A lifetime’s contribution to education and the environment

Dr George Mason ONZM’s lifelong interest in plants and preserving the environment has led him to donate millions of dollars to environmental research and study opportunities for young people throughout Aotearoa.

George Mason stands on deck overlooking costal scene
George Mason ONZM

Thanks to his generous support through the George Mason Charitable Trust, the marine biology team at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences has played a leading role in studying some of our the least understood marine environments.

Investigating the secret life of sponges A significant donation to the marine sponge research programme in 2017 helped PhD candidate Ben Harris investigate sponge gardens in New Zealand including those at the Parininihi Marine Reserve under the towering White Cliffs in North Taranaki. The gift included the purchase of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), essentially an underwater drone, that let researchers explore depths beyond the range of divers.

Organisms that exist in depths of 15–150 metres live in the temperate mesophotic zone, the ‘twilight zone’ where the water transitions from light to dark. Sponge gardens are widespread throughout New Zealand, including in Taranaki, the Poor Knights Islands, and Fiordland, but scientists know very little about them, with many of the 800 species of sponges not even named.

Ben’s research went on to confirm that sponges are the most abundant organisms in temperate mesophotic ecosystems across New Zealand, and as result of their feeding, sponges are really important in nutrient cycling.

Uncovering the impacts of climate change

A further generous gift from the Trust in 2021 funded the creation of the University’s Temperate Mesophotic Ecosystem Research Group and allowed marine ecology Professor James Bell to buy another much more sophisticated and advanced ROV. George Mason’s support is acting as a catalyst for further research funding and new collaborations. Professor Bell has now teamed up with Dr Alice Rogers, lecturer in fisheries biology and director of Te Toka Tū Moana—Wellington University Coastal Ecology Laboratory. The mesophotic research group has recently published a globally significant review that will assist the conservation and management of these fragile mesophotic ecosystems across the world.

The team is now investigating how these mesophotic organisms might be impacted by climate change and other stressors created by humans and the ecological role of mesophotic ecosystems in coastal fisheries. They were shocked to uncover mass bleaching of sponges in the mesophotic ecosystems in Fiordland which is likely to be the result of the strongest heat wave on record for the region.

From studying plants to success with agricultural chemicals

Dr George Mason has translated his lifelong passion for the environment into philanthropy that makes a difference.

After his father died when he was 11, young George started maintaining the family garden and developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants. This led to a degree in botany, followed by a doctorate in plant physiology from UC Davis, California. In 2006 George made a generous donation to the extensive Arboretum at UC to add more New Zealand plants and expand the Australian collection, increasing the focus on Southern Hemisphere and Gondwanaland plants.

George used his understanding of plant growth and selective plant management to develop a successful career in the agricultural chemicals industry in New Plymouth. This work led to valuable patents and intellectual property for new products, including less toxic timber treatments.

Philanthropy supporting students and conservation into the future

In 1995 George established the George Mason Charitable Trust with a proportion of the royalties from his chemical production company Zelam, realising that they would produce more money than he could spend. George was inspired to support postgraduate research by his cousin, Dr Brian Mason, a mineralogist known for his collection of meteorite samples who had set up a similar trust to help students.

The George Mason Charitable Trust has since donated millions of dollars to scholarships, education, and postgraduate research—especially around the natural history of the Taranaki region that George calls home. He also gives grants to schools all over the country that he has a connection with.

Rather than accumulating assets, George has gained satisfaction from seeing the impact his philanthropy has made in providing study opportunities to young people and protecting the environment for the next generation. In 2019 he was named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to conservation, philanthropy, and the community. Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is truly grateful for the progress we have made through his far-sighted generosity.