Scientist profile: Ross Monaghan

27 September 2019
Scientist profile: Ross Monaghan

“My understanding of a meaningful life is having a sense of purpose and having a sense of struggle that’s attached to that, because you quickly get bored with yourself if those ingredients are missing,” says Ross Monaghan, Science Team Leader of the Environmental Sciences Team.

Ross was born and bred in the sleepy rural Southland town of Mataura, 13 kilometres south of Gore. This was where he spent quite a lot of his childhood growing up on family farms where his enjoyment for agriculture began to flourish.

“I quickly realised that to own a farm without a large backing of capital was quite a tough thing to do, so I drifted into agricultural science. I then specialised in soil science. I could see that obviously agriculture is important to New Zealand and that there are quite a lot of environmental pressures coming through due in part to agriculture, so that’s where I thought I could perhaps gain some expertise and try and make a difference to alleviate some of those pressures.”

Going to school in Gore and completing his Bachelor of Agriculture Science at Lincoln University, Ross went on to complete his PhD through the University of Reading’s soil science department. This was also where he conducted a post-doc.

“From the post-doctoral role, I then went on to my current position at Invermay. I haven’t jumped around jobs much at all really.”

Ross is married to another valued member of the AgResearch team, Cecile de Klein (Principal Scientist, Farm Systems and Environment). He says that a typical day at the moment consists of “at least half-an-hour to an hour of learning Dutch online, then getting our teenage son ready for school, dropping him at school, and then I’m in at work by 8:30 – and I head for the coffee machine.”

As a parent, Ross says he sees his role as “ushering our son onto a bridge from which he then sets his own course. So, guiding him with value sets, but also trying to build a resilience within him so he’s not hesitant when he has to take his own steps. Trying to install some of those values of openness, tolerance, curiosity, motivation, and the courage or enthusiasm to try anything once – as long as it’s not illegal!”

Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with family and his dog, gardening, tramping and travelling. His family also has quite an interest in trying to be carbon zero. “We plant a lot of trees and that takes up quite a bit of energy and reduces the amount of time I have to be in the gym.

“I also read probably a book every 3 weeks, I suppose. It’s a good way for de-stressing and escaping from the rigmarole of life’s pressures, but I also use it to reflect and learn. Observing the human condition, that’s of interest to me.”

Ross pauses and then says, “I used to think I was particularly clever, but then I realised that I’m now only clever enough to realise that there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know and will never get my little brain around, but that’s alright. I recognise that there are lots of people in our community to call on to seek guidance where required and test my thinking. Thought-checking really.”

Ross has been part of many successful research projects but one that’s particularly memorable is the strategic winter grazing project completed about 5 years ago and the 2017 Impact Prize Winner.

“We developed a simple but effective way to reduce runoff losses from grazed winter forage crops here in the south that the farming community latched on to pretty quickly. That was rewarding.

“I do think that we have pushed our landscapes hard enough and some landscapes probably need a bit more protection than they’re getting at the moment.”

You can watch a video about this work here: 

Recently, Ross was appointed to a 10-member winter grazing taskforce by Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor. The taskforce is focused on providing guidance and recommendations for changes in regard to wintering stock, focusing foremost on animal welfare perspectives, but also considering environmental impacts.

“There are some big challenges there in terms of coping with some of the environmental stresses that are becoming apparent. I think that the collective skillsets of researchers here in New Zealand can really make a difference to achieving those goals.”

He encourages junior colleagues “to not shy away from the technical skillsets that they need, be open-minded, and make sure they stay connected to people. Even in a future where robots are running around doing everything, there will still be a demand for people who have that emotional intelligence. Those people who can work alongside others and grapple with difficult challenges in constructive ways.”

Ten years from now, Ross hopes to see a more diversified set of New Zealand enterprises that produce things that are recognised internationally as having high value, high-quality products, that consumers are prepared to pay for in a way that supports a prosperous rural community.

“Our challenge is to see if we can market and produce our food products in ways that we can get a much bigger clip of the ticket.

“There are quite a lot of opportunities to think through. I think we just need to make sure we’re bold enough to think it through and not just cross our fingers and hope that all these pressures and contexts go away because they’re unlikely to.”

**This article was written by Olivia Ridgen who is working toward her University of Canterbury BA majoring in Media & Communication, minoring in marketing. With her great passion for agriculture and people, Olivia hopes to one day work as a communication professional within the sector.**