After changing her major about five times during her university studies, Tenaya finally settled on chemical engineering and is currently completing her PhD examining what makes maple trees produce the sap used to make maple syrup.

HotSource: What is your line of study?

Tenaya Driller: I am currently doing my PhD in Chemical Engineering, studying the mechanisms that cause maple trees to exude sap (which is used to produce maple syrup).

What made you choose to study this?

I have always enjoyed maths and science, after changing majors about five times in university, found myself in chemical engineering. After I graduated university in Montana, I was looking to do some research abroad. I just randomly emailed professors in New Zealand, asking to do research for them and when Matt Watson (my current supervisor) replied with an offer of a PhD position looking at maple trees and maple syrup I was quickly sold. My grandparents used to make maple syrup in VT so I thought it would be a fun topic and in such a lovely place.

What’s something you are most looking forward to seeing happen in your field in the future?

Sugar maple trees only exude sap in the springtime months, after a winter of freeze-thaw cycles, which has restricted the industry to northeastern North America, where it gets cold enough. We are looking into using younger (i.e. smaller diameter so they freeze at lower temperatures) maple trees and vacuum extraction methods, adopted from studies in Vermont, to induce sap exudation in maple trees here in New Zealand and potentially establish a New Zealand-based maple syrup industry. So that could be exciting.

Biggest challenge for you during your studies so far? How did you overcome it?

I think the biggest challenge for me has been the freedom of my project. The cool thing about a PhD in New Zealand is that it is really up to you to create a plan for your research and execute it, but it was a bit of a challenge at the start to find a research gap, figure out the steps to do and set realistic goals to make it happen.

Is there any career/life advice you would give to your younger self?

I would say learn when to admit you don’t know and ask for help. I realise not everyone is the same, but I used to be so stubborn and hate to admit that I didn’t know something. I didn’t want people to think I don’t know anything or shouldn’t be doing a PhD. Now I have found that being really honest with what you don’t know makes is much better for you and the people you are working with to progress. No one knows it all and it seems to me that people who admit what they don’t know, seem to be the ones that know the most