Still Curious S2E1 - Maxine Bryant

Maxine Bryant00:00

Building relationships with Māori organizations takes a long time, it's that classic thing where scientists think I need to engage with Māori. Can I ring them up? Who can I talk to it's due next week? Can we sort it out? That's not a successful approach they will work with you when they know you and they trust you and they like you, and they want to see that real relationship.

Once that's in place, you're sorted and the rest will happen and they will fix it for you and you will be family. That's probably very similar to the way that I am.

Danu Poyner00:30

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Maxine Bryant, an experienced team leader, project manager and research management professional, with 15 years experience in the tertiary sector, who is currently the Associate Research Director of Investments at AgResearch, a New Zealand Crown Research Institute that uses science to serve the agriculture and biotechnology sectors of New Zealand industry. Maxine is trained in biological science and holds a PhD in molecular genetics. In this episode, we discuss the business of science and what's involved in balancing stakeholders and priorities while staying on mission.

Maxine Bryant01:10

That is a very difficult balancing act for us. We work very closely with industry the scientists are very passionate about , the stakeholders they support. but we also need to be thinking about the future and the things that our partners might not realize they need yet.

Danu Poyner01:25

We talk about following your interests and taking a conscientious approach to going with the flow.

Maxine Bryant01:29

I've never had a very planned career, I just find things interesting. And I pursue them Maybe that's curiosity by stealth.

Danu Poyner01:37

We go into some of the complexities surrounding Māori engagement in science, Maxine's journey and perspective on leadership and the joys of changing jobs after a long period in one place.

Maxine Bryant01:47

When you've been in a place for so long, you lose sight of how much you've learned, how much you've grown, how much you actually know when you go into another organisation

Danu Poyner01:56

Maxine is one of my very favorite people in the research world, highly active and accomplished, while also funny, self-effacing and always refreshingly down to earth.

I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. It's Maxine Bryant coming up right after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.

Part 1

Kia ora Maxine, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Maxine Bryant02:44

Well, Danu thank you. How are you?

Danu Poyner02:47

Very well, thank you. So you're the Associate Research Director of Investments at AgResearch, which is one of New Zealand's seven Crown Research Institutes and AgResearch is focused on science and technology projects for the benefit of the agricultural sector and New Zealand.

And prior to this role, you were the Director of Research Services at University of Canterbury. You're an experienced team leader, project manager and research management professional with 15 years experience in the tertiary sector. And you describe yourself as specializing in operations management, system development and policies and process.

That's a lot. What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

Maxine Bryant03:28

The main thing is it's just a lot of different experiences and skills that help support science and research to happen. In my previous role, and in my current role, I'm focused on helping support scientists to be funded and then manage their projects well.

I've been lucky enough in my career to have had a whole lot of different projects to work on. So that's given me a range of experience. The more normal day-to-day things of funding applications and contracting and administration of projects, but then also helping implement systems or develop systems, which is a little bit more unusual in my role, and also the housekeeping of being in a leadership role.

So working in HR and managing staffing issues, but also thinking about policies for staff but also policies that underpin science delivery.

Danu Poyner04:22

Thank you. I'm really interested to unpack that idea of supporting research to happen. I think that's something that people who are not from that world are probably surprised at how much goes into that.

Maxine Bryant04:33

Yeah. I think when you work in a university, people always ask you, so you're on holiday now. It's like, the students are on holiday. The rest of us keep working and doing the rest of our jobs. I don't teach and no, I don't do anything with students.

Until you're in, not even in the, university setting but in the research setting, you don't understand what a business it is. and the number of roles and people that are involved in not just doing the science, but helping it happen.

Danu Poyner04:59

I'd love to hear specifically about the kind of work that happens at AgResearch, but one of the things I always do on the podcast first is how would you describe, in this case, what a Crown Research institute is to say a ten-year-old.

Maxine Bryant05:12

A Crown Research Institute is set up by the government and its purpose is to study and make things better in specific areas that are of value to the country. In my case, it's helping us continually to support our food production and to do that better and to minimize the impact of doing that to the planet.

Unlike a university, we only do research. We do have postgraduate students. Those are students who have been to university and they've done this big classwork and they are then ready to start specializing into doing science and studying specific things.

