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Media Release

The next generation of Māori and Pacific health research leaders

Issue date:
Dr Teah Carlson

Dr Teah Carlson, Massey University

The Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) has today announced more than $5.6 million in funding to help support nine talented Māori and Pacific health researchers to become leaders in their field.  

The 2024 Māori and Pacific Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowships, valued at up to $650,000 each, complement a suite of career development awards funded by the HRC. That suite includes student scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships as well as funding for healthcare professionals and clinical researchers, all awarded through a competitive and robust peer-review process.

The HRC’s chief executive, Professor Sunny Collings, says the HRC’s investment in New Zealand’s most promising researchers helps build the skills and capacity to address current and future health needs, and contributes to a world-class science, innovation and technology system.

“The emerging leader fellowships announced today have enormous potential to advance Māori and Pacific health through innovative and impactful research. People-focused funding opportunities, like these, help build and shape a highly skilled, diverse, and responsive research workforce,” she says.

The fellows’ research covers a range of health issues, including developing more personalised innovations in cancer care; enhancing Cook Island mental health practices, knowledge, and research; addressing discrimination in healthcare for Pacific Rainbow+; and exploring system redesign to improve access and ensure equity for the Deaf community.

Find out more about the 2024 Māori and Pacific Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowship recipients and their research below. 

Introducing the 2024 Māori Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowship recipients:

Dr Teah Anna Lee Carlson (Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Waikato-Tainui), Massey University 
Hāpai te hauora: Breathing your ancestors into life
48 months, $649,992Dr Teah Carlson

Teah’s foundation and motivation to carry out health research is inextricably linked to her whānau. 

“Looking back as a mokopuna who lived with my grandparents on both my Māori and Pākehā sides, their hauora was as much my responsibility as anyone’s. Depending on my age, I focused on what I could control, running their baths, finding lost glasses, mirimiri their feet, trimming their nails, reminding, administering, and applying rongoā and medicines. This was my way to care, show aroha and be a good mokopuna.”

Coming from Uawa, a small coastal town in Tolaga Bay, Gisborne, Teah says she often felt like “just a number” at university. Things changed for the better, however, when she successfully applied for a summer studentship with the Māori and Psychology Research Unit at Waikato University. Led at the time by Linda Waimaire Nikora and supported by Bridgette Masters Awatere, Mohi Rua, Darrin Hodgetts and others, Teah says it became her safe space. In 2013, she enrolled in a PhD in public health with Te Roopū Whāriki, Massey University, supported by an HRC Māori Health PhD Scholarship, and she has worked there ever since. 

Teah says her emerging leader fellowship will expand on previous HRC-funded research to explore the ways rangatahi Māori make sense of and live hāpai te hauora. 

“Rangatahi have expressed serious concerns about their future wellbeing considering environmental degradation. With the recent climate impacts and extreme weather events in Te Tairāwhiti, this reality has become front and centre for our communities.”

“This fellowship is dedicated to mokopuna/rangatahi thinking and embedding a sense of service and creativity within our whānau, hapū and iwi. It’s a powerful commitment towards te tai ao, wairua and mana motuhake. I want to create safe spaces for Māori and Indigenous people to learn, create, research, and evaluate hauora; spaces where they can bring all their being and not have to leave anything at the door.”

Dr Kimiora Henare (Ngāti Haua, Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri), the University of Auckland
A pathway to the molecular tumour board
48 months, $649,412
Dr Kimiora Henare
Kimiora says his mum and dad always inspired him to pursue higher learning and research. He fondly remembers many discussions over the years with his dad, the late Dr Mānuka Henare, an associate professor in Māori business development and expert on He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, about genetics, genetic engineering, research, and Te Tiriti. A health focus was encouraged by his mum, Diane, a giant in occupational therapy, in both service delivery and training. 

Since high school, Kimiora says he has liked the idea of coming up with new treatments to treat disease and help people. This motivation was reinforced during his biomedical science degree at the University of Auckland where he learned about the biological basis of disease and how the body responds to those challenges, with cancer grabbing his attention the most. His academic journey continued with a Master of Health Science in cancer research followed by a PhD, funded by an HRC scholarship, and the prestigious HRC Eru Pomare Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“Since my postdoctoral fellowship, I’ve had the privilege of learning from the best about Māori health research and cancer genomics at the University of Auckland. Part of growing up for me as a Māori biomedical scientist was recognising my place in a complex research ecosystem and reflecting on how I could apply my intersecting skills to make a difference for whānau with cancer, much sooner than the pathway of a single new medicine from discovery in a lab to approval and delivery in the clinic.” 

