Neurobiologist - Melanie Cheung

The Tuākana programme helped Melanie to find her University whānau and reinforced her identity as a Ngāti Rangitihi woman.

Career: Neurobiologist and senior research fellow with the Centre for Brain Research
Programme: Bachelor of Science majoring in Biological Sciences, Master of Science specialising in Biochemistry, PhD in Pharmacology

“I am a senior research fellow at Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland, and I am currently working as the Principal Investigator for the FightHD project.

"I work with Mike Merzenich, a pioneer in neuroplasticity, and his San Francisco-based team of neuroscientists and computer engineers developing a novel brain plasticity-based training programme for Māori with Huntington’s disease.

"It turns out that with computer programming, the job is never finished! So our team are continually testing and improving the programme. We are also working with Māori communities to test its effectiveness.

“I manage a team of New Zealand-based scientists and clinicians to test the efficacy of this Huntington’s disease treatment. We measure hundreds of biological, magnetic resonance imaging, cognitive and psychiatric markers in our participants from eight large Māori Huntington’s disease families from all over New Zealand (neuroplasticity-based vs cognitive training) and ensure that they are well cared for.

“Most of my team are world-class scientists and clinicians who are much more senior than me. So my biggest challenge is keeping everyone motivated and on task. Emma Lambert who I worked with in the School of Biological Sciences Tuākana is our project coordinator. Similarly, another SBS Tuākana alumnus, Dr Kimiora Henare, supports many of our research activities.

“As a student, the Tuākana programme marked a turning point in my life. I was 24, I had returned to University four years after being kicked out for failing all my courses two consecutive years in a row, my life was a mess, so I wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to become a tutor. But I was asked to be a Tuākana tutor.

"It’s amazing what a person can achieve when somebody believes in them. It turned out that I love to teach. I found new purpose. I started to work harder in my studies because I didn’t want to let anyone down.

"One of the highlights of Tuākana for me was developing culturally-responsive methods of teaching biology, which involve collective learning and writing waiata about biology. That is something that I am most proud of.

"In fact, the only way that I have ever learnt matauranga Māori is through waiata and moteatea. When my students told me that they could tell which part the other students were up to in their exam because they could see them singing, well I was completely overwhelmed and so, so very happy. I feel very proud of every one of my students that passed their courses and went on to do wonderful things. I love hearing from them about what they are doing now.

“I think teaching in Tuākana tutorials really reinforced my identity as a Ngāti Rangitihi woman. For the first time at university, I felt like I belonged. I had finally found my university whānau!”