Welcome to We Believe in Science, a regular Ensemble series partly inspired by Hillary Clinton's 2016 quote - but equally the incredible work of scientists and experts during this global pandemic.
We'll celebrate those championing facts, evidence, research and learned knowledge because now more than ever, in the age of Covid, Trumpism and wellness influencers, we know that these values are essential.
This week we meet Amy Maslen-Miller, a biologist focusing on indigenous agriculture who is currently preparing for her PhD. She’s also behind the Instagram account Sāmoan Scientist, launched as a way to show her journey as a Pasifika person in science and to encourage more diversity in the field.
“Science wasn't always a burning passion for me. At high school, I thought I wasn't smart enough because I failed a few of the science papers for the external NCEAS. But I realised I enjoyed the challenge, and I decided to continue with a bachelor of science at the University of Auckland.
I went to St. Mary's College, which was an all-girls school of 800 in Auckland. To go from a small school to university was quite scary because there's so many people. The process is just so different. But I felt more confident with the academic support from the University's Tuākana programme (a programme for Māori and Pasifika students) and the emotional support from my Mum.
Finishing my master of science three years ago, I proved to myself that I could do this and I could make a difference that will help people. I went to Sāmoa for two years to study taro with the Scientific Research Organisation of Sāmoa (SROS).
A starchy crop like potato, taro is a staple in Sāmoa; commonly boiled, fried or baked in an umu. Then a taro leaf blight (TLB) disease wiped out all of Samoa’s taro cultivars in 1993. At the time, taro was the largest export and source of revenue for Sāmoa. So it was devastating. My work in Sāmoa looked at the TLB disease. We already knew it infected the Sāmoan taro leaves but we wanted to see if it infected the Samoan taro we eat, the corm in the ground.
I was adopted into a New Zealand family and raised the Kiwi way. To go straight into Sāmoan culture was a big shock for me. It was difficult in the beginning having to learn the language, but I really enjoyed working with the scientists over there. There are so many amazing researchers in Sāmoa. And then, of course, the palm trees and the beaches are really nice. So it was an experience.
A new research paper has shown that 0.5-1.7 percent of scientists hired by universities and crown-research institutes are Pasifika or Māori. The universities put on a front that they're diverse, but the data is showing they don't have diversity within their STEMS and science groups. There is a need for more Pasifika and Māori scientists because we have a different perspective and a connection to the spaces around us.
We forget that there is a lot of indigenous knowledge. Today in Sāmoa, there are traditional healers, who use medicinal plants to help heal people.
I'm currently preparing for my PhD at the University of Auckland. I'm wanting to put research behind our Sāmoan traditional foods, including taro, to see whether or not these foods are healthy for us today. Currently, in the islands, people are buying fatty foods high in salt and sugar because it's cheap and easy. Unfortunately, a lot are suffering from non-communicable diseases such as diabetes. It's a real health issue because people are dying from eating the wrong foods.
It's important for me to go back to schools and speak about science, as I know what it was like not to know what you're passionate about and to not even know what a scientist does. I want to be the kind of person I didn't have when I was at school. You can’t be what you can’t see.
I created the Sāmoan Scientist Instagram account to create visibility and transparency – showing people what I do day-to-day. Scientists are here to answer the questions of the community, after all. If anyone has any questions, I'm always just a message away.”
Photographed for Ensemble by Olivia Renouf