Insights from a Visiting Fellowship at The University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Thomas Bennett is an academic in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge, and a Royal Society University Research Fellow (2016-2021). For 3 months in 2019, he will be visiting the University of Canterbury | Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha (UCNZ), on a Cambridge Visiting Fellowship, which is offered through the Erskine Programme at UCNZ. Here, he blogs about his time inside, and outside, of academia.
Insights from a Visiting Fellowship at The University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Wednesday 6th March 2019 - Tramping: A Quick Guide to a Favourite New Zealand Pastime

After 2 posts on serious topics, and next week exploring the work in bicultural education of Aotahi - School of Māori and Indigenous Studies here at UC, I figured that this week may be a good time to adopt a lighter approach, and explain what I do to switch off from it all.

Everybody has, or should find, an activity that they enjoy, which enables them to think about something other than work. The Lake District is a National Park in North-West England, and contains both beautiful lakes (as the name suggests), alongside rolling hills, sharp peaks and beautiful forests. When I was growing up, I holidayed in a caravan there with my family, every year, for 15 years. That gave me a love of hiking, which, in New Zealand, is called Tramping.

Wikipedia will tell you that ‘Tramping is defined as a recreational activity involving walking over rough country. Trampers often carry a backpack and wet-weather gear, and may also carry equipment for cooking and sleeping’. What Wikipedia does not tell you however, is that tramping is totally awesome, and is accessible to a wide variety of the population – not just those seeking to climb high alpine peaks. 

Day walks can take anywhere from as little as 20 minutes to as much 10-12 hours, and, as the name suggests, require no overnight kit. The most popular on the South Island is the Hooker Valley Track (3-4 hrs return), near Mount Cook, whilst the North Island competitor is the Tongariro Crossing, near Lake Taupo – a 7 hour journey through a volcanic region made famous as the setting of Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films.

Left. The terminal lake in the Hooker Valley. Right. Looking back onto the volcanoes in Tongariro National Park.

Overnight Tramps and the Hut System

The Department of Conservation | Te Papa Atawhai is the Government Department charged with looking after all conservation and protection land in New Zealand – a staggering 30% of the land area here. This involves upkeep of the hundreds of trails (hiking/tramping routes), but also the basic overnight accommodation that lie along the majority of trails. These huts range in size from 2 bunk shelters with no water, or toilet, to those which accommodate 30+ people, and have gas cookers and flush toilets. There are over 1000 of these located within New Zealand. The majority are $5 (basic) or $15 (standard) to stay in, and tickets are purchased at the nearest* DOC visitor centre, or a 6-moth/12-month pass can also be bought.

*may not be very near at all

A thick gym mat is usually provided in a hut, on which your sleeping bag (see equipment list) is placed. Dirty clothes thrown inside sleeping bag liner usually make a decent enough, if smelly pillow. There are water tanks which collect rainwater situated outside, and this is usually safe to drink, but you can boil or add purification tablets if necessary. There may also be a fire, which is absolutely necessary for clothes drying. I should mention - with some exceptions, they are all ‘first-come first-served’, which translates to you sleeping on the balcony/ floor in peak season if you are not carrying a tent.

Clockwise from top left: Lake Angelus Hut, The inside of Blue Lake Hut, The View from Salisbury Lodge, and Woolshed Creek Hut.

Even if you are just out for the day, the rule is to bring gear for all weathers – it changes quickly here. Hiking poles, food (this is important), water (this is more important), waterproofs, hat/gloves, sunhat, sunglasses, suncream (this is as important as food and water for Northern UK folk) are all indispensable. As is a compass and map. Add to this overnight gear : toiletries, sleeping bag, (possibly a tent and camping mats), a portable stove and some gas, and you have yourself one patented tramping backpack. 

We are all busy people, and everyone needs to switch off from time to time. There are loads of (really cool) things that my colleagues do in their spare time. Some like to make gin (, others like to sample coffee and I suspect a lot of us like to try the occasional glass of wine.

For me however, there is nothing more relaxing than the absence of phone signal, and sitting in what I would call a ‘beautiful tiredness’ after a long walk in beautiful nature.

