Thursday 17 June 2021 9:35am

Prestigious scholarship will support Otago graduate's studies into health system reform

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Tom Devine, Otago alumnus.
Photo: Sharron Bennett

Otago graduate and Fulbright scholar Tom Devine has been awarded the prestigious William Georgetti Scholarship. The $90,000 scholarship will support his studies to complete a Master in Public Health in Sociomedical Sciences, and History, Ethics and Law at Columbia University in New York City.

Established from the Estate of William Georgetti, who passed away in 1943, the purpose of the scholarship is to encourage postgraduate study and research in a field that is important to the social, cultural or economic development of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The scholarship board, which met with Tom earlier this month, included the Governor-General of New Zealand, Her Excellency the Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy GNZM, QSO, and Supreme Court Justice Dame Ellen France DNZM.

“I was beyond stoked when I was called the same day and was told I had been successful in my interview,” says Tom. “My research aligns directly with the goals of the Georgetti Scholarship. Not only will it be key in supporting me financially in my studies, but the scholarship will act as a reminder of the purpose of my research; to contribute to healthy futures for all people in this country.” He plans to start his studies at Columbia in September 2021.

Tom is currently a Senior Advisor in the COVID-19 Vaccination Operations team at the Ministry of Health, having been approached by the Ministry in October 2020 to join the COVID-19 Directorate.

During his time with the Ministry, he has written a report on New Zealand's pandemic response for the World Health Organization appointed Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which is co-chaired by former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark; written two academic articles on the nature of the virus that causes COVID-19; and has worked in the Emergency Management Team responding to community cases and outbreaks.

In June 2020, he was also awarded the Fulbright Science and Innovation Scholarship, and in May 2020 was awarded the Gordon Watson Scholarship. He will use both alongside the William Georgetti Scholarship to fund his studies.

Tom graduated from the University of Otago with a BSc in Microbiology (Hons First Class). He was also named as one of the inaugural winners in the University's 20Twenties Young Alumni Awards in 2020.

“COVID-19 has been one of the biggest threats to global health in 100 years and the lessons are far reaching,” he says. “The pandemic has really highlighted the importance of the social determinants of health, and that's why I am majoring in Sociomedical Sciences. It has also shown the unique needs and responses by minority populations and indigenous peoples. I am hoping to include this perspective in my research as well.

“In Aotearoa New Zealand it has shown we can achieve healthy outcomes and prevent death through good leadership, effective science communication, social cohesion and using our healthcare system in a flexible and innovative way so that we can respond to need appropriately.”

His proposition to the scholarship board was to use the lessons learned from the pandemic to inform health system redesign and restructure in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“COVID-19 has also shown us the importance of local solutions in local contexts, people as partners in care, workforce capability and capacity and how important technology and digital solutions were.

“Although Aotearoa New Zealand has had a hugely successful elimination strategy, I am interested in looking at countries that have had less than ideal experiences, to future-proof and prepare New Zealand's system for health crises where we might not have the same level of success.”

Tom grew up in Whanganui, as one of 11 siblings, before moving to Dunedin at 17 to study Microbiology at the University of Otago.

"Growing up in Whanganui I was also able to meet people from the Rātana faith and was welcomed into the whānau at Rātana Pā. The vision of Te Māngai: to see Māori living and thriving as Māori is so fundamental to Aotearoa and aligns with my desire to see everyone in this country thriving and living healthy futures."

“In particular, Professor Roslyn Kemp has been key in supporting me to achieve my goals and providing mentorship and pastoral care during and after my studies. My Otago experience has been one of the greatest and has really shaped who I am. ”

He says the staff in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the support he received at Otago, were integral to helping him to achieve his goals.

“In particular, Professor Roslyn Kemp has been key in supporting me to achieve my goals and providing mentorship and pastoral care during and after my studies. My Otago experience has been one of the greatest and has really shaped who I am.”

Professor Kemp says she is thrilled Tom has received this support for his studies. “He has long had a genuine vision for an equitable and healthy Aotearoa New Zealand, and this scholarship will allow him to take some big steps towards this goal,” she says.

“Tom has been a fantastic mentor and support for many staff and students in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and we are extremely proud of him.”

Tom says he would encourage other students who are thinking of pursuing postgraduate studies to apply for a Fulbright or Georgetti. “These scholarships support meaningful research that is going to make a huge difference in Aotearoa New Zealand. I guarantee if you are passionate about what you do, these scholarship panels will support you, all you have to do is apply.”

