Summer scholar puts conservationists in the picture

10 January 2017

Mac Townsend will be playing a small but important role in New Zealand’s conservation efforts this summer, as part of his Department of Statistics Summer Scholarship.

The scholarship, worth $5,500 over 10 weeks, pairs promising students with researchers over the summer break. Mac, who has completed his second year of a Bachelor of Science majoring in Statistics and Applied Mathematics, is working with Associate Professor Rachel Fewster on CatchIT, a free initiative run out of the Department of Statistics that helps community pest-control projects store and organise data from their trap-lines, bait-lines and tracking tunnels. CatchIT provides an easy-to-use suite of maps, graphics and analyses so users can see the results of their efforts.

Mac will be programming a number of creative, interactive and user-friendly graphs and maps into this software. He says that seeing in graph form the impact of conservation work is not only fascinating – you can see examples of them here – but a visual representation is a spur to continue. “The graphics are easy to use, and allow conservation volunteers who may have little statistical or programming knowledge to easily track their progress and share their results, hence motivating them to continue in their efforts.”

Fellow summer scholar David Chan, who has just completed his BSc (Hons) in Statistics, is also looking at graphical representations of data. He is constructing a web application that can graphically communicate the concept of genetic drift as well as providing a way to view statistics that measure average levels of relatedness, or inbreeding, with populations. Genetic drift describes how the frequencies of genes change in populations over time with respect to different breeding strategies, mutation and migration.

David will be working alongside alongside Professor James Curran to update the Windows-based programme Professor Curran wrote two decades ago – pre-internet for most of us – to demonstrate genetic drift. Says David, “Developing a web application for exploring the concept of genetic drift means that the tool is independent of OS such as Windows, Mac and Linux, and can run on any device – although your smartphone might not have enough computational power to run it. The web application also aims to have a user-friendly interface for teaching and student use.”

BSc student Hayley Haskell’s summer scholarship is taking her back to the exam room.

Hayley, who is studying Applied Mathematics and Statistics, will work alongside Dr Marie Fitch, Dr Stephanie Budgett and Anna Fergusson to investigate the multi-choice assessments used in STATS10x Introduction to Statistics, a first-year paper taken by many science, business and general education students. Its test and final examination consist of multiple-choice questions, each of which have five possible answers. Hayley will scrutinise past test and examination papers and overall student performance for each question within each test and exam, aiming to identify the characteristics of a good multiple-choice question. She is also exploring what effect changes to the content of STATS10x might have had on the nature of questions the exam asks.

Mac, David and Hayley are among eight summer scholars in the Department of Statistics. The others are Yu Han Soh, Caitlin Spence, Run Wu and Sara Kisch, all from the University of Auckland, and Akshay Gupta, from Christ University, India.