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Pacific and female - changing the STEM status quo

Pacific and female - changing the STEM status quo

  • 04 Oct 2020
Mena Welford

Dissecting a cow’s eye and placing magnesium into a Bunsen flame at high school are distant memories for University of Auckland postgraduate Biological Science student Filomena Welford. 

However, actively engaging learning and exploring how to form well-reasoned explanations for why she was seeing what she was seeing led to a fascination with Science and the natural world, she says. 

“A lot of what we see around us can be explained through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and I find it completely mesmerising,” Filomena says. 

Earlier this year, the 23-year-old New Zealand-born Samoan received a Toloa Tertiary Scholarship to support her through her studies, specialising in Biological Science but working through an applied Marine Science lens. 

“My main research interests lie in ecological and stress physiology, shellfish biology, and aquaculture science. 

“What this broadly translates into is an immense fascination with understanding how marine organisms respond to extreme changes in their environment; a particularly relevant field, given climate change. 

“In understanding these responses, it is also of interest how we can use this knowledge to conserve threatened species and support sustainable growth of our aquaculture industry.” 

Filomena says she really could not imagine doing anything else, other than studying Science. 

“From an academic perspective, postgraduate study has provided me with the freedom to explore more of my research interests, engage with highly skilled staff within and outside my field, and refine important skills of critical thinking, writing, and engaging with scientific literature. 

“In undergraduate, you are still becoming familiar with your interests, but my current studies have challenged my critical thinking and apply my knowledge. 

Through teaching assistant roles, I have also been able to thoroughly interact with younger peers, specifically invaluable Māori and Pasifika students currently enrolled in undergraduate programmes.” 

One of Filomena’s priorities is to help her undergraduate Pasifika peers, by being visible. 

“Pacific underrepresentation in STEM subjects is unmistakable. 

“Having grown up in a strong, compassionate Pasifika community, I feel we thrive in environments where we have a strong sense of belonging and connection. 

“It is my intention to continue to contribute to a safe learning environment where Pacific students feel like they are represented and deserve to be.” 

Filomena has big aspirations for the future – a relatively short-term goal is to complete a PhD in Marine or Biological Sciences. 

Post-PhD the options are varied, however, and she is interested either by remaining in academia to pursue Professor status or continuing into industry work as an Aquaculture Scientist, she says. 

“In a nutshell, I hope to continue into a Science career and along the way contribute to Pacific representation in spaces that don’t include many of our people.” 

Applications for the 2021 Toloa Tertiary Scholarships are now open, and Filomena encourages Pacific students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – to apply. 

“Beyond the invaluable financial assistance, something I did not quite fully appreciate until the academic year began, was the reassurance and quiet confidence holding the scholarship gave me when I seriously doubted my capabilities. 

“As the purpose of these awards outline, there is severe underrepresentation of our Pacific people in STEM. 

“Having the support of the Ministry for Pacific Peoples has reminded me on occasion there must have been a reason I was fortunate enough to be awarded.”   

Established in 2015, the Toloa Tertiary Scholarships are funded by the Ministry for Pacific Peoples to support Pacific students to pursue studies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. 

The purpose of the scholarships is to encourage Pacific students to complete studies in STEM subjects at tertiary level and increase the number of Pacific people employed in STEM careers. 

Applications close on November 9. Visit MPP for more information.