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Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson and Dr Louise Bicknell are joint winners of the 2020 University of Otago Rowheath Trust Award and Carl Smith Medal given to recognise the outstanding research performance of early career staff.

Research passion with Māori focus

Anne Marie Jackson
Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson: “I love seeing students develop their own passion and enthusiasm and then become engaged to go out into the world and do something about it in a practical way too.”

Māori Physical Education and Health kairangahau (researcher) Associate Professor Anne-Marie Jackson studies how connections of wai (water), moana (ocean) and mātauranga (Māori knowledge) are beneficial for mauri ora (flourishing health), and she strives to create opportunities for Māori research excellence that, most significantly of all, serves Māori communities.

Starting out as a lecturer in the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences in 2011, Jackson (Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu o Whangaroa, Ngāti Wai) co-founded kaupapa of Te Koronga with Dr Hauiti Hakopa. She now co-leads Te Koronga with Dr Chanel Phillips and Mr Danny Poa as a vibrant research kaupapa with excellent graduate research students, researchers and communities interested in mauri ora.

Mauri ora and hauora (health) is the core thread that binds Jackson’s many strands of mahi, and which connects theory and application through working with Māori communities and “getting our hands dirty”.

She co-leads two other research programmes: Te Tiaki Mahinga Kai (customary fisheries) and Tangaroa Ara Rau (Māori Water Safety), the later involving the development of a free Māori water safety programme that strengthens whānau connection to the water. This work is funded from the Health Research Council where she works alongside researchers and communities around Aotearoa.

It is these research programmes that encapsulate the interface and connections between Jackson’s teaching, research and community-based mahi.

Her most recent research collaboration, Coastal People: Southern Skies, brings together education, government and community partners across Aotearoa, and focuses on the changes resulting from ocean warming and acidification, sea-level rise and climate, and how these issues affect our identities, histories and well-being as coastal people.

“Climate change is the biggest issue we are facing so we need holistic thinkers who can address such questions.”

Jacksons says physical education has nurtured a broad base of theoretical and applied skills that can be applied to these challenges, and which includes the ability to adapt to constantly changing situations.

In 2019 her research was also recognised with the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award for research forging new knowledge at the interface of mātauranga Māori and physical sciences.

She has also recently received a national Tertiary Teaching Excellence award in the Kaupapa Māori category from Ako Aotearoa for her sustained excellence in teaching.

Jackson believes the key to this success is understanding her own ‘why’. “I’m hugely passionate about my research which is what I teach on, so I think this enthusiasm is maybe part of the success. But I love seeing students develop their own passion and enthusiasm and then become engaged to go out into the world and do something about it in a practical way too.

“It’s important I provide leadership as well as capability-building for Māori research and researchers by making sure we walk our talk and deliver.”

However, it’s that deep connection and relationships with people and place that continue to drive Jackson’s mahi.

“For us, the more important evaluation of our work is from those communities whom we work directly with, to ensure we are accountable to them, to our own whānau and to ourselves.”

And winning this award and medal is particularly significant. “It shows that there is a pathway for someone else like me to realise their potential in research.”

Genetic questions and answers

Louise Bicknell
Dr Louise Bicknell: “To think that basic simplicity leads to the complexity in nature all around us, I mean, how? And it’s that ‘how’ question that’s inspired me.”

Dunedin geneticist and Rutherford Discovery Fellow Dr Louise Bicknell’s research focuses on understanding how changes in a person’s DNA can impact development and lifetime health. Her particular focus is on single gene disorders of body and brain growth.

Initially coming to Otago to do medicine, Bicknell “got hooked by the science” and graduated with a BSc with first class honours in genetics.

“With genetics there are just four letters [bases that make up DNA]; it’s that simple. To think that basic simplicity leads to the complexity in nature all around us, I mean, how? And it’s that ‘how’ question that’s inspired me.”

Following her PhD she moved to the University of Edinburgh for postdoctoral work and a chance to work alongside Professor Andrew Jackson who was studying human genes acting in growth and inflammation.

“It has turned out to be really interesting in that it’s quite a simple concept – what determines our size – but we still don’t fully understand it. For example, the bumblebee bat weighs just two grams and the blue whale weighs 150 tonne. But both started from just one cell with a common ancestor and you luckily never see a bat the size of a blue whale, or vice versa.

“So, there must be controls for this in our instructions. That’s what determines the size. And those instructions – that’s the genetics.”

It is changes in those genetic “instructions” that determine many conditions resulting in size differences among humans too, she says. “These conditions are caused by just a couple of these DNA spelling mistakes. Our goal is to find these spelling mistakes and understand them.”

Trying to cure these health conditions is often not feasible, she says. It is the quest for knowledge about them that is of great use, for two reasons.

“One, for the families. They get an answer. Some of these conditions are more rare than one in a million, so just getting a genetic answer for the family is actually very powerful.

“Having an answer helps them understand about risks for other family members and can open doors for therapy and other help. Also, as we find other families with the same spelling mistakes, we can start to provide better clinical advice about what parents can expect as their child grows.

“The second reason is the biology and the insight these spelling mistakes give into what instructions help control our bodies and brains to grow. I am in awe of the power these spelling mistakes have – that a tiny alteration can have such dramatic consequences to development. We can harness this power to really help understand the biology of growth.”

But research costs money. Bicknell’s research has been funded by the University of Otago, the Marsden Fund, the Neurological Foundation and the Health Research Council. The quest for continued funding never stops though, and is a process which can be difficult for research in a relatively small field in New Zealand. That makes the recognition that comes from winning the Rowheath Trust Award and Carl Smith Medal so significant, she says.

