Siobhan Tu'akoi

Siobhan discusses her groundbreaking research into non-communicable disease risk in the Cook Islands.

Close-up of Siobhan Tu'akoi delivering a conference presentation.

Programme: PhD in Health Sciences
Research topic: Oraanga Meitaki: Exploring how early-life exposures relate to later non-communicable disease risk in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Supervisors: Prof Mark Vickers & Dr Jacquie Bay
Academic unit: Liggins Institute
Funding: Health Research Council - Pacific Health Research PhD Scholarship

Hello! Tell us a little about yourself.

Malo e lelei! I am a Tongan New Zealander, the second youngest of four siblings born and raised in Hamilton. Education is very important in our family and so, while I didn’t know what kind of career I wanted after high school, I knew I wanted to follow in my siblings footsteps and go to University. Growing up, I was always concerned with the high number of health issues that disproportionately affected Pacific people. I witnessed the devastating impacts even in my own extended family. For this reason I became interested in health inequities and decided to pursue a career in public health. I was lucky enough to receive a University of Auckland Chancellor’s Award for Māori and Pacific Scholars that paved my way into tertiary study. I graduated with a Bachelor of Health Sciences alongside my eldest brother, who graduated as a medical doctor. By then, I had discovered an interest in Pacific health research and so decided to continue my educational journey as a doctoral candidate.

Find out more: Pacific Health Research PhD Scholarships

Siobhan and 5 family members at graduation. Siobhan and her borther are wearing graduateion capes, morter boards and traditional Tongan wraps.
Graduation day with my eldest brother and family

Tell us about your journey to doctoral studies.

If I’m being honest, doing a PhD had never crossed my mind until a few months before I started. I first got a taste of research when I did a summer studentship in undergrad to earn money and develop my academic skills. I was accepted for a project at the Liggins Institute with the LENScience team, who were doing great health programmes in the Cook Islands, Tonga and New Zealand. Looking back, this studentship was one of my most valuable experiences. I gained insight into Pacific community research, learned statistical and writing skills and even got to travel to the Cook Islands to see the positive impacts of our research. The experience was so rewarding and challenging that I decided to expand it into my Honours project. After that, my supervisors encouraged me to think about doing a PhD. I had never planned to do one, but now being able to see the real impact of my research in Pacific communities, I can’t imagine having done anything else.

Find out more: LENScience

...knowing that your work can have a positive impact on Pacific communities is both a privilege and an extra sense of motivation.

Tell us about your doctoral research.

My research is based in Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands. It looks at how the factors in someone’s early-life (e.g. birth weight, nutritional environment in the womb) can influence later risk for non-communicable diseases – things like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. While this concept has been explored across many different countries, no research has been conducted in Pacific nations, whose people have some of the highest rates of non-communicable diseases globally.

I work alongside the Cook Islands Ministries of Health and Education to measure health factors in all Year 9 students over three years – things like BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. I then access these students’ birth records at Rarotonga Hospital to gain information about their early-life. Matching these two data sets allows us to see how the early-life environment of a child can link to how healthy they grow up to be. Perhaps one of my favourite parts of this PhD (and arguably the most important) is ensuring this data is given back to the community via knowledge translation. One way I am doing this is by combining the local data I have collected with international evidence to produce an early-life nutrition booklet for new mothers and families. Part of this process involved interviewing many groups in Rarotonga to ensure the resource was culturally and contextually Cook Islands specific.

Siobhan and three other women sitting around a table, drinking from coconuts. Siobhan and another woman are wearing flower headdresses.
Cook Islands Annual Health Conference

What does ‘research’ look like to you?

In my project, research can mean anything! Sometimes it means I am in Rarotonga measuring the blood pressure of 400 students alongside the Ministry of Health. Sometimes my research involves me spending days in Rarotonga Hospital trawling through dusty, handwritten birth record books to find information. Sometimes it means I travel around the island (all 32km of it) and talk to community groups, government staff and traditional leaders about their views on the best way to make a Cook Islands health resource. When I am in New Zealand, I am likely glued to my desk and inundated with data that needs to be sorted, analysed and written up into papers. Publishing academic papers is a key way to get your research known in the academic space and so far I have published one article.

Read Siobhan's article: The significance of DOHaD for Small Island Developing States.

Siobhan at a messy desk in her hotel room.
Makeshift working space in Rarotonga.

What is it like being a Pacific woman in your field?

Being a Pacific woman in my field is empowering. Although sometimes we can be few and far between, knowing that your work can have a positive impact on Pacific communities is both a privilege and an extra sense of motivation. There is also a lot of support available for Māori and Pacific students, such as extra workshops, tutors and writing retreats. These can give you an extra boost whenever you need it and also helps you to connect with other Pacific students in similar fields. I feel privileged that during my studies I have been able to encourage and mentor younger Pacific students to succeed, just as I received guidance from those before me.  

How do you spend your time when you’re not doing research?

I am an avid gym goer and love keeping active by doing kickboxing and yoga. On weekends you can find me exploring beaches, going to rugby games or just eating out with friends. Doing a PhD can feel all-consuming at times so it is key to find a balance with other things you enjoy!

Being a doctoral student means there are also many opportunities to attend conferences. So far, I have presented at the Annual Cook Islands Health Conference and the DOHaD ANZ conference in Sydney. One of my favourite international experiences was being invited to the Universitas 21 Health Sciences Group Meeting in Melbourne where I sat on an indigenous health panel and won the outstanding presentation award for my doctoral research talk.

There are also many opportunities within the University of Auckland. I have been lucky enough to have been awarded first place at Liggins Student Day, second runner-up for the HealtheX elevator pitch and Open Heat runner-up for the 3MT competition. These experiences were incredibly valuable, improving my both my research and presentation skills. For someone who used to dread public speaking, I have come very far!

Find out more: 3MT | HealtheX.

Close-up of Siobhan at a podium delivering her presentation.
HealtheX presentation

What are your hopes for the future, once you’ve completed your PhD?

In the future, I hope to continue this path of doing research in Pacific Islands and other vulnerable communities. My hope is to be a part of working towards better health outcomes and perhaps one day end up giving back my knowledge and inspiring others through teaching and lecturing.