Prime Minister's Scholarship shakes up geology student's plans

Business & Economy

Christchurch’s devastating earthquake of 2011 is a recent reminder of the seismic risks New Zealand faces and the need to be actively involved in global research which can help us predict and prepare for the next big shake.

Soltice Morrison was only 15 when that earthquake happened, but she is part of a new generation of students and researchers wanting to equip themselves with the latest knowledge and technology to better understand New Zealand’s vulnerability to quakes. The best way to achieve this is through international collaboration with other countries which face the same risks.

Having already completed a BSc in Geology and Oceanography from Otago University, Rotorua-born Soltice secured a Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia during her Honours year in 2018, which allowed her to enrol in a post-graduate short course in geology at Hokkaido University in Japan and stay on to complete most of her Honours research.

Prime Minister’s Scholarship allowed joint research

Under the guidance of her supervisor, Dr Virginia Toy, she was involved in a project which studied the characteristics and behaviours of New Zealand’s Alpine Fault and Japan’s Median Tectonic Line to better understand what causes earthquakes in both countries.

Soltice says that without the funding she received through the Prime Minister’s Scholarship (PMS), she would not have been able to study abroad.

The scholarship programme to Asia was established in 2013 and extended to Latin America in 2016. To date, 2400 students have been given financial support to study abroad. While currently on hold due to Covid travel restrictions, the programme is poised to restart once borders reopen.

Importance of New Zealanders studying abroad

Funded by the government and administered by Education New Zealand, the programme recognizes the importance of giving New Zealanders the opportunity to have an international education experience in countries where we have key trade and business relationships.

There are few restrictions on study options, with the programme having broad goals to enhance understanding of other cultures and business practices; establish new friendships and networks; and upskill the New Zealand workforce through overseas experience.

“It’s very important to connect with students and colleagues internationally in order to get ahead,” says Soltice. “We can get caught up thinking that the New Zealand way is the only way. Studying overseas helps you broaden your horizons, your knowledge, your understanding of different cultures, and the way things can be done.”

In geophysics, Soltice says international collaboration is essential.

The time Soltice spent in Japan ended up taking her career in a new direction. “While I was there, I was able to understand the effects of seismic activity on buildings and how we can strengthen our cities to ensure they’re resilient, so I’ve ended up in the engineering space working for Aurecon.”

But her work also has an environmental focus and she is currently part of the multi-disciplinary team working on the Lakes 380 project, which seeks to combine best scientific thinking with mātauranga Māori (traditional wisdom and knowledge) to better understand the social, cultural, and environmental history of Aotearoa’s lakes. “It’s rewarding work and I love it.”

Reawakening of cultural identity

Soltice says her time in Japan prompted a reawakening of her own cultural identity. “I had always tried to blend in at home, but the questions I was asked about my background while I was away made me realise I was proud of my Māori ethnicity and also taught me the value of indigenous knowledge.”

Building on this confidence, she has set up a Māori strategy group with colleagues at Aurecon “looking at ways we can weave cultural understanding with scientific knowledge into the work we do.”

Soltice says she made life-long friends during her time in Japan and built a valuable network of contacts. “I work closely with the geophysicists here at Aurecon and sometimes when we have questions, I will reach out to my contacts offshore.”

Three years on, she remains a passionate advocate for Prime Minister’s Scholarship programme. “The overall experience – the research, the culture, the living situation, I would 100 percent say it was one of the best times of my life.”

Students value flexibility, networks, and personal growth

The positivity of Soltice’s experience was echoed by other scholarship recipients in a recent survey conducted by Education New Zealand. Close to 300 students participated, with 98 percent saying they would recommend PMS to others. Benefits they identified included the unique flexibility of the programme, the networks they built, the opportunity for personal and professional growth, and the chance to better understand New Zealand’s place in the world.

As for life after the programme, 57 percent said they would become involved in global causes, 50 percent would become involved in political or policy issues, and 44 percent would become involved in their local community or iwi.

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