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Dr Terri-Ann Berry – our powerhouse professor

  • Dr Terri-Ann Berry

It’s been a busy three years for Professor Terri-Ann Berry as director of the Environmental Solutions Research Centre. Anyone who has met Dr Berry knows she is a powerhouse, so after the announcement of her professorship in late 2022, we asked where she gets her inspiration and drive from, especially as in February, Dr Berry and her husband will be riding 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff to raise funds and awareness for the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Trust.

15 February 2023

What inspired you to first get into the environmental sciences field?

I had a love of chemistry right back when I was in school, I loved the idea that you could create things. It may sound strange, but for me chemistry is one of the creative sciences, so it appealed to me in that way. But I was also fascinated with the natural world and science. I suppose I’m a bit of a geek, really, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

But when I was 11, I lost the use of my legs due to a genetic disability, which meant that suddenly I went from being very active and interested in drama and singing and dancing to realising that I had to do what I could do from a hospital bed. And I did that for nearly five years.

I wasn’t able to properly attend school or join in with activities, but then I discovered I could learn everything I wanted from a book so I became very good at reading and teaching myself.  I think that’s where my love of research came from, if I need to know something, I’m very good at finding it, and I enjoy the challenge.

Chemistry remained a passion and I particularly loved the oceans and chemical oceanography, so I went down that track for my university studies. Once I’d finished my degree in chemistry and oceanography, I started to think about how we protect our environment focusing on water. This led me to take a Master’s in water pollution control technology, which then led to my PhD, which was about looking at water. I’m really interested in water, it’s a fascinating substance.

I went to work for a large water company in England. My job started off as going out onto sites that weren’t working for some reason, generally they were sewage treatment sites, and figure out why we were breaking consent. I’d go in, do a little investigation and find out why. And it might be sampling and analysis or just talking to operators to find out what the issues were. Then I moved into designing new systems, which was really cool and exciting.

However, once I had my family, I decided I didn’t want to stand knee-deep in sewage. What I really wanted to do was look at the environmental issues and ensure that the company understood the consequences. I became an environmental consultant, and my role was to take environmental issues and translate them into language that the financial and the policy people could understand, so that we could make changes for the better.

I did that for a number of years but then my husband got a job in New Zealand as an engineer, so we emigrated here with our three children and I was a full-time mum for the next few years, which was wonderful. When I returned to work, it was teaching part-time teaching Bridgepoint as a chemistry teacher, and then I joined engineering in 2012,

The lovely Dave Philips, who was Head of School, asked me to write the environmental stream, which is one of the five options civil engineering students can take in their degree. I wrote levels five, six, and seven, and created it from scratch, by going to industry and talking to people, asking what they wanted and what skills our students should have. It was great. I loved every minute of it, and I’ve been teaching it ever since.

Then Research Director Marcus Williams, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well, you used to be a researcher, why aren’t you doing it now?” So I started researching asbestos and quickly realised how much I loved it, and how much I missed research from my Thames Water days.

What prompted you to take up asbestos research?

I had a student, Eusenio who is from Rarotonga, and he was my very first student on the environmental stream. Once he finished, we stayed in touch after he returned to Rarotonga.  He called me one day and  said: “There’s asbestos in the soil all around two of our primary schools, and I don’t know what to do about it?

I had no idea what to do, so that started my journey. And then I got really into finding out as much as I possibly could. And it just opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not yesterday’s problem. It’s our problem now and will continue to be so because it’s in so much of our building stock both here and in the Pacific Islands.

Two things about it fascinated me; it was an interesting, complex scientific issue and a public health issue. And I’ve always been interested in that side of it.

Why did you branch out to other research areas as it sounds like a big workload?

Yeah, it is, and some of those things have come about by just talking to people. My dad was a huge talker. He would talk to everybody, he would talk to the Queen in the same way that he talked to somebody picking up garbage, it’s just the way he was, and I suppose I’ve got that from him. Talking to people has highlighted other environmental problems. I hear something and think:  “Oh, I’m going to investigate that and find out a bit more.”

That’s how the Environmental Solutions Research Centre came together by encouraging other researchers who were similar to me in wanting to see a change and bringing in their expertise.

German does air quality, it’s his passion. He’s great at it, and again in the public health arena.  While Joanne is a whirlwind of energy and leads our waste management and plastics research. Shannon is Mrs Asbestos (although she may not like that name) but she has such an incredible eye for detail which you need when working with one of the world’s most hazardous substances. Penny has only just joined the team as our graphics designer and comms manager, and she is amazing. Finally, Yanina – who basically has everything under control – she is not to be trifled with and I love her strength and commitment.

How we reduce waste from our construction sites was actually an idea I’d had years ago with one of my students, so it started as a student project, and then it just kept growing.

I like working with other people. So bringing in other researchers who are passionate and involving them in our work makes my life easier, as it means I don’t have to be an expert in everything because I don’t think that you can, I don’t think anybody can.

Tell us about the bike ride you’re  planning

In February, Terri-Ann and her husband will be riding 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff to raise funds and awareness for the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Trust. It is going to take about 30 days to complete and you can follow the tour live online via this link  (She starts on Feb 16 and will be called “MSAA”)

I helped form the Trust late last year and I am now Chair. We want to highlight the mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease issue for our communities in our industry.  We want to support those who have been diagnosed with this terrible disease and their families and carers. Moreover, we want to prevent more cases in the future by raising awareness.

An asbestos-related diagnosis happens every other day in New Zealand, it’s not small, but people forget about it, yet it’s New Zealand’s biggest workplace killer. We can’t take it lightly, and we shouldn’t be taking it lightly.

If you want to support Dr Berry on her bike ride, you can contribute via Givealittle