For the love of research

September 2013


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Education Review asks four researchers to share why their research is important to them.

Dr Jonathan Stanger: Plant and Food Research

Overcoming the odds

When you listen to motivational speakers talking about achieving your dreams they always tell you the key is to keep trying and never give up. I dreamed of spending my life solving problems that no one else had solved. I have faced my fair share of challenges with energy, time and money. But by far my greatest challenge for my entire life has been refusing to listen to the part of my brain that is convinced I should fail. I have had clinical depression since my early childhood. Every day it affects me and my ability to do the work that I am passionate about. Simply making it out of bed each morning at around the right time to go to work is my equivalent of standing in front of the mirror and telling myself “I’m committed to my dream”.

In my teens I discovered you could actually be paid to solve interesting problems and I committed myself to a career in science. Once I reached university I began a BSc in Physics and Chemistry because I couldn’t choose between all the Engineering disciplines so decided to learn the principles Engineering was based on. My first year away from home was an emotional rollercoaster as I learned to live without the immediate support of my parents. There was an entire month I didn’t see the sun. Always I was haunted by a lack of money as my parents are not wealthy, but I was thankful for the opportunity to borrow from the student loan system because without it I would not have attended university.

As I overcame occasional academic setbacks and early morning starts I managed to reach the final year of my degree (five years total, one and a half degrees worth of science) where I ended up with two spare days a week for the last half year. After being turned away from teachers college for not having my BSc yet, I applied to all the local labs wanting some experience. Dr. Nick Tucker at Plant and Food Research liked the sound of me and offered me a position. This grew into a Masters project and later a PhD, both in electrospinning: a method of producing nanofibres from polymer solutions. With an understanding and accommodating supervisor and generous scholarships, my work has resulted in the formation of three small companies, seven journal papers and a book.

Now I am seeking overseas post-doctoral positions to develop the early-career-researcher phase of my life. I must do this as New Zealand funding for young researchers has rapidly reduced in the last five years leaving me little opportunity here to pay back my $100,000 debt. Once I have become more established in my career I plan to return and bring with me the experience and international contacts I will gain on my sojourn. My dream is to elevate New Zealand to an international centre of research and to support the next generation of bright individuals that face similar financial or mental challenges as I have.

Dr Caterina Murphy: Te Whare WA- nanga o Awanuia- rangi

First New Zealand European to graduate with a PhD from Te Whare Wa- nanga o Awanuia- rangi

My thesis, Roots of the past in contemporarised kitchens: An investigation of cultural identity through cooking traditions, utilised oral history methodology and argued the importance of the early formative years for teaching and learning about food, wellbeing and culture, the important role of grandparents for transmitting cultural knowledge and the significance of food, cooking and their associated values as a conduit for cultural revitalisation and survival.

I am not Māori, yet I felt completely at home and comfortable in the learning environment from the outset. I am humbled by the very supportive staff who cloaked me with aroha during my time studying there. I maintained wellness during my journey and experienced manaakitanga through their caring, hospitality and upholding of my mana as a person, student and academic. My spirit was always nurtured. This very special way of holistic teaching and learning helped me succeed.

Other doctoral students and guest speakers from within the Wānanga and from other universities inspired me. My first supervisor was fantastic. She had high expectations and I liked that and wanted that as getting a PhD is not meant to be easy. But never once did she make me feel that it was not achievable. All of the staff supported me in so many ways. They are like family to me. I will always hold Awanuiārangi dear to my heart. I am part of that place and it will forever be part of me.

Caterina Murphy, of Greek Cypriot descent, was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (Indigenous Studies), in 2013.

Dr El-Shadan Tautolo: Health Research Council

Putting the spotlight on Pacific fathers

Search the literature on the health of Pacific men – and especially Pacific fathers’ health – and you might struggle to find hard data. Dr El-Shadan Tautolo hopes his research will help to change that.

In 2012, El-Shadan, a Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) Postdoctoral Fellow at AUT University, and himself a father of two, completed his PhD examining how Pacific fathers influence the development of their children.

El-Shadan was born and raised in South Auckland, but has always maintained strong links to his Samoan and Cook Island heritage. He did his undergraduate degree in science at Auckland University, and the first year of postgraduate studies in forensics.

