Variant Bio
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Variant Bio

A Year in the Life of a Māori Geneticist

Anezka Hoskin. Gisborne, New Zealand. May 2020. Photo Credit: Taylor Terekia

This guest post by Anezka Hoskin is the first of a new series from Variant titled Spotlight on Global Genomics, which aims to highlight diverse perspectives on genomics around the world.

I come from a large family of ten children. We are often told by strangers that we don’t look anything alike. So when I was introduced to the concepts of genetic variation and inheritance in high school, it sparked an interest in me because it explained how my siblings and I look so different even though we have the same parents. Since then, my ambitions in the field of medical genetics have been shaped by the experiences of my family and my people: the Māori people of New Zealand. I have three tribal affiliations: Ngati Kahu, Ngati Porou, and Te-Aitanga-a-Hauiti.

Locations of the Ngati Kahu, Ngati Porou, and Te-Aitanga-a-Hauiti iwi (the Māori word for tribe) on New Zealand’s north island. Image credit: Wikipedia

In 2015 my younger sister, Halim, nearly lost her life due to undiagnosed type 1 diabetes. Following that frightening incident I dedicated myself to the field of medical genetics, promising her that I would “look into it.” I was very disheartened to realise that Māori and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand have some of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes and related conditions in the world.¹ Yet there is a tremendous lack of Māori participants in genetic studies as well as principle investigators, lab technicians, and students. My devotion to the field of medical genetics has transformed from the love I have for my sister to the love I have for my people and my burning desire for equity in science. The field of genomic medicine has the potential to provide new insights to complex diseases and new treatments. I will make certain that Māori and Indigenous communities benefit from these medical advances by protecting and prioritizing them in genetic studies.

My devotion to the field of medical genetics has transformed from the love I have for my sister to the love I have for my people and my burning desire for equity in science.

Here are three key lessons I have learnt during my last year as a genetics graduate student.

1. Science communication and education is just as important as the research

Science Wānanga 2019, Hauiti Marae, Tolaga Bay, New Zealand. Over 50 young people attended a three-day science education camp/wānanga. This was the first time I ever taught genetics on my own tribal lands. We are sitting in front of the local carved meeting house. Photo credit: Anezka Hoskin

Māori communities in New Zealand have limited exposure to and resources for teaching westernized science. Taking what I have learnt during my studies back into the community is one way I can immediately influence my people. The University of Otago runs a program called Science Wānanga. Wānanga are a multi-day style of learning that predate European arrival in New Zealand. A group of science researchers, students, and cultural support staff from the University of Otago travel to rural Māori communities to deliver science modules to Māori youth between the ages of 11–14 years old. The wānanga are held in local marae (meeting places) such as the one pictured above. Meeting communities in their own environments and teaching science topics that they themselves select is important for catering to their specific needs and contexts. Science can be carried out in any environment or language, not just in an English-speaking lab on a university campus.

Science education and exposure to Māori scientists for youth in New Zealand is critical to increase Māori representation in the field of genetics.

In 2019, Science Wānanga gave me the opportunity, for the first time ever, to teach genetics on my tribal lands. This was a dream come true for me and a very significant moment in my career. We taught kids how to extract DNA from strawberries and about indigenous selective breeding of crops like corn, kumara (sweet potato), and wheat. Science education and exposure to Māori scientists for youth in New Zealand is critical to increase Māori representation in the field of genetics. While my primary focus is on doing genetic research, it is opportunities like Science Wānanga that keep me motivated and fill my heart with joy.

2. Don’t be camera shy: use media opportunities to shape social narratives around genetics

Working in the lab of Dr. Tony Merriman at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. 500 genomes of individuals from the same tribe as me are stored here. Knowing that my relatives are present with me in my work space is both a cautionary warning and an encouraging motivator. Photo credit: Native Affairs, Māori Television

Although it can be nerve racking to talk about my work on camera, it is so important to shape the narratives of our results (so that others cannot). Previous studies in New Zealand with Māori participants have resulted in the propagation of negative social stereotypes. Learning to step outside of my comfort zone and articulate my results for a wide range of audiences has been rewarding and satisfying. Here is a link to an interview with Māori Television about my Master’s project — investigating Polynesian genetics involved in metabolic diseases.

Following the interview with Māori Television, I was contacted by an elderly Māori man, let’s call him John. John informed me that he was a whakapapa (genealogy) expert for his tribe. He was taught by his grandparents about the family trees of his tribe hundreds of years in the past, dating back to the first people who arrived in New Zealand. John was convinced by a family member to participate in a DNA ancestry test. When his results came back he was incredibly confused because they used labels like Polynesian and Melanesian that he had never heard before.

As geneticists we need to understand and accommodate the different forms of knowledge that already exist in Indigenous communities.

John had attempted many times to have the results of his test explained to him but was becoming increasingly frustrated. I spent over an hour on the phone with him explaining that the genetic results he received confirmed what he already knew. Genetics will never be able to provide him with the same depth and meaning of ancestry that his cultural knowledge provides. As geneticists we need to understand and accommodate the different forms of knowledge that already exist in Indigenous communities.

3. Recognize opportunities to learn

My first day working at the Te Rangawairua o Paratene Ngata Research Center in the Te Puia Spring Hospital. Te Puia Springs, New Zealand. November 2018. Photo Credit: Ngati Porou Hauora

While working as a research assistant for Ngati Porou Hauora (a tribal health care provider) I had the opportunity to use my research skills to serve my tribe. I was based in Te Puia Springs at the only tribal-run hospital in New Zealand. Te Rangawairua o Paratene Ngata is a research center named after Dr. Paratene Ngata, the doctor who began a genetic research relationship with Professor Tony Merriman, my supervisor at the University of Otago, over a decade ago. This opportunity gave me a glimpse into my future of working with my own people in a research space.

However, during this time I was also exposed to the barriers that Indigenous health organizations experience when working with outside researchers. The lack of diversity in science, lack of funding, and lack of respect for Indigenous health care providers convinced me to pursue a PhD. All three of these barriers can be addressed with more Māori geneticists with research skills and resources working in the field of genetics. I want to be a primary investigator on genetic projects in New Zealand that prioritize and protect Māori communities.

With the support of my family and tribe I have decided to complete my PhD in the Genetics Department at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. I am extremely grateful to have received a New Zealand Fulbright Science and Innovation award and a Stanford Graduate Fellowship to make this goal achievable.

“E tipu e rea mo ngā rā o tō ao. Ko tō ringa ki ngā rākau ā te Pakeha Hei ara mō tō tinana. Ko tō ngākau ki ngā tāonga a ō tīpuna Māori.”

Grow up and thrive for the days destined to you. Your hands to the tools of the Europeans to provide physical sustenance, your heart to the treasures of your Māori ancestors.

Sir Apirana Ngata, Ngati Porou (1874–1950)

My PhD studies will continue to be guided by this whakatauki (proverb) said by Sir Apirana Ngata, a great Ngati Porou rangatira (leader). Sir Apirana Ngata was the first Māori to complete a degree at a New Zealand university. He was a prominent Māori politician who fought for the rights of our people and revitalisation of Māori culture and language. Inspired by people like Sir Apirana Ngata, I will continue to fight for the health of our people by using both the treasures of our ancestors and the modern tools of genetics.

Anezka Hoskin. In front of the Clock Tower at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. January 2020. Photo credit: Jaye Moors

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Variant Bio is developing therapies that will improve global health by studying the genes of people who are outliers for medically relevant traits.

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Anezka Hoskin

Anezka Hoskin

I am a Māori geneticist living in New Zealand, completing my Master’s degree at the University of Otago.

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