Weaving Mātauranga Māori with contemporary science to create sustainable materials for water purification - Annual Report 2023

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Weaving Mātauranga Māori with contemporary science to create sustainable materials for water purification - Annual Report 2023

12 April, 2024

Jaye Barclay holding a harakeke leaf

Jaye Barclay (they/them, he/him), PhD student, holding a harakeke leaf

Harakeke (New Zealand flax) is a plant synonymous with Aotearoa's unique landscapes. From the stretches of coastal regions to the contours of mountainous terrains, harakeke finds its footing. Its resilient fibres root deep in wetlands, reach out on the edges of forests, and even thrive amidst urban landscapes. It adorns the shores of nearby islands, binding them to Aotearoa's rich heritage.

"Harakeke is considered a taonga (treasure) to Māori. The leaves have been traditionally woven to make a variety of items such as kete (baskets), whāriki (mats), and clothing as well as for medicinal use," says PhD student Jaye Barclay (they/them, he/him) of Ngāti Apa and Ngāti Hauiti heritage.

Studying at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington and based at the Paihau-Robinson Research Institute in Gracefield, Jaye is working with a team to use harakeke for water purification. Their innovative approach aims to ensure environmental sustainability by working with Mātauranga Māori, a term used to describe Māori traditional knowledge and ways of knowing. This project is part of the MacDiarmid Institute's Sustainable Resource Use - Mātauranga Māori Research Programme and Towards Zero Waste - Reconfigurable Systems Research Programme.

Cross section and surfaces of the harakeke leaf versus that of polymeric membranes

Cross section and surfaces of the harakeke leaf versus that of polymeric membranes

"The team observed that the structure of harakeke, when viewed under a microscope, closely mirrors that of polymeric membranes often used in water purification. These findings suggest that harakeke leaves might possess properties comparable to these synthetic membranes," says Jaye.

Most modern water purification methods currently rely on plastic membranes. While effective, these membranes come with environmental challenges due to their non-biodegradable nature and the footprint of their production. Harakeke fibres present a potential alternative.

Under the supervision of MacDiarmid Institute Associate Investigator Dr Ben Yin and Dr Fiona Stevens McFadden of Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, along with Dr Nancy Garrity from Manaaki Whenua and of Ngāti Makirangi alongside Ngāti Pāoa and Ngāti Hine heritage, and MacDiarmid Institute Associate Investigator Professor David Barker from Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland, Jaye's PhD project aims to explore this potential further. If successful, harakeke plant fibres could usher in an environmentally friendly water purification method that would be of particular use in rural parts of the country.

Fusing Mātauranga Māori with current scientific methodologies

A cornerstone of this project is the fusion of Mātauranga Māori with current scientific methodologies, weaving together two worldviews.

"Mātauranga Māori principles emphasise the interconnectedness of all living things and the relationships between humans and the environment," says Jaye.

Jaye is currently conducting experiments to adapt the harakeke plant's properties to achieve water permeation through the leaf. This optimisation aims to effectively filter out both particulates and bacteria, such as E-coli.

"I'm hoping one day we can take this out to rural marae which often don't have adequate access to clean water. If proven to be effective, we're hoping the harakeke membrane can be developed for household application," says Jaye.

By incorporating this indigenous knowledge into the development of the harakeke membrane, the project recognises the value of indigenous wisdom in addressing modern challenges.

Jaye Barclay MacDiarmid Institute PhD student

Born in Japan to a Japanese-Ukrainian mother and Māori father, Jaye is no stranger to cultural diversity. They moved to Wellington when they were only one year old but had limited involvement with their Māori heritage until attending their grandfather's tangi in 2008.

Jaye's grandfather was Barry Barclay, one of Aotearoa's first Māori film makers and writers. He committed his life to documenting and preserving Māori values and ways of living.

"At his tangi I became aware of what it meant to be Māori beyond the label, feeling that community love and support was new to me," says Jaye.

"It was the first time I felt truly connected with my Māoritanga, and it started my journey to understand and embrace more of this part of myself."

Jaye went on to study te reo Māori and for their undergraduate degree at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, chose an eclectic combination of English literature, Māori studies and biological sciences.

Today, Jaye is the first person in their branch of the family since their great-great grandfather to be fluent in te reo. They continue their journey to reconnect with their Māori heritage.

"It's a dream of mine to be the Māori David Attenborough. I'm passionate about protecting Māori knowledge," says Jaye.

"When I heard about my current PhD project, I was thrilled to work on something that truly aligns with my values and enables me to embrace all parts of myself. What's more, I get to revive harakeke, and potentially find yet another application of this taonga (treasure)."

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