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Samoan wins $800,000 research scholarship

A Samoan psychologist with roots in Matautu-Tai, Sasina, Manunu and Fagamalo has been awarded a distinguished Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for her research into disaster resilience in Samoa and the Pacific.

The award will provide funding for Dr. Siautu Alefaio-Tugia, at the Massey University School of Psychology to further her research, New Zealand’s Royal Society said on Friday. 

The work is titled: ‘Redefining the humanitarian landscape: Pacific-disaporic disaster resilience’.

Dr. Alefaio-Tugia is one of 10 fellows selected from 102 applicants to receive an NZD$800,000 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship award.

The senior lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand is also a Global Fellow of the Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at Brown University in the United States of America. 

“She is an experienced psychologist practitioner who has worked across various applied psychology contexts in education, health, social services, community, family violence, forensic rehabilitation and disaster humanitarian response in Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia and the Pacific,” states the Royal Society.

Dr. Alefaio-Tugia was awarded her PhD in Education Psychology from Australia’s Monash University in 2015. 

The senior lecturer founded NIUPatCH (Navigate In Unity Pacific approaches to Community-Humanitarians), a virtual research collective in 2016.

The initiative focuses on Pacific-Indigenous community responses in the form of innovation to humanity’s challenges in the areas of climate change in Oceania, according to the Royal Society.

“Of all the Earth’s regions, the Pacific is one of the most prone to natural disasters and poses significant complexities for disaster resilience and humanitarian response,” Dr. Alefaio-Tugia’s research was explained in a statement. 

“Samoa, for example, confronted a measles epidemic in 2019, followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In Fiji and Vanuatu, the pandemic was compounded by Cyclone Harold.

“The serious disruption to everyday life overwhelms communities and exposes societal inequities. 

“Pacific-diasporic response to disasters through families and churches of those affected is often more effective and enduring than that of aid agencies and governments as regular systems of remittance are already in place.”

Using Fa’afaletui, a Samoan metaphorical concept of searching for wisdom, Dr. Alefaio-Tugia will analyse concepts and ideas embedded in Pacific-diaspora initiatives to produce two original contributions to contemporary humanitarian, disaster and psychology contexts.

The first is a psychological framework of humanitarian response and disaster resilience grounded in indigenous ideas in the Pacific region. 

The second is the statement of Pacific disaster resilience through community initiatives.

The outcome of Dr. Alefaio-Tugia’s research programme seeks to enable new innovations that are grounded in community resilience to humanitarian and natural disasters.

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships seek to attract, retain and develop New Zealand’s most talented early-to mid-career researchers. 

Chair of the selection panel, Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, said the high calibre of applicants made it extremely difficult to select 10 new research fellows out of more than 102 who applied, the Royal Society explains.

“In my opinion, after watching the outcome of 10 years’ worth of awards, the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships provide some of the best bang for your buck when it comes to research funding,” she said. 

The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships receive Government funding of $8 million per annum and award $800,000 over five years to each research fellow. There are at least 50 Rutherford Discovery Fellows supported at any one time.

Royal Society Te Apārangi manages the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship programme on behalf of the Government.

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