Otago Biochemistry celebrates first Pasifika PhD


Over the weekend, the Department of Biochemistry was privileged to celebrate the graduation of our first Pasifika student to complete a PhD.

This was confirmed in a statement issued by Otago University.

Dr Jaye Moors has been studying the genetics of cardiometabolic disease in Māori and Pasifika communities in New Zealand.

Jaye is a New Zealand-born Samoan who spent a significant part of her childhood living with her family in Samoa.

In her research, Jaye identified a Polynesian-specific variant of a gene involved in cholesterol metabolism. She showed that it associated with an increase in ‘good cholesterol’ (HDL) and a decrease in the ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL) in the Polynesian population she studied. She also helped reveal that increased alcohol consumption in Pasifika teenagers is associated with increased BMI, which in turn is associated with well-established risk factors for metabolic disease.

The research was supported by a prestigious Health Research Council Pacific PhD scholarship, and was supervised by Professor Tony Merriman (now of the University of Alabama) and Associate Professor Mele Taumoepeau (now of the Victoria University of Wellington).

Tackling the marathon that is PhD study is not for the faint-hearted, but Jaye has risen to the occasion.

“My PhD was an absolute roller coaster – there are a lot of peaks and troughs in terms of confidence, excitement, …staying motivated.”

“I was lucky to be part of a great research environment with supportive supervisors. I’ve established great networks, learnt high-end research and communication skills, and it really is great to be able to uncover and contribute new knowledge to the world of science.”

Jaye describes the community of people who have supported her on her research journey as “an entire village”.

“My success is a reflection and result of the example set by my parents and their years of hard work and sacrifice, my siblings and family (especially my nan in Samoa), brilliant supervisors and mentors, a supportive department, and a group of friends who have supported and kept up with me for much longer than any sane person should.”

The next step in Jaye’s research career is a position at Variant Bio, a Seattle-based genomics company that aims to improve global health by studying the genetics of underrepresented individuals and populations with medically relevant traits.

“I’d like to continue working on understanding Pacific and indigenous biology through the study of genetics – you know, a place where I can be useful.”

Both Jaye and the Department of Biochemistry are very keen to see more Pasifika students follow in her footsteps.

“While I am honoured to be Otago’s first Pacific PhD in Biochemistry, I most certainly hope I am not the last. There are not enough Pacific scientists. Not in academia and not in industry. So if you are a Pacific person passionate about science, making a difference, uncovering new knowledge, willing to learn high-end research skills and able to think critically, then I’d highly recommend doing a PhD.”

Fa’amalo, malo le taumafai (congratulations and well done) Jaye. We are very proud of you!

Source: Otago University