7 August, 2020
The MacDiarmid Institute DiscoveryCamp gives Māori and Pasifika high school students a taste of life as a scientist. Teuila Fuatai finds the experience often leads to much more.
First published in The Spinoff.
Eden Skipper loves eeling. “It is a family tradition,” he says proudly. The 22-year-old of Ngāi Tahu descent grew up on the east coast of Canterbury, near Lake Wairewa where his whānau catch tuna (eels) every year.
At school, he had a strong interest in physics, chemistry, and statistics, so studying science at university was a logical step. He completed a Bachelor of Science in Statistics at the University of Canterbury last year, and began his current role at the Ministry for the Environment just before the level four lockdown.
Skipper, whose official title is policy analyst, draws an interesting link between his science background and where he’s landed in the workforce. That journey started with his experience as a high school student at the 2015/16 MacDiarmid Institute DiscoveryCamp.
“What I liked most was that we actually went into facilities and we met some of the leading researchers and were able to put science into application,” Skipper says.
“It’s being able to look into some of the very high-level, technical stuff and then look at how they’re put into application – see how it works in a commercial setting.”
Skipper is one of hundreds of Māori and Pasifika students who have attended the MacDiarmid Institute Discovery summer camps over the past decade. The fully funded, residential programmes provide year 12 and 13 students hands-on lab and research experience with top scientists.
They are among a raft of initiatives at the MacDiarmid Institute targeting low numbers of Māori and Pasifika people in the science workforce (less than 2%). A new research paper, released this week, also showed that the overall percentage of both Māori and Pasifika scientists at universities and crown research institutes stagnated in the past 10 years. Published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, the research highlighted a serious lack of understanding among HR departments about ethnicity and diversity. One university also said it had not employed any Māori and Pasifika academics in its science department between 2008 to 2018.
That inequity in representation has also been recognised by the government, which pledged in 2018 to support diversity initiatives in the sciences. This year, the MacDiarmid Institute also announced a new set of university scholarships specifically for Māori and Pasifika students studying physical sciences, Māori sciences or sciences related to sustainable innovation.
Skipper says his experience at the camp helped set in motion his degree path, and subsequent job focus. “After the camp I realised that academia or research wasn’t actually the right pathway. Not to say that science wasn’t – I chose statistics which is still a science,” he says.
“But a lot of the work that I had seen, you needed a PhD, and you had to be researching for 10 years. As much as I was interested in those areas, I wasn’t willing to commit to that.”
He leaned into studying the science of decision making, which for him utilised his passion for statistics and frameworks. It set him up with a unique set of skills for policy analysis, and Skipper points to his time at DiscoveryCamp as integral to forming that broad perspective.
“I think science is a very strong foundation for lots of different things,” he says. “A lot of times people stick to their lanes. For example, with policy – people tend to study law and a few other arts majors. It seems channelled or focused. But diversity of thought is important. And now that I’m in a policy space, I can actually apply the science knowledge I have.”
Lizzie Tafili, an attendant at the 2014 DiscoveryCamp, has another interesting perspective from her summer experience. The 24-year-old, who is of Sāmoan and Pālagi descent, grew up on the Kapiti Coast.
“In year 13, my chemistry teacher gave me the form to apply for the camp. I never thought I’d get it but I did – it was so exciting.”
That summer, the programme focused on a two-week work experience stint. Tafili was paired with another student and worked at Callaghan Innovation in Gracefield, Lower Hutt.
“We had to design a super conductor. We got to build it, and asked different people around the building – who did different things – and learnt lots. Being in that environment, it really felt like Disneyland for a kid who loved science.”
Like Skipper, Tafili says the exposure to a variety of future career paths was a camp highlight and something that helped her decide what she wanted to do with her passion for science.
“I think in high school, if you enjoy science, the main job or career that you hear about is being a doctor. You don’t really realise there’s so many other possibilities in science,” she says. “It was really valuable insight into what a job in science can look like after you complete your degree.”
She went on to complete a degree in biomedical science at the University of Victoria, Wellington while continuing to work with youth – another one of her passions. When she finished her studies, Tafili says an opportunity in youth work in Whanganui resulted in an “unexpected turn”.
“I had a cool opportunity to move to a new place and do a lot of community work. I live in Whanganui and work at an intermediate school. I still really love science and I still think about it, and I do think I’ll go back to it at some point.”
At the moment, she is also studying for her diploma in youth work. She notes her science background continues to be relevant in her current job.
“I think, with my science background, there’s perspectives that I bring to my youth work. And I love maths and science, so if there’s ever an opportunity, I gladly talk about maths and science and the opportunities they can bring and why that’s valuable.”
Renee Harris attended the most recent DiscoveryCamp. The 18-year-old is a first-year science student at the University of Otago. She grew up in Dunedin and has Fijian and Pākehā heritage.
For Harris, DiscoveryCamp was a chance to explore her culture as she met other Pasifika students.
“I didn’t have a lot of Pacific influence growing up. So this camp was good opportunity for me to embrace that side of my culture. I met some amazing people, and got to see where a science career could take you. It was so nice to see other like-minded students, especially Pasifika students,” she says.
Harris wants all students interested in science to apply for the camp. She attended while completing the online portion of her summer school papers.
“There was a bit of a juggling act, but I managed.” Currently, she is leaning towards majoring in genetics, possibly with a future career in genetic counselling or plant biotechnology.
“But honestly, the opportunities are endless,” she says.
“Anyone who is even remotely interested in science should definitely apply for this camp because you might find something that you never considered, and it can lead to a really fulfilling career.”
If you or someone you know is in year 12 or 13 and has a passion for science, they can apply for the 2021 DiscoveryCamp here. All flights, accommodation and activities are paid.