For his emerging leader fellowship, Kimiora is focused on addressing a potential workforce challenge related to the delivery of precision oncology, which is where doctors and patients choose treatments based on the DNA signature of an individual patient’s tumour.

“Others are working hard to address the infrastructure demands of precision oncology. My research seeks to understand the workforce capacity and capabilities needed to deliver it equitably – starting with Māori – and establish a roadmap for growing the expertise needed.”

Dr Kirsten Smiler (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki; Rongowhakaata; Whakatōhea), Research Trust of Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington
Whāia te ōritetanga o Ngāti Turi: Health equity and equality for Ngāti TuriDr Kirsten Smiler
48 months, $646,645

Kirsten’s inspiration for her work comes from her experience of being both wāhine Māori and a CODA (a Child Of a Deaf Adult). “Through our mother, my hearing siblings and I learned New Zealand Sign Language as our first home language and acquired te reo Māori as third-language learners through secondary schools and adult learning experiences.” She says her whānau traversed all the social and linguistic complexity that came with that experience, including experiences of discrimination but also powerful memories of inner strength, resilience, and self-determination.

In 1998, Kirsten began her undergraduate journey with a clear ambition – to make good use of the taonga tuku iho she had inherited and become an educator of Deaf children. But in 2004 she side-stepped into health services research at Victoria University’s Te Hikuwai Rangahau Hauora/Health Services Research Centre, where she discovered another great way to make a difference. Here, she could critically examine health systems and services and merge that with her passion for deconstructing ableist societies.

Later, when undertaking a PhD to understand how whānau insights could help shape improved systems of early support and early intervention, she was mentored by strong women who introduced her to a whole new community of academics committed to ideas such as human rights, equity, equality, justice, and the role that systems and services could play in achieving this. She’s also had the good fortune of being supported by kaumatua and kuia from within the Deaf community and whānau.

Kirsten was this year appointed as Manutaki Takirua/Co-Director of Te Hikuwai Rangahau Hauora | Health Services Research Centre at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington, alongside Associate Professor Lynne Russell (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāti Porou). And now, with her Emerging Leader Fellowship, she is developing into a leader in the field of Ngāti Turi (Deaf people and their whānau) research.

“I believe that whānau have the leadership capacities to be self-determining, but we do need to have systems to support the intergenerational transmission of mātauranga and reo for this to happen.” She hopes her research will ultimately contribute to a system which delivers health equity and equality for Ngāti Turi in Aotearoa New Zealand.  

Dr Belinda Borell (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngaiterangi), Massey University
He Kaakaakura Whakamaatau
48 months, $649,997

Belinda’s introduction to health research began with her first role out of university – working as an assistant to the Māori health research manager at the Health Research Council in the 1990s. “It was an awesome way to get familiar with all the people in Maori health research and the work they were doing. I’ve held on to all of those connections – all of this time.”

The role introduced her to renowned scholars such as the late Irihapeti Ramsden and Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie who had an enormous impact on her career. “Irihapeti Ramsden, especially, was a huge influence on what I wanted to do – I still think about her all the time and her wisdom.” 

It wasn’t long before Belinda wanted to give “health research a go” herself, going on to pursue a post-graduate diploma in public health and, later, a job at Whariki Research Centre. “I started on a 3-month contract and ended up staying for 25 years.” Through those years, she completed a master’s degree, PhD, and secured an HRC Hohua Tutengaehe postdoctoral fellowship.

She says the HRC’s emerging leader fellowships tell Māori academics that their expertise is valued, which is vital as a growing number of Māori researchers look to roles in Australia and other parts of the world to help sustain their careers. “This award will allow me to get a whole group of other emerging researchers into the Kaupapa, help them with their studies and mahi, and help build the research workforce in New Zealand.”

With a research focus on poverty and abuse, Belinda says she is interested in the “unspoken ways that racism works in our society, not through any ill-intent of individual people but how the systems themselves work”. 
“I feel Māori have the wherewithal to improve their own health – what we need is the rest of society to allow them to do it.”

Introducing the HRC 2024 Pacific Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowship recipients:

Dr Patrick Thomsen, the University of Auckland
Manalagi: Addressing discrimination in healthcare for Pacific Rainbow+Dr Patrick Thomsen
48 months, $645,799

Patrick says his interest in health research is related to his own lived experience as a Samoan kid growing up within a low-income family in South Auckland. 