So they come and work with us and our scientists help show them how to do that so that they can become scientists in their own right. We do outreach or community activities because we are public servants, which means that we work for the government and all of New Zealanders..

Danu Poyner06:06

Mm. absolutely, thanks very much for that. Let's come back to AgResearch itself and you mentioned research as a business, which was a really interesting framing. Can you talk me through some examples of what keeps you busy as an Associate Research Director of investments?

Maxine Bryant06:21

It's called investments because we invest funding, but also people's time into supporting science. I have six teams and they're all focused on supporting the research life cycle.

So each of those teams will support different parts from the planning to the funding, to the dissemination, to the impact and the, improvement. My six teams are the research office funding team. They help people bring in contestable funding to do the research that they want to do. The support team, which has all of the administrative support for the science teams.

Those people who are helping manage subcontracts and doing invoicing and helping science teams run day to day, doing purchasing, et cetera. Animal ethics office. So making sure that the work that we do is appropriate and ethical and making sure that we go through legal requirements to ensure that's the case.

They also are providing animal ethics services to other organizations across the country. Leaders in that space. Fourth team would be the library knowledge services team. So, traditional knowledge library function, but also information and records management in helping scientists, collate and turn it into knowledge.

So thinking about literature reviews, et cetera. The insights team, which is the team that looks at what we do and provides data and new ways to give us strategic insight, but also supporting impact, generation of impact case studies, business cases, those kinds of functions. And the sixth team is the performance team, which is the team that helps make sure delivery of science is working well.

So project management expertise who will help provide the framework for science projects to happen, but also specialists that will go in and work as project managers in projects where it's high risk or where a scientist is committed to a whole range of projects and needs some help and also helping with the Business efficiency.

So thinking about business processes, and how we can work with particularly our IT colleagues to make sure that we are being as efficient as possible. That's busy just understanding what those teams are working on, also thinking about how they all fit together into the big picture of where we want to go and what the vision is for what we want to be achieving, helping make sure that in my role, I can help them work together well so that they can get a better result out of it.

Another part is working with senior leadership to understand what's happening with AgResearch as a business. We have a lot of money that the government gives us to invest in our science it's over to us how we use that money, but it's $44 million to spend on primary production science and post-farm science, roughly speaking. , the whole range of pastoral research, but more about farm systems and then more about adding value in getting better products out at the other end.

So making sure that we are thinking strategically about how we use that, that it's working effectively, that we're funding the right things. They are probably the three big things for me at the moment.

Danu Poyner09:34

Great. Thank you. you said a few interesting things in there that I'd just like to pick out a little bit if that's okay. The first one is post-farm science. What can you tell me about what that is? And can you share any examples of how that kind of science makes its way into practice?

Maxine Bryant09:51

That is the science that is about the products that you make after the farm, the services you provide, and also how we help support that end of the value chain.

That includes things like what's happening around food trends? How are we responding to it? How do we add value to foods? how do we get more value out of wool, how do we improve the quality of meat? How do we improve food safety?

And for us, we look after primarily animal farming and pasture. So when we are thinking about the science, we do, we are looking to have impact in the real world. We are looking at ways of, continuing to farm in a way that's socially responsible. In ways that improve animal welfare or reduce climate impact, but also looking at how we can support businesses and farms which may be more productive, or it may be just adding more value to what they're already producing, because in a lot of cases, you can't be more productive without balancing all of the other impacts of that.

We work very closely with industry and we are often guided by them around the sorts of problems that they have and we look at ways that we can do our science to help answer those needs.

But we also need to be thinking about the future and the things that our partners might not realize they need yet. We do really future focused research that people may not see the immediate benefit of, but it's important knowledge for the sake of the knowledge and preparing us for the future.

If you think about the COVID situation at the moment we weren't prepared for it and the world as a whole has spent a lot of money on trying to get to terms with it and understand it and fix it. But what we're trying to do is think about issues like that and predict them before they happen so that we can do the research that makes us be ready for when that happens.

That's probably what all of the Crown Research Institutes are doing because of the nature of why they exist.

We do a lot of work on ruminant microbiology and trying to figure out how we can stop cows and sheep producing gases that cause climate change.

