Being a freshwater scientist

Melanie Vermeulen did a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Ecology. Her focus at the time was on palaeoecology and the ecological interactions that are lost with species extinction. For her thesis, she used ancient DNA analysis on moa coprolites (fossil dung) to look at diet and gastrointestinal parasites of the Little Bush Moa. How cool is that!?

“After graduating I put forward a project proposal to WAI Wānaka to assess the effects of stormwater runoff on the urban streams in Wanaka and it was from working on this project that I switched my focus to freshwater ecology because of the many issues of water quality in New Zealand.”

Melanie was one of two successful applicants who received funding through the Wānaka Water Project for research related to urban stormwater in Wānaka.


From a young age, Melanie has been interested in nature, the environment and science, but didn’t go to university straight after high school. She spent some time in a variety of jobs and travelling around Europe. Upon returning to New Zealand, she decided to study ecology because it looks at the relationships between organisms and their environment. Since then she has become more interested in applied ecology because it uses scientific methods to address environmental problems.

“The most surprising aspect of being a freshwater scientist is how little the general public knows about what lives in our waterways and how these organisms are affected by human activities. A lot of people are aware of our deteriorating water quality, but not why this is important at an ecological level. Rather they are aware of the impacts on drinking water and our ability to swim in our lakes and rivers.”

When asked if she changed any of her habits as a result of something she learned from her work, she told us that she’s become much more aware of the environmental impacts of different land uses on freshwater. Particularly the effects of animal agriculture, which has lead her to reduce her consumption of animal products.

Melanie’s advice for anyone who is interested in studying environmental science is to get some experience by asking organisations that you might like to work for to have a chat with someone and to tag along while they are out doing field work to see if this is something that you would in fact like to do.

“After graduating I became an ecological consultant. Our job was to provide ecological advice to a wide range of clients, for example, regional and city councils, Department of Conservation, private companies and private individuals. Some of this entails desktop work and some is field work. I think it is important when looking for a job to find out what your typical day looks like. One place I was working for I did mostly office work, whereas where I work now I do much more field and lab work which I prefer.”

Melanie presented her findings at a Wānaka Water Project stakeholder meeting in September 2020.


Here is a quick summary of the main findings from Melanie’s research in Wanaka: 

  • Urban growth is seriously degrading the water quality of our backyard streams.
  • Bullock Creek, Stony Creek, and Water Race drain are being harmed by the way we treat our land. 
  • Land use change, lack of riparian planting and changes to the hydrogeology are causing an increase of heavy metals and sediment in our streams. This is starting to shift the macro-invertebrate assemblages, reduce habitat suitability for aquatic life and harm the overall water quality of our urban streams. 

You can read the full report of her research here: Land Use Effect on the Health of Urban Streams in Wanaka, view a summary of the findings or return to the Science and Research page.