Left. A clear night in December at Lake Angelus. Right. Relaxing in a hut after a tramp in Fjordland National Park.

Footnote: All photos are my own, and, bar the night sky, taken with a mobile phone camera.

Monday 4th March 2019 - Disaster Resilience. A ‘Hands-On’ Course

New Science and Engineering buildings at UC: The $250 million Ernest Rutherford building.


On 22nd February, 2011 – the second day of teaching at the start of the academic year – a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck at a depth of 5 km, ca. 10 km to the south east of the centre of Christchurch. The peak ground acceleration (PGA) is a useful measure of how much ‘shaking’ happens at a given location and is usually split into horizontal and vertical components. The vertical PGAs recorded in Christchurch remain amongst the highest recorded in an urban environment. This was actually an aftershock to an earlier and bigger seismic event – 7.1 on the Richter scale, 10 km deep and ca. 40 km from the centre of Christchurch in September 2010.    

Sadly, the earthquake resulted in casualties and fatalities, the majority in two buildings that collapsed. No serious injuries occurred on campus, however damage to buildings was widespread – 7 suffered significant immediate structural damage and many others were rendered ‘out of action’ until remediation works could be completed. 

Immediate Response

Amazingly, given the damage to buildings and the need to assess over 240 separate structures, teaching restarted just 3 weeks after the earthquake, with the full academic year of 2011 scheduled. For anyone involved in teaching, or timetabling, you will appreciate this was a herculean effort. Fifteen equipped, WIFI-enabled marquees were erected on the two largest car parks in the campus for this purpose. Supplementing this were various off-site locations such as church halls, conference venues, hotels and company offices across the city. A University is however much more than teaching space. Offices, study areas, small teaching rooms and laboratories were also needed. Two prefabricated villages were set up on park space within the city, occupying over 8000 m2, at a cost of ca. $26 million. 

Left: A typical teaching marquee. Right: Kirkwood temporary village under construction. Photo credit: University of Canterbury. 

Long Term Opportunities

The damage caused by the earthquake – on material and personal levels - was severe, however it also created opportunities. For example the new $250 million Ernest Rutherford Building, which is the home of physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, geography and biological sciences here at UC, was opened in 2016, and contains some fantastically equipped research, and teaching laboratories (note the display screens in the image below!). A second building, the Beatrice Tinsley (named after the British-born New Zealand Astronomer, the first female professor of Astronomy at Yale University) is also nearing completion, and will house staff and postgraduates. Engineering has a new, purpose-built department, as does the College of Education, Health and Human development. The new student centre is due to open in the coming months. All in all, this is an impressive building program for any University.

Left: Teaching laboratories in the Ernest Rutherford Building. Right: The spacious Engineering Core.

Reconstruction has taken place in more than just construction though; an even stronger sense of communality emerged and endured. The student-led Student Volunteer Army (SVA -, was established after the September 2010 earthquake. In the week following the February earthquake, the SVA organised 13,000 students who volunteered assistance, ranging from removing the effects of liquefaction, to manning call centres and distributing supplies. Liquefaction, FYI, is the process whereby loose sand and silt (e.g. the ground after an earthquake) behaves like a liquid when shaken. Effectively, it looks like boiling sand rising from sinkholes and cracks in the ground – including beneath houses. I spent a lot of my time in my teens (poorly paid, and unenjoyable – sorry Dad) shovelling soil in the family allotment. For such a huge number of students, many of whom were not from Christchurch, or even NZ, to actively help the community in this way is fairly amazing, and gives you an idea of the sense of community here. This sense has also been factored into the course design here at UC, with Community Engagement values taking a front seat in both graduate, and undergraduate education. 

For researchers in the geological sciences and engineering, the earthquake provided huge opportunities in research. For example, the New Zealand Centre for Earthquake Resilience, QuakeCoRE ( is now based at UC, and contains 50 associated principal investigators. A UC based researcher was awarded the highly prestigious 2016 Outstanding Paper Award from the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), for the ‘Assessment of Liquefaction-Induced Land Damage for Residential Christchurch’, and ca. 10 students from the University of Oxford visit each year, as practical experience in developing ideas to improve resilience of cities in response to climate change as a whole.

