What's in the lab?

Elephant molars, koala skeletons, leopard seal skulls—you can expect to find it all in Mel Dohner’s lab.

Mel, a laboratory technical officer in the School of Biological Sciences, manages an ecology teaching laboratory in Te Toki a Rata. Her main responsibilities as laboratory manager are collecting, preparing, and maintaining the specimens used in teaching, correctly storing chemical substances, and managing inventory. Her role has a serious side benefit—she is responsible for the cabinets, which are full of fascinating specimens.

“We’ve got a hedgehog skeleton, a taxidermied armadillo, a platypus skeleton, and a baboon skeleton. We’ve got miscellaneous skulls—rodents, marsupials, omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores.

“One of my favourite specimens is the elephant molar, because it’s just ginormous! It’s nearly the size of my head—that’s just something you don’t ever see.”

Mel’s role also involves administering health and safety for field work undertaken at the university, maintaining equipment, and collecting specimens in the field—one of her favourite parts of the role.

“You basically go to the tidal pools and it’s a free-for-all—you have to collect everything. You start with your super-simple sponges, then you go up in complexity. It’s amazing, because that’s what I love to do anyway.

“A lot of our collections come from Otari-Wilton's Bush—they’ve got an amazing alpine garden, and a fernery where they let us collect fronds. We go to the Botanic Gardens as well, and collect magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms.”

Mel’s job also offers her the chance to undertake summer research, which often builds on her studies—which she began at the University of Alaska, and then, after a decade-long break, completed at Te Herenga Waka.

Mel moved to Alaska from her native Idaho at 18. The decision to move was made by chance, after stumbling across a University of Alaska stand at a college fair, but the exposure to the natural landscapes and diverse ecology had a profound impact on her, both personally and professionally.

“I wasn’t a huge outdoor person as a child, partly because I grew up in a desert, and from the cafeteria at the University of Alaska you could see black bears eating berries by the lake, with glaciers in the background. You had bald eagles everywhere, and all this greenery. I was this girl from a sagebrush desert—I thought it was amazing.”

She spent a year of her degree studying at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and came back to Alaska with a renewed drive to pursue biology. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology, which she says took a few years longer than usual—“I waffled around a lot. I was taking things like ice climbing and rock climbing and yoga”—she spent a few years working, then moved to Aotearoa on a working holiday visa. She completed another working holiday in Australia before returning to Thames, to live with her Kiwi partner and work in hospitality.

“I was doing well in Thames—I was a restaurant manager at a nice restaurant—but I couldn’t get over the feeling of ‘When are you going to do something with your degree?’”

That feeling pushed Mel to move to Wellington and undertake a Graduate Diploma in Science— to reacquaint herself with studying, because it had been a decade since her first graduation—and then complete her Master of Science with First Class Honours in Marine Biology at Te Herenga Waka. After another few side trips—first to Africa, then to a short-term role in a rest home while she searched for the perfect job—she was offered her current role.

The team suits her perfectly—“My colleagues are amazing. We all love to garden, so we all share plants.” The role has also given her the chance to expand her knowledge of her more particular interests, like moss, which she grows for students to use in 100 level courses.

“My love of moss was solidified in this job, but I’ve always appreciated it. I’m quite an outdoorsy person, and even when I was tramping in Alaska, I would love to feel the springiness of the moss undergrowth in the forest.”

Unsurprisingly, Mel spends her free time gardening, and was recently thrilled to discover one of her favourite kinds of moss—Tortula moss—in her own backyard.

Her plans for the future are broad—to just continue gathering knowledge from the people around her, and learn about every aspect of biological sciences she can.

“My whole approach to the job is to just get involved and learn as much as I can.

“I just play it by ear—that’s pretty much how I’ve lived my entire life!”