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Ethel Benjamin scholarship takes Otago law alumna to Berkeley

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Otago law alumna Georgia Bellett

Who knew when Otago law alumna Georgia Bellett dressed up as Ethel Benjamin – New Zealand's first woman barrister and solicitor – for a school project in Year 8, that one day she would be awarded a scholarship in her name?

Certainly not Georgia.

“I did not want to be a lawyer at all, I think wanted to be an astrophysicist at the time,” says Georgia, who graduated from Otago with an LLB (Hons) and a BSc majoring in Neuroscience in 2018, and who is now a solicitor with law firm Russell McVeagh in Wellington.

“But we had to do a school project on a New Zealander we admired and my mum suggested I have a look into someone called Ethel Benjamin. I thought OK I'll have a look, and I found her story so inspiring that I did end up choosing Ethel Benjamin. Part of the project was you had to dress up as the person that you were researching and be interviewed as if you were that person, so I dressed up in lawyer's robes and a wig . . . So when I told mum [I'd won the scholarship] she said it was like everything coming full circle.”

Georgia says she was “over the moon” to be awarded the 2021 New Zealand Law Foundation Ethel Benjamin Scholarship for outstanding women lawyers. The scholarship was established in 1997 to mark the centenary of Ethel Benjamin's admission to the bar and supports postgraduate research in the law that will protect and promote the legal interests of the New Zealand public. Ethel Benjamin graduated LLB from Otago in 1897 and was the first woman to be admitted to law school in Australasia.

In August, Georgia will begin her Master of Laws at the University of California Berkeley, with a Certificate of Specialisation in Energy, Clean Technology and Environmental Law.

For the past three years, she has been part of Russell McVeagh's Banking and Finance team. She credits a five-month secondment to the legal team at Meridian Energy as key to developing an interest in clean technology.

“I did everything from working on the early stages of a wind farm development, which was really cool, to writing their submissions on the government discussion document on the mandatory climate-related financial disclosures.

“I've always had an interest in that area but it was the first time I really realised I could use my background in finance and law to actually make a difference. Especially with climate change and biodiversity loss becoming an ever-increasing threat. So that was what set me on this path.”

Since then, she has become chair of Banking and Financial Services Law Association Future Leaders Committee, and recently hosted an event on the future of sustainable finance in New Zealand. She is also chair of Russell McVeagh's Sustainability Committee in Wellington and is a regular volunteer at Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley, and for the Refugee and Immigration Legal Advice Service.

“I thought the next key step would be to do some further study. The University of California at Berkeley, from what I've heard, has the best Master of Laws programme in this area [environmental law and clean technology], in the US and arguably internationally.”

The master's at Berkeley is a year-long programme and Georgia will also do some business and economics papers, on the financing of green infrastructure projects and economics of biodiversity.

“[My studies] will have a finance focus and be concentrated on climate change and funding projects that can improve the state of things in New Zealand. What I want to be able to do is help mainstream investment in the conservation of biodiversity and mitigation of climate change, by creating the right incentives for investors to deploy capital in a manner that delivers biodiversity and climate co-benefits.

“It's already happening a little bit in New Zealand but it's still such an emerging area and the scale of investment in the US and Europe is so much greater so it would be great to increase my knowledge and expertise in that area so I can help develop the legal practice in New Zealand, especially in hard to abate sectors like agriculture.”

She is excited to have secured a place to live in International House on the Berkeley campus, and is looking forward to the mix of cultures and disciplines of the master's  and doctorate students that the house caters for. She also secured a scholarship from Berkeley which means she can avoid taking out a loan to cover the “crippling” costs of tuition in the US.

As part of her visa, she will be able to stay on in the United States of America for six months to a year, and she hopes in that time to get some work experience, possibly an internship at the United Nations Environment Programme, which she can bring back and apply in New Zealand.

Just like at school, at Otago Georgia didn't intend to study law, but found her friends' conversations about their law papers fascinating, and thought she'd do it as an interest paper in her second year.

She particularly credits her lecturer and Acting Dean of Law Professor Shelley Griffiths with fostering her interest in banking and finance law. She ended up taking all her classes, “even tax law which sounded horrific, and then I took it and she made it so enjoyable that I decided to take an advanced tax paper and even write my honours dissertation on tax law”.

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