Studying the science behind a familiar plant

ANALYSING: Victoria University scientists Dr Andrew Munkacsi (left) and Dr Rob Keyzers, with university masters student Tia Haira enjoyed sharing their work on kanuka oil with local students at an expo at Ngata College.

Students from the Ruatoria region had a chance to learn about the science of kanuka at an expo held at Ngata College last week.

Three scientists from Victoria University in Wellington, who have been analysing kanuka oil for Hikurangi Bioactives, were part of Tuhono i te Ao/Connecting the Worlds — Where Science Meets Maori and Pacific Culture.

This outreach programme is run by Victoria University’s Awhina whanau unit for Maori students in its faculties of science, engineering and architecture and design.

As part of the activities, Hikurangi Bioactives organised a live demonstration of kanuka oil extraction, using a large copper still and a gas element to turn freshly harvested kanuka leaves into an oil with bioactive properties.

Dr Rob Keyzers, an analytical chemist in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Dr Andrew Munkacsi, a chemical geneticist in the School of Biological Sciences, were both on duty talking to students about the steam extraction taking place in the school hall.

“We’ve been explaining how the really valuable taonga that the landowners have produced, the kanuka, is distilled down to produce that really value-added oil, that hopefully we are going to turn into the next big thing to bring back to the local community,” says Dr Keyzers.

Dr Munkacsi was impressed by the future scientists who attended the sessions at Ngata College.

“I thought the kids were really engaged and interested.”

The students seemed particularly taken by the fact that this was science about a familiar plant.

“My impression is they love that it is a product that comes from a local source, something that they see all around them, as compared with ‘made in China’. This is made in their home.”

Tia Haira, a masters student at Victoria who is working on the kanuka oil analysis for Hikurangi Bioactives, had the task of telling students about what science actually is, and what she gets up to in the laboratory. Part of the show-and-tell is about the differences between medicine and rongoa Maori.

“We compare a medicine you’d get at your doctors to kanuka oil, which is a natural product,” says Haira.

“We show that they each do a similar thing in fighting bacteria, but they get to make a product out of the kanuka oil they can take home, their own natural health product with antimicrobial properties.”

Haira was also involved in a hands-on demonstration of how disease is passed between people.

“We did that with some pretend germs, a UV light, and a lot of hand-shaking, which proved how fast germs spread through simple contact.”

All three scientists said that the opportunity to take part in the expo was one of the best parts of being involved with the Hikurangi Bioactives project to study kanuka oil.

“To me it is awesome,” says Dr Keyzers.

“As a chemist, I get a bottle off a shelf, crack it open and take out two drops to experiment with. You forget that someone has put their blood, sweat and tears into going out, collecting the plant, treating it with respect, the process of the steam distillation to take the leaves and turn them into oil.

“There’s a lot of investment in time and effort and money before it gets to us.”

For Haira, it was great to meet the people who did the harvesting and extraction, learning about their knowledge of kanuka and the decisions involved in choosing what should be gathered for the oil.

“They tell us, we got this from a big tree, and this from a small tree, and this is the differences we see.”

The natural origins of the oil and the care and affection that locals have for kanuka really enrich the experience of analysis in the laboratory, she says.

Students from the Ruatoria region had a chance to learn about the science of kanuka at an expo held at Ngata College last week.

Three scientists from Victoria University in Wellington, who have been analysing kanuka oil for Hikurangi Bioactives, were part of Tuhono i te Ao/Connecting the Worlds — Where Science Meets Maori and Pacific Culture.

This outreach programme is run by Victoria University’s Awhina whanau unit for Maori students in its faculties of science, engineering and architecture and design.

As part of the activities, Hikurangi Bioactives organised a live demonstration of kanuka oil extraction, using a large copper still and a gas element to turn freshly harvested kanuka leaves into an oil with bioactive properties.

Dr Rob Keyzers, an analytical chemist in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Dr Andrew Munkacsi, a chemical geneticist in the School of Biological Sciences, were both on duty talking to students about the steam extraction taking place in the school hall.

“We’ve been explaining how the really valuable taonga that the landowners have produced, the kanuka, is distilled down to produce that really value-added oil, that hopefully we are going to turn into the next big thing to bring back to the local community,” says Dr Keyzers.

Dr Munkacsi was impressed by the future scientists who attended the sessions at Ngata College.

“I thought the kids were really engaged and interested.”

The students seemed particularly taken by the fact that this was science about a familiar plant.

“My impression is they love that it is a product that comes from a local source, something that they see all around them, as compared with ‘made in China’. This is made in their home.”

Tia Haira, a masters student at Victoria who is working on the kanuka oil analysis for Hikurangi Bioactives, had the task of telling students about what science actually is, and what she gets up to in the laboratory. Part of the show-and-tell is about the differences between medicine and rongoa Maori.

“We compare a medicine you’d get at your doctors to kanuka oil, which is a natural product,” says Haira.

“We show that they each do a similar thing in fighting bacteria, but they get to make a product out of the kanuka oil they can take home, their own natural health product with antimicrobial properties.”

Haira was also involved in a hands-on demonstration of how disease is passed between people.

“We did that with some pretend germs, a UV light, and a lot of hand-shaking, which proved how fast germs spread through simple contact.”

All three scientists said that the opportunity to take part in the expo was one of the best parts of being involved with the Hikurangi Bioactives project to study kanuka oil.

“To me it is awesome,” says Dr Keyzers.

“As a chemist, I get a bottle off a shelf, crack it open and take out two drops to experiment with. You forget that someone has put their blood, sweat and tears into going out, collecting the plant, treating it with respect, the process of the steam distillation to take the leaves and turn them into oil.

“There’s a lot of investment in time and effort and money before it gets to us.”

For Haira, it was great to meet the people who did the harvesting and extraction, learning about their knowledge of kanuka and the decisions involved in choosing what should be gathered for the oil.

“They tell us, we got this from a big tree, and this from a small tree, and this is the differences we see.”

The natural origins of the oil and the care and affection that locals have for kanuka really enrich the experience of analysis in the laboratory, she says.

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