A former Whanganui High School student is making waves in medical research.
Known as a top competitive swimmer during her time at the school, 24-year-old Sophie Couper's research has helped doctors and scientists understand more about cutting the risk of stillbirth.
Her project, working with scientists in Auckland and the UK, helped to show why mums should sleep on their sides – and not their backs – in late pregnancy.
Couper is one of a small number of University of Auckland medical students who take a one-year detour during their studies to spend a year on research.
Her project was to understand why sleeping on your side makes a big difference.
Pregnant women underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans at Auckland City Hospital lying on their backs and their sides.
The scans showed how delivery of oxygen through the placenta and on to the baby is reduced when the mother is lying on her back, suggesting why such a sleeping position is risky.
The research was published this year in the esteemed Journal of Physiology, which was established in 1878 and whose previous authors have included Nobel prize winners.
The Health Research Council, which funds medical research in New Zealand, acknowledged Couper's work this month when awarding a medal to "sleep on side" researchers who have undertaken a whole series of projects.
Couper said the research connected with her growing passion for women's health and reducing health inequities for Māori.
"I've always been interested in health and science, but I'm not sure at what point I realised I wanted to be a doctor," she said.
"It didn't occur to me that I'd be smart enough to do medicine, and no one in my family is in healthcare, so I didn't really know what it involved."
For the student, who entered medical school under the Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS), it seems obvious that medicine would be her thing – but only in retrospect.
Couper, who was born in Gisborne, traces her whakapapa to Wairoa.
"I've come to realise that being a great doctor is about a lot more than academic grades – empathy being central. Being an A-plus student 'on paper' does not necessarily make you the 'A-plus' doctor the community needs," she said.
"Through the journey of medical school – I'm now six years into my studying – I've learnt more and more about my own identity as a Māori woman and what sort of medical professional I want to be."
She has spent this year on placement in Whangārei, including seven weeks in Kaitaia at the hospital and GP clinics. At the end of her year in Northland, Couper will be one of the summer interns at the Gisborne-based Matai Medical Research Institute, which specialises in cutting-edge medical imaging using MRI.
Her article, The effects of maternal position, in late gestation pregnancy, on placental blood flow and oxygenation: an MRI study, is a condensed version of her thesis for a Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours). This is a research degree that some students complete as well as their Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) degree.
Couper's supervisor and the senior author on the paper was Professor Peter Stone, of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.