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Thursday 13 February 2020 9:46pm

Otago's 2020 Fulbright Award winners Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu (left) and Professor Stuart Young.

Two University of Otago staff have received 2020 Scholar Awards from Fulbright New Zealand, allowing them to travel to the United States to pursue research and form international connections.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu from the University of Otago (Wellington) will continue researching Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease at Harvard University and the University of Oklahoma, while Professor Stuart Young of the University's School of Performing Arts of Otago will research issues relating to verbatim performance at the Verbatim Performance Lab at New York University.

The pair are among eight academics from six New Zealand universities and research institutions to be selected in the 2020 round, and both say they are hugely honoured.

For the Associate Dean (Pacific) at the University of Otago, Wellington, Dr Sika-Paotonu, the award offers the chance to build and strengthen further collaborative linkages with American scientists and scholars.

"It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to travel to the USA and make a research contribution as a Fulbright Scholar."

Dr Sika-Paotonu will travel to Harvard University and the University of Oklahoma at the end of 2020, where she will continue to research acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, conditions which disproportionately affect indigenous people in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific region.

Currently, prevention efforts focus on giving those who have previously had acute rheumatic fever painful monthly injections of the antibiotic Benzathine Penicillin G (BPG) over a period of at least 10 years to prevent further Group A Streptococcal infections that can trigger acute rheumatic fever if left untreated and lead to rheumatic heart disease.

Dr Sika-Paotonu, who is of Tongan descent, says a less painful and longer-acting antibiotic is urgently needed, and it's an issue of particular relevance for New Zealand and the Pacific region, as well as globally.

“Māori and Pacific children and young people remain disproportionately affected by acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.

“My research seeks to contribute to improved health outcomes and reduced inequalities by offering an insight into improving the treatment and management of these conditions.”

While in the USA, Dr Sika-Paotonu will also continue her work supporting the development of a blood test to identify circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA), which could enable cancer to be detected at an earlier stage.

“It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to travel to the USA and make a research contribution as a Fulbright Scholar.”

Professor Young's Scholarship will allow him to further research “documentary-style” verbatim theatre.

Between September and November this year, he will visit New York University's Verbatim Performance Lab (VPL) and undertake a project entitled Investigating Verbatim Performance.

The focus will be specifically on material – and issues – that arise during, and in the immediate wake of, the 2020 US presidential election campaign.

"I'm very excited by the opportunity to work on this project in New York, particularly because of the timing with the presidential election."

“We'll be tracking candidates' progress, interviews and speeches, identifying significant short, two-to-four minute excerpts from filmed reports, and finding ways to disrupt or manipulate the testimony in order to highlight assumptions and biases.”

Professor Young says actors will re-create these short excerpts for online viewers.

A hallmark of VPL's work is “flipping gender” during their performances, he says.

“I'm very excited by the opportunity to work on this project in New York, particularly because of the timing with the presidential election. I'm also excited by the possible ways in which the research will feed into both my own future verbatim projects here in New Zealand, and my teaching.”

In recent years Professor Young has engaged in practice-led research on verbatim theatre, which is a form of documented theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic.

Some of these works have been completed with Performing Arts programme Associate Professor Hilary Halba, and other professional theatre-makers in Dunedin.

In late 2019 Professor Young toured the country with The Keys are in the Margarine – a verbatim play about dementia – as part of a joint Arts on Tour NZ and Brain Research New Zealand initiative.

The 2020 Fulbright New Zealand Scholars will be honoured at the annual Award Ceremony in June.

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