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University of Life

September 24, 2008

Each week The Dominion Post asks someone about the people, places and events that have influenced them educationally, from the days of the old school yard through to their tertiary education.

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This week: Conservation Department spokeswoman Nicola Vallance can often be spotted on television programmes clutching a gecko or some other native species before an audience of youngsters. But she has some serious scientific credentials.

Primary and secondary schools attended: Grasmere Primary, Mossburn Primary, Mt Cook Village school, Twizel Area School, Ashgrove Primary School and Rangiora High School (yep, we moved around a lot).

Favourite subject: Biology and English.

Teacher who changed my life: Fred Bird, primary school teacher, who read us Rudyard Kipling. At high school, it was my biology teacher, Ian Stephenson, who encouraged me to chase my passion in that area — which involved learning all the Latin names of various gross, dead creatures in jars. At law school, it was Professor Mark Henaghan, who said the F word when quoting a wrongdoer in my first criminal law class, and I was hooked.

What was your educational turning point? Probably the first time I saw Hector’s dolphins on school camp near Kaikoura when I was 12.

Academic prizes won? I can’t remember any, except high school ones. I won the Christchurch City Council’s Greenager Award for efforts in environmental awareness when I was 16.

When I was 12, I wanted to be: A marine biologist, and Sir David Attenborough.

Why I took the educational path I did: Despite my passion for science, my parents’ suggestion that I was good at arguing led me to study for a double degree in science and law.

What benefit/drawbacks did you find with tertiary study? I gained a BSc with first-class honours in zoology at the University of Otago, and a postgraduate diploma in natural history film-making and communication (with credit). I’ve all but finished my law degree, the majority of which I studied at Otago. I’ve picked up the odd paper in my lunch breaks at Victoria University. The major benefit of my science degree was doing my fieldwork for my dissertation on a tiny island in Antarctica, where I studied Adelie penguin chicks. The storytelling skills I honed in my postgrad diploma have helped me in my work at DOC, writing features and writing/ presenting Meet the Locals on TVNZ 6. The benefits of having a background in science in my job — which is largely about disseminating scientific information to the public — are huge. Any drawbacks are potentially the long-term effects on my liver after six years as a Scarfie (Otago University student).

If I could change one thing about my education? I was lucky enough to study things I was passionate about, and have been rewarded with an interesting and challenging job, so no regrets.

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