Dr Latika Samalia, of the Department of Anatomy, is the Ako Aotearoa Prime Minister's Supreme Award winner for 2021. The award comes on top of her Sustained Excellence Award and the Supporting Pacific Learners endorsement announced in August. The secret, she says, is having fun.
In a laboratory full of human cadavers, Anatomy Lecturer Dr Latika Samalia will sense when it's time to tell one of her stories.
She's famous for these humorous anecdotes which act as a reset in this daunting learning environment.
“I don't know where they come from, but they just come out,” she laughs.
Dr Samalia can't quite recall when she introduced the stories, or her super-popular class quizzes, or the “friendly banter time” inserted as a break from the dissections and intensive learning.
But they all form part of a unique teaching style which has evolved over a 28-year career in Otago's Department of Anatomy.
“The aim of being a teacher is to make sure that your students have learned something from you every day. It doesn't matter if they learn only one thing. You have to make the environment friendly and happy, and less daunting yet respectable, then they will remember things. Otherwise, you're wasting your time.”
That ability to connect with and inspire students has now been recognised with a national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award acknowledging Dr Samalia's sustained excellence. Her award was complemented by an endorsement for 'Excellence in Supporting Pacific Learners'.
“I couldn't do it on my own. I have very good colleagues, department and students so they push me along and allow me to do what I do,” she says.
Anatomy Head of Department Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith describes Dr Samalia a “rock star of medical education”, and consistently excellent student feedback notes her empathy and ability to maintain a stimulating and enjoyable learning environment.
“Latika never fails to make everyone laugh and smile and get excited about anatomy. I often find anatomy overwhelming but she breaks it down so, you're like 'oh what was I so stressed about'. Her enthusiasm brushes off on us students,” one student wrote.
Originally from Fiji, Dr Samalia trained as a doctor and worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist before making the switch to teaching.
She now teaches up to 750 students in some weeks in 5 papers across a number of undergraduate and postgraduate clinical courses, passing on her knowledge of anatomical structures and clinical skills to future health professionals.
Dr Samalia has a strong focus on Pacific students and was instrumental in developing orientation sessions for Pacific and Māori students.
She credits her parents, who were both schoolteachers and “very community-minded” with inspiring a teaching approach which prioritises the individual even in big classes of 75 students.
“Students can get lost in a huge class and sometimes it becomes hard for them to deal with their emotions. So, I take them individually into the lab to get them used to the environment, and many times I have had students come back and say, 'If you didn't do what you did to help, I would not be doing medicine'.
“The aim of being a teacher is to make sure that your students have learned something from you every day. It doesn't matter if they learn only one thing. You have to make the environment friendly and happy, and less daunting yet respectable, then they will remember things. Otherwise, you're wasting your time.
“I'm very happy with what I do and I tell the students that you need to have fun in whatever you do. If you think that medicine or dentistry or whatever course you're doing is making you unhappy then it's time to change. You live only once and you've got to do something that you have fun in.”