Gift of $13.5 million will benefit future generations of science students

The School of Biological Sciences at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington has received a transformational $13.5 million gift from the late Dr Aola Richards, a trailblazing scientist and academic renowned for her identification of the native wētā species.

Dr Aola Richards in a white lab coat with a giant wētā on her chest.
Dr Richards captured by Steve Rumsey, gelatin silver print. Te Papa (E.006714)

An alumna of the University, Dr Richards devoted her life to advancing both the academic and economic facets of entomology.

Her gift, the largest in the University’s history, is intended to support postgraduate and postdoctoral research in entomology, reflecting her lifelong dedication to the field.

Head of the School of Biological Sciences Associate Professor Janet Pitman says the School is extremely honoured by the generous bequest, which signifies Dr Richard’s unwavering belief in the University’s capacity to conduct groundbreaking entomological research.

“The biological and economic impacts of introduced pests, as well as the changing climate on the wide range of insects in Aotearoa New Zealand has never been more important.

“Dr Richards’ support will enable the continued development of experts within Aotearoa to help safeguard and conserve the diversity of our insect populations.

“Her gift will also be used for the benefit of New Zealand’s primary production, including the role that insects play through food production, soil health, and biocontrol.”

Dr Richards, who attended Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington, followed by Victoria College of the University of New Zealand (now Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington), became the first woman in New Zealand to gain a PhD in Biological Science.

She is largely responsible for identifying the various native wētā species and made a major contribution to the taxonomy of New Zealand and Australian cave crickets and cave wētā, with a cave wētā species—Miotopus richardsae—named for her in 2018.

Dr Richards is remembered for making a name for herself from a young age, when as a student researcher she spent seven weeks underground at Waitomo—alone and in the dark—to deepen her understanding of her subject matter.

“The wētā hate light. I worked with a torch switching it on only for short periods so as not to disturb them.

“However, if they were occupied with what they were doing, they did not seem to notice the light.”

Her caving adventures continued when she moved to Australia to teach in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of New South Wales. She was one of the pioneers of Australian speleology and alongside Ted Lane founded and edited the journal Helictite devoted to the study of caves and caving in Australasia.

She has generously also left the University of Sydney $13.5 million.

Victoria University of Wellington Vice-Chancellor Professor Nic Smith says Dr Richards’ legacy ensures a lasting impact on future generations of students and will make a significant difference to the University’s research capacity.

“Dr Richards’ gift will play a pivotal role in our ability to conduct impactful research and to support development of our emerging researchers.”

“Students at Te Herenga Waka will have the opportunity to play a key role in addressing the pressing challenges posed by introduced pests and a changing climate in Aotearoa New Zealand."