Toloa Tertiary Scholar aims to positively impact Pacific health

posted: 8:00 pm - 28th March 2021
Zanetta Toomata

(Picture caption: Toloa Tertiary Scholar recipient Zanetta Leohoʻonani Laupele Toomata is embarking on a PhD in Pharmacogenetics.)

As a young woman of Pacific descent there was no doubt in Zanetta Leohoʻonani Laupele Toomata’s mind she wanted to be part of research that impacted and helped improve the health of the Pacific community.

Zanetta, a 2020 Toloa Tertiary Scholarship recipient has certainly proved this with her involvement in biomedical research projects, aimed at benefitting Māori and Pacific people.  

What also motivates the 22-year-old to do this challenging mahi, is recognising the role she plays in her family, being the eldest grandchild, and the role she has in her wider Pacific community.   

“I have an invaluable opportunity to be an example to my younger cousins, and especially to my younger sister to motivate and inspire them in pursuing higher education and their career aspirations,” Zanetta says.

Of Samoan, Hawaiian, Japanese and Scottish roots, Zanetta was born in Australia and raised in Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i before moving to New Zealand in 2018 to study a Bachelor of Science in Genetics at Massey University.

She was part of last year’s cohort who received a Ministry for Pacific Peoples funded Toloa Tertiary Scholarship, which aim to encourage Pacific students to complete studies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at tertiary level and increase the number of Pacific people employed in STEM careers.

It has enabled Zanetta to complete her Honours degree in a Bachelor of Biomedical Science at the University of Auckland, exploring Māori and Pacific-specific genetic variants and their links to metabolic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.

Under the supervision of Professor Peter Shepherd in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology (MMP), Zanetta analysed a novel dataset consisting of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs; AKA genetic variants) previously associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity within a group of Māori and Pacific individuals residing in New Zealand. 

“The effort behind this research, along with the support from the wider research group at Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, is aimed at improving the understanding of genetic driving factors of metabolic disease within the Pacific population,” she explains. 

“With that understanding, the findings from this research space should guide the way for potential therapies in the near future for our Māori and Pacific peoples.” 

After completing her Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Honours) with a First-Class Honours distinction, Zanetta will receive funding to commence a PhD in Pharmacogenetics from the Health Research Council's (HRC) Pacific Health Research Career Development Award. 

As Zanetta reflects on her achievements, she says it feels surreal. 

“I have flashbacks to when I was in high school and I had no idea I would be studying genetics, let alone to enjoy the topic so much I would be on track to do a PhD in it. 

“There's no doubt that I wouldn't have made it where I am, nor achieved what I have, without the love and support of family, friends, and mentors/advisors along my academic journey.” 

She adds, receiving a Toloa Tertiary Scholarship was a blessing in more ways than one.

“Besides greatly alleviating the financial pressure that would have come from pursuing a higher degree, this scholarship allowed me to dedicate more of my time and energy towards my schoolwork, academic responsibilities, as well as the vast amount of learning opportunities the university had to offer.”

Completing the PhD will take about three to four years, and Zanetta’s long-term goal is to become fully-fledged and qualified in her research domain. 

“With that it could open doors for me to have the authority in making impactful research decisions that will focus efforts on improving the health outcomes for Pacific people and hopefully beyond.”   

The 2021 Toloa Tertiary Scholarship recipients will be announced in the coming weeks at three receptions – Northern scholars will be named on March 30 in Auckland; Central scholars will be announced in Wellington on April 12; while Southern scholars will be congratulated on April 19, in Christchurch. 

Visit the MPP website for more information on Toloa Tertiary Scholarships.