Danu Poyner11:52

I have a question about this as you've talking, which is because it's quite industry aligned, how much do you spend working on the existing paradigm of farming and agriculture and how much is about critical agriculture or post-farm in the sense that there's all of these kinds of meat alternative industries, and I'm not sure if I'm using the right words

Maxine Bryant12:12

Yep. Yep. No alternative proteins is probably what we would say because for us that post-farm often it's about protein, so it might be milk or it might be meat, or it might be wool it's protein. So a lot of the work that we do there is taking those products, turning them down into the protein constituents and then rebuilding them into something better is the idea.

This is something that we have clarity on because the contract with the government says, two-thirds of your time we want you to be working on farm systems and one-third we want you to be working on post-farm stuff.

But at the same time, there's these different markets that we're working with and different partners and they will have different needs. so one thing is that on farm post-farm split, but also we have a bit of a mix in terms of those different types of science.

40% of our time. We want to be future focused and then 30% of our time, medium term, and then 30% now. When we work with our stakeholders we understand their problems and we work with them to figure what we might do. We may be investing in a multi-million dollar program of research.

And within that, some of it will be very future-focused, which might be the stuff that we pay for. Whereas they may give us money to do the stuff that's very near focused. People often, they will have really great relationships with different companies or different farms where they're trialing different technologies. People choose to be there because they're passionate about the science they do, or they're passionate about the sector. I do feel a little bit unusual in the fact that I don't come from a farm, so I'm learning a lot of farming terminology as I go.

It's amazing the number of people that are on farms or from farms or connected to farms in some way at the organization This is probably true of any science organization, but it's largely been happening by chance.

And so when I talk about the, the business of research it's thinking about how we understand what those different science groups are doing and how they fit together. What does the nature of their funding look like? How much is future focused? How much is current work and thinking about how we plug the gaps or how we have a strategy to help grow the areas that are needed or missing at the moment.

Trying to understand that, trying to systematize it in a way, but trying to have the oversight to make sure that we are delivering to the government in terms of the priority areas that they tell us they want us to be doing and the priority areas for our stakeholders.

We're getting very clear messages from them now both of them, the government and our stakeholders are very concerned with climate change, which is a huge thing for us. Also, alternatives, particularly the government's interested in alternative proteins and also animal welfare is another big priority for us. Out of all the Crown Research Institutes, we're the one that is focused on the animals. most of the Crown Research Institutes will have some work that touches on climate and environment, but ours really is the animal space.

Danu Poyner15:15

It sounds like a really interesting place to be sitting in the middle of all of these different interests and trying to bring some shape and intentionality to the space.

Maxine Bryant15:23

Well that's my sort of way I do things, that's maybe my science background , bio- genetics approach to it, but, I've only been here just over a year, I don't know all the details of everything. But when you come into an organization like this, it is so complex because there's a lot of people all doing different things. Loosely, there's a whole lot of people that are working on a certain topic, but they're all doing it in different ways. I think the thing that strikes me coming into the organization. It's not very easy to see what's happening as a new person. And that concerns me, that we can't clearly understand and articulate what it is that we do, what our priorities are and how that flows down into more and more detail, unless you've been here for several years and you know these people and you know everything they do.

I don't know if that seems right to me when we're not particularly large. It's smaller than a university.

Danu Poyner16:16

How many people have you got?

Maxine Bryant16:18

I think we've got something like five to 600 scientists. I think when I read the annual report it was something like 750 people all up, including non-science.

Danu Poyner16:29

It does sound like a unique challenge to come into a space and try and figure out what's going on. That's always difficult when you come to a new place, but it does strike me that there's a lot of different balls in the air with this work, I wonder, as you mentioned that you've been there for a year or so, how have you approached that task of trying to figure out what's going on?

Maxine Bryant16:51

Probably quite badly. I guess the problem for me is I came into the organization at a period of change. Everything was up in the air and things just had to happen. I guess I haven't spent as much time out talking with scientists as I should have. And it's really just about band-aiding is that the right term? Just making sure that my area could do the priority things we needed to do in the timeframe that we had. We had some staffing gaps at the time. It was a large period of change and there was just a lot that had to happen.

