Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne and the stories behind the stories …
Since assuming the role of Vice-Chancellor three years ago, I find myself talking about the University to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. In any given week, I talk to Ministers, officials, Otago staff, students, parents, alumni, newspaper reporters and even random people on airplanes or on the street. When I stop and listen to myself, I sometimes wonder, is there actually any substance to what I have to say about this University? Fortunately, every time I experience this existential crisis, something happens to remind me that all this talk is not just hype.
This issue of the Magazine is another cogent reminder about why I can’t stop talking about Otago. Throughout this issue, you will read about the remarkable achievements of our staff, students and alumni. You will have the opportunity to learn more about Professor Greg Cook’s ground-breaking research on TB, about our two new national Centres of Research Excellence, about the unprecedented success of the rowing club and much, much more.
But there are also stories behind some of the stories in this issue of the Magazine that continue to remind me that we are all part of a truly spectacular and inspiring community.
In this issue you will have the opportunity to read about Professor Parry Guilford. Professor Guilford is the scientific director of the most successful company ever to spin-out from a New Zealand university, Pacific Edge Limited. This company, which is the only New Zealand University spin-out on the main board of the New Zealand Stock Exchange, develops new techniques for the early diagnosis of many forms of cancer. We are very proud that it continues to be based on our Dunedin campus, while having an increasingly international reach including a diagnostics laboratory in the United States.
Professor Guilford is also a research professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Otago. He is part of the research group that identified the gene responsible for an aggressive form of stomach cancer that plagued a Māori community in the Bay of Plenty for decades. His discovery has led to diagnosis and treatment that has saved numerous lives in that community. The same gene has now been identified in 350 additional families around the world. At this stage, it would be impossible to count the number of lives this research has saved.
There is another story of success in this issue of the Magazine that warrants special mention. Earlier this year, Dr Karyn Paringatai received the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, making 2014 the third year in a row when an Otago academic has been awarded this prestigious teaching prize.
Excellent teaching is not new to Otago, but there are several remarkable things about Dr Paringatai’s story. Very rarely does an academic win this kind of award so early in their career. Less than a year after receiving her PhD, Dr Paringatai has distinguished herself as a gifted teacher. The other remarkable thing about this story is the way in which she teaches. Dr Paringatai has pioneered a new method of teaching Māori performing arts that is based on pre-European Māori teaching methodologies. In her classroom, Dr Paringatai immerses students in the dark, helping them to focus on what they hear (rather than what they see) as they learn the lyrics and tunes to haka and waiata.
But what makes Professor Guilford’s and Dr Paringatai’s stories particularly poignant is the way in which they are related. In 2009, in the middle of her PhD, Karyn Paringatai – whose whakapapa traces back to the East Coast – tested positive for the gene for stomach cancer. In June of 2010, she made the bold decision to have her stomach removed –a potentially life-saving operation. So the fact that she is here today, inspiring a whole new generation of Otago students is, quite literally, due to research conducted by Professor Guilford and his team at Otago.
In the end, this is what the University of Otago is all about – remarkable researchers, remarkable scholars and remarkable people who do some pretty remarkable things.
I, for one, will continue to talk about this fine university to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen.