Our People: Jenny Tukia

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Jenny Tukia

Fakaalofa lahi atu

I was a teacher in another life – a secondary school teacher in Niue, which is where my husband and I and our children came to New Zealand from.

In Niue, your career path was, to a certain extent, dictated by the needs of the island. If Niue needed doctors, scientists or teachers, they would pick out the brightest students and ask who wanted to work in science, or who wanted to be a doctor? The government would then pay for your tuition fees provided you came back to the island to work in your field.

I graduated with a Diploma in Education, majoring in Science, from the University of the South Pacific, in Fiji. I’d started studying towards an Education degree but life seemed to get in the way. It was at USP that I met my Tongan husband and, when we finished university, we went back to Niue.

After seven years of teaching, ultimately teaching Sixth Form Certificate Physics, my husband and I made the decision to move to New Zealand, mostly so that our children would have better opportunities than what was available to them in Niue.

For me it was a return to New Zealand. I was born here, to a Niuean dad and a Maori mum, one of eleven children. It was my dad who moved us back to Niue, when I was 13 years-old, so that he could take up a forestry role with the government.

It was a culture shock moving to Niue, having been spent my childhood in New Zealand. I remember us kids running to the post office every day to check for mail until we realised that the post was delivered on flights and only came once a week. Would’ve been nice for the postman to tell us.

And so in 1988, I made the return trip to New Zealand with my own family. While I had been teaching in Niue, which follows the New Zealand curriculum, the thought of retraining as a teacher, studying again, while also looking after three young children didn’t appeal.

So, most of my time I stayed at home, looking after my kids. I spent a year doing some work as a teacher aide which, funnily enough, is what would ultimately lead me to the University.

I started teacher aide work at Avondale College working in science classes and before long, I became something of a “go-to person”. Someone would call me and say that a technician was going on leave for three months and would I be interested in covering that role – this is how I ended up at Lynfield College and then Auckland Girls’ Grammar School.

At a time when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, the teacher aide roles really started to make things clear for me and so I told my husband, “I’m going to be a technician!” I knew the science being taught, I’m comfortable in a lab setting and I’m used to being around students. It made perfect sense to me.

Before long a job came up at the University, at the School of the Biological Sciences. It was only 20 percent laboratory work but enough of an opportunity for me. I actually missed out on the job at first but the person who beat me to it didn’t last long and I was offered the role a month later.

I made the most of the opportunities that came my way and pretty soon the job became mostly laboratory work. After about three years, I took up a role as a teaching technician to cover someone’s maternity leave, before I took up a role as a research technician at what was then known as the Paediatrics department (now part of the Liggins Research Institute).

While I enjoyed the research aspect of the role, my fundamental training is teaching and although we don’t “teach” as teaching technicians, we work alongside the students and that’s part of the enjoyment of the role.

As my luck would have it, a teaching technician’s role in physiology came up and after I met with the Manager, I had the job. I’ve been here for 14 years now.

The thing about physiology that I love is that it’s taught at so many levels and I seem to have an affinity for the molecular level, the DNA, which is what I do. It’s got enough repetition to make me an expert in what I do but it’s also got a practical element which I love, where we’re developing stuff for the labs. We do the experiments before the students do so that we know that they work.

This really is the best job for me. There’s been some luck involved in getting to here, and some of it is timing, but I think people saw that I had a lot of common sense and that I understand science and that I’m comfortable working with the students.

It really is the job I’ve always wanted.