“As a young person, although I didn’t frame it this way back then, I remember my cohort routinely being the target of many a health intervention. Whether it was numerous immunisation campaigns, sexual health education or the fight against rheumatic fever, for me, there was a sense that I was living in a community that was always in the spotlight. And this spotlight wasn’t the rockstar type of lighting. It was as if my communities – Pacific, South Auckland, and as I grew, Rainbow+ – were constantly being problematised in not only the health space, but in many socio-economic areas. We were being treated for brokenness in deficit ways, dominating the way we were seen and ultimately presented and positioned within New Zealand society.”

As he grew up and learned more about the challenges his communities were encountering with the New Zealand healthcare system, Patrick says he became convinced of the power of data to shift policy settings. Post completing his PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle, Patrick moved into researching Pacific Rainbow+ health and wellbeing after discovering that there was next to no data in this area. 

In 2020, Patrick received an HRC Pacific Health Emerging Researcher First Grant to carry out the Manalagi Project, which is designed to create a safe cultural research space for Pacific Rainbow+ communities to communicate their unique health and wellbeing needs. Now with this Pacific Health Research Emerging Leader Fellowship, Patrick says he and his team will look to build a corpus of knowledge and resources that can help develop the capacity and confidence of New Zealand’s health workforce to work effectively with Pacific Rainbow+ individuals.

“In this project, we’re determined to move beyond polarising positions. Instead, we will continue the Manalagi ethos, which states that while it is easy for people to focus on how Pacific Rainbow+ individuals “stick out,” it’s important to remind everyone of the ways that we “fit in” – fit into and contribute to our families, workplaces, cultures, churches, schools and societies.”

“I’m motivated to have our communities’ experiences be taken seriously within the framework of research, but more than that, validating Pacific ways of generating knowledge as a valuable tool to advance changes in health policy and delivery that can help improve the outcomes for many of us who sit in the margins of society.”

Dr Sam Manuela, the University of Auckland 
Enhancing Cook Islands mental health practices, knowledge, and researchDr Sam Manuela
48 months, $551,786

After completing his studies, Sam began working as a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland in 2017. His early research focused on Pacific identities and wellbeing within Aotearoa, where he developed the Pacific Identity and Wellbeing Scale to provide researchers with a way to provide quantitative data about the lives of our Pacific communities. This work opened many other opportunities, including an HRC Pacific Emerging Researcher First Grant to conduct a survey of mental health in the Cook Islands, and Royal Society Te Apārangi funding to investigate how Pacific psychologists use their cultural knowledge and practices within their various fields in psychology.

Sam says he is inspired by the work and careers of other Pacific academics in psychology that came before him – Associate Professor Mele Taumoepeau, Professor Julia Ioane, Professor Siautu Alefaio-Tugia – each of whom serve as amazing role models for him and others interested in psychological research. He also says he is fortunate to have a loving family that provide the encouragement and foundation he needs both here in Aotearoa and the Cook Islands to conduct his research.

Sam’s emerging leader fellowship will extend on his previous HRC research, focusing on the voices of Cook Island youth and their thoughts of mental health, investigating the validity of existing mental health measures used with Cook Islands populations, and conducting another large-scale survey to document any changes in the mental health experiences of the population. 

“I hope this information provides more avenues for how our communities can support each other’s mental health. I envision conversations and actions around reducing the stigma that can be attached to mental health issues, so our communities can support each other in meaningful ways.”

Sam hopes to continue his career in academia in the hope of one day becoming a professor in psychology. 

“I’d love to see a Pacific regional mental health research programme that addresses the unique needs of each nation in the Pacific and provides a pathway for building a well-supported and well-resourced mental health service team tailored to each population. I also hope to see this research reflected in our curriculum, so that all people that wish to have a career in psychology or mental health are well-informed on Pacific mental health issues.”

Dr Zaramasina Clark, Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington 
Theca progenitors: 'gatekeepers' of ovulation potential of ovarian follicles?Dr Zaramasina Clark
48 months, $650,000

Zaramasina became interested in infertility research at the end of her undergraduate degree, when she was confronted by the reality that many people trying to start families struggle with infertility and that current treatments have limitations. She trained as a biomedical scientist, focusing on reproductive biology and assisted reproductive technologies, but in recent years has used her training to start understanding infertility and the clinical needs of New Zealand’s Pacific communities.

“Although this is just the beginning of my work in this area, it’s becoming clear that there is an unmet need for fertility services for Pacific peoples and finding ways to address these really drives the work that my team is doing.”

