Hauora Māori researcher Dr Amohia Boulton leads with a vision and practice that is unapologetically Māori – and she has been rewarded for her mahi with one of the country’s top health research awards.
Dr Boulton (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngai te Rangi, Ngāti Mutunga, Te Āti Awa o te Waka a Māui) has received the Health Research Council (HRC) Te Tohu Rapuora Medal as part of the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Research Honours announced today.
The medal recognises her outstanding leadership and a research career that has helped to advance Māori health services and nurture the next generation of young and emerging Māori health researchers.
Dr Boulton is director of New Zealand’s only iwi-led health research centre, Whakauae Research Services Limited in Whanganui, which is owned and mandated by Ngāti Hauiti in the southern Rangitīkei district. She is also adjunct professor at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka, providing strategic guidance and mentoring to students at the Health Services Research Centre, adjunct professor at the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences at Auckland University of Technology, and a key member of the Te Urungi Māori Advisory Group to the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.
HRC Chief Executive Professor Sunny Collings says Dr Boulton, who has previously served on the HRC’s Māori Health Committee, is a passionate advocate for Māori-led solutions and leadership to achieve equitable health outcomes for Māori.
“Amohia’s unwavering dedication to making a difference to Māori is evident in all that she does, and she has always given so generously of her time to help the HRC in our efforts to champion Māori health research and foster the Māori health research workforce. Her recent success in gaining a $5 million HRC Programme grant to provide some of the knowledge needed to achieve a shift towards equity in the health system – the first time an iwi-led health research centre has been awarded our most prestigious and highest value grant – shows just how far she has come,” says Professor Collings.
Dr Boulton began her career in Māori development policy but moved into health research after she became frustrated that the implementation of good policies designed to advance Māori often “failed to deliver on the aspirations people had”.
After completing her PhD at Te Pūmanawa Hauora, Massey University, Dr Heather Gifford, having seen her leadership potential and commitment to working for and on behalf of Māori, approached Dr Boulton to work at Whakauae Research Services.
“For me, the thing that brought me to Whakauae was when Heather, who established the centre and led it until 2016, said ‘I can’t pay you much, I can’t guarantee you’ll have an income after your project, but what I can give you is an iwi who will let you know if you’re not doing the right thing. That was exactly what I was looking for,” says Dr Boulton.
“I could have stayed within the university system and worked as a Māori health researcher, but I thought ‘how will I really know if what I am doing there is what our communities want?’. To have a degree of accountability to those who I proport to be working for was crucial for me. Ngāti Hauiti are not shy in telling you if something you’re doing is irrelevant or inconsequential! Never mind a performance review. If it matters to the people, if it’s useful to the people, that’s your performance review.”
Dr Boulton says a big part of the success of Whakauae Research Services – and what keeps her motivated to continue forging ahead in the health research space – is having the autonomy to determine where you put your research efforts.
“The reason we do what we do here at Whakauae is not because of the career development opportunities or the kudos, it’s to make a difference to our people. That’s always the driver. If we need to do something different, we do it. If that means we need to change our policy or revisit our policy, then we will do that. We don’t let policy drive our mahi with the people. Our research must withstand the scrutiny and meet the needs of our community, as well as be academically excellent.”
Dr Boulton says she wouldn’t be where she is today if it wasn’t for many people throughout her career who thought that she had potential and nurtured her.
“From Pākehā allies such as Professor George Salmond, Dr Kathy Nelson and Professor Jackie Cumming at the Health Services Research Centre who took me on for my masters and gave me a place to work, to my colleagues and mentors at Te Pūmanawa Hauora who supported my PhD and postdoctoral research, including Tā Mason Durie, Professor Chris Cunningham and Dr Maureen Holdaway, and then Dr Heather Gifford. All of these people continue to this day to be inspiring and visionary leaders in the Māori health services space.”
“I’ve been so fortunate to have these great mentors, so giving back by supporting other emerging Māori health researchers to build their skills and expertise is a no-brainer.”
Dr Boulton says the HRC has also been critical to her research career, having supported her through an HRC Māori Health Training Fellowship, then a Māori Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship, followed by Project funding, and most recently, an HRC Programme grant.
“Many Māori students come to a PhD with mortgages, families, and are often coming out of well-paid jobs. The question we need to ask is how do we make research an attractive prospect for them when they are probably going to have to drop their salaries at least for a while to get a PhD? We need institutions to support the research career development process and have the patience and ability to invest in someone when they might not see the return on investment for 10 years.”
Dr Boulton’s HRC Programme, which begins this month, focuses on four different projects that all have the underlying themes of Māori autonomy, Māori decision-making and whānau ora. For more information about these projects, see hrc.govt.nz/news-and-events/developing-knowledge-health-system-shift-towards-equity