Three Pacific tauira traded rest for research as they embarked on their biomedical research journeys over the semester break.
Third-year tauira To’oa Brown, Noah Kelly-Foleni and Sam Kaufononga were the first to take part in the Early Research Lab Opportunities for Pasifika Programme (ERLO-P), a collaboration between the School of Biomedical Sciences and the Dunedin School of Medicine.
The initiative aims to increase the number of Pacific students progressing into postgraduate study and considering research career pathways in biomedical sciences.
These students were tasked with researching diseases of major significance to Pacific communities, namely infectious diseases, metabolic diseases and cancer.
The three students refined their laboratory skills and research methods and participated in workshops to help them with report writing and oral presentation skills.
Postgraduate medical tauira Cam Young, who discovered his own “unexpected passion” for biomedical research while studying towards an anatomy degree, is the mastermind behind this by-Pacific for-Pacific initiative.
He initially journeyed from Hawke’s Bay to Otago to study medicine, but “developed an appreciation for research and a curiosity for new knowledge,” so he delayed medicine for a year to make way for honours research in neuroendocrinology.
“My honours year made me realise that, not only are Pacific students capable of conducting lab-based biomedical research, but we bring an extremely valuable perspective and set of skills into this space,” he says.
“I want more Pacific students to consider pursuing a career in the biomedical sciences and to feel like this is a sector that they can make a real difference in, for themselves and for our wider Pacific community.”
Cam conceptualised an initiative to “improve students’ skills and confidence in laboratory research methods” while completing his own summer research project under Senior Research Fellow in Pathology Dr Sunali Mehta.
The pair soon enlisted the support of Senior Research Fellow in Microbiology & Immunology Dr Htin Lin Aung and Senior Lecturer in Anatomy Dr Mike Garratt to run a trial of the programme this year.
Microbiology tauira To’oa had the opportunity to work in Dr Mike Garratt’s lab and expand upon his work on gestational diabetes mellitus.
Though not conclusive, their research findings may be able to help pregnant women deal with metabolic changes associated with pregnancy and potentially decrease their likelihood of developing gestational diabetes.
To’oa says she joined the initiative to get some lab experience under her belt.
“The timeframe was very attractive, and I think it would've been a missed opportunity if I didn't apply,” she says.
She encountered some challenges with her samples, but says the problem-solving process that accompanied unexpected results proved to be one of the most important aspects of her learning.
“What I love about science in general is that even when our results aren't what we expect or things aren't working how they are supposed to, there is always something to learn from it.”
To’oa now foresees a future career in scientific research, but is keeping her options open as she decides between research in microbiology and anatomy.
Dr Garratt says it was “an absolute pleasure” working with To'oa.
“She made a great impression on everyone in our laboratory. She quickly developed new skills and produced some novel results about the possible causes of gestational diabetes that we are keen to keep investigating.”
Sam conducted research under Dr Aung over the break, and his research sought to identify the pathogenic organism Mycobacterium tuberculosis using whole genome sequencing.
He says that as he found himself nearing the end of his anatomy degree, he became curious about the postgraduate research opportunities available at Otago and decided to apply for the ERLO-P to experience it first-hand.
“Before doing this programme the word ‘research’ was daunting. Now I'm excited by the prospect of doing research,” he says.
“I also wanted to build networks in the research space, which I was able to do.
“And because of that experience I now have a grasp of what to expect doing research.”
Sam says he feels privileged to have used state of the art genome sequencing technology and to have received training in advanced laboratory skills typically reserved for postgraduate studies.
“I've also learned that public speaking as a researcher is not only inevitable but a vital part of research. It is essential to communicate scientific knowledge to the public.”
Dr Aung says this initiative “has been a great opportunity to provide a space for Pacific students to thrive in research”.
“Plans are underway to enable more Pacific students to participate in this programme in the next years.”
Noah found himself with no plans for the semester break, and thought “doing something productive” would be a good use of his time.
He studied cancer cell biology under Dr Mehta, specifically looking at a gene that helps prevent the formation of cancer cells.
“I really enjoyed getting to know the people working in the lab and exploring a different field of science to what I'm currently studying,” he says.
“It was also cool to do experiments by myself and develop some independence within a lab setting. I also enjoyed getting the results at the end and seeing everything click into place and start to make sense.”
The experience has allowed Noah to seriously consider research as a career path.
"This experience has definitely confirmed that I would like to do research in the future. It has also made me think deeply about where I want to take my studies.
“I am 100 per cent considering taking a biomedical direction compared to a plant biotechnology path that I was planning on taking.”
Noah now hopes to learn more about the societal implications of science – such as systemic inequalities in our health system – and how it relates to Pacific peoples and Pacific culture.
Dr Mehta says, “Noah is an excellent team player with a positive attitude and a love for learning.
“I was impressed by his contribution to our research project, where he demonstrated ability to think critically and independently. My laboratory was delighted to host Noah for two weeks.”