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Dr Sereana Naepi

She is a mother of two, a lecturer at the University of Auckland and co-chair of the Early Career Researcher Forum. Sereana is dedicated to addressing and challenging systemic inequalities within academia through storytelling. She is driven by a desire to see an education sector where her daughters can thrive, where researchers are supported and where ancestral knowledge is valued.

Q: Did you always know you’d get into research?

A: I am a first-generation academic, I had no idea that research was a career. I became involved in research because it was a tool to engage with some of the disparities I was seeing in my extended family, community and at work. I realised that if we amplified our communities voices, we could change how people see universities and hopefully change universities themselves. 

Q: Do you find your findings are met with a lot of opposition? If so, why do you think that is?

A: There seem to be two reactions to my research.

One is an almost collective sigh of relief, people who experience the things I talk about in my research realise that they are not alone and that we provide the tools and necessary to challenge their universities to live up to their expectations.

The other is defensive, as we know calling an institution, sector or person racist is usually seen as more offensive then being racist. In an ideal world, our sector would see the research and say, we can be better, we will be better and then search for collective solutions to what is a sector-wide issue. We are all battling structures that were put in place before we were here, my work doesn’t want to attribute blame, I want to find solutions.

Q: What outcomes do you think will come from your mahi?

A: My hope is that my work provides people with a way to encourage their institutions to be the sort of places that embrace all learners, esteem all knowledges and serve all communities. We are seeing this, people are using our papers to challenge their disciplines, faculty and universities. Our work is in the Pacific Action Plan, the PBRF review and we are seeing people push the sector conversation towards what can we do to live up to our role as the critic and conscience of society.

Q: How important have mentors been for you and why?

A: My mentors have been critical in my success. Universities have their own culture, and so many unwritten rules. My mentors have helped me to navigate the space and strategically think about what it means to be a Pacific woman doing sometimes confrontational research in the space that I work in.

Only a little while ago I had to talk with some of my mentors about my work with our collective of Māori and Pacific academics challenging racism in universities and thinking about the ramifications. 

Q: You recently returned from overseas. Where were you based, and what were you studying?

I was in Canada for five years completing my PhD at the University of British Columbia. It was hard being away from my family (we had our first daughter in Canada) but the skills I learnt made me competitive in what is a global research job market.

I spent time at Thompson Rivers University as the founding Assoc-Director fo All My Relations, an Indigenous research centre where I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic community of people who are really challenging the research sector over there. 

Q: Do you think underrepresentation in research is a global issue?

A: Yes, the whole sector is built from western ideas of what is knowledge and what knowledge should we value. It is a little terrifying how you can predict the movements of the New Zealand research sector by watching how the US, Canada, and the Australian research sector move. While this global connection has meant that we can build a meaningful global partnership that addresses the big questions of today, it also means that the devaluing of Indigenous research and communities is globally entrenched. 

Q: How do you balance life as a Mum and an emerging researcher?

A: One of my mentors told me that being an academic has always been a two person job, there is the academic who stands at the front of the room and the person at home that makes that possible. For me, I have a community of people behind me that make this possible.

Some people are changing the structure of the research sector, which makes it possible for me to be both a Mum and an academic:

People that make it possible to bring my daughter Mackenzie to meetings, my Disciplinary Area who don’t blink when I breastfeed in a forum and my collective of Pacific and Māori researchers who just normalise having little ones in research spaces.

Then there is my family; literally, none of this would have been possible without my husband who is behind the scenes taking care of me, my girls and reminding me to rest while challenging the systems. We also came home to a wider community, my Mum is loving being a Bubu and takes care of the girls when I need to do my work, and also makes sure we are all fed at the end of the day.

The expectations of early career researchers mean that we need a community behind us, and we also need to find ways to acknowledge this and what it means for our sector that this is not the work of one person. 

Q: Does having a daughter make you particularly motivated to see change in the future?

A: Yes, I don’t want my two girls to be in a space where their ancestral knowledge is not valued. I want them to be able to thrive in our education and research sector, and that means a lot needs to change in the next 15 years. 

Q: You’ve recently become a Co-Chair of the Royal Society Te Apārangi Early Career Researcher Forum. Congratulations! Why do you think early career research is important?

A: This is the time when we start to find our research voice and begin to make moves that will shape the rest of our research career. Our research careers shape Aotearoa; where we choose to invest our time and energy will change Aotearoa 10, 15, 20 years from now. This is why we need good mentors, healthy work/life balances and a community around us so that when we engage with these society-changing ideas or technologies, we are doing it for all of us.