It's been a very busy and intense first year and a bit and I haven't really had the luxury to get to know the different science programs that well and the people that we have and what their skills are. That's a priority for me moving forward.

Danu Poyner17:36

Listening to you talk, it sounds like there's the business side and the science side, and you have a foot in squarely in both camps, because you have science background and you're also on the business side. We'll come to the background in a bit. One of the questions bubbling up for me, talking about the stakeholders and what the government priorities are and what the industry needs is, how do you hang on to the science and the objectivity. It sounds like almost a political space in the sense that there are very clear government priorities, very clear things that industry wants. And you're working closely with stakeholders. Science is renowned for objectivity and arms length independence. Is there a balancing act there and how does that work?

Maxine Bryant18:23

Oh, absolutely. I guess this is the role that leadership needs to play in an organization like this. As I was saying, the scientists are very passionate about the work that they do, the stakeholders they support. They've often been working with them for decades.

They have very close relationships and they're very passionate about their specific thing. But when you're in the leadership and the management space, you need to think about what are the signals we are getting as an organisation and what are the things that we need to prioritize. And yes, we've got a hundred different things happening

but we can really only do 80. So where are we going to invest? That is a very difficult balancing act for us. It's slow cultural change. We are trying to understand what we focus on, and I think a lot of organizations are doing this. Science organizations are thinking about what's our point of difference of all the things we could do,

why do we choose to do these specific things? And is it because we are the world leader or is it because we need to do it and no one else does it in New Zealand, but we need someone to do it. And we do have some of that and we do have some stuff where we will leading or is it stuff that we just do because we've always done it, but it's not necessarily what we should still be doing.

So we are going through a period of thinking about that and trying to understand. We know one of the things are we do do, and we know what the things are that we don't do, but there's a real gray space in the middle where it's stuff we could do, but should we, so that's what we're trying to think about.

I guess that comes back to the systemisation. It's hard to do that without having the right data. So that's understanding what we do, what our strengths are, who else is doing those things, what their strengths are, what relationships do we have with them? How do we work with them to get the best outcomes for the country or the planet, rather than all just trying to have a slice of the pie, when basically, no, one's getting a meal out of that because it's all getting cut into smaller pieces. And that's partly why the government is thinking about their future pathways paper at the moment, because they're trying to figure out how do they get the best result. The government is still the major funder of science and research in New Zealand through its direct investments and its contestable funding streams. so It is really hard, in one aspect coming into the organization as a new person, without understanding all of the detail about what people do and having those relationships is helpful because I don't have those personal conflicts but it's also hard to make those decisions without really understanding the full impact of what they all do.

Danu Poyner21:04

Yeah. A lot of ambiguity around the edges of that. I imagine.

Maxine Bryant21:09

yes, that's why we have these jobs.

Someone has to deal with it.

Danu Poyner21:12

Exactly. And I really liked the clarity and simplicity, which you described that task and what was it? The three things, you know, things that we might be leading in, things that no one else is going to do. So we should do them, things that we do do or have done for a long time, but we don't necessarily need to keep doing. Are there any examples that come to mind of each of those categories to illustrate for someone who doesn't know?

Maxine Bryant21:36

There are things that we are world-leading in. So, our rumen microbiology, which I've already talked about. We're world leaders in that, we have the infrastructure and facilities to do work that people can't do anywhere else in the world. And part of that is because it's a combination of the facilities and also the people and the expertise that they have.

We had people working with us from all over the world on things like that. So that's work we do because we are world-leading and we know it's really important. Then there are things that we do that no one else does, that we need to do. For example, we have animal containment facilities for containment and we have expertise around that.

If there's ever issues Around animal infectious diseases, we have the people that can do that work and we have the appropriate containment so that you can study that. That's really important in terms of making sure that somewhere in the country has the ability to deal with problems like that

if there's an issue that needs to be studied. And then in the middle, there's a whole lot of stuff that we do. Because of the kind of capability that we have, a lot of the time, it's a whole range of,

Danu Poyner22:45

your cats just really on the microphone.

Maxine Bryant22:48

sorry, she's just loving herself on the corner of the laptop. Um, and then in the middle we have a lot of stuff that is in between, and we have capability that is applicable to a wide range of science questions. You get down to questions about, so we might have protein capability or chemical chemistry capability, but we're looking to apply it to native plants.

