Profile: Juliet Milne - a different point of view

As a child growing up in Dunedin, Juliet Milne was always a sporty, “outdoorsy” type.

Juliet Milne en route to the summit of Mt Arthur (Wharepapa) as part of the Tableland circuit in Kahurangi National Park. [Photo: Kirsty van Reenen]

Summers were spent in the tiny Central Otago town of Naseby, a small settlement 10 minutes up the road from Ranfurly.

“I’d swim in the dam, go for walks with my family and play tennis with my brother until the sun set. I’d also spend hours exploring the Naseby forest and the tracks in it. I’d build dams in the Hogburn (a tributary of the Taieri River).

“I just loved being outside, and when I was younger I always had that curiosity – where do these walking tracks go? Is there another view just around that next bend?”

Sitting in her office at NIWA’s Greta Point campus, one gets the impression that Juliet would love to be outside, working in the field. But the truth is that the resource management scientist enjoys the balance of mostly inside work and outdoor pursuits.

“I don’t get to do a lot of field work these days,” she says. “I call myself the ‘so what?’ person – part of my role as a resource management scientist is looking at how our science and research can be applied to improve the management of our fresh and coastal waters. I have input into a wide range of interesting projects, and a lot of the time I find myself connecting dots between staff, projects and outside organisations. I look to understand and draw on different perspectives.

“So most of time is spent here in the office, or in meetings. But it’s a privilege to work here at NIWA with some of the most talented and passionate scientists in New Zealand, contributing to the research that will help improve the management of our natural water resources.”

Juliet’s interest in the environment as a potential career began at high school, but not before she’d assessed all her options.

“I was the kid who wanted to study everything, and I had trouble narrowing my subjects down. I somehow put science, design and the environment together and came up with landscape architecture, so at the end of seventh form I took myself off to Lincoln, which at the time was the only university that offered a landscape architecture degree.

“By the end of my first year I’d discovered ecology and been exposed to a range of other disciplines, including engineering, social science and environmental economics. I had the opportunity to take a few environmental monitoring papers, which introduced me to fresh water. From there, I knew I wanted to assist with the management of fresh water and especially in an applied science role.

Graduating with a Masters of Applied Science in Resource Management, Juliet might have gone on to complete a doctorate if not for a summer spent in Christchurch.

“My first summer job was racing around in a little car with a fellow student surveying the ecological health of streams across Christchurch. At that time, and this is the late 90s, the Christchurch City Council was the leading the way with its Waterway Enhancement Programme – re-examining the traditional approach of ‘engineering’ urban streams, taking out boxed culverts and reinstating more natural meandering stream channels.

“My supervisor wanted me to go on and do a PhD. But that one summer, working as a stream ecologist on that waterway enhancement project in Christchurch, being out there gathering information that was going to improve how those streams were managed, confirmed for me that I wanted to be in an applied role. I was impatient, wanting to get out into the ‘real’ world.

“My Masters focused on the Avon–Heathcote Estuary. At the time it was receiving treated wastewater from Christchurch city. The city council needed to renew its resource consent and wanted a study done on the effects of heavy metals in the discharge on sediment quality and mudflat snails in the estuary.

“I also had contact with Environment Canterbury at that point, which sparked my interest and connection not only with issues around the management of resources, but also the authorities responsible for resource management.

“Working as a student in Christchurch also gave me my first connection with NIWA, because our stream survey was developed by scientists in the Christchurch office. It was called USHA (urban stream habitat assessment). That’s now essentially SHMAK (Stream Health Monitoring and Assessment Kit), which is widely used by communities to monitor the ecological health of streams across the country.

“I would never have guessed back then that, 20 years on, I would be working at NIWA.”

Working with regional councils

During those two decades, Juliet worked with the Canterbury, Otago and Wellington regional councils in scientific and regulatory roles. There was also a short stint of work for the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom, which gave her a base for exploring some of the outdoors on offer in the UK and Europe.

“I mainly went on my OE to experience the history and culture of Europe, but day walks in the mountains in places like Scotland and Switzerland remain a highlight.”

Back in New Zealand, Juliet opted for a new career perspective in 2016 and joined NIWA.

“I’d worked across several regions in a bunch of roles. But I was very interested in experiencing another side or perspective in environmental management. I’d regularly interacted with NIWA in their capacity as a research provider, so when this applied role came up I jumped at it.

“I’ve always wanted to keep thinking, keep growing. It was an exciting opportunity because my role integrates science and policy. And it was great to still be able continue to work with the regional sector, while also experiencing what a Crown Research Institute has to offer.”

Wellington might be home now, but Juliet still considers herself a Mainlander.

“I’ve been here since 2005 where I live with my partner. But I’m still a proud southern girl at heart. I regularly head down to Central Otago, that’s where I relax. I love the big skies and the big space that is the Maniototo. I especially love being up in the hills, walking or running.

“I’ve always been an active relaxer. I love sport and the outdoors – I used to play tennis, cricket and hockey. I’m a bit older now, so a lot of my sport is watched on TV, but I take time out for walking, tramping with friends and, more recently, trail running.

“I used to run around the streets and do the odd event, but trail running has opened up a whole new world to me, and Wellington sets you up for hills and stunning views.

“I regularly run up Mt Kaukau and that was a great training ground for my friends and I leading up to February’s 30km Moonlight-Shotover Trail mountain run in Queenstown.

“That event was fantastic. There were parts you couldn’t run because it was too steep and there were about 20 river crossings. You get a lot of perspective when you’re out in the natural environment. I love the views, the mountains and the bush. I enjoy taking photographs, too – tramping is better for that.”

Is there anything this sporty, trail-running scientist can’t do? Well, it turns out Juliet’s violin skills could use some brushing up.

“I was lucky enough that my father was musical. I was the youngest of three and we each were given the opportunity to learn an instrument. I chose the violin. I don’t play now, but I’m thinking about getting back into it.”

A real all-rounder?

“Well while I work hard, I’m interested in a lot of things and I enjoy learning. Life is full of so many opportunities, so enjoy them while you can.”