“I didn’t really enjoy the forensics course – it wasn’t like it is on TV – but I really enjoyed a postgrad Pacific health paper which I did as part of the course. This led to me deciding to switch to a Masters in Health Science, majoring in Pacific Health, followed by a PhD and Postdoctoral Fellowship in the same area. It was easier for me to see how I could make a difference for my communities in the health science field,” says El-Shadan.

El-Shadan’s PhD and current Postdoctoral Fellowship research forms part of the Pacific Island Families (PIF) longitudinal study based at AUT University, which has followed over 1000 Pasifika children since birth in the year 2000.

“I realised that a lot of the measures and tools that we used in the PIF survey were based on Western models and not validated or appropriate for Pacific people. I wanted to develop a measure or tool based on the behaviours and experiences of Pacific fathers.”

El-Shadan believes that while there’s traditionally been more focus on the mother and maternal experiences when looking at child health outcomes, that’s changing.

“In recent times, a lot more fathers are taking a more active role in child-rearing. For a lot of the Pacific fathers I spoke to for my research, there was a definite sense of conflict between providing for their children and their desire to be more actively involved in raising and caring for them.”

For El-Shadan, one of the most rewarding parts of his research is reporting back to Pacific communities and inspiring the next generation through his mentoring work with the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA), which partners with schools to increase literacy around health sciences.

“PMA try to make sure that students get a good grounding in sciences before they go on to health-related tertiary studies. My main role is helping mentor these students; and it’s extremely rewarding when you see them coming through the tertiary education system.”

El-Shadan says there’s a real need for more Pacific voices within the health research sector.

“I’ve been really lucky with funding support from the HRC and other groups; it’s meant there was one less thing to worry about. I’d encourage students to keep up to date with funding opportunities for Pacific health research, which are essential to support the development of a critical mass of Pacific health research capacity.”

By Suzy Botica

Claire Gallop: University of Otago

Exploring the role and nature of patient autonomy in medicine

Ever been to the doctor and agreed to something you really do not understand? Ever had your mind go blank as you numbly consented to something you were not really comfortable with? If you have, you are not alone!

My research is partially motivated by feelings of complete bewilderment that I repeatedly experience when confronted by a man or woman in a white coat wielding an unpleasant diagnosis. “I have no idea what just happened in there but I seem to have agreed to something” is the reality of many doctor’s appointments, but does it have to be?

My PhD investigates one aspect of the ethics of patient decision-making. I am exploring what it means for a patient to be autonomous and to give adequate consent to medical treatment. I focus particularly on how the medical profession ought to respond to patients who ask doctors for unusual or unnecessary medical interventions.

I use case studies of a woman’s right to medically unnecessary caesarean sections (are we getting too posh to push?) and the ethically fraught world of cosmetic surgery to arrive at a plausible understanding of the role and nature of patient autonomy in medicine.

I was privileged to be involved in teaching ethics to medical students for a number of years. Respect for patient autonomy is one of the key things that students get taught. However, I became concerned that some of the predominant understandings of respect for autonomy that were being taught could lead to bad patient outcomes. Sloppy thinking places respect for patient autonomy at risk and consent is no longer worth the paper it’s written on.

My research is a piece of philosophy. I explore the ethics of consent not by interviewing or surveying people about what they think does happen when they give consent (although that is very important) rather I construct a theory about what ought to happen.

It is very easy for philosophy to seem like an intellectual indulgence but here we are faced by an important practical issue that is informed by philosophical theories. What we think about patients’ rights affects the way health care professionals talk to us, the information we are given and the services we can reasonably expect the medical profession to offer. We do not have to look too far into our pasts to see the atrocities that can occur when we ignore patients’ rights to bodily integrity; the Tuskegee Syphilis scandal, the Milgram experiments and New Zealand’s own Unfortunate Experiment remind us of what is at stake here.

I have about a year left before I finish my PhD. I have wonderful supervisors who are supportive of a part-timer with a full-time job and a family. Having both the Medical School and a top-notch Philosophy Department has meant that Otago has been the perfect place to be working on this area. It’s a busy life, but a great one!

Claire Gallop is the Manager of the Graduate Research School at the University of Otago. Part of her job is to support thesis candidates through their doctorates and masterates.

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