Zaramasina says funding from the HRC has been instrumental throughout her career. Firstly, an HRC Pacific Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship facilitated her return to New Zealand from Michigan State University in the US, where she was undertaking postdoctoral research. She then secured a permanent academic position at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington and received an HRC Pacific Projects grant, which helped her establish the foundations of her independent research programme. 

“Ovulation failure is a major cause of infertility, often associated with ageing and obesity, and diseases such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). There is international data that indicates that PCOS rates in Pacific women are high, suggesting that ovulation failure contributes to the higher rates of infertility experienced by Pacific women in Aotearoa.”

With her emerging leader fellowship, Zaramasina and her team are interested in researching the theca cell layer of the ovarian follicle, which plays a key role during the development and release of a mature egg (ovulation). They will evaluate whether exposure of theca progenitors to stressors affects differentiated theca cell functions, including ovulation. This research could revolutionise our understanding of ovulation failure-related infertility and provide new insight into diseases with a theca cell component such as PCOS.

Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika) at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington, says Zaramasina is an “exceptional role model for future young Pasifika students”. 

Zaramasina’s long-term goals include developing a world-class biomedical research programme that focuses on addressing the infertility and clinical assisted reproductive technology needs of Pacific peoples in New Zealand and supporting the careers of the next generation of Pacific biomedical scientists through training opportunities in her lab.

Dr Radilaite Cammock, Auckland University of TechnologyDr Radilaite Cammock
Development of a Fijian model of health
48 months, $649,561

Radilaite completed her PhD in public health at the University of Otago with the support of an HRC Pacific Health PhD Scholarship and is now part of a growing number of Pacific health researchers at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). She says her journey as a Fijian researcher has been about bringing who she is to the research space and being comfortable looking at issues with an understanding of the realities and challenges that Fijians living in Aotearoa face in the health system. 

“Within Pacific academia and research, we have various models of health that speak to Pacific realities in the health system, yet none have been developed with a Fijian lens. Our Fijian health workforce make up a significant proportion of the Pacific health workforce, yet we do not see our views or realities reflected in the approaches that we use. With this emerging leader fellowship, I aim to help address this gap in our understanding and bring an awareness of the importance of ethnic specificity in the Pacific approaches that we use.”

Radilaite says that she has been part of some amazing research projects and teams, which have given her the insights, skills, and opportunities to grow as a young researcher. At AUT, where she has most recently been looking at sexual and reproductive health education among Pacific youth, supported by an HRC Pacific Health Emerging Researcher First Grant, she has had mentors who have provided wise advice when she’s needed it. Outside of academia, her family is her support system. 

“My parents were pioneers in many ways and have always supported my educational pursuits. We migrated from Fiji because of education; my mother went back to polytechnic to become a midwife to show us the importance of gaining a tertiary education, regardless of a person’s background. I was raised to value education, be curious and not be afraid to work hard. These values keep me going and keep me interested in what I do.”

Radilaite says her goal is to ensure that Fijian communities see themselves reflected in our health system, and that the health system works in a way that leads to equitable health outcomes and experiences.

Dr Jesse Kokaua, University of Otago 
Do the main drivers of poverty vary across Pacific ethnicities in Aotearoa?Dr Jesse Kokaua
48 months, $506,978

Jesse studied statistics at the University of Canterbury. His first job after graduation involved studying the determinants of sudden infant deaths in Canterbury. It was here he realised his passion for applying statistical analyses to help understand health and improve outcomes for communities. After working for twenty years in the health sector, he graduated with a PhD from the University of Otago in 2015.

“Early in my work life I became interested in seeing Pacific communities succeed, but at the time there was little in the way of analysis and research evidence to support that. This became my motivation. Since then, it’s been my privilege to witness the emergence of so many great Pacific researchers in health.”

Since 2017, Jesse has received three HRC grants, including a Pacific Health Postdoctoral Fellowship, Sir Thomas Davis Te Patu Kite Rangi Ariki Health Research Fellowship and Pacific Health Project grant, to research the health and wellbeing of Pacific families and communities, with a particular focus on the role that education plays.

Jesse’s emerging leader fellowship is focused on understanding how different Pacific groups respond to poverty and overcome it, using as many sources of data as possible and connecting with qualitative studies to help understand the mechanisms involved. “Ultimately, I think we have lessons to share with each other about how we as communities not only reduce the impacts from poverty but develop tools or pathways to emerge successfully.”

Jesse’s long-term career goal is to help younger researchers emerge that are equipped to pursue good quality health research of Pacific communities, using any data available, but particularly the Integrated Data Infrastructure of New Zealand.