How a Tūhoe researcher rose through the academic ranks to lead the largest study of child development in New Zealand

The largest study of child development in New Zealand has a new director: public health researcher Dr Sarah-Jane Paine. She spoke to the Herald about her plans for Growing Up in New Zealand, and how a Tuhoe girl from a big family in Wairoa used her personal history to tackle Māori inequity.

It all started when Sarah-Jane Paine’s sister fell badly while she was pregnant.

The fall led to her sister giving birth prematurely at 22 weeks in Waikato Hospital to a tiny baby who fitted in the palm of a hand and weighed less than a block of butter.

Throughout the ordeal, Dr Paine witnessed a health system that was not meeting the needs of her sister or whānau. She was second-guessed by doctors, her care was delayed, available interventions were not offered, and her whānau was not able to be at her sister’s bedside in intensive care to support her.

It strongly influenced Paine’s later decision to focus her research on women’s health in pregnancy and how it affected child wellbeing. But the experience also informed something bigger: her belief that personal and community experience should be at the heart of scientific research, rather than cold, objective observation.

“This idea that we should be at a distance from our research is not something I buy into anymore,” she told the Herald. “And I really encourage my students and will be doing the same with our Growing Up team, to really reflect on our humanity and bring that through the project, because that’s when the beautiful, most meaningful work happens.

“This approach is a hallmark of kaupapa Māori research. When the purpose is clear and grounded in the reality of Māori and Māori communities and iwi, hapu, whānau then actually that’s a guide that we’re on the right path.”

Her promotion to the prestigious academic role at Growing Up in New Zealand is no fluke. It is the culmination of an upbringing that emphasised educational achievement and fighting against the odds.

Paine is the youngest of five children and grew up in Wairoa in northern Hawke’s Bay. Her mother worked as a maternity nurse at the local hospital and her father managed the local freezing works. Economic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s badly affected both of those sectors. Mass redundancies in her town were another insight into how political systems and policies impacted population health.

Her Tūhoe family stressed the importance of knowing her whakapapa – one of her earliest memories was learning her pepeha. They also placed great value on education, and she was sent to boarding school in Nelson because schooling in Wairoa did not meet her needs or provide extracurricular activities.

Paine hit a setback when she was told not to apply for medical school at the University of Otago. To her disbelief, career advisers told her she did not have the track record or CV to become a doctor.

She started a science degree instead and later found supportive professors and advisers who backed her for post-graduate work. She now advocates for university departments to provide both academic and pastoral support for Māori students so their ambitions are not thwarted.

One of her first research projects proved to be another turning point in her life. She worked under Māori public health researcher Professor Papaarangi Reid – known for holding governments to account for health inequities – and sleep scientist Emeritus Professor Philippa Gander, who introduced her to the kaupapa Māori approach.

Asked to describe kaupapa Māori in practice, Paine said it was about placing Māori at the heart of the research from the beginning, rather than depending on studies of the general population to make meaningful findings about Māori. It was also about specifically targeting inequity in research questions.

“If you don’t have an intention to have at least half of your research sample who identify as Māori, you will end up with 75 per cent European New Zealand or non-Māori, and if you’re lucky 10-20 per cent Māori. And the voice of Māori becomes subsumed within the more dominant voice.

“Then the experience that we portray reflects non-Māori experience, which is more likely to be a positive experience, easier access to healthcare, and more supportive journeys.”

Her research was not designed to find further evidence of Māori faring more poorly than other ethnic groups, she said. It was to identify breaches in the Treaty of Waitangi, particularly with regard to equity and good governance, and find practical, real solutions to address them.

Paine takes over Growing Up in New Zealand at a time when Māori and Pacific participation rates are falling. And, since age 8, outcomes for Māori children in the study have been comparatively poorer and becoming more entrenched. One of her first tasks, aside from overseeing the latest survey, will be working out why Māori were “falling away”.

She said she will apply two core kaupapa Māori principles, manaakitanga, or generosity, and whanaungatanga, or building relationships and giving people a sense of belonging. The families would be working with the University of Auckland research team until their children were 21 years old, and that meant they needed to build lasting relationships with the participants.

“We can’t expect them to hang in without some responsibility for that relationship,” she said.

12 years of Growing Up

The largest longitudinal study on child development in New Zealand, Growing Up in New Zealand tracks 6000 children born in 2009 and 2010.

It has been led since formation in 2005 by Professor Susan Morton.

The most recent report on the children as 8-year-olds found that a large proportion of New Zealand children were thriving. They had busy, healthy, happy lives and a growing sense of who they were, and were well supported by their parents.

But on the margins, the most disadvantaged 8-year-olds remained in hardship and if anything, their situation was getting worse. Poverty was persistent, they were likely to be moving from house to house, their home was likely to be cold and damp, and their mental wellbeing was suffering.

The participants are now 12 years old, and researchers conduct extensive interviews with them rather than just depending on their parents. It is a period of turmoil for many of the children, who will report on their experiences of Covid-19 in detail for the first time.

Early findings have shown divergent experiences of the pandemic, with some children relishing the loosening of routines and more time with family, and others struggling with the impact of the pandemic and showing greater anxiety.

For more of the Herald’s reporting on Growing Up in New Zealand, see below:

• Growing up in New Zealand survey finds bigger lockdown bubbles linked to school satisfaction
• Kiwi kids at 8: Most thriving, busy and glued to their screens
• A third of 8-year-olds report bullying in New Zealand’s largest study of child development
• Kiwi kids at 6 years old: Thriving and happy, but with a few concerns

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