Profile: Bob Newland

Being prepared to give anything a go and thinking outside the box to get a job done – often in incredibly challenging conditions – is something Bob takes great personal and professional pride in.

Adapto-saurus newlandii

Bob Newland reckons he’s a bit of a dinosaur.

Sure, he’s had a long career, but for someone most accustomed to ensuring the accuracy of observations, it’s a personal observation that’s well off the mark.

The fact is that if the dinosaurs were even half as adaptable as NIWA’s veteran instrument systems and specialist meteorological field technician has proven to be through the years, they’d most likely still be roaming New Zealand.

Being prepared to give anything a go and thinking outside the box to get a job done – often in incredibly challenging conditions – is something Bob takes great personal and professional pride in.

“We’ve got a lot of smart people at NIWA, people who have a lot of IQ and EQ. But I think we’re also developing people with ‘AQ’ – adaptability.

“That’s something I’d like to think I’m good at, the AQ, though I’m probably not so good on the IQ front.”

Bob’s AQ means he’s always willing to try his hand at something, to find practical solutions to problems and situations. It’s an approach that’s served him well throughout his working life, which began in 1969 when he joined the National Film Unit straight out of secondary school.

There he had the opportunity to work with and maintain leading edge equipment, even installing the country’s first Eastman colour film processing machine.

But five years later came what was to be a pivotal career move – a role with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research that took him to Scott Base in Antarctica as a maintenance staffer.

“What they do is ask if you’d like to look after the dogs, so naturally you put your hand up. I quite like being thrown in at the deep end anyway, so I thought why not?”

Bob Newland.

Eight-month expedition to the Dry Valleys

That meant staying at the base, leading to a life-changing offer to stay on in Antarctica as part of an eight-month expedition to the Dry Valleys to take care of weather stations.

“There were four of us. It was fantastic – snow-free and with temperatures down to minus 50 degrees. You could travel and camp on full moons and we moved on foot. It was my introduction to instrument work.”

The leader of that expedition was Tony Bromley. It proved to be a propitious meeting for both men and, ultimately, for NIWA.

Bob returned home to New Zealand and, with Tony’s help, secured a job with the New Zealand Meteorological Service in Kelburn. He later transferred to Paraparaumu to apply his instrumentation maintenance skills to the organisation’s network.

Then came 1992 and NIWA was formed. Tony, building a team of specialist instrument technicians for the country’s new science organisation, knew exactly who he needed. Bob was the first person he called.

“When I first worked with him in Antarctica, I was just so impressed,” Tony says.

“He’s just so very, very good with his mechanical and technical ability. He’s straight-out practical and gets things done – and a helluva nice guy with it.

“He’ll try anything and he’s the ultimate fixer-upperer. Give him something that’s not working, he’ll mumble a bit under his breath, go away and find some bits and pieces and get it working again.”

Crucially, Bob’s stayed ahead of the curve when it comes to continual innovation and development in scientific instrumentation, Tony says.

“He’s kept up with it all the way through, from the pen and ink of charts through to the latest technology. He’s stayed ahead of things and he’s still got all the old stuff in the back of his mind as well, which is exactly what’s needed a lot of the time.

“He’s always there to help our younger people and the general rule is, ‘Go see Bob – he’ll sort it out for you’.”

In fact, Bob’s sorted out much of the most important instrumentation development, installation and maintenance work NIWA has ever undertaken at globally significant sites, including the Lauder atmospheric research station in Central Otago and the Baring Head Clean Air Monitoring Station.

He’s also helped design and maintain NIWA’s world-class meteorological station network throughout the country, working on critical data logging equipment servicing, selecting optimal sites for data collection to ensure data of the highest standard to meet World Meteorological Organization protocols.

As well as visiting just about every part of New Zealand, Bob’s role has taken him throughout the Pacific, as well as back to where it all started in Antarctica: “Around 12 times, I think – I was trying to count them just the other day.

“Sometimes you do pinch yourself and think, is this for real? I very much enjoy what I do, coming to work, meeting new challenges and working with great people. It’s fantastic and it helps keep you young, fit and on your toes.”

It’s NIWA’s people that create the foundations for great science that makes a difference, Bob believes. He rattles off the names of people he’s worked with in the past and still does today.

“I could go on forever,” he says. “I enjoy learning the characteristics of individuals, their idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. I like to pick up on someone’s strengths, help build on those strengths and then let them go for it.”

No intention of slowing down

Now 68, Bob has no intention of slowing down, let alone retiring. There’s still a lot to do and stuff to discover, “and I’ll continue to do that while I’ve got good health”.

Having moved to Greymouth from Christchurch with wife, Rosina, around 10 years ago, Bob’s finding plenty to do on the West Coast besides working.

Hunting and fishing are passions that keep his competitive juices flowing.

“I do like a competitive element,” he says. “From card games to drinking games – I always like to win.”

His latest interest was inspired by one of his grandchildren – reading science fiction novels.

“It pushes the boundaries, and it’s really quite surprising in later life the sorts of things that capture your imagination.”