Friday 13 September 2019 12:23pm
Professor Richie Poulton, Director of The Dunedin Study, and the University's 2019 Distinguished Research Medal recipient. Photo: Guy Frederick.
Having a clear goal to make people’s lives better has helped earn Professor Richie Poulton Otago's prestigious Distinguished Research Medal for 2019.
With an academic career starting at Otago with undergraduate study in 1981, Professor Poulton’s reputation and respect is associated with leadership of The Dunedin Study for the past 25 years.
Among other things this has involved constant scanning of the research horizon to ensure the Study remains at the cutting edge, including a more recent emphasis on maximising the translational value of the Study’s research findings.
"I have never lost sight of that call which drives me, and that’s being able to say that whatever I’m doing has a goal in mind and a pathway to get there, and that’s to make people's lives slightly better."
Statistics reflecting his research productivity are each worthy of their own story; 270 journal articles, 24 chapters, over 70000 citations, and he recently even clocked a century of keynote presentations which would double as a proud moment for any sports person.
On the wall above Professor Poulton’s desk is a poster of cricketer Brendon McCullum taken upon scoring the first-ever triple century by a New Zealand batsman.
“When I look at that photo, for me it captures the power of mind over his natural instincts, strength of will, character and perseverance, and managing the uncomfortable,” he says.
All these traits resonate with Professor Poulton’s own work ethos, but he is also a big believer in the simplicity of working hard and maintaining a clear focus on the main game, whatever that might be.
“The outcome may be special, but the process of getting there is normally simple, old fashioned hard yakka,” he says.
“I also have a very clear goal as my bottom line, which is to make people's lives better.”
A natural empathy towards people's varying circumstances was conditioned by his home environment, Professor Poulton describing the nurturing qualities of his compassionate mum and a great-grandmother with “angel like qualities.”
But it was in the school grounds during his fourth form when he recalls experiencing an epiphinal moment.
“Through absolutely no fault of their own, what I saw was individuals and groups being treated differently.
“It felt like I had seen the truth of things, which lodged itself in me and has never left.”
"What we are seeing more clearly now is the separation of people's life trajectories, but we are really only at the beginning of truly understanding what explains these divergences."
In 1981, Richie left his hometown of Auckland to study psychology at Otago, and while having “an absolute ball,” his curious demeanour also meant he constantly questioned things.
“At the time I also believed academia was the easy option, but later discovered books can’t teach the reality of clinical work when dealing with extreme human cases, and I eventually decided I could still achieve my main goal of helping people through academia.
“I have never lost sight of that call which drives me, and that’s being able to say that whatever I’m doing has a goal in mind and a pathway to get there, and that’s to make peoples’ lives slightly better.”
The Dunedin Study has recently completed Phase 45, it’s 94 per cent retention rate of the 1,037 participants who joined the study at birth in 1972 largely reflecting its foundation value of authentic trust that Professor Poulton stands by strongly.
Professor Poulton’s first exposure to The Dunedin Study was in 1985 at Phase 13 when employed as a research assistant and interviewer, and he has met virtually every study member since joining the Study permanently in 1995.
“What we are seeing more clearly now is the separation of people's life trajectories, but we are really only at the beginning of truly understanding what explains these divergences.”
Research keeps on evolving based on data collected to date, evolving social mores, and informed guesses of what will be important in the future.
“If there is an art in this science it’s exactly that; making educated guesses about the future. We don’t have a special gift, we just work hard at it,” Professor Poulton says.
The environment in all its holistic nature, conditions and shapes our own trajectories, so has there been any learning from the Study to date that Professor Poulton has reflected on both personally and professionally in his own life?
Firstly he speaks of the importance of having insight into who you are, of knowing your temperament and playing to your strengths.
"The second thing is very humbling, as it is from this group of 1,000 people I have learnt basically everything there is to know about what it means to be human."
“The second thing is very humbling, as it is from this group of 1,000 people I have learnt basically everything there is to know about what it means to be human.
“Despite many of the study members experiencing extreme adversity, they come here and give so much of themselves both willingly and generously. It absolutely astounds me.
“It has the effect of making one far less judgemental, more tolerant of insignificant day-to-day issues, and I suppose more caring.”
The University of Otago Distinguished Research Medal award aims to promote research at Otago and to give recognition to outstanding performance of researchers, whether that be scholarly achievement or the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge.
“I’ve been comfortable with holding myself to account against internal standards, but receiving the award adds some fuel to the tank, and provides a signal to do more of what I’m doing.
“I have tried hard and in that trying it seems I have done something really useful which is gratifying.
“My goal is to make sure as much of what we do ends up helping people so the award says righto, get on with it and make the most of it.”