Gearing up for Postgraduate month

October 2012


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The University of Waikato is preparing for its annual Postgraduate Month in October. With a new research director and its first PhD in te reo, there is much to celebrate.

The University of Waikato’s Postgraduate Month, held each October, aims to enhance the university’s reputation for postgraduate teaching and research, encourage students to pursue postgraduate studies, and enhance postgraduate culture and skills development.

During the month, the university hosts recruitment evenings that give students contemplating higher study an idea of what postgraduate study involves, the pathways they can follow, and the opportunities postgraduate study can bring. There are also plenty of social events, and the most public is the Thesis in 3 competition, where doctoral students present their thesis topic in three minutes with the help of a single PowerPoint slide.

Thesis in 3 competition

“Thesis in 3 is a way to give the public a taste of some of the research our postgraduate students are undertaking in an entertaining and accessible way,” says Pro Vice-Chancellor Postgraduate Professor Kay Weaver.

Last year’s winner was Debrin Foxcroft, who will represent Waikato at the Australasian competition. The Waikato student’s research question is “Do we sacrifice justice for democracy?” Her investigations have taken her to South Africa, Chile, and Brazil, and she says her Thesis in 3 experience was useful when explaining what she was studying.

Her ability to outline her research clearly and concisely scored her a meeting with the first democratically elected president of Chile following two decades of military dictatorship.

“I was on a plane travelling to Chile from Brazil when I heard people in the seats behind me discussing Chilean politics. I hadn’t been able to set up many interviews in Chile, so I started talking to these people thinking they may be involved in politics.” They weren’t, they were grocers. “But when I gave them my three-minute run-down about justice and amnesty issues, they put me onto someone who put me onto someone, and before I knew it, I had an interview with 92-year-old Patricio Aylwin.”

New director of research and innovation

A central figure in Waikato’s Postgraduate Month festivities will be the university’s new Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Bret Morris.

A virologist and molecular biologist with an extensive research record in plant biotechnology and disease developed through positions at European biotechnology companies, and the former DSIR and HortResearch (now Plant and Food), Morris joined Waikato University after six years as Director of Enterprise at Otago University. Before that, he worked for five years with Investment NZ, the investment promotion arm of NZ Trade and Enterprise.

Despite his background in science and primary industry, Bret firmly believes that the world needs creative people in all disciplines.

“If bankers were educated in the arts and humanities, and if boards appointed directors who had a grounding in religious ethics, maybe we wouldn’t be stuck in pre-80s financial models that have led to the current recession.”

He quotes property investor and entrepreneur Sir Robert Jones as saying he often had a preference to employ an arts graduate as much as a business school graduate because he needed people with broad vision and creativity.

Morris says the rural ghost towns that have been created by the closure of meat works and dairy factories are an indictment on industries that have focussed on commodities at the expense of creative specialist and niche products.

“It’s a huge challenge to create value-added industries if you are basing them on commodities or on monocultures such as the kiwifruit and pine trees.”

Commodity industries are prey to cost-cutting and monocultures to disease or other events.

He points to Denmark, once a dairy country like New Zealand.

“Denmark created Lego, which is now immensely more valuable to them than dairy.”

By nature, New Zealanders are creative and entrepreneurial, but we may also be too quick to sell what we’ve built, he says.

“We were the first country in the world to produce infant formula, and there’s still a dearth of this in the world. We established Glaxo but then we sold it.

“We haven’t created enough companies and now our capital markets are not big enough,” he says.

“Once upon a time, we made things, and we created things. We have to return to more of that way of thinking or we might reach the stage of having to import everything we need or use.

“I would like to be a part of such change, and I hope every other postgraduate researcher in New Zealand also feels that way, no matter what field of study they are pursuing.”

Morris believes researchers should start their research career with what passionately interests them and then tailor it over time to the opportunities available.

“You need to believe in what you’re doing, nurture your curiosity, and then follow the job opportunities as they arise.”

First PhD in te reo Māori

One recent Waikato PhD graduate has certainly followed his passion to achieve research success and is bound to be one of the inspiring stories emerging at the Postgraduate Month. Māori academic Dr Korohere Ngāpō recently became the first student at Waikato to defend his PhD in te reo Māori. The former school teacher who’s worked for six years in the Faculty of Education’s Te Kākano Rua programme titled his thesis ‘Te Whare Tāhuhu Kōrero o Hauraki - Revitalising ‘Traditional’ Māori language of Hauraki’.

“This was a subject close to my heart,” says Ngāpō. “There are no native speakers left in Hauraki, and it concerned me that a lot of the ‘traditional’ language – the more formal aspects of our language – was being lost, and for many reasons, I think we need to keep it alive. It seemed natural for me to write my thesis in Māori.”

Ngāpō has facilitated wānanga reo throughout Hauraki marae for more than 15 years and that, coupled with support in Hauraki from a hard core base of family members and kaumātua, assisted his research.

“My hope is that completing a PhD in te reo Māori at The University of Waikato will serve as an example for my kids, nephews, and nieces that anything is possible if you work hard and focus.”

Ngāpō is an inductee of an elite group of Māori scholars named Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo Māori, which is taught by Dr TÄ«moti Kāretu, Dr Te Wharehuia Milroy, and Professor Pou Temara, who represent the pinnacle of the Māori language and Māori customs. Te Panekiretanga is for people who are fluent in Māori – they take scholars to higher levels of fluency to reach excellence in Māori language.

“These guys are my tohunga, my role models, and if it weren’t for them, I would know nothing,” says Dr Ngāpō. “In the Māori culture, one needs to be humble and remember this. Having a PhD means nothing if you can’t or won’t give back to your people. Pou, Wharehuia, and TÄ«moti expect this of their students from Te Panekiretanga, so this is what we do.”

He says now he’s finished his PhD, people think he’s got lots of free time.

“Wrong! I continue to learn from my tohunga. I have so much more to learn from them. The first thing you learn is you never stop acquiring or contributing to the Māori world. This is the true essence of what Te Panekiretanga epitomises.”

Ngāpō also has praise for his doctoral supervisors Professor Linda Smith, Associate Professor Margie Hohepa, Dr Ray Harlow, and Dr Rangi Mataatua.

“They really inspired and encouraged me to get going. When you have all these people to keep you grounded and learn from, education is cool!”

As a result of Ngāpō’s study, the University of Waikato has developed specific oral examination protocols for Māori higher degree students that emphasise and provide space for Māori cultural practices and the attendance of whānau at these exams.

“Koro has broken new ground for us,” says Karen Blue from Student and Academic Services. “We now expect more theses will be written in te reo, and it’s important that we have appropriate protocols in place to accommodate these students.”

Ngāpō is convinced of the benefits of being multi-lingual.

“You look overseas, in Europe, children speak at least three languages but the majority of our children in New Zealand cannot. Māori is an indigenous language of New Zealand, it’s important for us to speak it; it contributes to our cultural understandings, can contribute to tourism, and if you don’t have the language, it’s difficult to participate in Māori events, particularly on marae.”