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Thursday 4 May 2023 10:14am

Dianne Sika-Paotonu award image
Minister of Research, Science and Innovation Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall with Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu at the awards ceremony in Wellington on 1 May.

Associate Professor Dianne Sika-Paotonu is the first Pacific scientist to win the 2022 Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize.

An Associate Professor of Biomedical and Health Sciences in immunology and Associate Dean (Pacific) on the Wellington campus, Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu has been a leading voice during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a New Zealander of Tongan descent, she has been one of the few Pacific voices qualified to speak in detail on the 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.

She was nominated for the award by Professor Parry Guilford, the Director of the University of Otago's Centre for Translational Cancer Research. He says Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu stood out as a sensible and informed commentator during the pandemic.

“Her knowledge has always been expressed with grace and empathy for her audience. She is a highly effective communicator who takes her audience with her.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu has given more than 220 broadcast media interviews and contributed to more than 1,500 online and print media stories. She was also a member of Stuff's expert advisory panel for The Whole Truth: COVID-19 Vaccination project which promoted evidence-based information about the vaccine. Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu was also involved with The Whole Truth: Te Māramatanga series on public health topics prone to misinformation.

She says clear, helpful, evidence-based, and timely science communication is vital for countering misinformation and disinformation.

“It's important to understand your audience and its needs, provide useful and helpful information and communicate that appropriately.”

She has led and hosted outreach events and activities, including Pacific Fono and Talanoa gatherings to support inclusion, engagement, and appropriate communication with Pacific communities and with other groups. Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu also regularly presents to international audiences. These efforts collectively have added strength to her research and teaching work.

She says communicating science involves connecting with people and is grateful for opportunities to share her work across research, teaching and cultural settings, as well as publicly. One of the key factors of importance to her involves listening to others to learn how scientists can do better.

The Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize comes with $75,000 in prize money and Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu plans to use the funds to support students and young people in the health, education, and research sectors to become the next generation of science communicators. She also plans to continue her work communicating science to the public and Pacific communities.

She attributes her commitment to giving back and contributing to society to her upbringing and her faith.

“My parents gave up everything to ensure that my brother and I had opportunities that they never had, so I carry that sense of responsibility to ensure I'm doing my part to give back and contribute to society. It is very important for me to be of service to Pacific communities in Aotearoa and the Pacific region.”

Otago's Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, Professor Richard Blaikie, says the University is exceptionally proud of the recognition for Associate Professor Sika-Paotonu, who joins the ranks of some of the best science communicators from Aotearoa and the Pacific.

“Her humble, thoughtful and respectful approach to communication means that her messages have been very well received by the communities of interest. It is also an outstanding mark of her character and commitment that she intends to use the funds from this prestigious award to support others.”

Associate-Professor Sika-Paotonu has received numerous awards for her research work. She was awarded the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) Cranwell Medal for science communication for 2020, the first Pacific biomedical scientist to receive the award. She is also a Fulbright New Zealand Scholar, providing the opportunity for her to collaborate with colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Oklahoma over her research into acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease, conditions which disproportionately affect indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific region.

The Government introduced the Prime Minister's Science Prizes in 2009 as a way of raising the profile and prestige of science within Aotearoa. They are administered by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

The Science Communication Prize is awarded to a practising scientist who can demonstrate an interest, passion and aptitude for science communication and public engagement, or to someone who has developed expertise in public engagement or communicating complex scientific or technological information to the public or science community.

Professor Michael Baker from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington, was the 2020 winner of the Science Communication Prize.

For more information about the Prime Minister's Science Prizes, click here.

- Kōrero by Cheryl Norrie, Communications Adviser, Wellington

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