“I just hope that through my research in understanding the consequences of changes in our DNA, I will be able to help in the bigger goal of extracting as much information from someone’s genome as possible, to help understand their development and health throughout their lifetime.”

Vote of confidence

Janine Hayward
Professor Janine Hayward: Her research concludes that the STV system makes local body elections more competitive.

Single transferable voting has been ranked number one as an effective way of electing local body politicians.

Professor Janine Hayward (Politics) – along with Professor Jack Vowles from Victoria University – is researching what difference the single transferable vote (STV) system has made since it was introduced as an alternative to first past the post (FPP) in local government elections in 2004.

The research shows that STV makes elections more competitive: an average of one more person per contest will stand under STV than under FPP. Hayward and Vowles presume that this is at least partly because, under STV, some potential candidates are not put off by the vote splitting than can occur under FPP, and a greater diversity of candidates see a better chance of being elected.

They say that STV also ensures that mayors are not elected by a minority, and it can boost women’s representation by up to 10 per cent, although it does not seem to have a positive impact on Māori representation.

FPP supporters argue that STV’s candidate ranking system is confusing and turns people off voting, but Hayward and Vowles found that it makes little difference to voter turnout or confidence in the system.

Only a handful of city, district and regional councils currently use STV, but Hayward points out that they include many of the larger local bodies.

She and Vowles are making their initial findings known to local bodies that are considering changing their voting system, while they continue their research project.

Equitable modelling

Dr Melissa McLeod (centre) with Associate Prof Ricci Harris and Dr Anja Mizdrak: “We want to maximise any opportunities for improving health with every interaction with the health system.”

A new HRC-funded research project led by Dr Melissa McLeod (University of Otago, Wellington) aims to put equity for Māori at the heart of cost-effectiveness modelling.

McLeod (Ngāi Tahu) is a senior research fellow in the Department of Public Health’s Māori Health Research Centre, Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pōmare.

She says traditional modelling, which looks at the benefits of a health intervention over the entire population, ignores how those benefits are distributed, in terms of who gains the most and who gains the least.

“Often by not focusing on health equity, we put in programmes that make inequities worse than they were to start with. A good example was the decision to implement colorectal cancer screening ¬– which offered big improvements in health through the total population and improvements in health for Māori, but the benefits for non-Māori were far larger than the benefits for Māori.”

McLeod’s research will focus on cancer screening programmes, but the new modelling methods to be developed will be applicable to other health interventions too.
The research team will also work on ways to enable more than one health intervention to be modelled at a time.

“We want to maximise any opportunities for improving health with every interaction with the health system, so we want to combine interventions,” McLeod explains. “Rather than modelling the impact of colorectal cancer screening separately, we will look at the benefits of combining it with smoking cessation programmes, or screening for stomach cancer.”

Tourism and media narratives

Neil Carr
Professor Neil Carr: An analysis of social media narratives shows an increasing anti-tourism sentiment as the COVID-19 pandemic has played out.

Professor Neil Carr (Tourism) is analysing media representations of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications for the tourism industry.

He and co-researchers Dr Ismail Shaheer and David Adeloye, have been harvesting data from media releases and social media platforms since 31 December 2019 (when China reported the novel coronavirus in Wuhan).

Analysing narratives around international and domestic tourism in New Zealand is allowing them to track reactions to the threat of COVID-19. By observing the collective consciousness of the people through this prism, they hope to gauge tourism’s resilience in the face of emerging crises.

Initial findings showed that up until the third week in March 2020 social media narratives were mostly positive. “I am well aware of how resilient tourism is, but the fact that people were planning trips to New Zealand right up until the borders closed – even in the face of a global pandemic – is testament to this resilience,” says Carr.

However, as the pandemic played out these narratives changed, with results betraying a new anti-tourism sentiment.

While New Zealand is being seen as a pandemic safe haven, results have shown a growing panic in the tourism sector. Carr says emerging themes include disappointment as travel plans have been cancelled, fear and uncertainty among tourists, both positive and negative attitudes to tourists from locals, and a growing call for domestic tourism as a fallback strategy.

He hopes this pilot study will serve as a springboard for further research into tourism and contagious diseases in the context of media representations and disaster management.

Family impacts

Dr Ruqayya Suliman Hill
Dr Ruqayya Sulaiman-Hill: “We know those injured or present in the mosques had highly traumatic experiences… so we want to also understand the impact that living with these survivors has had on their close family members.”

The loved ones of those who survived the Christchurch mosque attacks are the focus of a new study at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

Dr Ruqayya Sulaiman-Hill has been funded by the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation to study the psychological, physical, cultural and social effects of supporting loved ones who were at the two mosques during the 2019 attacks.

Sulaiman-Hill and her team hope to interview around 250 adult family members of survivors. The study will also involve in-laws of those who died, acknowledging the strong sense of family responsibility common in Muslim communities, as many moved to Christchurch to provide support to close relatives after the attack.

Sulaiman-Hill says preliminary interviews with the loved ones of survivors have identified significant impacts.

“We know those injured or present in the mosques had highly traumatic experiences and many people believed they were about to die. Anyone from these groups are likely to be at risk of mental health disorders so we want to also understand the impact that living with these survivors has had on their close family members, which is likely to also be significant and prolonged.”

Clinical psychiatrists and psychologists, Muslim research assistants and specialist mental health nurses are part of the study group. Participants will be provided with appropriate mental health services and referrals for any other supports identified through the study.

Sulaiman-Hill is also involved in a HRC-funded study with Associate Professor Caroline Bell studying the mental health impacts on adults who survived the mosque attacks or lost loved ones on that day.