Cawthron Centenary Series – Interview with Nick King

Position at Cawthron – Senior Scientist with expertise in shellfish aquaculture
Duration of Service – 20 Years
Hometown – Waikuku Beach, Canterbury

What was your path to Cawthron?

We looked at moving to Nelson in the late 80s but there wasn’t a lot of work here in the marine science space at that time. So I spent quite a few years working in the private sector (fruit and forestry) before deciding at the turn of the millennium that it was time for a change. In the meantime Cawthron had reinvented itself and was a really good fit with my aspirations and values. I’d been out of the research  environment for such a long time that I didn’t have great expectations when I sent my CV and ‘have you got any jobs for me’ cover letter.

It was aquaculture group manager Henry Kaspar who replied and invited me to come for a visit. That began 18 months of pestering Henry, writing a review of shellfish breeding programmes, going to the annual mussel conference, etc. until Henry rang me one day and asked if I still wanted that job. I clearly remember that moment, standing in the kitchen down in North Canterbury, when my life changed! We left the small town of Waikuku Beach and bought the first house we looked at in Nelson. I thought I’d miss Waikuku but have never looked back and certainly consider Nelson my home.

Tell us about your career at Cawthron.

Cawthron has enabled me to grow into the person I dreamt of being. Twenty years ago, I worked in a small team at the Aquaculture Park figuring out how to reliably grow baby shellfish. Over the years, that work enabled the spatNZ and Moana hatchery operations that now provide a significant share of NZ’s shellfish spat, and has given Cawthron’s shellfish research international recognition. It’s been a huge privilege helping nurture that vision, developing the practical tools that have enabled its realisation, while creating opportunities for our researchers and industry partners to grow.

While I’m still connected to our hatchery and breeding work, I also work across the organisation helping connect research internally and externally, helping people plan their research, and helping turn our ideas into reality. Currently I’m also working on new hatchery development projects as well as helping prototype cloud-based data platforms that take our data management to the next level. It’s definitely not the same job I started 20 years ago! And I like that about Cawthron too. I’m a very strong believer in ‘making a difference’ and that may mean changing direction depending on where the needs and opportunities are greatest. That’s something Cawthron has done well over the last hundred years.

What do you hope lies in Cawthron’s future? Where would you like to see the organisation in 2121?

Cawthron has grown a lot in the time I’ve been here, as well as experiencing plenty of growing pains. It feels like we have a confidence and bolder vision of what we could be. I like to think of us as trend setters now rather than followers. I’d like to see us build on this to become a research organisation that stands out nationally and even internationally (we do in some areas already). In 100 years, we’ll probably be working in different impact areas, different disciplines, using different tools to address different problems, but I’d hope we’re still here to make a difference and retain our fit-for-purpose research approach. We stand out in our ability to turn research into social/environmental/economic impact and I’d hope we still have a bit of that Thomas Cawthron impatience to ‘get things done’.

What is your greatest professional achievement and how did you contribute to making it happen?

Building a 20 year shellfish research programme has been pretty amazing. A big part of this was building on our great research and strong capability, but also selling our vision to funders, government, and our industry partners.

What do you see as some of Cawthron’s major strengths?

Our thinking is adaptive, creative and focused on outcomes rather than just doing what we’ve always done. One of the things that attracted me in 2000 was a picture of Tim Dodgshun’s ballast water sampling pumps made out of drain pipe. Good kiwi ingenuity, fit-for-purpose, rather than unnecessarily expensive equipment. The other thing that attracted me was that Cawthron’s values were posted on their website; an unusual thing back in 2000!

Do you have a favourite Cawthron memory to share?

I remember sitting out by one of the ponds at CAP on a moonlit night, about 2am, after being woken up in the middle of the night to fix a pump that had broken down, and thinking how lucky I was and what a great job this was. Maybe I’m just an optimist…

Are there opportunities you have had at Cawthron that you might not have had if you’d worked elsewhere?

Working at Cawthron has been life-changing for me. I’ve travelled extensively, built a reputation as a scientist, led research teams, helped create significant impact, helped people grow. I very much doubt I would have had the opportunity to become who I am now without Cawthron. Cawthron has provided a huge amount of freedom and opportunity.

What were some of the things you learned in your career that you’d like to pass on to people who are in the early phases of their working lives?

Create your own opportunities and grab the ones that are presented to you. Today’s crazy ideas are tomorrow’s innovations. Value your diversity: I used to think being a Jack-of-all-trades was one of my weaknesses but now I see it as a strength.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I like making things, as well as loading our boat up with provisions and heading off to explore the Top of the South.

What might people be surprised to know about you?

I like to balance the scientific side of my life with creative activities like cooking and creative writing.

What do you think Thomas Cawthron would make of the Institute today?

I think he’d be thrilled with our success and at the same time impatient for us to be even more successful!