty damn impressive. This is the vast white moving world of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf.

The surprising thing is minimal data on the Ice Shelf exists. As Christian puts it, “there are probably better maps of the moon, or even Pluto”. But this is about to change. Christian and his geology team, alongside two other groups, are shortly heading south to begin building a picture of the ice and its environment, and how it’s changed over time. Their journey begins with a 350km overland adventure from Scott Base to a point marked with a big black X on the map (from what I could tell it’s basically in the middle of nowhere).

As Science Logistics manager for the Ross Ice Shelf Programme, he is tasked with a mind-boggling level of gear and people organisation. A new custom-built addition to this expedition, and weighing in excess of a hearty 250kg, is Thumper. Thumper’s task is to (funnily enough) thump away on the ice and generate sound waves recorded on 96 geophones.  Part of what Christian’s team are piecing together is the natural behaviour of the ice shelf in an unmodified condition, and also gather information about the physical and oceanic factors controlling its behaviour. It appears the ice shelf has been stable, but is unlikely to stay that way.

Of course with all that organisation almost done, he’s pretty keen to board the flight on Nov 6th  on his third trip to the Ice. “And the great thing about Antarctica is it’s a level playing field. Everyone has to look after each other, and because of that it feels like the ultimate equal opportunity workplace”.