95th B'day –Milestone In Scientist's Career

Published: Wed 26 May 2004 09:59 AM
Dr Elizabeth (Betty) Flint
95th B'day –Milestone In Scientist's Enduring Career
Landcare Research is preparing to celebrate an important birthday for a research associate who has been studying algae for more than 75 years and is still passionate about her science.Dr Elizabeth (Betty) Flint is New Zealand's foremost researcher of desmids.
These are tiny but spectacular single-celled freshwater algae, often resembling intricate chandeliers when viewed through a microscope. Dr Flint turns 95 on Wednesday, May 26.Dr Flint still drives out to Landcare Research at Lincoln from Christchurch twice a week in her distinctive 1958 Ford Consul. She is currently writing a paper for the New Zealand Journal of Botany on desmids in four South Island tarns, in collaboration with British scientist David Williamson.
Dr Flint graduated with her MSc from the University of Canterbury (then Canterbury College) in 1931. She moved to the United Kingdom, and took up a position monitoring the problematic super-abundance of algae in London's metropolitan water supply, a job that often required rowing out onto reservoirs.
During World War II, she worked for the RAF's Operational Research Section, compensating for lack of radar facilities by monitoring the positions of English planes. Highlights of her post-war career include assisting with commercial research on seaweed on the northern Scottish mainland and Outer Hebrides, and holding staff positions at Leeds and Hull universities.
After her return to New Zealand in the mid-1950s, Dr Flint worked for the Botany Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). She was a co-author of three definitive volumes describing the desmid algae of New Zealand.Dr Flint is still a passionate advocate for the importance of the study of algae (phycology)."Algae have long been a Cinderella subject, and we are now beginning to pay the price for ignoring their importance in the environment. We are now realising the importance of what is happening to the algae in our lakes and other water bodies, and what it is telling us about the state of water quality.
"Landcare Research phycologist (algal scientist) Dr Phil Novis is one of a small number of younger scientists researching algae. Dr Novis says Dr Flint has helped him a good deal. "Betty's work is fundamental 'grass roots' taxonomy, describing the diversity of organisms in the environment. "I showed my first manuscripts to her. She has a very critical eye, and is very rigorous and thorough, with great expertise in traditional taxonomy.
"Betty is still describing new desmids, and I suspect there is still a huge diversity out there."Dr Novis says as well as extending our understanding of the vast array of algal species, Dr Flint's work assists him in his own research. "Recently I needed to find a particular species of diatom, a single-celled alga with a silica cell wall. I found a reference to it in a 1946 paper of Betty's, and went back to the site she had sampled to collect it. For me to search throughout the South Island to get it would have been a project in itself."Dr Novis reinforces Dr Flint's view that research on algae can provide an important perspective on water quality issues.
"Algae are the base of the food chain in our waterways. Analysis of these aquatic communities can supplement standard water quality investigations and deepen our understanding of aquatic systems."

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