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

Monday 31 May 2021 4:19pm

ANews0521 Tom Devine 226px
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.”