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Māori academic receives Rutherford Discovery Fellowship

Māori academic receives Rutherford Discovery Fellowship

When Associate Professor Melinda Webber was told she had been awarded a 2017 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society she couldn’t believe it.

She was driving in Epsom and had pulled over to the side of the road to take the call.

“I was almost breathless. I just sat in the car for a little while until I realised I had been holding my breath for ages.”

Melinda, (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaue), an Associate Professor in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, called the research her ‘heart project’ as the topics are so close to her heart. She asked herself, “If I wanted to make a difference for iwi Māori communities, and put iwi research, science and technologies on the international stage using my skills, what would be the best project to do?”

She also stated, “I am both humbled and proud to get this prestigious research award. It will enable me to work alongside iwi on a project grounded in Māori potential and success.”

Dr Webber specialises in Māori identity and the ways in which race, ethnicity and culture impact on young people. She is also the current Director of The Starpath Project for Tertiary Participation and Success which aims to improve educational achievement of Māori, Pacific and students from low socio-economic communities through research and evidence-based school interventions.

Melinda says her Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, which will provide up to $800,000 over five years to pursue her research, will fill a current knowledge gap by producing powerful narratives of iwi success, identity, and thriving that are unique and inspirational. This project will define and test models of success that put iwi role models/icons at the centre of that conceptualisation.

“Iwi identity can be a powerful and enduring aspect of self in te ao Māori and every iwi has its own distinct whakapapa, history, aspirations, and reputation. Consequently, pan-Māori approaches are insufficient when it comes to implementing targeted programmes to accelerate Māori innovation, science, and knowledge creation,” she says.

“Also, many educational policies stipulate that Māori students must have their cultural identity affirmed to be successful in educational contexts, yet none has explained what ‘success’ might look like from diverse iwi perspectives and few schools and universities have made iwi knowledge a priority in the education of Māori students.”

She will explore what constitutes success and aspiration from unique iwi perspectives. In doing so, her research will tackle an important question facing educators – ‘How can we foster cultural pride and academic aspiration among Māori students?’ – using culturally informed and iwi-determined research methods. She will examine the historical and contemporary icons of five iwi groups to discover what this tells us about enduring identity traits, iwi aspirations, and the tribal educational research programmes that support Māori student success. By accentuating iwi knowledge and agency, and seek to revitalize iwi knowledge bases and world views and make it a priority in the teaching of all New Zealand students.

After her Bachelor of Education and working as a teacher, Dr Webber returned to the University of Auckland to complete her PhD on the racial-ethnic identity of Māori, Pākehā, Samoan and Chinese secondary school students in Auckland. Her subsequent research and publications combine social psychology, identity development and Māori perspectives on education and methodology. She previously received a Marsden Fast Start grant and a Fulbright Scholarship to expand her research and international collaborations.

Melinda will still be part of campus life and be based at Epsom.

She thanked colleagues Associate Professor Katie Fitzpatrick, who received a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2014, and Nic Mason, for their support in her application.


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