Is that our area or is that not our area? So if it comes down to using those native plants to feed animals and make the most of the special properties that those native plants might have, the net would fit into the forage or animal feeding area. But if it's about native plants and conservation, then that's not us.

That would be Manaaki Whenua, for example. So sometimes it's not that straightforward. There are areas that we are investigating with other CRIs because no one really has clarity around who does it. There are areas where we will collaborate with other organizations. For example, working with Manaaki Whenua on environmental climate change issues, we would collaborate with them.

Climate change, it's an area that no one organization owns it. We're all doing work that contributes to it in different ways. Is that a bad thing? Probably not because as a country, as a planet, most of us consider it to be the most pressing issue that we are facing.

There's no reason why we wouldn't all be doing different bits of work that might contribute a piece of the puzzle to fix it. But it's about how we work well with each other to make sure that we are all doing the puzzle together. Not undoing someone else's to put your piece in.

Danu Poyner24:26

It sounds quite exciting trying to figure that out actually. Maybe it's exciting if you don't have to be in the middle of it everyday. I don't know.

You me.

Maxine Bryant24:34

Yeah. Yeah. I dunno. I guess life's like that isn't it? You said earlier about, I like the way that you explain it simply. And sometimes I'm worried that I simplify things a lot, but if you don't, you get lost in the details. You need to have a very simple view of what's happening and then getting into more and more detailed depending on what you're doing and who you're talking with and what the issue is. The problem is sometimes if you get stuck down in the detail too much, then you can't see the big picture and you do get lost, you do lose the excitement a little bit. We all participate in science and organisations like this because we believe in what we're doing and we see value in it. It's a values-based organisation It's not just showing up from nine to five and putting your timecard in and punching it out at the end of the day. You need to keep that focus really.

So you don't get lost on the journey.

Danu Poyner25:23

I wonder out of 365 days a year, how many of them are, I'm really engaged with the mission of my organization days and feeling passionate and how many of them are just getting through the day days?

Maxine Bryant25:37

When I'm having a day like that, I always think of the Simpsons where Homer says, does it matter if you don't like your job, you just go there clock and do your job and go home. That's the American way. So I don't have jobs like that.

I mean, Even when I worked at the supermarket as a teenager, I didn't really feel that way. Sometimes it's a hard job and some days you have bad days and sometimes you have good days and sometimes you hit both and you just need to keep that in perspective.

Part 2
Danu Poyner26:07

I'd love to understand the path that has brought you to your current situation, because you really are doing a lot of very different kinds of things. There's a lot of skills and capabilities that go into that. I'm curious about that experience that you've built up and how you got to be doing what you're doing was research management, always plan A for you.

Maxine Bryant26:26

No, I don't think that's plan A for anybody. No one knows that's a thing. If I was being flippant, I'd say it's full of failed scientists, but that's not true. There are a lot of people with science backgrounds and they become disenfranchised with science and they see this other thing which plays to the skills that they have and it still keeps them in science.

It is not something you aware of until you're in the science. And even as a post-graduate doing your PhD you don't necessarily know that that exists.

I fell into it like many people. There was a project role being advertised to work on the PBRF performance-based research fund project in 2006. I got the job and that was the start of my research management career.

Danu Poyner27:12

Already working at the university at that time?

Maxine Bryant27:15

I had left university and gone to work as a life science specialist, sales person for a scientific supplies company. Didn't really ring my bell. I was looking for a job. I saw that at the university and, I applied and got the job.

Danu Poyner27:34

Can you draw me a line between working at the supermarket and that PBRF job?

Maxine Bryant27:41

That's quite a big line. I was a teenager when I went to the supermarket, that was my after school job. I kept doing that while I was studying so then I went to university and I was doing science degree. I wasn't super sure what I wanted to do. I just liked science. Then one of my lecturers wrote on my exam, please come and see me. And he said, oh, I guess you're going to do postgrad.

And I'm like, no, I wasn't planning on it. He said, I really think you should consider it. That was the start of me moving into genetics. Before then I was just doing a general biology degree. Then I picked up some extra courses to do a double major and stayed, did honors,