Science finds fit with tradition

By Dana Kinita

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Dr Melanie Cheung (centre) and whanau with researchers from University of Waikato and University of Auckland in front of Rangiaohia wharetupuna. Photo / Supplied
Dr Melanie Cheung (centre) and whanau with researchers from University of Waikato and University of Auckland in front of Rangiaohia wharetupuna. Photo / Supplied

A Te Arawa neurobiologist has learnt to intertwine tikanga Maori into her science.

Melanie Cheung of Ngati Rangitihi has been working with Maori communities with Huntington's disease - an inherited disease that causes certain nerve cells in the brain to waste away.

She has a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences, Master of Science in biochemistry and a Doctorate (PhD) in pharmacology. The 37-year-old said she always had a fascination with the human brain.

"[When I was] studying psychology and biology, they taught us that the human brain tells our bodies what to do, how to move, think, feel and create," Dr Cheung said.

"I thought it would be a cool organ to study."

As part of her PhD research she grew cells from donated human brain tissue to try to understand Huntington's disease.

"As a Maori I wasn't quite sure how I felt about working with human brain tissue, because the brain is very tapu [sacred]."

So before starting the work Dr Cheung met her iwi at Rangitihi Marae in Matata.

"We had a hui to talk about whether I could work with human brain tissue. The issue for my iwi really was around violating tapu. So our kaumatua and kuia suggested I develop tikanga for working with the tissue."

She said that led to work with tikanga experts who taught her about tapu and tikanga.

"I learned that tapu intensifies when someone has passed away. Just hours after somebody has passed their family give us this taonga [treasured item], the brain of their mum, dad, aunty or uncle. It's incredibly precious because we wouldn't be able to do the research that we do without these bequests.

"They also taught me that doing the tikanga is as much for me to feel comfortable with this process as it is to acknowledge the families who have given us this tissue and to acknowledge the grief they are going through."

PrayerDr Cheung said she performed karakia [prayer] and waiata [song] when working with the tissue.

"The tikanga relates a lot to the science because when you learn to be a scientist, you learn to be methodical. You learn to do things in the right way. This is also what tikanga is about."

For five months next year Dr Cheung will be working at the Brain Plasticity Institute in San Francisco with world-leading neuroscientist Professor Michael Merzenich to develop computer-based brain exercises that can help people with Huntington's disease.

Dr Cheung has received a Fulbright New Zealand Scholars Award to fund this study.

"When Merzenich and his team demonstrated that specially designed repeated functional input [using computer-based exercises] was able to rewire the brains of autistic children; it was evolutionary in the field of neuroscience," she said. "So I am incredibly excited to be working with scientists of this calibre."

Dr Cheung said she also had a passion to see young Maori become scientists and worked for five years on the Tuakana programme at University of Auckland, teaching biology to Maori and Pasifika university students.

"The idea of science is right there in our matauranga [knowledge], it's not a foreign concept. It's in our hunting, in our fishing, it's in our maramataka [Maori lunar calendar], it's in the stars.

"When our young people are able to capture and understand that to be Maori is to be a scientist then I think it's going to become less of a foreign concept.

"For me the most exciting part about science is the hands-on stuff, discovering what does this do?" she said.

"Really it's about being a tutu [inquisitive], I think a lot of our young people don't understand that science is just trying things out, figuring out how things work. Science is about trying to understand the world.

"We are all in our own way scientists because we are all trying to make sense of the world."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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