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Dr Phil Wilcox receives Genetics Excellence in Education award

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Phil Wilcox image
Dr Phil Wilcox is a Senior Lecturer in Quantative Genetics.

Dr Phil Wilcox (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa) was visiting his 92-year old whaea (mother) in Gisborne when he received the news he’d been awarded The Genetics Society of AustralAsia Award for Excellence in Education.

“It was an exciting moment and my whānau were very proud,” Phil says. “My daughter posted the news immediately, whilst my 92-year-old mother congratulated me - and then reminded me I was cooking dinner that night.”

“My goal for teaching in these environments is to provide tauira and pākeke (adults) knowledge of modern genetics in a manner that is strongly rooted in, and therefore identifiable within, a contemporary Māori context.”

That evening Phil and his whānau celebrated his recognition as an individual who has made outstanding contributions to genetics education in the Australia, New Zealand and Asia-Pacific region.

The Genetics Society of AustralAsia annual award acknowledges Dr Wilcox’s genetics-related teaching at the interface of genetics/genomics and Te Ao Māori (the Māori world, including Māori and other indigenous concepts of heredity and associated cultural practices), in both University and Māori learning environments.

Director of Genetics Otago Professor Julia Horsfield says Dr Wilcox has led the discussion about promoting meaningful Māori engagement within the research centre and that he’s an outstanding leader in addressing a crucial knowledge gap bridging genetics/genomics and Te Ao Māori.

“Phil’s teaching from an indigenous perspective in this space is world-leading and pioneering,” Professor Horsfield says. “No-one has developed or taught content like this in New Zealand and possibly Australasia before.”

Based in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics since 2015, Dr Wilcox is a Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Genetics specialising in genetics and statistics. His teaching has expanded to teaching tauira (students) about Te Ao Māori, Māori ethical frameworks, Māori consultation, Vision Mātauranga and the co-design of study with Māori communities.

“My goal for teaching in these environments is to provide tauira and pākeke (adults) knowledge of modern genetics in a manner that is strongly rooted in, and therefore identifiable within, a contemporary Māori context.”

Third-year Bachelor of Applied Science tauira, Te Whetu Aarahi Kerekere, began her studies with a minor in Māori Studies. She says combining her passion for Te Ao Māori and science wasn’t her original plan.

“This is acknowledgement that indigenous community-based genetics education is considered relevant as well as the usual academic University-based education, so hopefully this award incentivises other indigenous genetics educators.”

“In one of Phil’s genetics lectures, he talked about how Māori is integrated in all things genetics too, which created space for an important shift in my thinking,” Te Whetu Aarahi says.

Te Whetu Aarahi is now studying Forensics and Genetics as part of her Bachelor of Applied Science, and Dr Wilcox is supervisor for her research under Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga analysing the efficacy of COVID-19 messaging to Māori.

Professor Horsfield remarks that Phil’s passion and dedication to address this gap is not only evident in the substantial leadership he has shown, but also through his education of genetics students and researchers.

In 2018, Dr Wilcox was instrumental in developing ‘Ira Rangahau Māori – Genetics-based research by Māori' – which was the first workshop in NZ, and possibly the world, where all presenters were indigenous practitioners of genetics. The second Ira Rangahau Māori workshop was held recently and hosted again by Genetics Otago.

One aspect of the award that Dr Wilcox remarks is encouraging is that it also acknowledges his off-campus teaching practices in Māori environments.

“This is acknowledgement that indigenous community-based genetics education is considered relevant as well as the usual academic University-based education, so hopefully this award incentivises other indigenous genetics educators,” Dr Wilcox says.

Dr Wilcox would like to thank many individuals for their support, especially Professor Julia Horsfield, Associate Professor Mik Black, Professor Stephen Robertson, and other researchers from Genetics Otago and the Genetics Teaching Programme; Professor Katrina Sharples and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics; Associate Professor Paul Gardner; Otago Business School Associate Dean Māori Katharina Ruckstahl; Ben Te Aika, former Vision Mātauranga coordinator for Genomics Aotearoa; Mariana Te Pou, Division of Sciences; Maui Hudson and Tuti Nikora, University of Waikato; Irene Kereama Royal, Unitech; and Professor Khyla Russell, Kati Huirapa ki Puketeraki. He also acknowledges his whānau, especially his daughter for her advice and encouragement, as well his mother.

So, what did Phil end up cooking for dinner on the evening he received the award news? After some consideration, his whaea decided the award was worthy of giving Phil the night off and she shouted the whānau takeaway hangi instead.

Kōrero by Guy Frederick, Sciences Communications Adviser