NIWA staff profile: Nava Fedaeff
At the age of seven, NIWA’s youngest climate scientist, Nava Fedaeff, swapped sub-arctic Siberia for balmy Auckland – and her first job was to learn to swim.
Determination is a word that comes to mind when you meet Nava Fedaeff, the youngest member of NIWA’s Auckland-based climate team. The strong-willed 26-year-old takes bold challenges in her stride.
Nava was born in Tomsk, Siberia, a place where winters are long and temperatures drop to -21°C. In the distant past, the winter-bitten town received Russia’s malefactors and political troublemakers. Over time, the combination of extreme weather and cerebral exiles seem to have led the city into becoming a cultural and educational enclave. It subsequently produced many of Russia’s pre-eminent scientists, particularly geologists.
As a budding scientist herself, the seven-year-old Nava knew one thing about New Zealand when her parents moved here in 1996; it was surrounded by sea, and the coast was always close. So en route to New Zealand, she determined it was essential she learn to swim before she arrived. The eruption of Mount Ruapehu delayed their flight from America, giving her the chance she needed.
“I refused my parents’ pleading to leave the hotel’s pool until I was satisfied that I had mastered basic swimming.”
Now living on Auckland’s North Shore, only five minutes’ drive from a beach, swimming is second nature. Nava has doggedly taken on more challenges, with climate and coast a constant theme.
She traces her climate interest to her early fascination with the movement of nature around her.
“Science fascinated me from a young age. I was at my most contented just sitting and watching the world go by: the clouds in Tomsk, and the waves on an Auckland beach. I wondered how and why these processes occur.”
Nava graduated Auckland University with a Bachelor of Science with Honours from the School of Environment. Her dissertation focused on coastal geomorphology, and she spent the final year of university on the coast, analysing beach cusps.
“I looked at the climate and physical mechanisms that create mounds and valleys of sediment on beaches. It is fascinating to see erosion scarps on beaches and know that it is often a footprint of a storm. I make a point of visiting beaches during a storm to see the dramatic shift in the waves.”
Determined to pursue a science career, Nava made the most of her university holidays, with climate matters featuring repeatedly.
She spent the summer of 2009 on a rainforest expedition in Costa Rica, volunteering at a biological research station.
The following two summers were spent in Thailand on a sea turtle conservation project. She first volunteered in 2010, monitoring beaches for fresh sea turtle nests, returning in 2012 as a research assistant.
“Climate has a massive influence on turtles. The gender of a sea turtle is decided by the temperature of the sand the egg sits in. Warmer sand results in female hatchlings, while cooler sands produce males.
“Understanding climate plays a huge role in planning for conservation. If the sand warms to such an extent that fewer male turtles are hatching, the species may not be able to survive.”
The climate-focused research stints gave Nava a head start in the tough post-university job search.
“As a junior scientist, landing your first job is a challenge. With a passion for coast and climate, a job with NIWA was my dream. The fact that I was already experienced working in the field was definitely an advantage.
“NIWA works on the areas that fascinate me. This is the place to work if you want to learn from the best.”
She has eagerly taken on the wide range of tasks thrown at junior scientists, which have become increasingly climate related.
One task is the preparation of NIWA’s monthly and seasonal climate summaries. “It’s fascinating to review the data of the climate stations – the data paint a picture, forming patterns before your eyes.”
Pictures are in Nava’s genes. Her father is an artist and her mother works in fashion. Nava has pursued photography as a serious hobby.
“I like to take pictures of nature at work, like weather events and landscapes – the things that can never be manmade”.
A skilled GIS (Geographic Information System) software user, Nava takes pleasure in turning complex climate data into easy-to-understand graphics.
“The artist in me loves transforming data into something people can see and respond to. I think it is a far more powerful communication medium than presenting someone with a 20-page report they need to decipher.”
Climate science is a perfect match for someone so fascinated by natural movement and patterns.
“The climate is alive – and changes constantly. It makes the science feel fresh and new every day.
“There is nowhere in New Zealand like NIWA, where we do such a variety of climate research under one roof. It is great to take part in preparing for the future of the climate.
“We are collecting data on things like adverse weather events and comparing events to assess whether they are out of the ordinary. As we learn more, we find there are still more questions to be answered. Discovering the answers, or even just discovering the questions, helps plan for the future – for today, tomorrow or even the state of the climate in a few decades’ time,” she says.