The Institute is delighted to offer a warm ‘Nau mai, haere mai’ (welcome) to new postdoctoral fellow Dr Theresa Pankhurst, who joins the Institute as part of a unique fellowship between the Institute and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, New Zealand. Theresa holds the inaugural Te Urungi Churchill College By-Fellowship, which is supported by the Malaghan Institute’s Māori advisory group, Te Urungi (The steering paddle of the waka) Māori, whose role is to guide the Malaghan Institute in its work towards equitable health outcomes for Māori.
After completing the first year of her fellowship at the Malaghan Institute working as part of the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (VAANZ) – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo on a COVID-19 vaccine booster, Theresa is joining the Linterman lab in the Institute’s Immunology research programme for the next two years. This profile introduces Theresa and describes more about the aims of her research and of the fellowship in terms of improving health outcomes for Māori.
Please can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you come to study biology generally and immunology in particular?
Ko Tākitimu te maungaTākitimu is the mountain I come from
Ko Aparima te awaAparima is the river I come from
Ko Uruao te wakaUruao is the canoe my ancestors travelled on
Ko Ngāi Tahu, Ko Ngāti Kahungunu, Ko Ngāti Porou te iwiNgāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou are the tribes I descend from
Ko Ngāi te Ruahikihiki te hapūNgāi te Ruahikihiki is the subtribe I descend from
Ko Takutai o te titi te maraeTakutai o te titi is the meeting house of my people
Kei Põneke tāku kāinga ināianei, no Murihiku ahauI currently live in Wellington, but I hail from Invercargill
Ko Theresa Pankhurst tōku ingoaTheresa Pankhurst is my name
The introduction above is called a Pepeha, and it is typically what you can expect from Māori when asked to introduce themselves. A Pepeha acknowledges whakapapa (ancestry) of Māori in the form of their relationship to the whenua (land) and whānau (family) and specifically includes things like the mountain, river, iwi (tribe), marae (meeting house) that an individual affiliates to or belongs to, and is a way for Māori to communicate their ancestry between each other and more generally with other New Zealanders.
I grew up in a very small town at the bottom of Aotearoa (New Zealand) called Invercargill, and from a young age I was fascinated by science. It wasn’t until my high school years where I became more focused on biology due to some excellent teachers I had, leading me to completing a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. During undergraduate study I took a keen interest in the introductory immunology course. From there I continued studying at Te Herenga Waka, first a master’s degree in clinical immunology and continued onto my PhD in 2018 researching mucosal vaccination against respiratory viruses.
You hold the inaugural Te Urungi fellowship at the Malaghan Institute. Can you tell us a bit about the objectives of the fellowship? How did it come about?
Te Urungi Māori are an independent group of Māori experts who provide advice to the leadership team at the Malaghan Institute. ‘Te Urungi’ translates to ‘The steering paddle’ of the waka (canoe), so the name symbolises the guiding role they have in our approach of equitable health outcomes for Māori as a result of the research and clinical activity at the Malaghan Institute. The fellowship was established to provide opportunities for early career Māori biomedical researchers to advance their scientific careers whilst incorporating aspects of Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview) into the research they conduct, as well as in their personal journey as Māori. This could look like many different things for individual Māori – for me it has been about improving my Te Reo (the Māori language), building relationships with other Māori researchers and Māori health research facilities, and communicating my research to our communities primarily via Māori media networks.
What does your research project focus on, and what have been the highlights of the first year of your fellowship?
At the Malaghan Institute I am part of the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (VAANZ) – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, which is a collaborative research team between Te Herenga Waka, Malaghan Institute, University of Otago as well as other local and international collaborators. The VAANZ ‘taskforce’ was formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to test and manufacture COVID-19 vaccines locally for Aotearoa, subsequently building capacity for us to respond quickly to future threats of infectious disease. I joined VAANZ at its inception in 2020 when I was in the third year of my PhD on the use of mucosal vaccines against pandemic influenza. As a result, the tail end of my PhD pivoted into the COVID-19 space, and after completing my PhD I joined VAANZ as a postdoc.
Within VAANZ I work in the immunogenicity testing team, conducting pre-clinical research of receptor-binding domain (RBD)-based candidates to evaluate vaccine efficacy, safety and breadth of protection against the many forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Highlights of the first year of my fellowship include; being part of a team that designed and tested a successful COVID-19 vaccine that will be heading into a phase I trial this year, giving televised interviews about both my PhD research and postdoc projects with our Māori media channels, visiting Te Urungi Māori members and their research institutes across Aotearoa, meeting our Prime Minister as part of the work we do in VAANZ, and finally being able to attend a graduation ceremony for my PhD and adorn a kākahu (Māori cloak) from my iwi (tribe).
The fellowship is unique in that it integrates research with the wider context of Māori culture, customs and identity. Can you tell us more about that?
Absolutely! The Malaghan Institute recognises that the biomedical research we conduct needs to integrate with the wider context of Te Ao Māori (The Māori world). Not only do we have an obligation as scientists to address the issues faced by New Zealand people - including equitable health outcomes for Māori, but as an institute with a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) we must constantly adapt and progress to meet these commitments. That, to me, is what being Te Urungi Fellow is about. Being part of the shift in how biomedical research is conducted in Aotearoa – research that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge), and is inclusive of Te Reo (The Māori language) and Tikanga Māori (Māori customs and protocols). I believe that is the way to generate the most robust and inclusive research specific to Aotearoa, and to ultimately create a better future for all New Zealanders.
Looking ahead, can you outline the focus of your work as part of the Linterman lab here? What are you hoping to gain from your time with us?
I’ll be researching germinal centre responses to mRNA vaccination and how human secondary lymphoid tissues change across one’s lifespan. So far my background has been in mouse immunology, so I am looking forward to deep-diving into the human immune system. I’m excited to join the Linterman lab and meet her team in person - as well as get to know the wider Babraham Institute and research campus.
What are you looking forward to about being in Cambridge and the UK more widely?
So many things! First of all Cambridge looks beautiful, I can’t wait to wander the streets and take in all of the history, architecture and nature. I’ve never been to the UK before so I’ll definitely be planning small trips where I can. My ancestors on my Dad’s side come from England so I have a few places I want to see to explore our Pankhurst ancestry. I’m also a big fan of live music and the UK definitely gets more exposure to bands compared to Aotearoa – so I’ll definitely be getting amongst that as well! (I may have already secured tickets to see Beyonce in London...)
Theresa Pankhurst in a laboratory at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, New Zealand.
Find out more about their research
Responding to the COVID crisis
A day in the life of a postdoctoral researcher
03 April 2023