You do not have to have been here very long (less than 3 weeks in my case) to get a feeling of optimism for the future. I was interested in how this tied in with the rebuilding of the University. Ultimately, I did some research on a topic I was interested in, met some people, and learnt a lot. Remind you of a PhD?

Ngā mihi

Friday 1st March 2019 - 11,738 Reasons to Undertake International Short Term Teaching and Research Visits

Ok, so perhaps on the face of it, this may have seemed like a poor career choice. Moving over 10,000 miles to the other side of the world, and dealing with a +13 hour time difference from GMT for a short term fellowship is perhaps not the standard route for a “relatively” young (32) early career researcher with a group of 14 people. I’m conscious of that. Believe me. However, predictability has never been one of my desired personality traits, and everybody is different. “Different Horses for Different Courses” as they say in the UK.

Far from any crisis, or it being a snap decision, this particular horse has been planning this particular course for about 16 months now. I say 16 months because that is about when I returned from a one-month Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Fellowship in the University of Kyoto, hosted by Prof. Satoshi Horike, which I wrote about here:

That stay was my first in a research institution outside of the University of Cambridge, for more than a few days. My undergraduate, graduate degree and post-doctoral fellowships were all spent there. This has both advantages and disadvantages, and any interested parties are welcome to get in touch to hear more.

The academic outcome of that visit to Japan, a joint review paper ( on non-crystalline hybrid materials, is a tangible output and provides a good response to post-visit surveys. However, what is much harder to write down, are the lessons in best practice, the peer-support, the research motivation and most importantly, the scientific perspective, which I took back to the UK with me. This last one, for me, was the most important. The best way I have to describe it, and I am not saying this a particularly good way, is using an outdoors metaphor – sorry, this blog may contain a lot of them.

I think I’d compare working within the same environment each day to going for a daily walk up the same mountain. Well-trodden, comfortable for the main part, sometimes challenging depending on the exact conditions. However, the view from that mountain is always going to be largely the same. You will always be surrounded by the same peaks, looking down at the same flats, or listening to the same variety of birdlife in the forests below the bushline. However, importantly, if asked to draw a map of the entire national park – you are stuck. Even if your chosen peak happens to be the biggest one, there will still be areas that remain hidden to you.

Choose a different daily walk however, and the planning becomes important again. The forest sounds unfamiliar, you will have to cross different bridges and scramble up different ridges, and more importantly, bit by bit, you will see a little bit more of the whole national park, and feel that tiny bit smaller in comparison as a result.

Everybody seems to have lots of aims in life. I normally don’t, but spending time abroad researching and exchanging knowledge on a regular basis is now one of them.

I came to New Zealand on a short vacation before a conference in Australia in late 2016, and went tramping/hiking (we will get onto that in another blog post) with Prof. Shane Telfer, a colleague I met at the international MOF conference series. After a few days hiking and chatting in torrential rain in the mountains, joint research was put in motion, and that in turn led to collaborations with Prof. Paul Kruger and Dr. Matthew Cowan here at the University of Canterbury (UC).

It was (undeniably) a stroke of good fortune that UC have a wonderful visiting fellowships program called the Erskine Program, which, according to, “enables up to 70 visiting international senior academics to lecture at UC each year to undergraduate and postgraduate students (Erskine Fellowship).  Around 25 UC academics are also awarded grants which enables them to travel to overseas institutions to enhance their skills and knowledge”.

Let us take a moment to consider this. For a country that is a reasonable distance away from others, so much so that it is often left off global maps (, this exhibited remarkable foresight in knowledge exchange when it was set up in 1963. In addition, the University of Cambridge have a bilateral academic exchange scheme of a comparable nature with UC, and so it is thanks to both of them that I am here. Within the School of Physical Sciences, there are currently 4 such fellows; ranging from those involved in protein engineering and the synthesis of extended biomolecules, to astrophysics.

The first two weeks have been an absolutely whirlwind, so staying on track has been a bit of a challenge, but now I have a routine I'l be able to write more, including looking at the reconstruction efforts from the earthquake(s) of 2011, and visiting Aotahi - The School of Māori & Indigenous Studies, to learn more about bicultural education here in NZ.

Ngā mihi

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