Dr Theresa Pankhurst says using what she knows how to benefit MÄori is her dream career.
Scientist Dr Theresa Pankhurst embarks on a journey through te ao Māori, but expects to encounter spiritual and emotional challenges along the way.
This is because after 10 years working in a pākehā academic setting, she had the opportunity to merge her biomedical research career with te ao Māori and to seek ways to address Maori health inequalities.
Pankhurst (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou) received the first Te Urungi Fellowship from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, established by its Maori Advisory Group.
It’s the first time she’s been able to put into words what she saw for her future in biomedical research even though she knew in her mind it “would look something like this,” the postdoctoral researcher said. .
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“Personally, going through a research journey up to this point, it’s all pretty mathematical…te ao Māori is about people. It’s people-based and it can conflict with the way we’re traditionally taught science,” she said.
This could present challenges because when reflecting on te ao Māori, it was all about whānau and whakapapa, Pankhurst said.
“It’s about thinking [about] where I come from, my tipuna, my ancestors; so to have something very empirical and mathematical and bring your whānau, your ancestry and your background to it – that for Maori is always a spiritual thing and things that are spiritual are often emotional.
Receiving the inaugural scholarship was “huge,” Pankhurst said, because there was no one whose path she could follow.
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“There was no existing framework until this scholarship was designed.”
The fellowship offered all the benefits of a traditional fellowship — like gaining international experience to broaden one’s reach — but was unique in that it will learn to develop one’s skills in a Maori setting, Pankhurst said.
She will spend two years on secondment at the Babraham Institute, University of Cambridge working with Dr Michelle Linterman, a leading researcher in the germinal center of B cell biology and vaccination.
“We’ve seen in New Zealand that Maori health issues need to be addressed and if there’s a way to take what I’m good at to help Maori then that’s my dream career. “
Over the next few months, Pankhurst will enhance her Māori reo and attend hui and other workshops to listen, learn and network as she seeks ways to better engage Maori communities, local iwi and hapu, Maori health service providers, communication networks and the media. .
She has spent the past few years working in immunology, and more recently worked on a Covid-19 booster.
Pankhurst began her PhD at Victoria University under Dr Lisa Connor in 2018, working on mucosal vaccines that can be delivered through the nasal passage to stop respiratory diseases when inhaled.
Two years later, the pandemic started “and all of a sudden the work I was doing became extremely relevant,” she said.
It also led her to join the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa NZ – a partnership between the university and the Malaghan Institute, and she worked on both influenza and Covid-19 for the remainder of her PhD.
Despite the fact that scientists generally know a pandemic is inevitable, “there was a pretty surreal element to it,” Pankhurst said.
Originally from Invercargill, she always visits the southern city to visit her nana and her whānau matriarch, Marjorie Manaena.
But she’s come a long way since winning $40 in her first science competition at the Southland Museum for growing mold in the closet.