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Maori student completes Masters degree in science

For Immediate Release
15 November, 2006

Maori student completes Masters degree in science

Rotorua's Erina Hingston (Ngati Manawa, Ngati Porou, Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa) graduated recently at the University of Waikato with a Masters degree with first class honours in molecular biology.

The former Head Girl of Rotorua Girls High School completed her Masters thesis while based at the Rotorua Crown Research Institute, Scion.

Her studies were supported with funding from the Tuapapa Putaiao Maori Fellowship, a Foundation for Research Science and Technology (FRST) initiative to encourage Maori students into post-graduate study.

Currently working as a researcher for Scion, Erina is seen as a role model for local students. She still maintains links with Rotorua Girls' High School to encourage those keen to pursue higher education.

"Lots of high school kids think you have to be really brainy to go to university, but I don't believe that. All you need is a teaspoon of talent and the rest is hard work.

"I've seen lots of supposedly brainy kids go nowhere, just because they weren't prepared to put in the effort."

When Erina began her Bachelors degree at the University of Waikato in 2001 she found that university wasn't as hard as she expected.

"High school is the hard bit, and it gets easier after that. At University you get to choose what you study and when, so it's much more fun," she says.

While student fees are seen as a major hurdle to many families, Erina says that scholarship funding is readily available to those who seek out the opportunities.

On leaving high school, Erina was keen to pursue a science career in medical research, but holiday work placements at Scion changed her perspective.

"I realised that you can learn all the same molecular techniques with plants as you can with humans or animals, but you can avoid dealing with blood and other samples that I don't particularly like," she laughs.

Her new-found interest in plant genetics led to a thesis which worked on specific genes in radiata pine responsible for building complex sugars as part of the plant cell wall.

"I have learned a broad range of molecular techniques in this project that can be applied to any living organism, so I now have the opportunity to work in many areas of molecular biology.

"I'm really lucky to work alongside top scientists at Scion who are always looking to improve their understanding of this world we live in."

One of Erina's research supervisors was Scion plant geneticist Dr Phillip Wilcox (Rongomaiwahine and Ngati Kahungunu) who says it is pleasing to support the professional development of a local student in a field where Maori are so under-represented.

"Science has strategic relevance to hapu and iwi, particularly as tribes go through the claims process and become more involved in resource management and economic development.

"It will become increasingly valuable to have well-qualified Maori, engaged with their iwi, to help make this participation more informed," Phil says.

The Cellwall Biotechnology Centre (CBC) at Scion works proactively with Tangata Whenua as part of our science programme, so Erina's involvement is seen as a win-win for everyone.

"Erina is bright and hard working with a genuine interest in science, which is what we look for in all of our new recruits," Phil says.

Penengaru Moke, who represents his hapu Ngati Hurangaterangi, in interactions with Scions' CBC unit, says it is important to have Maori at the cutting edge of research because it helps in the dissemination of knowledge to Maori, particularly in the biotechnology field.

"Things like genetic engineering often polarise Maori, so it is good to have our people working at the interface who are able to offer a non-biased viewpoint."

"Through a better understanding of the opportunities offered by new technologies, Maori will be able to reach beyond the basics of primary production."

Penengaru says that Erina was identified as a promising candidate for Te Arawa support due to her tribal links to Te Arawa, and her connection with the Rotorua community, as well as her outstanding academic achievements.

Erina's graduation last week marked the latest milestone in what she sees as an ongoing path of study and learning.

She attended the ceremony wearing the last korowai woven by her much loved and still missed grandmother, Mere White, who passed away earlier this year as Erina was completing her thesis.

"My late grandfather Jack White and Nan worked together on the korowai so it meant a lot to my family and I to have worn the korowai at all of our graduations (Arts Accounting Education and Science). The korowai envelops us with their love," Erina says.

ENDS

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