When Tom Devine set off to study at the University of Otago he never expected to win a $12,000 scholarship that would take him across the world to research how New Zealand can progress in indigenous development.
At 23, Devine is getting ready to study at New York's Ivy League Columbia University after being awarded this year's Gordon Watson Scholarship.
It will see him based at the university for two years beginning in September to complete a Masters of Public Health.
He said even with Covid-19 the trip is likely to go ahead but if there is any difficulty getting to America due to international travel restrictions he can carry out all his studies online through virtual lectures.
Devine has not always intended to be involved in the world of microbiology.
Devine was born and raised in Whanganui and set off to study a bachelor of science at Otago after finishing his schooling as dux at St Dominic's College.
His intentions were set on studying medicine but, after the first year of Health Science, he was unsuccessful in getting into medicine.
But luckily he enjoyed microbiology that was taught in the first year and thought he would give that a go.
"I still had the intention of doing medicine at the end of my degree but when I got to the end and thought what a really tough career medicine is and how long it takes to complete I thought, 'No it's not for me'.
"My passion is Māori health and Māori development and I wanted to have a bigger impact than just patient-to-patient basis, so I was, like, I can go down the route of microbiology and public health and try to have a bigger impact."
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Fast forward four years after completing his Bachelor of Science majoring in microbiology and immunology followed by first-class honours, he was offered a job as an assistant research fellow at the University of Otago's Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
"Research has allowed me to take a project and make it mine and it was my direction and I thought, 'I want this to happen this way' and you discover things and you direct yourself. It's quite amazing really."
His research included infectious diseases in the Māori population and looking at tuberculosis and health and inequality.
Devine then wanted to incorporate the Māori way of thinking and the Māori world view into the research and he said in a science department this could be a little bit testing at times.
But the department supported him and allowed him to incorporate tikanga Māori and kaupapa Māori into his work.
Devine comes from a 10-child family and is not of Māori descent but said his passion for Māori health and development came from his days working at Affco Whanganui.
He worked at the plant over four summers in between studying to be able to fund his studies for the following year.
"It was there that I met a lot of Māori people and I was exposed to those Māori values and some of those are my best friends and they're my constant inspiration, I think behind my award and my scholarship is the Māori that I met at the meatworks."
Through his scholarship, he now has the support to continue his research down a similar pathway of self-determination in indigenous populations, he said.
Using Covid-19 as a case study, Devine will research how native Americans who have autonomy within their own territories in America and who suffer from poverty and low-socioeconomic status have and use self-determination.
When he reflects on how some iwi acted during the pandemic in regards to setting up roadblocks and the discussion around tangihanga restrictions he believes it brought to light these ideas that the government is still operating in a way of paternalism rather than in partnership.
"The thing with Native Americans is with them being able to operate by themselves, set their own rules, have things like curfews, it encourages participation and, even though America is not perfect at all it encourages more participation between the tribe and the state, so I want to use Covid as a case study to see if we can use that kind of model back here in New Zealand or learn anything from it."
Although he believes New Zealand is very progressive in terms of indigenous development it does not mean we have not made mistakes getting us to where we are today.
"It doesn't mean we can't learn from countries that maybe aren't as progressive."
Devine has also thought about continuing to study abroad after his time in New York and likes the idea of studying a degree in public policy in the United Kingdom.
"It's also around that similar idea of self-determination in indigenous populations and what it means for the framework of a country and public opinion as right now there are obviously very negative connotations to it."