Genomics research is a developing frontier that will see new personalised or precision medicine for New Zealanders, alongside more targeted environmental and primary production management. Significant advances in genetics and genomics will also see an increasing focus on the needs of Māori populations and indigenous species.
Māori are significantly under-represented in genomic sciences. Addressing Māori ethical issues within the context of genomic research is important, as new genomic solutions are being developed for New Zealand-specific problems. One way of building capability is to develop understanding of genomics among Māori.
A weeklong summer internship programme known as Summer Internship of Native peoples in Genomics (SING) Aotearoa has been running since 2016, helping Māori participants to better understand the opportunities and challenges associated with genomic research. Participants are selected each year on both their interest in the technologies, as well as an intent to utilise the technologies for the benefit of their communities.
SING Aotearoa is now one of the key capacity building initiatives supported by Genomics Aotearoa. The residential internship programme was held in Palmerston North in 2019, placing 20 interns alongside some of the country’s best researchers, providing laboratory knowledge and experience covering technical, cultural and ethical issues.
SING Aotearoa co-ordinator Dr Phillip Wilcox (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa) notes that the benefits are considerable. “We are enhancing understanding of the technologies for pākeke (Māori adults) and graduate-level Māori students, and giving them a sense of what is tika (appropriate) and what is not. The interns can share this knowledge to benefit Māori communities. For example, some interns have kaitiaki roles in their communities, and knowledge of these technologies has enabled more informed discussions with government agencies, by narrowing the knowledge gap between specialists in those agencies and mana whenua.”
“Gearing up communities to more effectively engage with science will help to develop the potential of genomics, for the uptake of genomic technologies that benefit the indigenous population, for individual communities and for New Zealand as a whole. The interns also become part of a supportive network of like-minded Māori around the country seeking to contribute to Māori development via these technologies. This potentially opens the door for new collaborations and fresh economic development initiatives.”
SING Aotearoa provides the impetus for Māori students interested in genetics to be confident about the applications while ensuring their research is tika from a Māori world view. “Many of our grad students have either started or modified their studies to include genomics. I currently have five Māori Sing-A interns studying post-graduate genetics-related studies in an area where Māori have been significantly under-represented. SING is therefore fundamentally important in helping address that deficit,” Dr Wilcox said.
“Such approaches help research conducted in Aotearoa New Zealand to involve consultation with Iwi Māori, protect the rights, interests and taonga of Māori, and acknowledge Māori cultural perspectives.”
The SING Aotearoa programme is modelled on an existing SING programme running in the USA. This partnership with SING-USA has been providing opportunities for SING Aotearoa alumni to attend SING-USA events, and vice versa.
- Assoc Prof Maui Hudson, University of Waikato
- Dr Katharina Ruckstahl, University of Otago
- Dr Phi Wilcox, University of Otago