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Associate Professor Dianne Sika-Paotonu

Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu is looking forward to progressing and enhancing Otago’s Pacific focus for the Health Sciences Division in her new role.

Associate Professor Dianne Sika-Paotonu will be taking on the role of Associate Dean (Pacific) for the Division of Health Sciences.

Based in the Dean’s Department at the Wellington campus, she has been with the University for five years working in a variety of functions, including as the Associate Dean (Pacific) of the Wellington campus.

“She is an ideal candidate for the position, bringing her wide range of academic expertise to the role,” Health Sciences Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Trish Priest says.

“Her significant research outputs and teaching initiatives have led to her receiving several prestigious awards and her passionate advocacy for Pacific health equity issues can be clearly identified in her research and the time she spends mentoring Pacific students.”

Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu says she is appreciative of the opportunity to progress work by Dr Xaviour Walker who she is replacing, and who made an outstanding, significant, and positive contribution during his appointment.

He left a noticeable mark with his proactive and meaningful engagement with Pacific staff and students, and we are most thankful for all his hard work, she says.

She aims to continue this momentum with the role, and over time support further growth.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to ensure continuation of Otago’s Pacific focus for the Health Sciences Division, and fully committed to supporting Otago achieve its strategic vision and goals for Pacific within Aotearoa New Zealand, and the Pacific region.

“Training, educating and building health and research workforces that are appropriately skilled, equipped and also reflective of our communities here in Aotearoa New Zealand, remain ongoing priorities.

High quality research that demonstrates scientific and clinical relevance and contributes towards addressing health inequities and improved health outcomes for impacted and affected communities, is also important.”

Knowledge translation and dissemination activities associated with research work that connects and engages impacted groups and communities within Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific region is essential, she says.

“I look forward to working alongside others in progressing work to extend Otago’s reach and impact, by also supporting visible Pacific leadership, inclusion, representation, teaching, research and engagement at the University of Otago.”

Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu originally came to the University of Otago after working as an academic at Victoria University, further developing her research work into rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease as the Scientific Lead of the Rheumatic Fever and Penicillin Research Programme.

Her research career included the completion of a PhD in Immunology at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, spending her time there exploring how to improve cancer vaccines to generate stronger immune responses against cancer. Her current focus also includes heart health equity and infectious diseases, and early cancer detection for vulnerable communities.

The work on rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease would ultimately lead to her receiving a Fulbright Scholarship in 2020, enabling travel to Harvard University and the University of Oklahoma to further her research in this area.

Her scientific research efforts have been strengthened through partnerships and collaborations with Pacific and Māori communities, with a strong focus on addressing inequities and promoting respectful communication and research approaches, to ensure appropriate engagement and inclusion occurs.

One of her most notable achievements include being the first Pacific scientist to win the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize in 2022.

She received the award for being a leading voice during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing regular, clear and helpful explanations through print and broadcast media of the technical aspects of immunology, vaccines, the SARS-CoV-2 virus and infectious diseases.

During this time, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she also led and hosted outreach events, including Pacific Fono and Talanoa gatherings to support inclusion, engagement and appropriate communication with Pacific communities.

She has been the recipient of many other awards, including the MacDiarmid New Zealand Young Scientist Award for advancing Human Health and Wellbeing (2008), Colmar Brunton NZ Research Excellence Award (2008), Australasian Society of Immunology Science Communication Award (2008), Australasian Society of Immunology Buck Memorial Award (2008), Health Research Council of New Zealand's Sir Thomas Davis Te Patu Kite Rangi Ariki Health Research Fellowship (2018), Tuia Tangata Award University of Otago Wellington (2020), New Zealand Association of Scientists Cranwell Medal for Science communication (2020), Association of Adventist Women Woman of the Year (2021), Fulbright Scholarship (2020), and Te Puiaki Whakapā Pūtaiao Science Communication Prize (2022).

Kōrero by the Division of Health Science Communications Adviser, Kelsey Schutte.

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