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Big waves bring kiwi home

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Big waves bring kiwi home

16 December, 2020

A sense of belonging and the ability to make an impact in the world were two big takeaways for University of Auckland and MacDiarmid Institute alumnus Dr Leighton Watson after his week-long lab experience at NanoCamp in 2009.

Leighton was selected for the MacDiarmid Institute’s first ever NanoCamp at the age of 17. An experience he cites as key to giving him an early taste of research life.

“NanoCamp gave me early exposure to the university environment and to scientists who were excited by their research and determined to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Leighton, who returned to Aotearoa New Zealand this year as a recipient of a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Royal Society Te Apārangi, began his research career at the University of Auckland.


After receiving a University of Auckland scholarship to undertake a Bachelor of Science, Leighton started to specialise solely in geophysics during his Honours year. He credits the presence of strong role models and mentorship, such as Associate Professor Kasper van Wijk, as having instilled the confidence and push to apply for Stanford University, where he recently graduated from with a PhD in geophysics. His work specifically focuses on the sound waves generated by volcanoes and how they can be used to monitor and mitigate the risk from volcanic activity. 

"I could have stayed in New Zealand and been a big fish in a small pond. Or go overseas and be a smaller fish in a massive lake. It was the right call and exposed me to so many more opportunities."

After six years in the USA at Stanford University for study and then the University of Oregon for his current postdoctoral position, Leighton has come full circle, returning to his roots in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2021, he will commence work researching snow avalanches with Associate Professor Ben Kennedy at the University of Canterbury with the Rutherford Fellowship. These fellowships serve the purpose of bringing kiwis residing overseas back home, but for Leighton it was just a matter of time, and COVID-19 proved to be the perfect catalyst.

It has been really good to reconnect with the New Zealand scientific scene and determine how I can use my research expertise to better understand natural hazards in Aotearoa.

Dr Leighton Watson Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient

Leighton’s area of research has been around for only 15-20 years, and is still very novel in that there are only 30 or so experts worldwide. For Leighton that has meant he’s been able to travel the world and visit places such as Chile, Ecuador and Italy. For now though, he is happy to be home. He adds that the recent tragic eruption of Whakaari in 2019, has shown there’s plenty of work to do here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

And he still recalls fondly his week at NanoCamp all those years ago.

“It was as much the fellow NanoCampers I was with, who were energetic and excited about science like me, and I thought - it would be great to work with similar people”.

So what’s his advice for someone going into NanoCamp or even just interested in pursuing a science career?

“It might feel intimidating, but just put yourself out there and have confidence in your abilities.”