Pacific scientist wins Cranwell Medal
15 November 2023
Tongan immunologist Chris Puli’uvea thrilled to win the prestigious Cranwell Medal for excellence in science communication, but celebrations will have to wait.
Chris Puli’uvea received the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ (NZAS) award, alongside fellow researcher, virologist Dr Natalie Netzler (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Hāuā) for their outstanding contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic, informing Māori and Pacific communities.
The association acknowledged the duo’s impressive communication efforts, alongside their focus on communities that are often not directly served by many science communication efforts.
“When we got nominated for the Cranwell, says Puli’uvea. “I thought, no way are we going to get through this, these guys are top dogs! When we were told… [I thought] do they have the right person?”
The researchers paired up almost three years ago after requests from communities desperate for information. “People needed translation, not just language but also terminology, they didn’t understand what was being said at press conferences. GPs wanted a tailored explanation of the terms being used.”
Puli’uvea remembers being in the middle of his doctoral studies at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, attempting to juggle the extra work - attending numerous hui/fono, producing educational videos in multiple languages and crucially, translating information into simple terms. There was also the delivery of more than 100 online outreach presentations to community forums.
“What really got me, was we were going out to fono, and it wasn’t just everyday people from the community with questions, there were also clinicians, Pacific GPs wanting information they could easily pass on.”
He felt the pressure of having to push pause on his own work while he and Dr Netzler ensured Māori and Pacific communities, including front line health workers, were well informed to support decision-making around vaccination.
“While most people were able to take a break during lockdown, we were holed up in our home offices, working long days on zoom meetings, missing out on our families. I was working on my PhD at the time and my supervisor told me, this might be more important, answering the call from my community.”
However, the Tongan-born scientist says celebrating will have to wait, as he completes the last step toward gaining his doctorate (a final oral examination) the day after the award ceremony.
“I’m stoked to get this; I’m still pinching myself but it’s bittersweet because the next day I’ll be defending my thesis,” meaning he’ll be focused on answering questions about his research. It investigates the unique variation of Māori and Pacific genes, and how these impact the immune system.
He acknowledged the sacrifice from his wife and son during the lockdowns, allowing him to serve the Pacific community throughout Aotearoa. Puli’uvea was also full of praise for his colleague Dr Netzler who endured online abuse, particularly from groups opposed to vaccination, primarily he believed because of her gender.
“It was tough, I can’t think of anything else because I never got that. It got to the point where we felt like, none of us signed up for this… but we knew if we were not going to do it, who would?”
The newly appointed Auckland University of Technology immunologist lecturer noted the proactiveness of the Pacific community sparked the work he and Dr Netzler undertook.
“Sometimes the media portray the Pacific Island people - they don’t care, they don’t engage. Actually, our people reached out asking for information, asking for help… they do care about other people, they do care about our communities.”
Kim Meredith | Pacific media adviser
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