Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Transit of Venus forum

 It's been a fairly lazy weekend - visits from friends and family, a rehearsal at TAPAC for Culture Clash, lots of sleeping and procrastination. I'm relieved to be home in Auckland and "staying home" from now until the baby arrives (and I'm presuming that the often-mentioned new mother fatigue will keep me home for a while after!).  I've been reading "new baby" books cover to cover, freaking out over detailed descriptions of labour pain, and collecting lots of compliments about The Belly (common comments:"You've still got that glow", "ooo, you're carrying quite low", "oo, you're big", and conversely, "you're quite compact.") For her part, Little Fish has been doing her bit by growing, so she's not really that little any more. She's also very, very wriggly and likes kicking Mark in the back when we're trying to sleep.

It's been a very busy 6 weeks before this. I was more or less doing back to back locums and conferences which meant lots of uncomfortable plane and car trips. Luckily it's all over now, although I'm still having to do stuff in Auckland.

Last weekend Mark and I returned from a trip to Gisborne (a meandering 7 hours' drive southeast) for the Transit of Venus Forum, a 4-day event which aimed to start conversations about how science could drive NZ forward.  It was a lovely event - a mix of community engagement events and more traditional 'conference' style proceedings, all run with idea of getting maximal input from/between attendees, the local East Coast community (who hosted us in Tolaga Bay on the day of the actual Transit, then attended the forum itself), and people watching the live webcast. I guess it remains to be seen whether the lofty goal of not only having the conversations, but getting the NZ public/policymakers to listen, will actually happen. But it was such a positive thing to be involved in and I felt entirely comfortable and in my element. I really hope the conversations will continue!

Here's the video of our day in Tolaga Bay observing the Transit and then taking part in local celebrations (including a hangi, yum) : you'll notice a cameo from Little Fish towards the end!

I was lucky enough to be asked to be a speaker at the forum and my session, the final one of the forum, focussed on "The People". Our speeches were kept short and to the point so as to encourage discussion rather than didactic speechmaking. Much harder for people to fall asleep that way!

Here's the text of my talk: (7 minutes!)

As you can see, I have a little private science project on the go, and I hope the results won’t be delivered before I get back to Auckland. 

As a mum-to-be, I have a lot of questions – what will my child be like? Will she have her father’s nose? And the big question, what will she be able to achieve?  I can tell you that being a paediatrician does not lessen all those hopes and fears – if anything, it makes me a little more paranoid.

So what are the things that influence a child as it grows up?  Each one of us is a complex tapestry - an interplay of genetics, physical and social environments – but it’s possible to tease out the common strands.

And that’s my subtle segue into talking about how we can use science to understand NZ’s greatest resource – ourselves, the people. I’m going to talk about longitudinal studies. What is a longitudinal study?

I like to use something called the onion model.

Here’s the individual with his or her cocktail of genes, cocooned in their whanau and immediate physical environment, interacting with their community, and then influenced by the layers of the wider environment – cultural, social, education, policy, environment and so on, at a national and then international level.  These influences change over time as a baby grows into an adult (so now the onion looks more like a wobbly leek), and you could use the same model to look at changes over generations or even whole populations.

It’s this change over time in a population that longitudinal studies are good at looking at. It’s complex, it takes patience and it’s expensive, but gives us incredible depth and the potential to search out those patterns which can then be applied to answer questions like:

What are the factors before birth that influence health in adulthood?
How do we make sure children achieve their full potential?
What factors give families the resilience and the ability to cope with adversity?

This is a type of science NZ is already very good at. Data from the pioneering Otago and Dunedin longitudinal studies, now nearly 40 years old, influences health and policy around the world. 

Growing Up in NZ, where I’ve been involved as a core researcher, is following approximately 7000 NZ children and their families from before birth to when they are adults – the kids are between two and three years old now, so we’ve got a way to go. It has several very unique qualities. One is that we are one of very few longitudinal studies in the world to study fathers as an essential part of the family unit.

Another is that our families reflect the diversity of New Zealanders today – socioeconomic, urban and rural dwellers, and most importantly, cultural. Our cohort is broadly generalisable to the NZ population and proportionally represents Maori, Pakeha, Pacific, Asian and other ethnic families. Excitingly, and appropriately, there are many mixed-ethnicity kids.

NZ is unique in that it sits on a faultline where many traditions and cultures are colliding and changing each other, but (if you’ll forgive the earthquake analogy) we’re stable enough to study the aftershocks. Further, our research team is diverse - coming from across many disciplines – health, social sciences, education, culture and humanities, and includes different NZ universities and centres of excellence, so we can use ideas and links from as wide a base as possible.

Finally, and most importantly, Growing Up in NZ operates under a kaitiaki principle – of guardianship of the data we collect, for the benefit of all New Zealanders. From the beginning, we’ve seen ourselves as being in collaboration with families and communities, with a responsibility to report back to those groups, as well as to the wider research community, and to government. A key aim for Growing Up in NZ is for important findings to translate into real action. 

Growing Up in NZ is part of an international network of longitudinal studies and we’re actively collaborating and exchanging skills (and, I can tell you that people overseas are excited about our study.)
So how can a study like this contribute to the conversation about making NZ a better place for all? Well, we’re only just out of nappies, but already we have a few things to say.  The data generated is enormous, and we’re still working our way through it, so I’ll just give you a taster.

Firstly, the study confirms that NZ society and family structure are changing very fast. 1 in 3 NZ children have at least one parent not born in NZ. The traditional nuclear family model is less and less the case – nearly 24% of mothers live with extended family, and as you might expect this varies depending on the cultural environment. Most mums now work before and after their babies are born, and only half the families own their own home.

But despite their diversity, NZ parents share similar hopes and dreams for their children.  Most parents want their children to grow up happy and healthy, to learn to value their own culture and that of others, and be able to realise their own dreams as well as contribute to their community.  Many recognise NZ as a good place to nurture all these things, and if they succeed, then NZ will be well placed for the future.

What next?  I’ve mentioned the value of a scientifically robust study which recognizes complexity over time; of working across disciplines, skillsets and borders, drawing knowledge links between science, economy and humanities.  I’ve mentioned those words we’ve heard a lot this week, communication, collaboration and community.

The final word I want to mention is translation. Translation into policy, but also importantly translation into general knowledge so that our greatest resource – our people – you, me, my baby - can take the future into their own hands.

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