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Milestone PhD graduation for Te Koronga in Otago’s 150th year

Wednesday 8 May 2019 11:36am

Chanel-beach-image
Chanel Phillips will graduate with her PhD on Saturday - the first student of Te Koronga to do so - and with an "exceptional" status to boot.

In 2013 Chanel Phillips (Ngāpuhi, Ngati Hine) was one of the first students of Te Koronga, the Māori postgraduate research excellence group created within the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences.

This week, Te Koronga has a lot to celebrate as not only is Ms Phillips the first PhD candidate to graduate, but her thesis exploring Māori perspectives of water safety has been placed on the Sciences Divisional List of Exceptional Doctoral Theses.

The List, established in 2007, comprises only those doctoral candidates whose research is assessed by examiners as being of an exceptional standard in every respect – research content, originality, quality of expression, and accuracy of presentation – and is amongst the top 10 per cent of theses examined.

Professor Chris Button, Head of the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences and co-supervisor of Ms Phillips, says her thesis was one of the most stimulating, provocative, and innovative pieces of work he has read.

"As Māori students we have that contention around what is science as we draw on our own knowledge systems, so Te Koronga is the perfect space to explore those links and blends between mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and western science."

“I am so pleased she has received this recognition for the exceptional quality of her thesis and I’m sure this will be a springboard for a highly successful career in academia,” he adds.

Ms Phillips says that on reflection Te Koronga has been a safe place to develop a sense of belonging and identity, allowing a foundation to explore what science means from Te Ao Māori.

“As Māori students we have that contention around what is science as we draw on our own knowledge systems, so Te Koronga is the perfect space to explore those links and blends between mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and western science,” Ms Phillips says.

This journey of belonging, and its close relationship with identity, is what connects Ms Phillips' research with communities exploring Māori perspectives and understanding of water safety.

Her research was driven by the over-representation of Māori in New Zealand drowning statistics but Ms Phillips explains there is very little other information to accompany these numbers which in isolation don’t tell the whole story.

A typical western approach when addressing water safety issues may focus, for example, on the use of life jackets and adult supervision.

“While these approaches do have a place, the kaupapa of my research was on strengthening our relationship with water, which essentially is about connecting to who we are and how our identity is embedded in water.

“Water safety for Māori is also about a journey to belonging. If we strengthen that relationship, then we are nurturing knowledge, understanding and respect to water in all its forms.”

For her research, Ms Phillips worked closely with iwi, hapū and whānau communities whose lives are intertwined with the rivers, estuaries and oceans of the Rangitīkei district, East Otago region and the Hawkes Bay.

"Water safety for Māori is also about a journey to belonging. If we strengthen that relationship, then we are nurturing knowledge, understanding and respect to water in all its forms."

“I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to have worked alongside Maripi Tuatini of Ngāti Apa Ngā Wairiki iwi, Hauteruruku ki Puketeraki waka club of Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki hapū and the Makaore whānau in Hastings with Te Taitimu Trust.”

With each of these communities Ms Phillips explored connection to water through one of three concepts based around whakapapa (genealogy), whanaungatanga (building relationships to people and place), and wairua (spirit).

“We explored each community’s connections to their water, drawing on iwi and hapū derived mātauranga such as pēpeha (tribal sayings), pūrākau (stories and narratives), whakataukī (proverbial sayings), mōteatea (traditional chant) and karakia (incantation), and the application of this traditional knowledge in practice through tikanga (custom, protocol) adhered to in the water.

“These types of oral narratives, and even the names given to water bodies, are a blueprint of our ancestors’ knowledge of place and contain coded messages for us to reinterpret in our context today.”

The research developed a strong picture of Māori perspectives of water safety, so future solutions and directions can be grounded in it.

Ms Phillips says the strength of the research was directly attributable to the relationships nurtured with the three communities who hold local knowledge of their waterways, regarded as taonga (treasure).

“Communities share their knowledge, and the responsibility of the researcher is to unravel what that looks like, but the most important part is giving back,” Ms Phillips says.

She took that responsibility seriously, including live-streaming a talk she gave in Canada back to the communities in NZ so they could listen and be engaged in the conversation.

The strength of this relationship was also present in the support of her whānau during her PhD oral examination, which included a kaumātua representative from the three communities, and 13 others.

"Her research has contributed to thinking and applications in Māori water safety which is being taken up within her community groups, as well as changes in national policy. Chanel has a long and successful career ahead of her."

Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, Co-Director of Te Koronga and primary supervisor for the research, says Ms Phillips exemplifies Māori research excellence in her level of scholarship and in who she is as a person.

“Chanel puts the aspirations of her communities at the centre of her research and is a seen face in the work she undertakes,” Dr Jackson says.

“Her research has contributed to thinking and applications in Māori water safety which is being taken up within her community groups, as well as changes in national policy. Chanel has a long and successful career ahead of her.”

Ms Phillips completed her research with support from a Health Research Council of New Zealand Māori PhD Scholarship worth $120,000.

After submitting her thesis in October 2018, Ms Phillips was appointed as co-director of Te Koronga with Dr Anne-Marie Jackson, which now has around 20 tauira (students).

Ms Philips says her role will focus on growing capacity and support for early career Māori researchers post PhD, and growing undergraduate involvement which till now has been postgraduate-based.

“Through Te Koronga I want to provide a pathway for the next generation, in a way that was given to me,” she says.

“If we ground ourselves in who we are and provide a sense of belonging, you can find your place anywhere.”