Nia Dudson is in her last year of high school and is headed to university to study health science next year, but up until recently she didn’t think an “academic” career was for her.
Now, after attending the MacDiarmid Institute’s Discovery Programme science camp at Victoria University in January, 18-year-old Dudson (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngati Kahungunu) will attend the University of Otago next year – the first person in her whānau to do so.
“I’m the oldest granddaughter, so I’m paving the way. That’s what my Nan says.”
Dudson’s Geraldine High School chemistry teacher encouraged her to apply for the annual all-expenses-paid science camp, which is especially for Year 12 and 13 Māori and Pasifika students who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. They are mentored by some of the country’s leading scientists.
At the camp, Dudson learned about making electronic microchips, how magnetic-resonance imaging works, and took trips to earth science institute GNS Science and the Robinson Research Institute, which builds advanced technologies for businesses worldwide.
Shem Harris (Ngāpuhi) was on the programme several years ago and is now at Cambridge University in the UK after being awarded the prestigious Sir Douglas Myers Scholarship in 2014. The $100,000 scholarship will enable him to specialise in environmental engineering, and he intends to follow that with a postgraduate law degree.
He says his MacDiarmid experience broadened his outlook on what is possible academically, and gave him an appreciation of what a scientific career looks like.
“It was an opportunity to meet other like-minded Pasifika and Māori students who enjoy learning and have a passion for science,” he says. “The main point of difference of this programme is the direct access to researchers and the opportunity to explore scientific frontiers within the lab set-up. It showed me that invention and creativity, things that really appeal to me, are far more a part of a scientist’s work than classroom experience had suggested.”
Shem with his parents Phillipa and David.
His supervisor, Dr Geoff Willmott, was inspirational in exposing him to how the scientific community works, and encouraging him to pursue goals he hadn’t considered—such as his scholarship.
Nia Dudson says the programme made her more confident about herself and her abilities.
“If I hadn’t been to the camp, I definitely wouldn’t have been as driven to push myself in school and after school, because I didn’t place that much importance on my education,” she says. “I didn’t think I was capable of much and I probably would have settled for less.
“Some of the stuff at MacDiarmid was insanely complicated, but we had such good people explaining it every time and we asked questions until we understood it. That made me think that if I can understand stuff in a university setting before I left school, I can definitely manage more.”
“Being talked to as an equal” was a major part of that, she says. “You’re learning still, but it feels like a different type of learning where it’s someone sharing their passion with you. I’m really grateful that people have given up their time to help me see that I could do something more than I thought I could.”
Nia and her DiscoveryCamp crew.
She believes society and schools give up on young Māori far too easily. “I find that Māori people get underestimated a lot in the academic field, which is sad because I have seen a lot of great potential in youth,” she says. “There’s so many people out there who have so much to offer but they don’t believe they’ve got what it takes. It’s definitely not true. We need to not slip beneath the radar, but to fly above it.”
Dudson was brought up “staunchly Māori”.
“My father passed that on to me. I was lucky,” she says.
Born in Tauranga, she says she has a “traditional background”, spending a lot of time at her marae, Paparoa. “Being Māori is really important to me and I identify strongly with it, even though I’m only half,” she says. “I try to incorporate as much as I can into my life. I still live by a lot of the old tikanga like manaaki and looking after others.
“I didn’t think I was capable of much and I probably would have settled for less."
She encourages more young Māori to apply for science camps like MacDiarmid’s.
“I think people get daunted by the fact that they think they have to be “academic”,” she says. “That’s something that daunted me for a while. I didn’t think I was smart enough to go on camp but I learned a lot and kept up; if you can relate to people I think you’re pretty much there.
“I’m not extremely intelligent, I don’t get amazing marks on my schoolwork, but I’m really passionate about it and that’s the most important thing. So if you find something you like, give it a go and don’t be put off by other people seeming to be “more intelligent” on paper. If you can hang on during school there’s a lot more outside.”
The MacDiarmid DiscoveryCamp – Te Tohu Huraina is all expenses paid, including flights, accomodation and meals.
Applications close 11 November 2016!